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GCR London Extension - Catesby Tunnel

I've already mentioned that I watched Channel 5's "Walking Britain's Lost Railways" about the GCLE between Nottingham Victoria-Rugby Central with gritted teeth. There were almost twenty cases of myth, error and fabrication, some of them tabloid-style. It's sad to see so much baloney about this line which I shall be dealing with in due course.

A worrying aspect is that so many charlattans have created nonsense about this line that newcomers are plagiarising in the belief that it's accurate, without checking or thinking it through, and repetition is building up a picture that's misleadingly false. Channel 5 approached me about the Extension two weeks before airing this programme boasting how "well received" the series has been, but quoting error and myth about the line, which I warned them about and tried to correct. They didn't respond and trotted out the errors neverthless. The whole drift of this programme was misguided.

There is too much to address here, even at Catesby Tunnel where the most glaring assertion was that it had been meant to be a cutting. It's hard to believe that the programme-makers did what's in the title and walked this lost railway because Catesby is one of the most interesting parts of the line: the portals are still there and above the tunnel, the ventilation shafts and huge amounts of excavated spoil - as if the navvies had only left the other day. It's hardly changed over some 125 years and speaks volumes of what had to be done and, if you stand on the summit by the air shafts, you can see why the notion of a cutting through this high ground is daft. As is the assertion that a local landowner was instrumental. Why does the GCLE suffer from so much fabrication? Here are some pointers.

New additions placed here temporarily.

My apologies for adding two Colour-Rail slides which don't add all that much historically, but by golly, they're among the best ever taken in the 1960s before steam went quite disgustingly filthy and rusty. I have to confess that rundown periods may excite some folk because it's all that they ever saw, unlike previous times when normal life on the steam railway used to be a lot more cheerful, which is where my focus has always lain.

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This view is dated September 1961 and as far as I can tell it shows the Newcastle-Bournemouth leaving Catesby Tunnel. In charge of the Southern Region stock, whose green colour had been reintroduced by BR, and in this case comprises SR design Maunsell carriages, is Leicester's V2 60863. There is, alas, not a hint of its Brunswick Green livery. Coaches were still being washed, but cleaning of locomotives was already a thing of the past. Still, isn't this a magnificent capture? Note also that despite being close to the summit of a 6-mile ascent at 1:176, the loco has a clean fire and is making light of the climb with the safety valves blowing off. Repaired Colour-Rail slide BRE311: author's collection.

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The second image was captured a year later on 1st September 1962 closer to the mouth of the tunnel. Note the stone embellishment showing "1897", the year that the tunnel was completed. A "Britannia" is in charge, during the half-year that they were allocated to Annesley and worked to Marylebone, in this case, No 70015 Apollo. Once again, there is no sign of the green livery and the condition is a bit more decrepit.

The date is a Friday and the sun angle indicates ~1.30pm which (based on the 1958 WTT) suggests the 10am Bradford-Marylebone known for a while as the "South Yorkshireman". The next WTT that I have is for 1966 when things had run down. If anybody has better detail, I'd be pleased to hear. Repaired Colour-Rail slide BRE316: author's collection.

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Catesby Tunnel

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At just under 3000 yards this was the second longest tunnel on the whole of the GCR and it's hard to show on a map, even if so many features can be discerned. This is an overview of the northern end and the approach on this part of the line's ruling gradient of 1:176, which continued through and beyond the tunnel on the approach to Charwelton. Near the northern portal stands Catesby House whose owners are maligned as the cause of the whole tunnel. They did, however, bar works on their land and the resultant lack of ventilation shafts in one-third of the tunnel can be seen. The inability to provide enough of them led to a smoke-filled and dangerous tunnel. Source: OS 6" map 1901, National Library of Scotland.

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S.W.A. Newton is well known for his photographic portrayal of the GCR's construction of its London Extension (it was never its "main line" and the term "GCML" is a modern invention by JMC Healy). Not all the plates have survived (at Leicestershire Record Office) but he also produced a number of albums with four pictures to a page, and hand-written captions.

This page is useful for showing the interior of a Navvy Mission hut and the scale of the works by three views of shafts by which the tunnel was excavated. Each was accompanied by a steam-powered winding house which lowered the men into and back out of the underground works; lowered tunnelling materials as required, including millions of bricks for the lining; and lifted out the spoil, a great deal of which can be seen piled up to the side and remains to this day.

The line is presented as having benefitted from innovative techniques and modern equipment such as the steam navvy, but they were absent here. The tunnel was built underground quite literally by the men and hard graft. On the surface some light cranes were used to manoeuvre timbers such as when the shafts were sunk. The lack of mechanisation explains why it took just over two years. The procedure was the old established one and there were no illusions about how long construction was going to take. This is why the navvy settlements had allotments where for two years the men grew some of their own food. Photo: S.W.A Newton album, author's copy.

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Five of the excavation shafts were turned into "air shafts", later known as ventilation shafts, and this is believed to be a northerly one, from which the lie of the land is easy to see, and the impossibility of getting so high via a cutting. Photo: S.W.A Newton album, author's copy.

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The most northerly air shaft and its surrounding spoil can be seen from the Hellidon-Staverton road, or from your computer by using Google Earth! Repaired image from Google Earth.

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Here are some more ways of looking at this tunnel that, according to Channel 5 " was meant to be a cutting", beginning with the 25" OS map for 1899-1900 and the approach from the south:

This segment from the map shows the line from Charwelton to the southern portal and that, as the railway climbed the high ground, the cutting got wider. There comes a point where you can exceed the Parliamentary limits of deviation and be forced to buy ever more land which ends up incapable of being farmed any longer. Source: National Library of Scotland, https://maps.nls.uk/view/114479966

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Taken just after WW2 this view shows a rebuilt O4 with its Thompson No 3634 emerging with an Up Class A freight (ave. speed 30mph). The low viewing angle is so deceptive by putting the hill above the tunnel out of sight. Author's collection.

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In this view from the 1950s with B1 No 61106 approaching Charwelton station with an Up Ordinary Passenger train, a great deal more of the location can be seen. Note how wide the cutting is as you get closer to the tunnel. It's actually wider in this view than the when it was cut because of a slip - the ground hadn't been sound enough and the cutting had to be enlarged. The nearest ventilation shaft is on the horizon. Photo: E.R. Morten.

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Expanded notes:

The stock in this secondary service comprises a 3-set made up with a mixture of old carriages, two of them pre-Grouping and cascaded to the GC Section.

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48 of the ex-NER 3rds came to the GC Section in the 1930s (and to the GN at KX, too).

As can be seen, the change-over from non-gangwayed to gangwayed stock with integral lavatories took several years during which mixed formations like this were used.

The gangwayed pair show the modernising trend which the LNER started just before WW2 for which the NE Area was supplied with newly-built 61'6" gangwayed sets. The GC Section was offered second-hand cascades instead. The 61'6" TK was Doncaster built in the 1920s and appears in the GN Carriage Diagram book as GN.248s and the LNER one as D.23 - essentially the same design and forerunner of the "standard" side-door TK to D.115. Quite a few were supplied new to the GC Section for its expresses. The last coach has the 1st class seats and is a 58'6" BCK to GN.175, date of transfer not known.

This reality is not what modellers tend to portray. Indeed, it's not obvious in a b&w photograph that the two gangwayed carriages would still have been in varnished teak livery. The ex-NER 3rd? Quite likely a dusty ex-LNER brown. In other words this early 1950s view of a secondary service shows a newly built loco but old carriages still in LNER livery: possibly renumbered, but otherwise unchanged, and the carriage cleaners were still looking after them well, the gangwayed ones at least!

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This view from the 1960s shows V2 No 60939 heading north with a fitted express goods on the 1:176 gradient through the tunnel. The southernmost air shaft can be seen - it too is still there. A testing centre has recently been built on this spot. Photo: author's collection.

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Finally for now, the northern portal with 9F No 92068 about to plunge into the tunnel, with a light exhaust and the satety valves blowing off. It was half a century before locos of this power could romp up the gradient and pass through the tunnel with ease. When the line was built, contrary to the programme's assertions, goods traffic was, for several reasons, a difficult undertaking. Photo: author's collection.

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More on the GCLE:

Marylebone - is here.

Neasden - is here.

Calvert - is here.

Nottingham Victoria - is here.

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