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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. 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.

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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 shafts in one-third of the tunnel can be seen. The inability to provide enough air shafts 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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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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Nottingham Victoria - is here.

Calvert - is here.

Neasden - is here.

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