Glenfield Tunnel – Evington Echo
After years of remaining hidden and derelict, the Glenfield Tunnel has been opened for tours as part of Leicestershire Heritage Open Days. It is an important part of British history and a jewel that highlights the pioneering development that took place during a century fuelled with progression and growth.
When completed in 1832, the mile long tunnel was the longest steam railway tunnel in the world and the third oldest after the Liverpool-Manchester and Stockton-Darlington Railways, which were the work of railway engineer George Stephenson and Son.
The famous and much renowned Railway Engineer George Stephenson was commissioned for the building of the tunnel, whose son Robert oversaw the construction. George was born during the Industrial Revolution when Britain grew from a land of farms and villages to one with factories and cities.
After being approached by mine owners in Leicestershire, the Stephensons invested heavily in the coalmines and the construction of the railway making them quite a fortune in the process.
A geological Survey carried out at the time left the Stephensons under the impression that they would be digging through soft rock, which infact turned out to be quick flowing sand. This problem was tackled by the Stephensons by building a brickworks on top of the tunnel, and as material was excavated they made around the region of five million bricks that were needed for the tunnel.
Stephenson and Son were involved with the construction of some of the first and most important railways in Britain. By the time George died, Britain had become the richest country in the world through its railways and industries. His son continued to work on railways and bridges around the world until his death in 1859 and is buried in Westminster Abbey.
The completion of the tunnel allowed carriages to carry coal from Swannington into the City of Leicester at speeds that wouldn’t have otherwise been achieved by horses.
“As a result of the railway, the price of coal came down dramatically and it fuelled Leicester and it’s industries”, explained Chris Hossack.
The Cul de Sac that leads to the Glenfield Tunnel is named after the Stephensons in homage of the pioneering work they did in the area and in Britain as a whole.
Leicester City Council bought the Glenfield Tunnel for £5 from British Rail in 1960.
David Lyme, secretary of the Leicestershire Industrial History Society pursued the idea of opening the significant and memorable tunnel for heritage week. A meeting was held with the Manager of Redundant Buildings where permission was granted over the last two years to open the tunnel for 100 yards.
This year, the Society proposed that tours be taken up to 400 yards into the tunnel bringing visitors to the first excavations shaft, which was one of three that were also used to extract spoils from the tunnel. Current visitors to the tunnel have enjoyed the extended walk through the tunnel, and like myself, have been treated to a view of the excavation shaft, which is of great magnitude and nearly as wide as the tunnel itself.
The three shafts along the tunnel were crucial during the building of the tunnel as they tallowed construction workers to bring up the spoils at different points of the tunnel.
“We took nearly 400 people in July” informed Chris “and I have nearly 400 booked in again for this September. We have had all sorts of people come along. Some are railways fanatics; many railway societies have advertised it in their magazines and websites. People have come from as far as South Wales and Essex, and we have a gentleman coming down from Scotland this week”.
Photographers as well as college students have visited the tunnel for the excellent opportunities it offers for slow pictures using long exposures. Sixty-three primary aged children will also be visiting the tunnel from the Hall School that sits above the tunnel as part of their national curriculum work.
There has been a huge interest from the general public and from the specialist institutions. The University of Leicester will be conducting Historical Research and other schools have used cross-curricular activities to produce a short film about the opening of the tunnel, which will be shown at a conference in Swannington Village later in the year.
“It’s a real special thing to have in Leicester and it’s a shame it was hidden away for so many years. Through our tours we tell the story of the tunnel and inform people as much as we can about the whole history of it”, explained Chris.
Having walked along the tunnel I was fascinated by the information that was related to me. I imagined the carriages travelling through the tunnel to transport a material that was so fundamental to everyday life and boom of the country we inhabit. Just past the shaft, a barrier stops people from wondering further into the tunnel. At that point a recording was played of a train passing through the tunnel and the sound echoing in the tunnel coupled with the smells and sight I was surrounded with made me get a true feeling of what it must have been like in the tunnel over 180 years ago.
Tours will continue next year, linked with Heritage week and archaeology fortnight. Between the end of October and the end of April the tunnel is closed to allow bats to inhabit it during the colder months. For more information please visit the Leicestershire Industrial History Society’s website http://www.lihs.org.uk/about_lihs.html.