What I really like is when someone makes the effort to make sure that a piece of transport infrastructure not only does the job it’s supposed to do, but looks nice too. Adherents of modernism would be horrified by the idea of prettification, but transport infrastructure is a major piece of both urban and rural environments. You have to live side-by-side with it, day after day. And if it’s ugly and unpleasant it just spoils everything around it. Soulless motorway bridges are particular offenders.
Modernists made their structures beautiful without surface adornment. But to the Victorian railway pioneers such a mindset was way into the future. For them, there was the choice between functional (likely to be ugly) and prettified. And thank goodness they generally went for prettification. It might not add anything to the functioning of their bridge/tunnel/station (and would therefore draw the ire of modernists and brutalists many years later, with resultant proposals such as tearing down the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras station in London) but it certainly improved their impact on the landscape. In place for well over a hundred years now, many of these structures have become fundamental elements in the environment and we’d miss them if they went.
Even humble ventilation shafts could get the aesthetic treatment at the hands of railway engineers, and today their presence is a positive enhancement to the landscape.
Today’s transport beauties are the two great ventilation shafts for the Kilsby tunnel in Northamptonshire, constructed c.1838 as part of Britain’s first great main line railway – the West Coast Main Line between London and Birmingham. You can see them as you drive along the A5 or M45, and they have just as much impact and appeal as the great railway viaducts.
The two ventilation shafts are some 60ft (18.29m) in diameter, and were designed by Robert Stephenson, supervising engineer for the line as a whole. English Heritage agrees with my assertion about the cultural value of the shafts, and listed them at Grade II* in 1987. Here’s what English Heritage says about them: “Random blue and red brick with stone dressings. Circular with square recesses around the base, machicolated stone frieze and castellated parapet.” All that attention to detail is actually completely unnecessary. There’s no need for it at all. It’s purely decorative. But it’s charming.
The two great shafts served two purposes: firstly, they provided access points between the two tunnel portals, allowing the tunnel to be dug outwards from the bottom of each shaft, as well as from the tunnel ends. This technique allowed much faster construction of a tunnel which, after all was a mind-boggling (for the day) 1.4 miles long. Always assuming that the tunnel didn’t collapse and flood due to a layer of quicksand concealed within the hill. Which is precisely what happened: the tunnel came in way over budget and massively late (setting the scene for many subsequent British transport projects) by the time the hill had been pumped dry.
Secondly, the great ventilation shafts (and 10 smaller ones, which aren’t as pretty, and not listed) helped reassure nervous Victorian train travellers that they wouldn’t be choked to death by smoke contained with the tunnel, by allowing the smoke to escape upwards and outwards. The Victorians were both fascinated and terrified by train travel, which really was a brand new technology to them, and one they didn’t really understand. When they weren’t worried about smoke-filled tunnels, they were convinced they would be asphyxiated by train travel at high speeds, or worried that they would be shaken to pieces, or that cows would produce sour milk out of sheer alarm at the sight of a steam train, or that hens would stop laying eggs.
It sounds amusing now, but it’s the same phenomenon that most adults experience today with new technologies such as the internet and the world wide web. Where actually is it? Who holds our data? Where are our emails before we get them in our in-boxes? Is it even safe to use at all?
Kilsby tunnel is taller than a railway tunnel strictly needs to be, to help reassure nervous and claustrophobic passengers about what would have seemed a near-inconceivable length of underground travel. British Rail must have been ever so pleased when they later electrified the West Coast Main Line with overhead electricity supply lines, as it would have helped avoid the technical difficulties of installing overhead wires in tunnels with more limited headroom (i.e. nearly all the other ones around the country).
Even today, if you lean against the window of a Virgin Pendolino train (for tilting purposes such trains have body sides which slope inwards towards the top of the carriage) and look up as you go through Kilsby tunnel, you are twice rewarded with clear views of the sky above, straight up through the ventilation shafts. It’s a visceral reminder of the fact that high speed train travel was once as extraordinary as the idea of blogging on the world wide web seems to me today.