Age-old rivalry between Yorkshire and Lancashire played a major role in driving tunnels through the Pennine watershed to link the two counties. The first of them is only 10 miles from Skipton.
It features in a new book by David Joy which looks at feats of canal as well as railway engineering.


THE earliest of the trans-Pennine tunnels does not get the attention it deserves for two reasons. One is that it was built for a canal rather than a railway. The second is that its name scarcely tugs at the heartstrings in terms of fond remembrance. It is at Foulridge, near Barnoldswick.

It is neither foul nor piercing much of a ridge, but in the heady days of Georgian England it was fundamental in a grand plan to ‘unite the seas’. Rivers were already navigable from the North Sea at Hull as far as Leeds – and the vision was a canal across the Pennines to link up with the Irish Sea. Hence what proved to be the longest single canal in Britain and the longest to build. From conception in 1770 it took 46 years to complete the Leeds & Liverpool Canal.

The Yorkshire side of its route was straightforward, following the Aire valley as far as Skipton and onto Gargrave, and only three years elapsed before it saw its first traffic. Writing in her diary in April 1773, Elizabeth Shackleton referred to opening of ‘the new canal to the metropolis of Skipton-in-Craven, to the great joy of the poor, and demonstrations of happiness to all sorts of people, ringing of bells and bonfires’.

It should have been relatively easy to continue across the low watershed between Skipton and Colne with a tunnel at Foulridge, but matters now fell apart. As the first canal to link Yorkshire and Lancashire, there was the long-standing problem of feuding between the two counties. Progress was in the hands of two committees, one meeting in Bradford and the other based in Liverpool. The Yorkshire committee controlled finances, which caused such grief in Lancashire that it seemed the whole project would collapse.

Not until 1791 did work eventually start on Foulridge tunnel. Less than a mile in length at 1,640 yards (1.5 kilometres in today’s language), it was shorter than other canal tunnels already built elsewhere in Britain. It nevertheless posed many problems and its name proved to be appropriate. The ground was found to be unstable and steam engines were required to pump away surplus water.

The work was undertaken by navvies – an abridgement of the word ‘navigators’. According to one hellfire chaplain, the term arose because in full it sounded too similar to ‘alligators’. He held that a navy was akin to a human alligator, who feeds on helpless women and timid men, and frightens children into fits!

Much of the work used what today is called the cut-and-cover system with deep excavations prior to provision of the tunnel lining, arching and replacement of the earth. It proved difficult and dangerous, and it is likely that collapse of the supporting framework was the cause of four workers receiving either one guinea or half a guinea according to the nature of their injuries.

The company also paid the surgeon’s bill of one guinea – the equivalent of about £180 in today’s money. Despite operations continuing night and day, it was May 1796 before work was finally finished and boats were able to continue from Gargrave through to Burnley.

Shortage of funds meant the tunnel was built to restricted dimensions and did not have a towpath. Barges were laboriously ‘legged’ through by men laying on top of the cargo and pushing against the roof or walls with their feet. The tow horses, often led by boat children, were taken over the hill above the tunnel. A good track was created through the fields and a hut provided for ‘leggers’ to recover.

Continuing financial problems and arguments in Lancashire meant that another twenty years elapsed before the canal was at last completed. In October 2016 a flotilla of boats passed through Skipton on the way from Leeds to Liverpool to celebrate the opening of the entire 127 miles.

It was now almost the dawn of the railway age and by 1848 there was a parallel line all the way from Leeds through Skipton to Colne. It did not require a tunnel at Foulridge and the swifter travel caused a gradual decline in canal traffic.

Motor transport for freight struck a further blow, but unlike other trans-Pennine canals the Leeds & Liverpool never closed. There is a certain irony that the railway between Skipton and Colne saw its last train in 1970.

Recent times have seen a vast increase in leisure use of the canal with a ‘traffic light’ system installed at Foulridge tunnel to prevent congestion.

In 2023 it will be 250 years since the Leeds & Liverpool reached Skipton and one hopes the anniversary will be celebrated in suitable style.

Piercing the Pennines by David Joy is published by Great Northern Books, price £19.99.