Another Dimension

At 1,132 yards (just under two thirds of a mile), the Great Northern Railway’s Mapperley Tunnel is Nottingham’s second longest such structure, pipped to the post by the Great Central Railway’s 1,189 yard Mansfield Road Tunnel. Both still exist, and they continue to attract folk like me who have a love of the past, a sense of curiosity and a mild disregard for personal safety.

When I found myself in the vicinity of Arnold with a few hours to kill recently, I decided to set out, trusty OS Explorer 260 to hand, to locate the eastern portal of Mapperley Tunnel, hidden away amongst fields and woodland on private land adjacent to the former Gedling Colliery site.

Mapperley Tunnel was part of the Great Northern Railway’s Derbyshire and Staffordshire Extension, which ran from a junction with the Nottingham to Grantham line at Netherfield to a connection with the North Staffordshire line at Egginton Junction in Derbyshire. The Derbyshire and Staffordshire Extension had three stations in Nottingham – Gedling, Daybrook and Basford North – and was known locally as the Back Line, or the Derby Friargate Line. It was opened in stages between 1875 and 1878 and was built primarily for the purpose of transporting coal (although it also carried passenger services).

My walk out of Arnold towards Gedling had taken me past the amusingly named Goodfillas – a local sandwich shop. Pun-heavy nomenclature, much beloved of hairdressers across the land, seems to have become increasingly common for this type of establishment. The sign for Pat’s Baps in Basford never fails to make me smile, while Eat Me Out (yes, really) in Carlton wins the bad taste award by a country mile.

As I approached the colliery site, with no clear idea as to how I was going to be able to make my way inside, I discovered that the household waste centre that had previously operated on the approach road had, in fact, closed down, thus presenting me with a largely unobserved means of ingress. Whoever constructed the locked gates at the entrance to the access road had generously left a thin-person-sized gap at one side, and I soon found myself in the wasteland area beyond the gates.

This was to be very much a journey of contrasts. After circumventing another set of locked gates – two deep this time – courtesy of some generous vandals who had torn down the wire fence next to them, I turned away from the imposing bulk of the colliery slag heap into a small, meadow-like area which in turn gave way to a pleasant woodland corridor carpeted with forget-me-nots.

Anyone who seeks out the remains of abandoned railways on an occasional or regular basis soon begins to develop a sixth sense that lets them know when they are on the right track, so to speak, and my feeling of being in the correct area was soon confirmed by the appearance of an infilled bridge that the railway must once have passed beneath. A short distance further on, with nary a soul in site, I rounded a corner to be met by the extraordinary sight, some 15 feet beneath me, of the remaining section of cutting, its sides maybe 40 feet high, with the black depths of the tunnel entrance visible at the far end, some 250 feet away. Eager to investigate, I stumbled down the bank into the cutting and made my way across the boggy ground, through an obstacle course of branches and other debris, towards the tunnel mouth.

Standing at the entrance to the tunnel, in this lost world that seemed unfeasibly far removed from the rest of civilisation, excitement turned abruptly to trepidation. During its operational days, Mapperley Tunnel became notorious for its structural instability, caused by a combination of mining subsidence and the heavy freight traffic that passed through it on a frequent basis. 1925 saw a 150-ton roof collapse and in the 1950s British Railway engineers had to shore up the top of the tunnel entrance with wooden props. The roof of the rest of the tunnel was strengthened at some point with iron ribs and in 1960 the tunnel was closed to through-traffic for the last time, due to safety concerns.

Passing through the crumbling tunnel entrance and into the darkness beyond, I hoped that the tunnel wouldn’t choose today to trap some foolhardy adventurer in its chilly depths. I hadn’t told anyone where I was going and I suddenly felt rather alone. The excitement of the unknown was enough to propel me onward, however, and I continued into the damp, eerie interior, switching my torch on as the light from the portal began to fade behind me.

Moving with a degree of caution due to the sodden nature of much of the ground beneath me and the occasional appearance of an uncovered drainage chamber, I made my way forward. In situations such as this, an over-active-imagination starts to become something of a burden, and my mind duly obliged by presenting some rather unpleasant explanations for the unusual noises echoing back from somewhere in the distance.

The dark, in combination with the constant sound of water droplets falling into the puddles on the floor, was starting to unnerve me, so it was a small relief to encounter the light cast on the floor by the first ventilation shaft, 350 yards in. Looking up into the shaft, I could see a small, circular patch of light some way above me, the tunnel being a reasonable distance beneath the surface at this point. I paused to take some photos before making the mistake of looking back in the direction I’d come from – the earthbound equivalent of looking down from a great height – towards the already remote light of the tunnel entrance.

It was probably around this time that I recalled a story I’d read, which related the tale of two schoolchildren who were exploring the tunnel in 1970 when they heard a steam engine coming towards them. The children panicked and ran out of the tunnel before realising that it couldn’t possibly have been a real train, because they knew that the other end of the tunnel was blocked. Normally I can easily dismiss such tales, but a small part of me was expecting a ghost train to sound in the distance at any moment.

I continued onward, and before long came upon the fabled tower of rubbish that has been dumped down the second ventilation shaft (approximately 550 yards into the tunnel) over the years and which now reaches all the way back up into the shaft itself. I’d read one or two online reports posted by people who had reached this point but had been too nervous to make their way over and around the refuse pile, but it seemed a shame to come this far and not to find out what lay beyond, so I pressed on, discovering gratefully as I clambered over it that this unlikely monument to the disposable society was more stable than it looked.

Journey’s end was now approaching. On the other side of the rubbish tower, the tunnel had been infilled with a mixture of earth and hardcore. Still reluctant to give up, and noticing that there was just enough room beneath the roof to walk on top of the infill in a stooped position, I climbed up to the top of the mound and continued on, ducking down to avoid hitting my head on the iron roof supports, but failing miserably on more than one occasion, discovering that my head was noticeably less resistant than the cast iron.

The decision to turn back, when it came, was not a difficult one. The gap between the infill and the roof diminished to such an extent that crawling now became the only viable means of progress – not an appealing one given the muddy, uneven nature of the pile of earth and bricks that I was stumbling over – and it was becoming more difficult to breathe. I’d made it just over halfway through the tunnel, which in any case was blocked at its western end, and the benefits of further movement forward had ceased to outweigh my sense of discomfort and disquiet. It was time to go home.

As I made my way back towards the tunnel entrance, I tried to summon up the image of trains travelling through this abandoned space, but it seemed too incredible a thought to entertain. In the final reckoning, the past always proves to be tantalisingly elusive, much though we may wish it to be otherwise.

At last, I emerged from the tunnel back out into the light, invigoration mixing with relief. Part of me reflected that another hobby – chess or gardening perhaps – would be less stressful and much more sensible, but I knew that it wouldn’t be too long before I would find myself poking around in an abandoned space such as this once again.

The tracks of the Derbyshire and Staffordshire Extension between Mapperley Tunnel and Daybrook Station had been lifted by 1964.  Little evidence of the line to the west of the tunnel remains – it is now just another of Nottingham’s many lost rail routes. The section of line between the colliery and Netherfield, however, remained open for coal freight until 1995 (the colliery having closed in 1991), re-opened for a short period in 1998/1999 to allow the removal of spoil and has been earmarked for potential future use as part of the city’s rail or tram network.

As for the areas that made up the colliery, although earlier plans for housing on the southern part of the site and some of the adjacent land have been placed on indefinite hold, planning approval was given recently for the creation of a country park on and around the spoil heap. It will be interesting to see how the character of the site changes as it becomes a cleansed, health-and-safety-vetted, approved location for recreational activity.

Meanwhile, as the modern-day world creeps ever closer to it, Mapperley Tunnel will almost certainly, at some point in the future, be closed and secured – assuming, that is, that it doesn’t do the job of its own accord beforehand. For now, though, this fascinating relic of Nottingham’s past remains in situ for those of us who care enough about such things to seek them out.