Old Warden Tunnel, discovered

With the weather set fine and some spare time begging to be used, it seemed like a good time to go and explore somewhere, and the three of us, all at an apparent loose end, decided it was a good time to discover the truth behind the rumour of a long abandoned railway tunnel in Bedford that I’d been obsessing about finding for some time having remembered vaguely reading about it online some years before.

Now I knew from the what I’d read that there was a tunnel somewhere, but the details were sketchy – so more research was in order; and after a whole day of scouring the internet for old maps and references there were two options, the first being that it was indeed, as one article online said, right in the middle of Bedford, or as all the evidence seemed to point to, south of the town on a long dead section of branch line. GoogleEarth was the key, zooming out it was easy to trace two dead branch lines meandering South and East out of Bedford: it didn’t take long to find something that looked like distinctly like a tunnel, and what’s more it was a tunnel within 15 minutes drive of where we were at the time; so armed with a camera and a handheld GPS unit we tumbled into Steve’s car and made our way to the Old Warden Tunnel.

The 882 yard tunnel was built between 1853 and 1857 as part of the Midland Railway connecting Bedford’s Midland Railway main trunk with Hitchen and the East Coast Mainline and from there to London. The branch line served Cardington and RAF Henlow and surprisingly survived the Beeching cull only to be closed year later, ironically due to lack of traffic. At 156 years old (at the time of our visit) the Tunnel was an old one, and one that had lain derelict for over forty years, who knew what sort of a state it could be in? From the very little information available online we knew it was either in good condition and open to access, or that it was in a really poor state with no access and a whole host of potential pitfalls – you’ve got to love the internet for providing consistently useful information… there really was only one way to settle these inconsistencies, but all of us in the car were aware that we might not find anything there at all if the worst of the rumours, that it had been comprehensively back-filled, were true.

On arriving at the site we found that not only was GoogleEarth’s latitude and longitude out by the reckoning of a reasonably stable GPS platform, but that the aerial view of hadn’t given much of a clue as to just how deep the cutting was, or indeed over grown the approach to the cutting and tunnel were. Dave muttered something about wishing he’d brought Jeans because of the stinging nettles, and I muttered something about wishing I’d brought a hard hat. After a trek across some farm land, away from the lane and down a track we found that unlike many urbex sites this one was actually sign-posted, the cutting was apparently a nature reserve, the bittersweet irony of an industrial scar across the landscape becoming a nature reserve after it’s death wasn’t lost on me. What the signage doesn’t tell you however, is that after a short trek through the brambles and the nettles you come across a lovely view toward the world famous Cardington Airship Sheds, a view that if you’ve ever watched those magnificent men and their flying machines you’ll be strangely familiar with, less the Bedford power station which has since been demolished and had a rather large housing estate built on it.

Having stopped to admire the view we pressed on taking the rather steep trail from the copse we’d had to trek through down into the cutting; it’s safe to say that in anything but the best weather the track into the cutting itself would most definitely be neck-breakingly slippery; and not something I’d personally recommend without a stiff pair of boots, having negotiated it we found ourselves stood in the bottom of the deep but wide railway cutting. And there it was… the tunnel portal, swathed in weeds, and what on closer inspection turned out to be the wreckage of not one but two cars which appeared to have fallen, or to be more brutally accurate, to have been thrown, over the parapet.

At some point the tunnel had been bricked up to half it’s height with a crude breeze block wall that supported a gridwork of iron that reached to the roof, we noted to our great delight however that someone had subsequently broken a hole in the northern portal wall big enough for all three of us to wriggle through.

Wriggle is perhaps not a word which can entirely explain the undignified entrance we made, but we made it in nevertheless; and once in all I could say was ‘wow’: the tunnel was extremely cold, much more so that you’d expect in the middle of summer, and the very distinct temperature change was accompanied by significantly increased humidity, enough so that breath was clearly visible in the shafts of light that illuminated the entrance of the tunnel.

Other than the remains of the breeze block wall where the hole had been punched through, the tunnel was reasonably clean – this being rural Bedfordshire and with the location requiring some exercise to reach – it appears to have been left generally alone by the less salubrious types that plague other sites. On quick inspection the tunnel looked structurally sound, especially considering the age, and the classic elongated ovoid roof (for steam engines) seemed to be in extremely good order, despite the floor being a little rocky it didn’t appear that too much of what littered the floor had come from above, which was a relief for all.

It was at this point that Dave pointed out to Steve that in our haste to reach the tunnel we had neglected to bring the torch, irritated, but not ready to quit however, we pressed on regardless, with the light of the northern portal shining in behind us, and the light of the southern portal immediately ahead of us we were relatively confident that given time eyes would adjust, and with some common sense directed to feet and footing that we’d be just fine. The tunnel however is deceptive, it’s perfectly straight apart from the slightest of gradients for drainage along it’s entire length, As silly as this may sound we put it down to us all working in metric and 882 yards (the length of the tunnel) sounding relatively short, but for those who don’t work in yards, 882 yards is actually half a mile, and that light at the end didn’t seem to be getting any closer as we moved further into the tunnel.

One of the things that struck me at about 100 yards in were the amazing acoustics in the tunnel, even the faintest whisper would return echoes that seemed to last forever. We didn’t raise our voices though, however tempting it might have been to test ones lung’s in such good acoustics, as we didn’t wish to disturb any local fauna, or indeed disturb the structure itself, it may look sound enough, and I dare say the tunnel has many years left in it yet, but I didn’t fancy testing that hypothesis first hand, not least without a hard hat.

Having gone just about as far as the useful light from the northern portal lasts, we realised that with the light from the other end still a mere speck on the horizon we would soon be in complete darkness, and with only camera LCDs and Flashes lighting the way it would have been foolish to press further, especially as we were unsure of the tunnel floor and the drainage arrangements, and the very last thing any of us wanted was a 4ft fall into a drainage adit that many tunnels of Old Warden’s era had running directly down the centre of the tunnel, or occasionally even, each track. So at this point we made a somewhat overly hasty retreat from the beckoning, but undoubtedly eerie darkness with the plans to tackle the tunnel later that day, this time remembering the crucial flashlight!

So back with a flash light and cameras with better batteries we pressed once again up the lane, along the track, through the copse, down the bank, into the hole and we were back in The Old Warden Tunnel…

Treading carefully we pushed on into the dark, the million candle flash light struggling to light up the gloom, all the time checking for drains, admiring the brickwork, occasional graffiti and the general infrastructure of the tunnel. It was obvious that this wasn’t some chav-infested urbex, any evidence of visitors, graffiti included, rapidly diminished once out of the immediate light of the northern portal and we were left with nothing but the impressive brickwork to look at, that an the occasional dead mattress perhaps left from the parties that were apparently held in the tunnel shortly after it’s closure. The further we got into the tunnel the damper it appeared to be, and it was soon obvious why, we came across the first drain, not the 4ft deep man-hole-less hole we feared, rather a rubble filled frame in the floor, solid looking, but we weren’t going to jump on it to find out. It appeared that all of the drains had either always been soak-aways or, more likely, had been back filled when the rails were lifted some time in the late 60s.

From our research we knew there were no air vents along the route to let water in so it was fairly obvious that in places the water must either be from condensation or from water seepage straight through the brickwork of the roof. At around 300 yards in there still weren’t the tell tale pops falling water in the dark so we could only assume that the water ingress was slow and as such nothing worth worrying about. After a little bit more walking the light at the other end seemed no nearer, and it was at this point that we all started to realise that the torch, which was fully charged when we set off was starting to dim, it seemed as if we would be thwarted again, and with the light not too long off beginning to fail outside the tunnel it seemed imprudent to continue, so with one last blast of photographs we made our way back to the northern portal

Defeated again, this time ironically by the very torch we’d forgotten to take in the first place, which to add insult to injury, on inspection back in the car seemed to be working just fine, one can only assume that the humidity in the tunnel got to the torch; humidity which, on further research, we found to be capable of occasionally causing complete white-out fogs within the tunnel – something I’d not be too keen on experiencing myself.

So, as for the second time that day, we made the steep climb up the embankment back to the car – we swore we were going to go back, stood on the parapet of the tunnel we made plans to come armed with a waterproof torch to make it all the way to the southern portal of the Old Warden Tunnel, explored, but not yet conquered.