What Lies Beneath

Through cuttings deep to Nottingham
Precariously we wound;
The swallowing tunnel made the train
Seem London’s Underground.

From Great Central Railway, Sheffield Victoria to Banbury by John Betjeman

It’s no longer possible to experience the approach by train to Nottingham that Betjeman describes above, due to the closure and subsequent demolition of Nottingham Victoria Station in the late 1960s. However, the 1,189 yard (0.68ish mile) Mansfield Road Tunnel into which Betjeman’s train would have plunged at Carrington (where the station cutting is now filled in), before re-emerging shortly afterwards at Nottingham Victoria, remains accessible for those with (and occasionally without) permission.

From its southern end (the boarded-up entrance can still be seen in the railway cutting to the north of the Victoria Centre), the tunnel curves gently westward, straightening up close to where Huntingdon Street meets Mansfield Road, before curving slightly westward once more on the approach to Carrington.  At its deepest point, the tunnel is a remarkable 120 feet beneath the surface.

An information request response from Nottingham City Council dated 27 August 2015 reveals that a visual survey of the tunnel for major defects is undertaken only once every 15-20 years and that the last inspection took place in January 2002.

The northern third of the tunnel is experiencing water ingress in at least two places, which seems a potential cause for concern. However, in the document referred to above, the council states that ‘It is impossible and impractical to try to waterproof a structure of this scale‘. In the same document, in a somewhat oblique response to a question regarding required/proposed action ‘in relation to any current issues’, the council says that it ‘has no plans to infill this tunnel‘. Such a turn of events would certainly be surprising, given that the infilling of the slightly shorter Great Central Railway (GCR) tunnel at Annesley in 1969/70 (using colliery waste and material from the St Ann’s slum clearance) took a year to accomplish, no doubt at great expense. With regard to the Mansfield Road Tunnel, the council states that it will ‘continue to inspect and carry out essential maintenance as required‘.

There have been several proposals for the reuse of the Mansfield Road Tunnel for transport purposes over the years. Mac Hawkins’ excellent book The Great Central Then and Now reveals that a 1989 feasibility study looking at potential routes for a ‘Light Rapid Transit system’ between Hucknall and Nottingham considered the option of using the former GCR Mansfield Road and Victoria Street (aka Thurland Street, or Weekday Cross) tunnels en route to the Midland Station:

‘The route would…have run alongside Gregory Boulevard on the Forest recreational ground before entering a new cutting and short tunnel to intersect with the existing one under Mansfield Road near Carrington station. It would have then used the old tunnel, save the last 300 metres, and continue (sic) through a new section bored at a lower level to dip under the Victoria Centre, where a stop or station would have been built.

The line would then have risen to join the Victoria Street Tunnel before coming out at Weekday Cross and heading towards Midland Station. Hawkins goes on to say that ‘the high proportional cost of the tunnel option under the Victoria Station (presumably he meant to say Centre instead of Station here)…effectively persuaded the promoters to go for the on-street option instead.‘ This eventually resulted in the Nottingham Express Transit light rail (tram) line that opened in 2004. The route via the Victoria Centre would not be viable in the present day, due to the construction of Nottingham Contemporary over the site of the tunnel portal at Weekday Cross (unless some enlightened future public official gives the green light for the demolition of said interloper).

HS2 has caused plenty of controversy in recent times and it is interesting to note that, with echoes of the potential Light Rapid Transit system route discussed above, one of the proposed options for the West Midlands to Leeds route was to run the line through (or, rather, under) the centre of Nottingham, with a station beneath the Victoria Centre – although the existing GCR tunnels were regarded as unlikely to be fit for purpose:

Nottingham Victoria…This station would be located in Nottingham city centre directly below the Victoria Centre, on the site of the former Victoria station. The option would be well located to serve the Nottingham market. A fully tunnelled approach would be the only realistic option as the historic railway corridor has been heavily developed. The existing approach tunnels to the former station are likely to be too small for high speed rail requirements.‘ (From the High Speed Two Limited Engineering Options Report West Midlands to Leeds HS2-ARP-000-RP-RW-00007 March 2012, available to view at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/hs2-phase-two-engineering-options-report-west-midlands-to-leeds)

A walk through the Mansfield Road Tunnel is a sublime experience. For the most part, the tunnel appears to be extremely well preserved. Track ballast remains and there are even two sleepers still in situ. Refuges can be seen at various points along the way, cut into the sandstone walls, and a knowledgeable, well-trained eye (accompanied by suitable lighting) would no doubt spot various other railway artefacts here . Relics of a more recent vintage, such as the ubiquitous shopping trolley, are also in evidence, but do little to detract from the wonder of this enchanting space. After walking along the tunnel for a short distance, it becomes almost impossible to imagine that the bustling city still exists aboveground.

Sadly, there is no evidence of a passage connecting the tunnel with the Rock Cemetery – a rumour I heard some time ago that had just enough plausibility to pique my curiosity (think the London Necropolis Railway, but on a much, much smaller scale).

While the Victoria Centre end of Mansfield Road Tunnel has been secured to varying degrees of effectiveness in recent times, the concrete wall at the Carrington end of the tunnel is a more formidable barrier (although, since the infill of the Carrington Station cutting, a way forward beyond the wall towards Sherwood Rise Tunnel probably no longer exists anyway). External access to the tunnel has been retained here too, though – courtesy of two ladders that connect the tunnel to a manhole cover that is innocuously located in the Open University car park above. From beneath the manhole cover, the in-the-circumstances-somewhat-surreal sounds of the outside world can be heard.

The construction of Mansfield Road Tunnel was a significant undertaking which even helped to shape part of the nearby landscape. Volume Five of Victorian Nottingham, entitled Victoria Station and its Approaches, by Richard Iliffe and Wilfred Baguley, includes, amongst many other fascinating items, a 1966 letter from a Mr Husbands to the Weekly Guardian, in which Mr Husbands relates the following memory regarding the construction of the tunnel: ‘Just inside the Forest railings a shaft was sunk and up came the sand from the tunnel between Carrington Station and Victoria. It was spread on the land between the railings and the walk from the Gregory-boulevard to the roadway with the red may trees. Then it was planted with the trees (still there today).

What a shame that the powers-that-be have, over the years, been either unable or unwilling to bring this wonderful structure back into service.

At some point in the next few years, assuming that the northward expansion of the Victoria Centre takes place as planned, the multi-storey car park in the railway cutting that also contains the southern portal of Mansfield Road Tunnel will be extended to the perimeter of the cutting at all levels, potentially blocking the southern tunnel portal once and for all, with the shopping centre itself expanded over the enlarged car park to add insult to injury.

Betjeman would not be amused.