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Backwords: The Standedge Experience

…The trains came out into the Tunnel End sunshine for all the world like wild animals breathing fast and furiously as they were freed from captivity…

Mike Shaw tells of the miles-long tunnels which allowed trains and barges to pass between Yorkshire and Lancashire beneath the Pennine hills.

There was an almost unearthly magic about the sight of trains emerging from huge, man-made tunnels in the Standedge hills.

The trains came out into the Tunnel End sunshine for all the world like wild animals breathing fast and furiously as they were freed from captivity.

And the barges resembled a silent string of snakes as they slid slowly out of their smaller hole in the hillside to start their long journey down the valley.

It all made for captivating viewing when, as a young boy more than half a century ago, I was out for a summer stroll with my parents on the road leading out of Marsden to the beauty spot of Eastergate.

And the sights and sounds of Tunnel End made me long for the day when I would be aboard one of those trains which thundered out of the smoke-filled darkness into the Pennine air.

Not many years later my first trip through the tunnel came when we were on a train taking us for a family holiday by the sea at Blackpool.

In my teens the Standedge experience took on a whole new meaning as it became a tunnel of love when a gang of lads and lasses were returning from a Saturday night out in Oldham.

Some of the more experienced revellers used to remove the light bulbs, and looking back I am positively dumbfounded by what could be achieved in the four or five minutes that it took a slow-moving train to get through the three-mile tunnel.

In my National Service days the tunnel signalled a welcoming approach to home, even if I had to suffer the frustration of staying in my seat as the express thundered through Marsden station without stopping and I was carried helplessly through to Huddersfield.

One fellow aircraftman, who also hailed from Marsden, claimed to have followed his weekend case out of the carriage and onto the railway banking as his train slowed on the curving run towards the village station.

I never did find out whether his story was truth or fiction. But, having examined the situation closely from the open window of an express, I was - and still am - inclined to doubt its authenticity.

All this, of course, ignored any possibility of venturing into the blackness beneath the Pennines aboard a barge passing through the historic canal tunnel.

But an unexpected opportunity came my way in 1961, long after the tunnel was closed to traffic, when I joined a small band of canal enthusiasts on a trip to mark the 150th anniversary of its opening.

On the great opening day in 1811, 500 folk set out on the first voyage through the underground waterway to the strains of Rule Britannia, watched by a crowd of 10,000.

Our craft a century and a half later was seen off by only a handful. But at least it did have an engine instead of leggers - the men who used to lay on their backs and “walk’’ along the roof or walls of the tunnel to take it along at the rate of about a mile an hour.

We also had a searchlight on the prow of our 70ft barge, unlike the leggers who had to make do with oil lamps which would hardly reveal the results of a tremendous feat of engineering that took 13 years to complete.

Leggers on some canals, I am told, claimed that in a working life spanning about 50 years they walked the equivalent of twice round the world.

The very thought of it made me feel weak at the knees as our barge ploughed on past the plaques fixed to the roof every 50 yards.

It was a two and a quarter hour trip that revealed testimony to what could be achieved by sheer hard labour, without such modern aids as pneumatic drills and mechanical diggers.

All the navvies had to help them hew their way through the sold Standedge rock were picks, shovels and gunpowder - coupled with loads of brute strength.

No wonder it took them 13 years. But at the end of it they left behind a remarkable reminder of man’s ability to conquer seemingly insuperable barriers.

Truly a magic place.

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