One of my friends had asked me months ago if I wanted to join her on a tour of the Glenfield Tunnel organised by the Leicester Industrial Heritage Society. In the spirit of wanting to do new stuff, I said yes.

The Glenfield Tunnel, located in the middle of a housing estate in Glenfield, used to be the route that a steam train would carry coal from Coalville to Leicester. We met the group – some serious trekkers with proper head-torches for the most part – in the car park of the Glenfield Co-Op before following our guide leader Richard down a path and across a road into the Stephenson Court (named after the famous ‘Rocket’ designer). Walking through the estate we suddenly came across a high brick wall with a small square tunnel entrance cut into the side.

Here we heard some more about the tunnel. The Glenfield Tunnel is one of the world’s first steam railway tunnels and is just over one mile long. It was designed by the famous railway engineer George Stephenson and built between 1829–32, under the supervision of his son Robert.

The project to build this tunnel really tested its engineers, involving techniques that were then virtually untried.  Faulty trial drillings suggested the bore would be through stone and clay, when, in fact, much of the bore would turn out to be in running sand.  This necessitated a great deal more work and expense. The tunnel had to be lined throughout in brickwork between 14” and 18” thick, backed by a “wooden shell” where running sand was encountered. Bricks for the lining, after dissatisfaction with the original supplier, were made in an on-site kiln. Owing to the problems encountered, the tunnel construction ran well over the proposed budget of £10,000, finally costing £17,326 12s 2½d. which is  well over a million pounds in today’s money. However, the finished job was straight and level and was in use for over 130 years.

Dripping walls, pitch black and uneven flooring made torches a necessity. Although we were only allowed 400 yards into the tunnel, we passed three ventilation shafts. One of these comes up above ground and into someone’s garden. Standing underneath it was not advised as water was constantly dripping through.

On reaching the end point we were played a sound effect of a train passing through the tunnel. It was incredibly atmospheric, especially when we thought about the refuge arches we’d seen on our journey down the tunnel. These were put in on both sides of the tunnel wall every so often and were for workers to stand in when the train was passing, to avoid getting hit. Apparently it was a very close shave.

After such a long time standing in the past, as it were, it was different to be out in the real world again. Covered in soot and dirt, too.

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