The South Pennine Ring
For experienced and active crews
71 miles 197 locks 80 hours
14 Day Trip
Cross the Pennines twice, by the Huddersfield Narrow and the Rochdale Canals. You climb to the two highest summits on the English canals, and dive through the Pennines in the longest tunnel. Friendly locals and atmospheric pubs complete this exciting journey.
We are the experts at this ring, having supported more travellers than any other fleet, starting literally from the day it opened. Please read carefully the Navigation Notes below, which explain the many challenges of this route. We look forward to helping more people complete this amazing journey.
Sowerby Bridge to Marsden
Sail down the Calder & Hebble Navigation past Brighouse, with a short river section to Cooper Bridge, where you take the right turn into the bottom lock of the Huddersfield Broad. This leads you up through the outskirts of Huddersfield right into the City centre. Go through the University, a weird but satisfying juxtaposition of sixties high-rise and nineties mill conversion, then dive under another mill (this one real) into the first of two new tunnels which lead directly into new locks. As you emerge, a steel-truss railway viaduct frames the start of your journey up the Colne valley into the hills.
At Slaithwaite the canal has been put back on its original track. You will enjoy exploring the village. Then go on up the valley, to the summit, 644' 9" above sea level. Walk down to the village of Marsden, whose Mechanics Institute is the home of Mikron Theatre (though they will be away touring).
Marsden to Manchester
The Standedge Visitor Centre gives an insight into the lives of the tunnellers who blasted their way under the Pennines, the packhorse teams who preceded them over the top, and the leggers who took the boats through 3 ¼ miles of pitch dark. The very short summit pool makes the entrance into Standedge Tunnel all the more dramatic by its understatement.
Canal & River Trust will guide your boat through the tunnel, allowing you to see the work of the original miners and of their modern successors. Your guide will bring this to life.
After the tunnel, the canal descends quickly through the Diggle flight, then into the Saddleworth villages, with weavers' cottages, and genuine charm as well as craft shops. The centre of Stalybridge has been transformed by the construction of a new canal.
You enter Ashton by passing under an ASDA, to be compared with the Sainsbury's you passed at Huddersfield several days (and 74 locks) ago. Dukinfield Junction has perhaps the most graceful footbridge on the canals, and there is an interesting Industrial Museum opposite.
The Ashton Canal takes you down, with the new tram running alongside, past the site of the Commonwealth Games and some funky new buildings, into Manchester. The city is full of life and things to do, such as the Lowry and the Bridgewater Hall. Moor in Piccadilly Village on the Ashton, or at New Islington Marina two locks up the Rochdale.
Manchester to Summit
Next morning, start up the part of the route with most potential for regeneration, now the canal is open: a fascinating glimpse of inner-city life. Pass under a vast interchange on the M60, and suddenly you're back in greenery. Slattocks locks take you up to a good mooring.
Then it's through the canal's eponymous home town, past Clegg Hall (a Grade 1 listed restored ruin), and time for another assault on the Pennines. Take breath exploring Littleborough, or at the very least its second-hand bookshop. Pass between tall mills with the moors looming overhead, and arrive at the Summit.
Summit to Sowerby Bridge
At the second lock down the other side, you're back in Yorkshire, and after you go under a splendidly overdone Gothic railway bridge, the Great Wall shows you are about to arrive in Todmorden: completely untouristy yet with much to enjoy - fine Victorian buildings, especially the Town Hall, a lively market and many places to eat and drink, all dominated by a curving railway viaduct.
Pass down the valley, its sides closed in with crags and trees and views of the moors high above. A stream runs alongside, and the locks are set among woods or stone cottages. The Pennine Way crosses at Callis, and soon you arrive in Hebden Bridge. This old mill town nestles in a fork in the hills, houses piled tier upon tier. Hebden has excellent shops and is full of surprises - everything from horsey clothing to hand-made pottery.
On your home stretch now, the canal gradually descends through woods, fields and small stone towns to the deepest lock in the country, which brings you finally back to our basin.
This route involves canals which were closed for 60 years, before being reopened after an impressive campaign, with major public and lottery investment. This leaves a number of challenges:
- The large number of locks increases the risk that emergency repairs delay your passage
- Necessary reservoir repairs can reduce water supplies (and these canals no longer have all the reservoirs which they had in the past)
- Climate change is increasing the incidence of severe water shortage
- The large number of locks is much more demanding on boaters' stamina than a comparable journey in the midlands - you really need to understand this
In 2022 the combination of water shortage and emergency stoppages meant that none of our boats was able to complete the South Pennine Ring. In 2023 we succeeded with just two boats It is too early to say whether conditions may be better in 2024, but substantial reservoir repairs are being made, which is very positive.
We take bookings for this ring only on the basis that plans may have to change at the last minute, or even during the journey. You must have a Plan B ready (there are lots of other good routes on the Yorkshire rivers and canals), or be prepared to turn round part way, head off in another direction and come back to base at the end of your holiday. This journey is recommended for experienced crews only, with at least four fit, capable adults who are not looking after children or dogs. it is important to keep the boat going through locks, which are often close together - the crew do a lot of walking. A bike is a big help.
Passage through Standedge is available for a limited number of boats, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Passage through the Marsden flight (Locks 32E to 42E) and Diggle flight (Locks 24W to 32W) is often permitted only for boats booked through the tunnel. CRT staff and volunteers will allow boats into these flights by arrangement. Some assistance or supervision may be provided.
Dogs are allowed through the tunnel. Tunnel passages must be booked through us, once the boat is booked and the preferred tunnel direction and dates agreed. Passage may need to be altered subject to availability.
You may also need to book passage through Lock 1E in Huddersfield. CRT are trying hard to improve water reliability here.
The western side of the Rochdale Canal can offer a smooth passage, but if levels are low in dry weather, you may pick up an annoying amount of rubbish on your propeller. You should try to secure the help of a Volunteer Lock Keeper for part of this section - bookable in advance, subject to availability. Early enquiry recommended.
We will give further details in your Information Pack. You must tell us at the time of booking that you wish to do the South Pennine Ring. We will advise on direction of travel and tunnel booking. We will also discuss your Plan B. You must subscribe to email stoppage information from Canal & River Trust as you prepare for your holiday, and we will discuss with you any necessary changes to your route.
You need to allocate at least two weeks to this trip - experience on other canals may lead you to think you could do this ring more quickly, but it's essential to plan for unexpected delays on these fragile, heavily-locked canals with poor water supply.
It is physically very demanding so needs enough crew - teenagers are good; smaller children will be able to help with the locks but not take responsibility. The boats able to do this trip are any of the 'out and back Sowerby Bridge boats'. We generally suggest travelling clockwise. Tunnel passages may be reduced in order for the Trust better to manage water. We will advise when you book, and then you should be prepared for any necessary change of plan. We give you more details once you’ve booked and it’s sensible to work up both directions whichever start day you choose. People who swap crews may have a preference as to direction of travel, but it may not be possible to accommodate this.
Distances and times shown (for guidance) are for the complete ring. Information we provide about specific waterways or suggested routes is for general reference only. Please see more about route availability.