Monthly Archives: January 2021

New use for Catesby Tunnel

Former Great Central Railway: Catesby Tunnel, Northamptonshire (1984)

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.

Italian job

Lingotto Building, Turin, Italy: former test track

It’s not feasible to travel by train from Florence to London within a day.

When I took the Great Rail Journeys ‘Highlights of Tuscany’ tour [https://www.greatrail.com/tours/highlights-of-tuscany]  our return journey was broken at Turin.

As we drove through the Turin suburbs our guide Caroline mentioned that our hotel, the Nh Lingotto Congress [https://www.nh-hotels.com/hotel/nh-torino-lingotto-congress], was a conversion of a former Fiat car factory.  I’d vaguely heard about an Italian car factory turned into a hotel but I was unprepared for the luxurious splendour to which we were treated.

The building is a lengthy concrete-framed oblong with an elegant façade, built 1916-23 to the designs of Giacomo Matté-Trucco (1869-1934), originally the Fiat company’s in-house architect and engineer, but in private practice by the time he conceived the Lingotto factory.

When car production ceased in 1982 its renovation was entrusted to the Genoese architect Renzo Piano (b 1937), already well-known for collaborating with Richard Rodgers on the Centre Georges Pompidou (1971-77) in Paris and latterly famous for the Shard (2000-2012) at London Bridge.

Piano’s scheme embraces an exhibition centre (1992), an auditorium (1994), two hotels (1995) and a shopping centre.  The site includes a helipad and an art gallery stocked with pieces from the collection of Giovanni and Marella Agnelli:  Giovanni Agnelli (1921-2003) was customarily known as Gianni to distinguish him from his grandfather and namesake (1866-1945), the founder of the Fiat company.

The hotel lobby is cool and modern, and the space within the outer wings of the factory buildings is filled with a dense jungle visible through glazed walls.  The bedrooms are beautifully finished, reflecting the calibre of the designer, using the high ceilings of the original factory design, spacious and comfortable.

Although I felt hot and exhausted I couldn’t resist exploring, and by the time I’d showered and had some lunch other tour-guests were insisting I should go to the roof to see the “race-track”. 

The key to the complex is the shopping mall, 8 (Italian number ‘otto’, echoing ‘Lingotto’).  Among the shop units is the Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, where a haughty young lady behind a desk pointed towards a lift which took me up four storeys to another even more haughty female who pointed me towards a further lift which carried me to the fifth-floor art gallery and the roof.

The bijou art-gallery is a delight, containing a couple of Canova sculptures and a series of paintings by Canaletto, Bellotto, Renoir, Manet, Matisse and Picasso.  No British shopping centre can boast such a life-enhancing experience above the shops.

Only when I walked on to the sunlit roof did I realise that the so-called race-track was not visible from the roof, it was the roof – an intact and well-preserved test-track, designed to run cars at 90kph at a time when the normal top speed was 70kph, with alarmingly banked curves at each end.  It features in The Italian Job (1969).

Back at shop level I got lost, which was a benefit because I came upon the helical ramp which runs through the building to give cars access to the roof. 

When I read it all up in Wikipedia Italian (in English translation, naturally,) I discovered that the raw materials were brought in at ground level, presumably from the nearby rail line, and cars were assembled as they moved upwards through the building until they emerged complete and road-ready on the roof – the exact opposite of the process in the Studebaker Building in midtown Chicago.

There’s an excellent video-essay on the Lingotto factory at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciscQuVD5vo.

Elegant and commodious sports bar

Former Carver Street Methodist Chapel, Sheffield – now Walkabout sports bar

Sheffield’s Carver Street Methodist Chapel, built on what was the edge of town in 1800, is now a buzzing Australian sports bar in the centre of Sheffield’s entertainment quarter.

Its founders and the successive generations of teetotal worshippers would be appalled, but Grade II listing protects the historic fabric, and the income from customers has guaranteed that the building is well maintained.

There were Methodists in Sheffield almost from the very start of John Wesley’s great crusade, and they built a succession of modest chapels from 1741 until the Carver Street building was opened in 1805 at a cost of about £4,720 to seat 1,500 people to the designs of the architect-minister Rev William Jenkin (1788-1844).

The plain but imposing building was described by the Sheffield poet and hymn-writer James Montgomery (1771-1854) as “one of the best planned, most elegant and commodious places of worship in the country”.

Services were often packed to capacity, and the congregation spilled over into the yard outside. 

Sheffield was a predominantly nonconformist town:  in 1841, when the population was 112,492, the nonconformists had 25,000 sittings, a third of them free, in comparison with the Anglicans’ 1,500.

The Methodists were strict and ascetic in their private lives and public worship.  The first Methodist Conference at Carver Street in 1805 passed a resolution prohibiting the use of musical instruments in worship “except a bass viol, which was permitted when the principal singer required it”.

The Carver Street congregation was strict but not rigid.  When the chapel was refurbished in 1839, with new pews and double-glazed windows, an organ was inaugurated by the organist of Doncaster Parish Church, Jeremiah Rogers, “who on that occasion performed some of Bach’s organ music for the first time in Sheffield”. 

The congregation flourished for 150 years.  Its prestigious members included the ironfounder Henry Longden (1754-1812), who is buried in a vault at Carver Street, the steelmaker Alderman George Senior (1838-1915) of Pond’s Forge, Lord Mayor in 1901, and Sir Samuel Osborn (1864-1952), Lord Mayor in 1912.

The premises were repeatedly extended, by a schoolroom in the yard (1834), vestries at the rear of the building (1883) and a new block of schools and classrooms, at a cost of £5,000 in 1897.

The church was reseated in 1902 and a new organ by the Hull manufacturers Forster & Andrews was installed.  It cost £1,200, the gift of Samuel Meggitt Johnson (1836-1925) of Endcliffe Court, sole proprietor of the George Bassett confectionery company. 

The congregation continued to thrive between the wars:  in 1934 the adult membership was 550 and the Sunday Schools had 900 on roll.

The Institute was wrecked in the December 1940 Blitz, and the church itself suffered damage, yet the community played a significant part in the war effort, and was still flourishing at the time of its sesquicentenary in 1955.

By the 1970s, however, there was a decline in numbers, and in 1990 the congregation combined with that of the demolished Wesley Methodist Church in Broomhill and occupied a new building on that site in 1998.

The Carver Street building was sold and converted into a pub, in which the paraphernalia of a modern bar sits incongruously in the intact surroundings of the Grade II-listed galleried chapel, with the pulpit occupied by the DJ’s desk, and the organ intact but mothballed behind.  The graves outside are protected by timber cladding.  The entire pub-conversion is reversible, so that in future the space can be restored to its original elegance and the building put to another use: https://www.walkaboutbars.co.uk/sheffield.