One summer’s day in 1984 I was driving around Northamptonshire and decided to find out what remained in the area of the former Great Central Railway main line, which had been closed in 1966.
Twenty years later most of the formation remained, though the track and buildings had mostly been dismantled.
I wandered around Woodford Halse, a railway town near Daventry but in fact in the middle of nowhere, where the GCR made an elaborate junction with the earlier East & West Junction Railway that wandered across country between Stratford-on-Avon and Bedford.
Afterwards I found my way to the site of Charwelton Station and walked up the line to the south portal of Catesby Tunnel.
There I stared down the 1¾-mile dead-straight bore and, in the days of 35mm colour-slides – expensive photography – took a single shot at the light at the end of the tunnel that actually came out.
Much more recently I wrote a blog-article about Catesby Tunnel at a time when there was debate about whether the proposed High Speed Two should be routed in places over the old Great Central, which was itself a nineteenth-century attempt at an express route from Manchester to Paris.
There was talk of using the tunnel to carry one HS2 track and dig a parallel bore for the other. The idea came to nothing.
But now someone has found an ingenious way of making money out of a Victorian tunnel that has been abandoned and unmaintained for over half a century but was so well-built that it has remained in good condition .
Aero Research Partners, a consortium which provides facilities for aerodynamic vehicle testing [https://www.totalsimulation.co.uk/computational-fluid-dynamics/catesby-tunnel], has leased the trackbed from Daventry District Council to build an indoor test track for motor vehicles: https://www.daventrydc.gov.uk/your-council/news/tunnel-transformation-project-making-good-progress-05-10-20.
Catesby Tunnel is uniquely suited to this purpose. Apart from being dead straight, it has a constant gradient of 1 in 172 and is bigger than any other British tunnel of its length because it was built to continental loading gauge to accommodate Channel Tunnel trains: https://www.tunneltalk.com/UK-30Jan2020-progress-challenges-Catesby-Tunnel.php.
The project is expected to cost around £13 million and will command worldwide demand as a unique facility for the motor industry. Not only will it respect the resident bat population, but at weekends it will welcome members of the public who wish to cycle its length, following in the tyre-tracks of the TV presenter Rob Bell: https://www.my5.tv/walking-britain-s-lost-railways/season-3/episode-4.
It’s an admirable solution for making use of one of Dr Beeching’s white elephants. There’s another such project in West Yorkshire that’s still the subject of argument. It’s to be hoped that Queensbury Tunnel isn’t squandered like the string of tunnels north of central Nottingham that could have saved a great deal of 21st-century traffic congestion.
There is a well-illustrated account of the Catesby Tunnel in its derelict state at http://www.forgottenrelics.co.uk/tunnels/gallery/catesby.html, and a knowledgeable survey of the conversion at https://www.railengineer.co.uk/video-catesby-tunnel.