In a departure from the regular musings and ramblings about Willwriting, I would like to share the weekend’s experience of legging barges through the famous canal tunnel between Diggle and Marsden. The occasion was to celebrate two hundred years since the official opening of the tunnel. Nowadays through trips require special permission and escorts from British Waterways, but this weekend under the guidance of Sue Day, chairperson of the Horseboating Society three boats were allowed to travel through the tunnel by leg power. I volunteered to crew and was pleased that Sue still had a few spare places for Sunday and Monday.
Sue’s instructions were to dress in period working clothes of flat cap, collarless shirt, waistcoat, corduroy trousers and working boots. It wasn’t easy, but with improvisation I think I managed a reasonable effort.
(Photo courtesy of Richard Jones – http://www.saddleworthnews.com/ )
The crew’s role is to work in pairs on two tasks; legging and polling. The third task is steering, but Sue wisely delegated this to an expert. The legging pair had to lie on boards set up at the front of the boat and ‘walk’ along the tunnel sides. The polling pair had to fend off the boat from the sides. The pairs alternated every twenty minutes or so.
The boats were very old working barges. Ellen was an iron framed boat with a wooden hull dating back to 1851, Maria was an iron boat from about 1890 and Vixen was a baby of twenty-one years.
On Saturday the boats travelled through the tunnel from Diggle and moored up at the Tunnel End in Marsden for the night. I arrived with some friends on Sunday morning and after wandering around the craft fair and the new gardens of the Standedge Centre we set off to a rousing cheer from the supporting visitors.
The tunnel is three and a half miles long with many sections of exposed bare rock tattooed with chisel marks as a reminder of the navvies who worked for seventeen years to get from one end to the other. Understandably, there are repaired sections of sprayed concrete and intricate brickwork, but this does not detract from the gaining a feel of what life must have been like for a legger.
There is the occasional noise from a train rumbling by in the parallel rail tunnel, and at a couple of access points, a British Waterways official checks our progress, but otherwise we are walking and polling at a steady one mile per hour.
There was lots of banter and joking and at times a soaking from dripping (or gushing) water from the roof, but it all added to the fun. After some three hours we emerged at Diggle and the state of working clothes was revealed. On our faces were painted centuries of dirt and filth and our clothes were wet and black from lying on soggy mattresses and pawing at grimy walls, but it had been a great journey. We return tomorrow to take the boats back to Marsden.