Monthly Archives: December 2018

Climbing heaven

Former St Benedict’s Church, Ardwick, Manchester – now Manchester Climbing Centre

The parish church of St Benedict, Ardwick, Manchester, was the result of the wealth and religious inclinations of one man, John Marsland Bennett (1817-1889).  An Alderman and two-term Lord Mayor of Manchester, he prospered as a timber and stone merchant owning an extensive site at the junction of two main-line railways to Crewe and Sheffield.

When the Secretary of the Manchester Diocesan Church Building Society asked Mr Bennett for a plot of land to build a church in 1876 he offered to build the church on land he would provide. 

St Benedict’s Church was consecrated on March 20th 1880.

The architect was Joseph Stretch Crowther (1820-1893) and St Benedict’s is unlike any of his other church designs. 

It is entirely in brick, in header bond on the exterior and English bond within, with stone and terracotta dressings, rectangular without porches.  The body of the church is narrow and high, with a magnificent double hammer-beam roof. 

This magnificence came without a congregation.  Much of the surrounding land had yet to be developed and some of the speculative houses already built had yet to be occupied.  There were only 26 communicants on Easter Day 1880.

This did not seem to trouble the Bennett family, staunch Anglo-Catholics who used it to worship as they pleased in a predominantly Evangelical diocese.

They omitted to provide an endowment.  Their financial support dwindled after the death of J M Bennett’s eldest son, Armitage Bennett, aged 48, in 1897 and ended completely by the time the family business closed in the 1930s.  After the Second World War Keble College, Oxford took over patronage of the living.

When almost all the housing in the parish was cleared in the late 1960s the parish developed as a “shrine church” for Anglican Papalism, the branch of Anglo-Catholicism that looks towards reconciliation between the Church of England and Rome, and rejects any development that might prove an obstacle to that goal.

St Benedict’s came to serve a congregation that did not live locally, and although its centenary was celebrated by the sandblasting and chemical cleaning of the entire building in 1980, it became increasingly difficult to sustain the congregation and the structure.

The final celebration of Mass at St Benedict’s took place on February 11th 2002.

Closure inevitably threatened the future of this Grade II* building until the climber John Dunne took it on as a base for the Manchester Climbing Centre, which was opened on March 15th 2005, and continues to thrive as a popular venue for indoor climbing and bouldering.

The climbing paraphernalia crowds Crowther’s spacious interior – https://manchesterclimbingcentre.com/the-centre/4 – which is a small price to pay to preserve the building for years to come. 

Without the Manchester Climbing Centre, St Benedict’s might well have been flattened before now.

The climbing equipment is demountable, so that the listed interior is preserved.  The ornate iron screens around the sanctuary remain intact, and the mutilated original reredos apparently still exists, though hidden, at the east end.  All of the stained glass remains, but the 1907 pulpit and the organ have been removed.

Around the east end of the church are brass panels commemorating deceased members of the parish. 

One of them is in memory of Professor John Mills, who died in a climbing accident in Snowdonia on December 3rd 1977, aged 63.  A lifelong climber, he would have been astonished to know that his parish church became a climbing centre.

Read about another very different historic building that has been brought back into use as a climbing centre here.

A visit to the Manchester Climbing Centre forms part of the Manchester’s Heritage (June 3rd-7th 2019) tour.  For further details, please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Manchester’s Heritage, please click here.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 tour Manchester’s Heritage, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Nottingham’s missing underground railway

Mansfield Road Tunnel, south portal, former Nottingham Victoria Station (1984)

My Nottingham friend Stewart alerted me to a BBC News item about “Nottingham’s ‘secret’ railway tunnel”:  https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-england-nottinghamshire-45902996/inside-nottingham-s-secret-railway-tunnel.

The “secret” tunnel is accessible – if you have the key to the right door – from the basement of Nottingham’s Victoria Centre, which is built on the site of the old Victoria Station, opened in 1900, closed in 1967 and quickly demolished.

This was Weekday Cross Tunnel (418 yards), stretching from the south end of the former Victoria Station towards Weekday Cross Junction, where nowadays the NET tram leaves its viaduct to run along the street towards the Lace Market.  The tunnel was used to carry pipework for the Victoria Centre’s heating system, and the track-bed to the south was later blocked by the Centre for Contemporary Art Nottingham art gallery, now Nottingham Contemporary (opened 2009).

In fact, the BBC’s “secret” tunnel isn’t even half of the story.

Beyond the Victoria Station site, the railway line headed northwards into Mansfield Road Tunnel (1,189 yards) which runs almost directly beneath Mansfield Road, emerging eventually just past the road-junction with Gregory Boulevard:  https://www.28dayslater.co.uk/threads/mansfield-road-tunnel-nottingham-may13.80919.

Here in an open cutting stood Carrington Station [http://www.disused-stations.org.uk/c/carrington/index.shtml], opened in 1899 and closed as early as 1928, a commuter station that stood no chance against the competition of Nottingham’s trams.

Carrington Station cutting has been completely filled in and built over as part of an Open University campus, and the street-level building, for years occupied by Alldogs Poodle Parlour, has gone.

North of Carrington Station the railway ran into Sherwood Rise Tunnel (665 yards) [https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2388076] which is blocked by further landfill at the north portal.

Until the mid-1960s these three tunnels, all of which remain intact, were a practical direct route under Nottingham city-centre.

When Victoria Station was demolished there was apparently talk of leaving a right of way beneath the shopping centre, but in the event the basement car-park was built the full width of the station’s footprint.  (It was not unknown for 1960s/1970s shopping centres to include provision for underground rail transport [http://www.mikehigginbottominterestingtimes.co.uk/?p=2274]).

The blocking of the railway track-bed at three locations, successively in the 1960s, late 1980s and late 2000s, means that a direct route, wide and high enough for a double-track railway and therefore feasible as a light railway if not a roadway, lies utterly unusable beneath the congested streets.

At the time of the Beeching cuts, planners and railway managers clearly believed that the Victorian infrastructure they inherited would never be needed again.

It’s a matter of opinion whether this amounted to naivety, stupidity or arrogance.

They left future generations a legacy across Britain of miles of derelict strips of land that could have been adapted to transport uses undreamed of in the 1960s, if snippets hadn’t been handed over for buildings that could easily have been located elsewhere.

The Alpine Route

Queensbury Tunnel, West Yorkshire (1979)

Anyone who’s visited the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway will be familiar with Keighley railway station, where main-line trains between Leeds, Skipton and beyond connect with the Oxenhope branch that is now the heritage railway.

Keighley branch platforms used to serve another route, spectacular to ride and difficult to operate, known formally as the Great Northern Railway’s Queensbury lines and unofficially as the “Alpine Route” for its steep gradients, sharp curves and heavy engineering works, a Y-shaped system connecting Bradford, Halifax and Keighley.

Opened in stages between 1874 and 1884, the junction between the three routes lay in the valley bottom at Queensbury, a highly unusual six-platform triangular station.  The only other true triangular station in Britain was at Ambergate, Derbyshire.

The village of Queensbury, home of the famous Black Dyke Mills, was four hundred feet higher, accessible only by a dimly-lit footpath.  By 1901 Queensbury had electric tram services to Bradford and Halifax, so most of the rail passengers used the station simply to change from one train to another.

Queensbury station has, sadly, been obliterated, but its location is the starting point for the Great Northern Railway Trail, which Sustrans and Bradford City Council have developed, firstly between Cullingworth and Wilsden in 2005, and then a separate section between Thornton and Queensbury between 2008 and 2012: https://www.sustrans.org.uk/sites/default/files/images/files/Great%20North%20Trail%202012.pdf.

The long-term aim is to provide a trail along much of the original rail routes between Bradford, Halifax and Keighley, but there is an immediate problem which needs an imminent solution.

Immediately south of Queensbury station, the line to Halifax ran through Queensbury Tunnel, 2,501 yards long, which has a constant gradient of 1 in 100, so that the north portal is seventy feet higher than the southern one.

After the track was lifted in the early 1960s, the Strines cutting to the south of the tunnel was sold as a landfill site, without adequate drainage, so that the run-off from within the notoriously wet tunnel backed up to a depth of thirty-five feet in the cutting, flooding the graded bore to almost half its length.

This accumulated water was pumped out in 2016 to enable a detailed engineering inspection, which found that though the tunnel had inevitably deteriorated and the brick lining had collapsed in two locations the tunnel itself was safe and capable of restoration.  (The lining doesn’t actually hold the rock tunnel up;  its function was to prevent loose rock falling on to the track or, worse, passing trains.)

The Queensbury Tunnel Society has mounted an energetic campaign, supported by Bradford City Council, to reopen the tunnel as a lit, paved cycle-way, using resources that the current owner, Historical Railways Estate (HRE), part of Highways England, had allocated for a short-sighted scheme to infill the bore.  Infilling for 150 metres at each end and capping the ventilation shafts was estimated to cost £5.1 million;  a cheaper scheme filling only 20 metres at each end would cost around £3 million.

The Queensbury Tunnel Society’s estimate for remediation to Network Rail standards would cost £3.3 million, and the installation of a cycle path and lighting would cost a further £1.5 million. The Society argues that taxpayers’ money would be better used for a scheme which delivers social and economic benefits, rather than one which renders the empty tunnel permanently unusable.

Detailed accounts of this controversy can be found on the Society’s website [http://www.queensburytunnel.org.uk/index.shtml] and at https://www.railengineer.uk/2018/07/12/securing-a-future-for-one-of-englands-longest-disused-railway-tunnels.

The latest development borders on farce: https://www.keighleynews.co.uk/news/17367798.flooding-adds-to-tunnel-bill.