Cragg’s own church

St Michael-in-the-Hamlet Church, Aigburth, Liverpool

John Cragg (1767-1854) was not a pleasant man.

I know of only one observation by any of his contemporaries, which simply states that he was “a remarkable man to whom I cannot find a single gracious allusion on anybody’s part”.

His claim to posterity’s attention is that, as the proprietor of the Mersey Iron Foundry, he collaborated with the architect Thomas Rickman (1776-1841) in designing and producing iron components with which to construct prefabricated Gothick churches and other buildings.

Their first project was the parish church of St George, Everton (1812-14).

Even before the completion of St George’s, John Cragg had resolved to make further use of his architectural mouldings to Rickman’s designs, apparently without consulting the architect. 

Cragg purchased land in Aigburth not far from the River Mersey in February 1813, and by June 1815 had completed the church of St Michael-in-the-Hamlet.

The essential difference between these two churches is the more adventurous use of materials. 

At Aigburth, the framework of the whole structure is iron, filled with a slate base and brick walls, a device patented by John Cragg in 1813. 

All the embellishments of the brick walls are of iron – window and door frames, tracery, pinnacles, dripstones and copings.  Originally the exterior ironwork was painted to resemble stone, and the brickwork stuccoed to match. 

The roof and interior ceilings and panelling are of slate set in iron frames.  The moulding of the clerestory windows is also used for a fireplace at the foot of the staircase to the original organ gallery at the west end.

The total outlay using the moulds from St George’s came to £7,865. 

Cragg went on to use some of his mouldings yet again in a group of five houses he built, one as his residence and the others as a speculation, around the church to form St Michael’s Hamlet.

St Michael’s was restored by the Liverpool architect brothers William James Audsley (1833-1907) and George Ashdown Audsley (1838-1925) in 1875. 

When increasing population demanded an extension to the church in 1900 the north aisle was doubled in width, making sympathetic use of the original decorative features. 

The clock was added in 1920 as a war memorial, along with a dedicatory window and wall-tablets.

In the chancel lies a memorial slab commemorating the Herculaneum Pottery Benefit Society, dated 1824:

Here peaceful rest the POTTERS turn’d to Clay

Tir’d with their lab’ring life’s long tedious day

Surviving friends their Clay to earth consign

To be re-moulded by a Hand Divine!

St Michael-in-the-Hamlet was extensively restored in the 1980s, and is now a Grade I listed building.

John Cragg’s third iron church, St Philip’s, Hardman Street, Liverpool (1815-16, closed 1882-84), is described, illustrated and lamented in this article:  https://liverpool1207blog.wordpress.com/2018/01/02/st-philips-church-hardman-st-liverpool-1816-2017.

St Michael-in-the-Hamlet Church is a destination in the rescheduled Unexpected Liverpool (June 6th-10th 2022) tour.  For further details please click here.

Celebrating steam locomotion

Grand Steam Cavalcade, August 31st 1975, Shildon Co Durham

Recently I came across a random copy of the Railway Magazine for November 1975, which featured the Grand Steam Cavalcade that commemorated the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, the first public railway in the world to use steam locomotives.

As we contemplate the bicentenary of the S&DR, due in 2025, it’s worth remembering the context of the 1975 event.  Previous celebrations in 1875 and 1925 were attended with pomp and pride by a railway industry that still dominated British transport.  In the 2020s “heritage” railways are an essential part of the tourist industry.

Yet in 1975 British Rail looked towards an uncertain future, less than a decade after the Beeching cuts and the demise of steam.  Steam traction had been banned on BR lines from 1968 to 1972 except for Flying Scotsman, which had the benefit of a contractual anomaly.

Nevertheless the British Rail Engineering Ltd wagon works at Shildon, located on the original line of the S&DR, put on a magnificent show which featured – in motion and where possible in steam – a chronological procession of railway locomotives led by a modern reproduction of George Stephenson’s Locomotion and ending with the last BR locomotive to be built, 92220 Evening Star, and the power-car of the prototype High Speed Train.

The Railway Magazine editor, J N Slater, wrote up the experience with the acumen of an aficionado.  The enthusiast press-corps, “Your Editor and Assistant Editor (and the Assistant Editor of the Railway Gazette International)”, travelled by rail from King’s Cross on a sleeping-car excursion that included a second-class sleeping berth, full breakfast in the restaurant at Newcastle Central, travel out to Shildon and back and the return journey to King’s Cross for £9.00.  Equivalent walk-on fares for this journey would have amounted to £16.11. 

Between 250,000 and 300,000 spectators are estimated to have witnessed the Cavalcade on Sunday August 31st, and many more had previously visited the Rail 150 exhibition in the wagon works.

Of the thirty-five locomotives in the procession, two had previously appeared in the 1925 event – Great Northern Railway no 1 (hauled by LNER no 4498 Sir Nigel Gresley) and no 990 Henry Oakley – and one, North Eastern Railway no 910 (hauled by LNER no 4472 Flying Scotsman), had appeared in the 1875 and 1925 processions.

Without doubt the 2025 bicentenary will be an exciting show for tourists and enthusiasts alike, but 1975 will be a hard act to follow.

And it will most likely produce some entertaining hissy-fits in the preparation: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2021/feb/15/rival-railway-museums-in-row-over-steam-train-ownership.

Lighting Locomotion

Reproduction ‘Locomotion no 1: Grand Steam Cavalcade, August 31st 1975, Shildon Co Durham

The writer L T C Rolt tells a story about the moment when steam traction was first applied to a public railway.

George Stephenson had worked hard to persuade the directors of the Stockton & Darlington Railway to lay out most of their new line to be worked by steam locomotives, and in September 1824 had ordered two engines, No 1 Locomotion (initially named Active) and No 2 Hope, to be ready for the opening.  (Another two, No 3 Black Diamond and No 4 Dilgence followed later.)

Locomotion was delivered necessarily by road, and its arrival is recorded in the memoir of one of the navvies who built the line, Robert Metcalf, written in unpunctuated broad Northumbrian.

Once the engine was set on the track, the workmen needed a light to start the fire that would generate steam and enable it to move.  Candles and lanterns were sent for, but in the meantime Robert Metcalf lit up his pipe, using his pipe glass to focus the sun’s rays on the tobacco.

Contemplating a batch of oakum packing for the locomotive feed-pump, Metcalf realised he could save time by using his pipe glass to start the fire in the firebox:  “it blaze away well the fire going rapidly lantern and candle was to no use so No 1 fire was put to her on line by the pour of the sun”.

Rolt comments, “There is surely some symbolic significance in this little piece of humble and quite spontaneous ritual by which the sun’s heat kindled fire in the belly of the first locomotive in the world to move on a public line of railway.”

No 1 duly hauled the first train of coal and passengers from Shildon to Stockton on September 27th 1825.

In 1828 the boiler exploded, killing the driver, at Aycliffe Lane station, after the fireman had fastened down the safety valve.

Locomotion worked on the railway until 1841, and then, after fifteen years’ use as a stationary engine, it was restored and displayed, usually at Stockton except when it was loaned out to exhibitions elsewhere.

It last steamed in 1881, and from 1892 until 1975 (except in the years of the Second World War) it was displayed with another early S&DR loco, Derwent (1845) at the main-line station at Darlington Bank Top.

For the 150th Anniversary celebrations of the Stockton & Darlington Railway in 1975 a working reproduction was constructed, which has recently been the subject of a “tug of love”: Darlington to have replica Locomotion No 1 on display | The Northern Echo.

Further than Stockton and Darlington

Reproduction ‘Locomotion no 1’ at Locomotion Museum, Shildon Co Durham

The Stockton & Darlington Railway, famous across the world as the first public railway to use steam locomotives, extended beyond Stockton and Darlington, so people who don’t know the area need to look at a map to understand its full significance.

Authorised by an Act of Parliament in 1821 and opened on September 27th 1825, the original line ran from Witton Park Colliery, inland near Bishop Auckland, to the company’s headquarters and works at Shildon, then to Darlington and onwards to a quay on the River Tees at Stockton: [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stockton_and_Darlington_Railway#/media/File:Stockton_&_Darlington_Railway_with_today’s_lines.svg].

The objective was to enable South Durham coal-owners to compete more effectively with their Tyneside rivals’ superior access to the sea.

Its initial construction was a partnership between Durham entrepreneurs, particularly the Quaker Pease family led by Edward Pease (1767-1858), and the practical engineer George Stephenson (1781-1848).

The features that gave the S&DR worldwide significance were not apparent in the 1821 Act. 

When Stephenson took over as surveyor he modified his predecessor’s route, reducing it from twenty-eight to twenty-seven miles and eliminating an expensive tunnel, while ensuring that the entire route east of Shildon was suitable for locomotives.  He advocated the use of malleable as well as cast iron rails.  He designed an iron-truss bridge over the River Gaunless, now on display at the National Railway Museum in York.  He and his partners at Robert Stephenson & Co manufactured four locomotives and two stationary engines to power trains alongside horse traction.

Oddly, the track gauge of the S&DR was originally 4 feet 8 inches, not the later standard gauge of 4ft 8½in.

Shildon was the westernmost limit of locomotive working and so was the obvious location for the company’s works.  The first superintendent, Timothy Hackworth (1786-1850), had gained mechanical experience working with his father John at the Wylam colliery where locomotives were in use from 1812, and the new railway works quickly attracted a population to what became New Shildon.  In later years, locomotive production was transferred to Darlington and Shildon became the largest wagon building and repair works in the world until it closed in 1984.

Beyond Shildon the original S&DR line was operated by horses and stationary steam engines.  Two inclines, Etherley and Brusselton, conveyed wagons over the ridges that separated Witton Park and other collieries from the valley of the Tees.

The two inclines were replaced in 1842 by a diversionary route through Shildon Tunnel, yet their archaeology is still apparent, and this well-produced video explains how they worked:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ht-t-J2qUQ0.

The site of the wagon works is now a splendid modern transport museum, Locomotion [https://www.locomotion.org.uk], which houses exhibits from the National Railway Museum collection and links significant surviving buildings, including Hackworth’s Cottage, the coal drops, the goods shed and the Soho workshop.

It makes a resonant contrast with the Head of Steam museum [https://www.head-of-steam.co.uk], housed in the historic, rail-accessible Darlington North Road railway station.

Ironville

King William Street, Ironville, Derbyshire (1973)
Victoria Street, Ironville, Derbyshire (1973)

The catalogue of British industrial model villages, constructed by employers enlightened or desperate enough to provide better-quality habitations to attract workers, usually includes, give or take one or another, such names as –

  • Cromford, Derbyshire (1771)
  • New Lanark, Lanarkshire (1783)
  • Styal, Cheshire (1784)
  • Swindon, Wiltshire (1842)
  • Copley, West Yorkshire (1849)
  • Saltaire, West Yorkshire (1854)
  • Akroyden, West Yorkshire (1859)
  • Bournville, Birmingham (1879)
  • Port Sunlight, Wirral (1888)
  • New Earswick, York (1901)

Such lists rarely include Ironville, Derbyshire, begun by the Butterley Company in 1834, largely because the historic village is no longer recognisable for what it was.

The Butterley ironworks was founded in 1790 by the engineers of the Cromford Canal, William Jessop (1745-1814) and Benjamin Outram (1764-1805), in partnership with the canal-company solicitor, Francis Beresford, and the Nottingham banker John Wright.

The enterprise was founded literally on the discovery of rich coal and ironstone deposits during the building of the Butterley canal tunnel.

The ironworks traded on demand generated by the wars with France from 1792 onwards, but produced only pig iron and cast iron.  Land was purchased in 1796 at Codnor Park, a couple of miles down the canal, for a forge and rolling mill to manufacture wrought iron.

Within ten years four limekilns and a row of eleven cottages called Limekiln Row had been built at Codnor Park, soon followed by the forge and another thirteen cottages, Forge Row.

Further land on the site that was to become Ironville was used to construct two rows each of sixteen cottages, Furnace Row and Foundry Row, completed in 1813.

King William Street was laid out in 1834, with its forty-eight two-up-two-down terraced houses, alongside and similar to Furnace and Foundry Rows, and its public house, the King William IV.

In the following years, street after street appeared – Victoria Street (1837), then Albert Street, Tank Street and Meadow Street, followed by the distinctive three-storey “Big Six”, the biggest houses in Ironville.

The final development in the 1850s and 1860s was the Market Place and Queen Street, larger houses built on the cinder bank that served to fill in a former clay pit.

The new settlement offered a high standard of amenity.  By the late 1840s King William Street boasted a chemist, a draper, a baker and a stationer who published the Ironville Telegraph newspaper.   By 1886 there were twenty-four shops, including the sole branch of the Codnor Park & Ironville Equitable & Industrial Co-operative Society, though to be the smallest retail co-operative society in Britain.

The National School was opened in 1841 and enlarged in 1850.  The Mechanics’ Institute, designed by the Derby architect Henry Isaac Stevens, opened in 1846 and was later used as the Butterley Company Colliery offices.  Christ Church, also by H I Stevens, built at a cost of £6,000 and paid for by Francis Wright, was consecrated in 1851 and the vicarage, also by Stevens, dates from c1852. 

The 1854 Jessop Monument commemorates William Jessop II (1784-1852), son of the canal engineer.  It consists of a spacious memorial hall alongside a 70-foot-high Tuscan column with a viewing platform, reached by a spiral staircase of 150 steps.  The column was severely damaged by a lightning strike in 1861, though it continued to be used despite its precarious condition for years afterwards.  Both the column and the hall were restored in 2007, but are not accessible to the public.

Though Codnor Park and Ironville are geographically separated by the canal they always formed a unit, depending on the shops and social facilities around King William Street.  Whit Monday fêtes at the Codnor Park Memorial Hall were the highlight of the year.  Another long-standing custom, arising from an influx of Scottish ironworkers in the 1870s, was traditional Burns Night celebrations that were perpetuated into the 1960s.

Though Codnor Park Forge closed in 1965, followed by the adjacent wagon works ten years later, the Ironville community and its buildings remained largely intact until the Butterley Company was taken over by Lord Hanson’s Wiles Group in 1968.  The site of Codnor Park works was cleared by 1972. 

Though the derelict canal-side Butterley Company settlement at Golden Valley, a mile up the canal towards Butterley, was well restored by the Derbyshire Historic Buildings Trust in 1979-81, the streets of Ironville, which had remained largely intact, were either demolished or modernised beyond recognition, pebble-dashed and shorn of chimney stacks by Alfreton Urban District Council in 1973.

Though the resulting conversions are no doubt comfortable, they could have been comfortable and attractive if Ironville had been sympathetically restored.

Ironville was a milestone on the road to comfortable dwellings for ordinary people.  Now it’s simply a housing development, incomplete, unrecognisable, its street plan defaced, its traditions disregarded.

To see the best of nineteenth-century workers’ housing, people don’t come to Ironville; they go to Cromford, New Lanark, Swindon, Saltaire, Bournville and Port Sunlight – places that were valued and cared for.  Ironville isn’t on the list.

Elsecar

Reform Row, Elsecar, South Yorkshire

The coal mining industry created many industrial settlements across Britain, simply because coal was often found in places where there were few inhabitants.

Few of them are as elegant as Elsecar, the mining village of the Wentworth Woodhouse estate, which stands in an area where the Barnsley seam could be anything up to nine feet thick and below it the Silkstone seam, up to six feet thick. 

The “black diamonds” were mined on behalf of the Marquis of Rockingham from before 1750.

When the Dearne & Dove Canal was authorised by Act of Parliament in 1793 two branches, each leading to feeder reservoirs, were provided to Worsborough and Elsecar. 

Lord Rockingham’s successor, the 4th Earl Fitzwilliam, opened the Elsecar New Colliery in 1795, and the branch canal reached the colliery site shortly after 1799. 

The village was subsequently laid out as a model of good practice and enlightened self-interest by a dynasty of aristocratic coal-owners who, while very much of their time in their attitudes to – for instance – trade unionism, seem to have taken a sincere, paternalistic interest in their employees. 

The sturdy stone rows of cottages, Old Row (1798), Station Row (1800), Meadow Row (c1803), Reform Row (1837) and Cobcar Terrace (1860), are solidly constructed, functional and visually attractive.  Like many buildings of the period on the Wentworth Woodhouse estate the first two terraces in Elsecar were designed by John Carr of York. 

Vegetable gardens and pig-sties were standard, and at Cobcar Terrace separate wash-houses were provided.  Rents were slightly higher than in other nearby settlements, but there seems to have been little difficulty in attracting workers to this relatively isolated spot. 

In 1850 the fifth Earl opened the distinctive and attractive Model Boarding House to attract young single miners from neighbouring coalfields:  this building housed Elsecar’s first fitted bath and hot-water geyser.

Apart from coal-mining, Elsecar has had other industrial enterprises, none of them so consistently successful.  There were two ironworks, the Elsecar Ironworks (opened in 1795 with the New Colliery) and Milton Ironworks (1803), and a short-lived tar-manufactory which gave its name to Distillery Row

The Elsecar Workshops (1859) provided the ironworks and collieries with everything “…new as regards iron and woodwork and the greater proportion of the repairs required for coal and iron mines, and all machinery, iron and heavy woodwork on the whole Estate particularly steam engines…”.

The Fitzwilliam estate provided all the substantial public buildings in the village – the Church Day School (1836;  closed 1852 but still forming part of Distillery Side Cottages), the Elsecar Steam Flour Mill (1841-2), Holy Trinity Parish Church (1843), the Gas Works (1857, behind Old Row, now demolished except for the Manager’s House), and the Market Hall (1870, renamed Milton Hall after alterations, 1922).

The South Yorkshire Railway reached Elsecar in 1850, vastly widening the available markets. 

Amidst the rows of coal-wagons and the bustle of shunting, one strange feature underlined the intimate relationship between the colliery and its owners – Earl Fitzwilliam’s private railway-station (1870), which still stands in the middle of the village virtually next to the mine, from which would set forth the Earl, his family and guests in their special railway carriage, having travelled by horse-drawn coach from the Palladian splendours of Wentworth Woodhouse.

In the years since the mining industry went into decline, Elsecar has reinvented itself as a tourist site, based around the Elsecar Heritage Centre, which incorporates Earl Fitzwilliam’s private station, the Elsecar Heritage Railway and the only surviving in situ Newcomen pumping engine in the world.

Wentworth Village

Rockingham Arms, Wentworth, South Yorkshire

The estate village of Wentworth stretches west from the boundary wall of the park to beyond the two parish churches

Most of the buildings date from the time of the 4th Earl Fitzwilliam (inherited 1782, died 1833) and his successors, but the site and the medieval church are ancient.  At least two of the structures in the village contain evidence of pre-eighteenth-century construction – the timber-framed Ivy Cottage (possibly late-sixteenth century) and West Hall Fold (possibly seventeenth-century). 

Most of the houses and cottages in the village are vernacular in style, sturdily built in the local sandstone.  Green paintwork remains the clearest sign still that the dwellings share a common owner.

The more distinctive buildings include the two public houses, one of them called the Rockingham Arms, the other – the George & Dragon – providing space for the market and the annual tenants’ “feast” or fair.  There is a group of almshouses which included the boys’ school (1716), a girls’ and infants’ school (1837) and a Mechanics’ Institute or Christian working-men’s club in castellated Gothic.

Until the 8th Earl vacated the Mansion in 1949, the village of Wentworth was entirely dependent on the Fitzwilliam Estate:  only one other freeholder, Mr Pole the grocer, built in the village, and he sold his three cottages to the Estate early in the twentieth century. 

In its heyday the Fitzwilliam Estate was the dominant employer, not only in Wentworth but also in the surrounding villages of Elsecar, Nether Haugh, Scholes and Thorpe Hesley. 

At the beginning of the nineteenth century the family are said to have employed roughly the same number of workers – about a hundred – in the mansion and home farm as they did in their coal mines.  Later their mineral interests became far more extensive, though up to the Second World War the house still needed sixty staff to operate.  The ancillary functions of the estate yard and timber yard continued into the 1970s.

The 10th Earl, knowing that the title would die with him for lack of a male heir, established the Fitzwilliam Wentworth Amenity Trust to take care of the village “for the benefit of the public, and in particular the inhabitants of the Parish” after his death in 1979.

By this means Wentworth remains an attractive place to visit, and an enviable place to live.

North Street

North Street, Cromford, Derbyshire (1977)
North Street, Cromford, Derbyshire (1977)

Richard (later Sir Richard) Arkwright came to Cromford in Derbyshire seeking water to power his cotton-spinning factory despite the sparse population of lead-miners and agricultural labourers.

Not only did he need to import labour to keep his spinning machines turning day and night, but he and his partners had difficulty initially in persuading weavers to accept the relatively coarse thread that the water frame produced.

Ideally, he needed to employ his own weavers, preferably with large families, so that the men could weave at home in what was still a domestic trade, while their wives and children could with their delicate fingers tend the spinning machines in the mill.

Accordingly, Arkwright advertised in the Derby Mercury in December 1771 for “Weavers residing in this Neighbourhood” as well as offering “Employment…for Women, Children, &c and good Wages”.

This practice is reflected in the architecture of North Street (1776), one of the very first examples of planned industrial housing in England, sixteen plus eleven three-storey gritstone houses with distinctive loom-windows on the top floor of each house. Evidence of further weaving-facilities exists at the Mill, where a three-storey loom shop still survives. 

Each of the North Street houses had a designated garden.  When the loom shops were no longer needed, the long top-floor windows were reduced in size:  the uninsulated rooms must have been extremely cold in winter.

The design of the North Street terraces has survived intact, though in the late 1960s Matlock Rural District Council intended to demolish the houses until dissuaded by a campaign led by Professor J D Chambers of Nottingham University.

The historic significance of Cromford as a whole was first recognised by the Arkwright Festival of 1971, a celebration of the bicentenary of the founding of the mills. 

During the 1970s North Street was rescued by the Ancient Monuments Society and one of the houses, no 10, was restored by the Landmark Trust and is now available as a self-catering holiday let.

The Festival committee became the Arkwright Society, which has spearheaded the growth of academic and tourist interest in what became the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site in 2001.

The two books to consult about this fascinating area are The Derwent Valley Mills and their Communities (Derwent Valley Mills Partnership 2001) and Doreen Buxton & Chris Charlton, Cromford Revisited (Derwent Valley Mills Partnership, 2015).

The Bear Pit

The Bear Pit: tail of Cromford Moor Sough, Derbyshire

When I first started teaching in a Nottingham grammar school in 1970, I was allocated a General Studies class and I chose to offer Local History as a mind-broadening experience. 

One of the students wanted to know about the “ruin that looks like Chatsworth” that he’d spotted driving south down the M1 near Chesterfield.  This was Sutton Scarsdale Hall, last inhabited by descendants of Sir Richard Arkwright, the cotton-spinning inventor.

I rang a librarian who told me the person to talk to about the Arkwright family was an adult-education lecturer, Chris Charlton, who explained that Richard Arkwright and his partners chose Cromford for the site of their water-powered factory because of two sources of water – the Bonsall Brook and a lead-mine adit called the Cromford Moor Sough.

Chris persuaded me to bring a minibus-load of sixth-formers to Derbyshire to do voluntary conservation work in preparation for the Arkwright Festival, celebrating the bicentenary of Richard Arkwright’s Cromford cotton mills in 1771.

Our project was to clear out tons of accumulated mud from what was then known as the Bear Pit, which has no connection whatsoever with bears.

This hole in the ground, hidden behind the shops at the bottom of Cromford Hill, is the junction between three watercourses which connected the brook and the sough with the mill-site downstream.

Soughs are tunnels, built at a shallow downward gradient to drain lead-mining areas, prodigious engineering feats in their day, and this one was distinguished by its thermal water, which remained constantly at 52°F throughout the year.

A complex system of watercourses enabled the mills to take supply from either the Bonsall Brook or – especially in times of drought or frost – from the Cromford Moor Sough, or to use either to act as a reservoir to the other.

Much of the water which drained from the Cromford Moor Sough was lost in 1837 when a consortium of lead-miners completed the Meerbrook Sough, which drains lower down the Derwent Valley at Whatstandwell:  after litigation concluded unsuccessfully in 1846 the Cromford Mills diversified away from cotton-manufacture, which finally ceased in 1891.

We laboured with buckets and ladders for several Sundays, aided on at least one occasion by the fire brigade, who were equipped to get water from where it is to where it’s wanted.

By the time of the festival in midsummer the Bear Pit looked respectable.

Several years later, when I was teaching in Sheffield, Chris persuaded me to bring a group of Yorkshire kids to clear out the Bear Pit a second time.  One of the Nottingham group, then his twenties, turned up and roared with laughter at the sight of us shifting another few tons of mud.  He said it was a site for sore eyes.

Meanwhile, Chris Charlton changed my life, recruiting me to teach extramural classes in Matlock and elsewhere.  My part-time career in architectural and social history became Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times, which still provides me with occupation and enjoyment nearly fifty years after the Arkwright Festival.

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.