Geoff Wood meets the ‘admiral’ of the Standedge TunnelMANY people would say that Fred Carter has tunnel vision and so he should have as senior pilot and guide to the mighty Standedge canal tunnel.
The tunnel at Marsden near Huddersfield is now a considerable tourist attraction but Fred’s involvement in waterways goes back much further than that.
For 46 years he worked on the canal system in West Yorkshire and when he retired he came back as a part-time expert.
Now he gives others the benefit of his wide experience and has trained several more tunnel guides and pilots in the mysteries of the longest, deepest and highest canal tunnel in Britain.
But it was more ill-fortune that drove him into a life on the waterways. He said: “In 1968, I was working in a mill not far from here. It was a family firm and very friendly. But then it was taken over and I wasn’t happy with the way we were treated.
“I talked to some lads working on a canal feeder reservoir and asked if there were any jobs. I went to see the inspector and that’s how I got involved.”
The reopening of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal came much later but there was still much to do, as the canal supplied water to local factories.
And later as more and more bits of the network were filled in, Fred wondered whether he should pursue work elsewhere.
But things came back on stream and the Huddersfield Canal Society began a massive campaign to reopen the canal from Huddersfield to Ashton-under-Lyne.
A new millennium saw the reopening of the three-and-a-half-mile long Standedge Tunnel as well as the canal.
There was one opening of the tunnel by Lily Turner, daughter of the last man to leg a boat through the tunnel before mechanisation and later a second rather splendid opening by Prince Charles.
Today Fred concentrates on his work with the trip boat and reckons he has gone into the tunnel with passengers around 10,000 times. He likes to talk to those on board about the history of the tunnel and says he is still interested after all this time.
Fred says that most trips have gone without a hitch although a few people have become uncomfortable with the underground life and have had to be taken out along an empty adjoining tunnel.
When I met him, Fred was cutting a dash in his journeyman garb and neckerchief. And one of his proudest possessions is a fob watch presented to him on his retirement engraved to the New Standedge Admiral.
Now the Standedge Tunnel is a major waterways tourist attraction. But originally there were doubts whether it would ever be built.
The canal tunnel was so ambitious at the end of the 18th century it almost led to the downfall of the whole of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal scheme for a waterway 20 miles long from Ashton- under-Lyne to Huddersfield.
But the three-mile-long tunnel project beneath the Pennines was beset by many problems. Construction began at both ends but after a while it was realised that the Diggle end was several feet higher than the other end in Marsden, West Yorkshire.
Later the canal’s original engineer Benjamin Outram resigned and well known engineer Thomas Telford was called in to advise on the tunnel’s construction. Even then work was slow and there was considerable loss of life during construction while working with explosives.
The tunnel was eventually opened in 1811 and became a through route 17 years after work began.
The first boat through the Standedge Tunnel, Lively Lady, emerged to the sound of church bells and a band playing Rule Britannia.
But then the going was slow. The tunnel was built without a towpath, so the early barges had to be legged through the tunnel as the horses were led over the moor.
Closed in 1962, the tunnel was reopened in 2001. But the restoration of the tunnel alone cost £5 million.
Management at Standedge Tunnel and Visitor Centre are proud of the popularity of the tunnel and Fred’s contribution.
Ellen Richards, duty manager, said: “What Fred doesn’t know about the tunnel simply isn’t worth knowing. He is a very valued member of the team and Standedge’s very own celebrity, having appeared on Great Canal Journeys with Timothy West and Prunella Scales, Countryfile and most recently BBC’s Home from Home to name but a few.
“The wealth of knowledge our guides hold is central to the boat trip and visitor experience is complemented by our additional offerings of the Waterside Cafe, exhibition centre and indoor and outdoor play areas.”
Most people hope that Fred will continue at Standedge for quite some time – and in truth it wouldn’t be quite the same without him.