Old Warden Tunnel, all the way through

Having failed so miserably, twice; to get through the Old Warden Tunnel we arrived the next evening intent on making it all the way through, carrying a multitude of torches and emergency back-ups we set off, and it was just before this that while getting ready I realised that the tunnel may have actually deceived us again, it occurred to me that in one of the reports about the tunnel it mentioned the southern portal was backfilled, which if true, would have given the visual illusion of the exit being much further away than it actually was… with only one way to test my hypothesis we made our way through the coppice, clambered back down the bank and were once again facing the north portal of The Old Warden Tunnel.

The air in the cutting was much cooler than it had been on our two previous visits, so much so that in the evening summer sun you could see your breath condensing even before you were in the cutting; with thoughts of the mysterious sudden tunnel fogs filling our minds we stepped through the hole in the wall and set off.

As we moved into the darkness we had a good look at the relief cutouts in the wall, which strangely get lower to the tunnel floor the further you get in, I’m not sure whether this was how it was originally built, or whether the tunnel floor is slowly being broken down into the invert, the fact that the drain frames still appear to be in place points to the reliefs having always been like that, one thing that did strike me about them was their depth, or lack of it, if I was a permanent way worker I wouldn’t want to have to shelter in one of the reliefs in this particular tunnel!

We were now most definitely almost in the middle, and it was around about here it started to get wet; with no vent shafts we can only assume that the water was coming in from a stream or spring as there was a fair bit of it but only for about a couple of yards, just after this the floor changed, and in the pitch blackness of the centre of the tunnel the torches were definitely aimed firmly at the ever changing floor! – To us it seemed quite obvious here that there’d been a fair amount of erosion at some point with banks of solid material on each side of the tunnel falling quite steeply into the centre of the invert over about a foot of difference at some places; if there were any existing unfilled drains this is not the place we’d want to find them.

Just after the most serious ingress of water we’d seen up to then in the tunnel we found our first real sign of the tunnel showing it’s age. Although the brickwork throughout most of the tunnel looks reasonably sound, past the midpoint there are a few very distinct signs of decay, strangely though it’s the repairs that seem to have suffered the most: a previous repair in red standard bricks rather than the traditional blue engineering ones has entirely fallen out of the wall, this hopefully will not have compromised the structure too much especially considering the areas where the invert seems to be lower than it traditionally should be.

Not far after the wall collapse the floor changes once again, and the tunnel gets much drier again, in fact so dry that a beach appears to have arrived, tremendously fine sand covers the whole tunnel, it’s odd as the sand appears to have tide marks in it, although with the amount of footprints in the sand it’s safe to say that unless a party of 50 has traipsed through the tunnel recently the ‘tidal marks’ may be caused by wind movement.

Other than the footprints which we’d by now surmised had been there for some time the tunnel showed very few signs of having been used, there was no graffiti beyond the end of the light from the northern portal and the usual collection of beer cans and teenage detritus stopped within a few yards of the entrance, in fact by the time the sand started the only left over item we saw was a lonely leather shoe, judging by the state of it it’d been there for some time; but it does leave us asking the question of why would you take off your shoes in the middle of a tunnel, and even more strangely why would you only leave one!

Being safety conscious souls we stuck to the tunnel side walls, not wanting to fall into anything that the sand might be hiding, and with the tunnel being so dry we presumed that there was still something reasonably efficient keeping the place dry; whatever it was though we couldn’t find it, and our attention was caught by something up ahead… the exit! As we’d assumed the back fill had made it feel much further away than it actually was; with the backfill up to within 6 or 7 feet of the tunnel roof it was going to be quite a climb – having had a few dry days we were surprised at the amount of water behind the backfill, the water looked pretty rancid so we stayed as far away from it as we could before stopping to admire the full arch of the tunnel entrance trying to imagine what it would have been like when the line was in service.

Having admired for long enough, and beginning to wonder at the strange smell in the southern portal entrance we clambered up the steep embankment of the backfill toward the evening summer sunlight, it was wet, slippery in places and loose and rocky in others, but eventually with a bit of a helping hand we were standing in the nettles at the mouth of the tunnel, end to end it was half a mile and we’d done it – all there was to do now was to find our way out of what remained of the flooded, bramble and nettle filled cutting, through the fields and back to the car.

From this end the tunnel would be all but impossible to find, as the pictures show, with the first being taken only a couple of feet away from the entrance not a single brick of the old southern portal is visible in the thick undergrowth.

All in all it had been fun, we managed to get through in about 25 minutes at a slow gamble, and it was well worth it, and on the way back we traced the route of the tunnel above ground, noting the spoil heap (shown beyond the bushes in the final picture) that had been piled on top of the tunnel’s route along most of it’s distance.

When it was built and in use the tunnel must have been so impressive as steam engines exploded in clouds of soot and steam from each end thundering there way between Bedford and the East Coast Mainline at Hitchin. It’s a great example of a tunnel of it’s time, and moreover a great example of the workmanship of the time that the tunnel’s in such good condition – and long may it stay there quietly waiting to be rediscovered by the inquisitive visitor, or the railway planner – a real testimony to the railway it used to serve.

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