Sunday, 29 November 2015

Catesby Tunnel in the early 1980s

A place that fascinated me, ever since I borrowed Main Line Lament- a classic book first published in 1973, about the last years of the Great Central Railway - from the public library in Earlsdon, Coventry, in 1977. Here's the front cover of the book:

is essentially this shot, taken in the early 1980s, probably my last visit to the Catesby Tunnel before it was sealed off at either end with steel gates. Looking at new imagery on Google Earth, it seems the first bridge north of the tunnel has been demolished.

The Great Central ran down to London (Marylebone) from Sheffield via Nottingham, Leicester and Rugby. The stretch between Rugby and Quainton Road - where it met the London Underground - fascinated me the most. I've written before about John Betjeman's Metro-Land, his televisual poem about the Metropolitan's (the world's oldest underground railway) further reaches. Catesby Tunnel is an extension of that mythology - a sparsely populated corner of rural England of profound beauty that once resounded to the steam whistle as trains hurtled down the track towards London. Thundering into the tunnel, the second-longest in England at 2.7km (2,997 yards), those Edwardian expresses would have represented the cutting edge of technology a hundred years ago.

Left: not a photo that you could capture today. Back in the early 1980s, health and safety was not what it currently is; people could wander into the tunnel willy-nilly. It is wet; much of its floor is under water, there are deep manholes running along its length, along with other traps to the unwary. I made several passages into the tunnel, though only one all the way through, with members of the Warwick University caving club, who joined me to pass through the entire length equipped with wetsuit trousers, helmets and lamps in 1980. Stalactites, calcite deposits, late-Victorian workmanship. Most amazing were the permanent-way workers' cabins. One was huge - the height of the tunnel itself, large enough for to host a large dinner party!

There are several air-shafts poking up through the hill, all visible on Google Earth. Sadly, access to the North Portal has been all but cut off to casual walkers, as Eddie and I discovered last summer when we visited Catesby.

Below: view from the top of the North Portal, looking towards Rugby, many miles away. "And quite where Rugby Central is/Does only Rugby know/We watched the empty platform wait/And sadly saw it go," observed John Betjeman in Great Central, a poem written just before the evil Dr Beeching ripped up the tracks here in 1966.

Coencidence corner: (that's 'Coen' as in the 'Coen Brothers' who know full well that the universe is held together by a web of coincidence). Among the condolence messages I got after my mother's death was one from Richard, who was at Warwick University with me. In his e-mail, he mentioned a trip we made to the Catesby Tunnel. The following day, while clearing out stuff in my mother's bedroom, I came across some colour slides I took in the early 1980s. Four rolls of film - lo and behold, one of them included snaps from the very said trip to Catesby. Summer 1982, I guess, as I moved into my own house in November 1982.

All the photos, apart from the book cover, are scans from that roll of film. Using my PlusTek 35mm film scanner, I've had to do a fair amount of manual removal of dust and scratches using Photoshop. The graininess of the Kodak Ektachrome 200 becomes visible under high magnification. Camera? Leica M3 with 35mm f2 Summicron lens (which I still have. Will sell. Big bucks.)

Below: Richard explores the boundaries of Existentialist Silliness. Behind him the North Portal; though it is visible a tiny spot of light - that's the South Portal at Charwelton.

Below: Richard emerges from a manhole into a drainage culvert that ran between the tracks. In the tunnel, it was filled to the brim with water.

Below: The Infinite Shining Heavens. A post-punk quartet? Marek (centre, background) on sticks and everybody else on mushrooms? A track-layers' bothy somewhere along the Great Central.

The Catesby Tunnel looks likely to be put to new use - as a wind tunnel for testing the aerodynamic resistance of racing cars. I'd rather it be turned back to use as a railway tunnel for a line from Rugby down to Quainton Road, or just as a footpath/cyclepath, like the Snoqualmie tunnel in Oregon. At least it will not be filled in.


Three b&w photos taken in June 1980 (the end-to-end expedition) and in October 1982.

Finally, links to my two short stories set around this magical part of England; read them here and here.

This time two years ago:
Crumbling King Coal, Katowice

This time three years ago:
Street cries of Old Poland

This time four years ago:
The gorgeousness of Warsaw at dusk

This time five years ago:
I'm so glad I'm living in Warsaw

This time six years ago:
Candid photography

This time seven years ago:
Archival photos of Jeziorki's Rampa in action

This time eight years ago:
Red sky in the morning...


meika said...

Excellent post.

John Savery said...

Great article, and the quality of the slide scans is superb.

Looking at the Google Earth image, the bridge may well still be there, about 75 metres north of the tunnel. Going back through the timeline, it appears to be gradually consumed by the nature. If I'm seeing it correctly, the parapets are just visible in the latest photos.

Liz said...

A fascinating piece! Thank you. I used to travel with my parents in the 1950s and 60s to my mother's family in Rugby The train (steam, obviously) was named the "Master Cutler," its destination being Sheffield. Catesby Tunnel was definitely the biggest excitement of the journey.
We also used to visit a family friend who owned and ran "Tunnel Farm," under which ran Stephenson's famous Kilsby Tunnel. It boasted a vent, which fascinated me.
The third tunnel (or rather tunnels)associated with my childhood were the Sydenham Hill and Paxton Tunnels (I lived at Crystal Palace until the age of four, just after the closure of the High Level Station, in fact). The following might whet your interest. The tunnels seems actually to have intersected from what I can make out. The noise was terrifying to a small child trying to sleep!

Liz said...

PS I've just read your earlier post about Catesby. The two short stories will have to wait for a quiet moment some other time. Thanks. This part of Britain is evocative for me too.

Michael Dembinski said...

@ all - thanks for your kind comments! I thought this would be a 'sleeper' post that would pass unremarked :-)

@ John Savery - Just checked Google Earth images going back to 2004 - I think you are right!

@ Liz - many thanks for the Paxton Tunnel info - have checked in out - fascinating!