The North Leicestershire Association of the National Trust runs particularly interesting tours.
In conjunction with the Leicestershire Industrial History Society, the Association provided a rare opportunity to visit the Glenfield Tunnel of the former Leicester & Swannington Railway, a particularly significant relic of the early days of railways.
In the canal age Leicestershire coal owners were at a grave disadvantage in comparison with their Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire competitors, because the mines around Swannington could only be served by packhorse, and were undercut by coal from the Erewash valley transported along the Soar Navigation and the Leicester Canal.
A “forest” branch of the Leicester Canal, colloquially called the Charnwood Canal, was a spectacular failure, never fully opened for lack of water, and was practically abandoned by 1802.
Two far-sighted Leicestershire grandees, William Stenson and John Ellis, aware of the success of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, contacted George Stephenson in 1828 and persuaded him to support a railway from the pits at Swannington to the West Bridge at Leicester.
Construction of the Leicester & Swannington Railway, with two steep cable-hauled inclines at Bagworth and Swannington, and the 1,796-yard tunnel at Glenfield, was overseen by George Stephenson’s son Robert, and opened in two sections in 1832 and 1833.
It enabled the Leicestershire mines to undercut Erewash coal at Leicester, and eventually to export coal by canal and railway further afield. It made possible a complete new town, Coalville.
Glenfield Tunnel was the second railway tunnel in the world, following the shorter Tyler Hill Tunnel on the Canterbury & Whitstable Railway.
Though the later main line from Leicester to Swannington was diverted away from the tunnel and the inclines, the route through Glenfield remained open for freight until 1964.
It’s now maintained by Leicester City Council and opened occasionally by the Leicestershire Industrial History Society: http://www.lihs.org.uk/Industrial_heritage2.html.
We were guided to the west portal and into the tunnel by Chris and David as far as the first ventilation shaft. The whole tunnel is a mile long, but the cutting beyond the east portal is filled in, and access to that end of the tunnel is through a manhole in someone’s garden.
I was glad to have access to one of the monuments of Britain’s industrial history, and to gain a close-up, first-hand idea of the magnitude of the achievements of the Stephensons and their generation of pioneering engineers.
It’s one thing to read about the Glenfield Tunnel, and quite another to walk inside it – to give “to airy nothing a local habitation and a name”.