Tunnel Visions

We need to talk about transport tunnel portals.

Ages ago, The Beauty of Transport looked at the Rotherhithe Tunnel, the portals for which feature moulded stonework and a pink granite finish. It was completed in 1908 to the designs of Sir Maurice Fitzmaurice.

Rotherhithe Tunnel portal. Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net). [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Just over a century later, in 2011, the Hindhead Tunnel in Surrey opened. It was one of those rare things, a major road scheme with support from environmental groups. The diversion of the London-Portsmouth A3 road away from rare heathland allowed two such areas, previously blighted by the A3, to be reconnected with benefits to the environment (and visitors). But its portals, rather than celebrating this excellent addition to the trunk road network, are, well…

Hindhead Tunnel, northern portal of southbound carriageway.
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Ben Gamblegeograph.org.uk/p/2408078

No pink granite nor moulded stonework here. Just plain, unadorned concrete. Not that there’s anything wrong with plain, unadorned concrete, it’s just that here it’s not doing anything interesting.

But of course it is the railway, rather than the road network, which has been the great tunneller amongst transport modes. Thanks to the railway’s need for shallow gradients and generous curve radii, the railways frequently ended up building heroic tunnels, and they’re still doing it to this day. Perhaps the greatest railway tunnel of recent decades in Britain has been the Channel Tunnel. It is proper, daring, railway engineering, providing a giant social change in the process; a land connection between the Britain and mainland Europe. For some British people it effectively cost Britain its island status (though I think it still is an island, or at least it was the last time I checked). For mainland Europe, the Channel Tunnel provided a firm link to its semi-detached best frenemy, though it hasn’t helped hold the UK within the EU. So how is this world-changing, psyche-shattering transport project marked at its portals?

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With a big flat concrete wall, with two circular holes in it. That’s how. I can’t help thinking that this somehow fails to sell the scale of the endeavour. It wasn’t always this way, though. Once upon time, railway engineers knew how to dress a tunnel portal. I am generally sceptical of articles, transport articles in particular, claiming that things were much better in the olden days. Mostly, they weren’t. But when it comes to tunnel portals, I’m afraid to say that things were, well, much better in the olden days.

One of the earliest great tunnel portals can be found close to London’s Euston station on the West Coast Main Line. Primrose Tunnel opened in 1937 and was designed by William Budden, assistant to George Stephenson, who was too busy building the world’s first long-distance inter-city railway (not the first inter-city railway, note) to worry about tunnel portal design.

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Luckily, Budden was up to the task. He created a tunnel portal featuring carved lion masks, rusticated voussoirs, a heavy modillion cornice and vermiculated stone pedestals. Statutory heritage body Historic England notes that this was the first railway tunnel to treat its portals as an architectural set piece. This was not least because local landowners Eton College Estate demanded it. If you know the area at all, you’ll notice one key difference between the picture above, and the current situation. A second tunnel, and portal, was added in 1879, faithfully recreating the details of the earlier one.

Shortly afterward, on the North Midlands Railway in Derbyshire, George Stephenson designed the portals of Clay Cross Tunnel, and the northern portal is particularly notable. This is a common theme with railway tunnels, in which the portal at one end is much grander than the one at the other.

Clay Cross Tunnel, northern portal. Photo by Tony Hawes [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Clay Cross Tunnel’s northern portal was built from 1838-40 and features flanking octagonal towers with castellated tops, and further castellation along the parapet above the tunnel mouths. Charmingly, this little faux castle has little faux arrow slits, though it’s not clear what any archers would have been able to do in the face of an oncoming steam locomotive. It was all part of the early Victorian need to reassure nervous passengers of the safety of the new-fangled railway through dressing it up in markers of historical solidity, or overt Classical grandeur (as at Primrose Tunnel).

Milford Tunnel, also in Derbyshire, also on the North Midland Railway, and of the same vintage as Clay Cross Tunnel, reaches even further back into British history. The northern portal (again; did the North Midland not want southerners to have a nice view?) takes the form of a monumental Romanesque, or Saxon, depending on what sources you’re reading, arch. It’s huge, and wonderfully detailed, with seven rings of differently shaped stones.

Milford Tunnel, northern portal. Photo by RHowarth [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons
George and Robert Stephenson engineered the North Midland, with their assistant Frederick Swanwick, and it is likely that one of the three, or perhaps Francis Thompson (suggests Historic England) designed the portal, though it adds,”this is uncertain.” Historic England suggests the special architectural treatment Milford Tunnel received was merited because, “it faced land owned by the Strutt Family, who were in negotiations with the railway.” It’s not well seen today thanks to the growth of lineside vegetation but it is a truly spectacular construction.

You don’t get very far in a discussion of architecturally significant railway tunnels without mentioning Box Tunnel, opened at more-or-less the same time as Clay Cross and Milford Tunnels. The western portal is by far the most dramatic (the eastern one, however, features in Cold War doomsday scenarios – see this earlier The Beauty of Transport article). Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in a Classical idiom, to reassure and impress nervous passengers, and I rather suspect as a further example of Brunel’s personal brand-building, there’s no doubt that this is one of Britain’s great tunnel portals.

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There’s a well-known legend that Box Tunnel was built die-straight on an alignment that allows the rising sun to shine through it on the date of Brunel’s birthday, April 9. This does sound exactly like the sort of thing Brunel would have done, no doubt adding to the currency of the legend, but it is disputed. Thanks to the fact the year isn’t exactly 365 days long, the sun’s position on particular dates isn’t the same from year to year, but current franchisee on the line, GWR, tested the theory on April 9, 2017. Its staff found that the sun did indeed shine directly into the tunnel, but it didn’t shine all the way through. Another example of the fame of Box Tunnel’s western portal is that a miniature recreation of it can be found at Stapleford Miniature Railway in Leicestershire.

Stapleford Miniature Railway’s replica of Box Tunnel’s portal. Photo by Stapleford at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A year after Box Tunnel opened, one of the most intriguing tunnel portals in the country opened at Clayton Hill in West Sussex, on the London-Brighton Railway. Clayton Tunnel’s northern portal returns to the popular castle theme, although this is a very grand one, with two large octagonal turrets flanking the pointed arch of the tunnel mouth, and retaining walls either side finished with a smaller turret, giving four turrets in all. Poking shyly above the parapet over the tunnel mouth is a small cottage.

Clayton Tunnel, north portal. tristan forward, via Wikimedia Commons

There is some disagreement about the date of its construction: 1849 is often quoted but Historic England’s listing citation insists it dates from the tunnel’s opening in 1841. It remains a private residence, and its occupiers have created a website about it (the cottage occasionally opens for tours). The occupiers claim it as the inspiration for Charles Dickens’ classic railway ghost story The Signalman, though as we’ve seen (in this earlier The Beauty of Transport article), there are other contenders for that honour. Nevertheless, the cottage over the tunnel is a real rarity and along with the decorative portal makes for a wonderful composition.

Bramhope Tunnel, of 1845-49, takes a rather rakish approach to the castellation of tunnel portals. Eschewing the conventional symmetry of most such essays in the genre, Leeds-Thirsk Railway engineer Thomas Grainger instead created a radically asymmetric design.

Bramhope Tunnel north portal. Photo by Linda Spashett Storye book [CC BY 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons
To the left of the tunnel mouth is a large circular tower, while to the right is a smaller octagonal one, giving the whole a very rakish appearance (although Network Rail could do with giving it a bit of attention to sort out the vegetation growing on it and repair the damaged window; unless it has done so since this picture was taken). Hidden by trees are further turrets. The dramatic effect is enhanced by a whopping keystone at the top of the tunnel mouth which features a sculpture of a bearded man’s face, but whose? One possibility is that it is a likeness of the landowner whose property was crossed by the railway. Above the sculpture is a large panel featuring a wheatsheaf, fleece and fish. Like many early railway tunnels, its construction was expensive in terms of the lives of the navvies who built it; their lives, however, were regarded as cheap. Twenty-four of them died, and a memorial in the form of a model of the tunnel can be found in nearby Otley churchyard.

Sutton Tunnel, on the Chester-Manchester line returned to the more familiar symmetrical approach of tunnel portals pretending to be castles. It is notable for the attractive and unusual sunburst arrangement of stones surrounding the actual tunnel mouth.

Sutton Tunnel, south portal. Photo by Philphos [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons
It is, unfortunately, more famous for being the site of a fatal 1851 train crash that once again demonstrated why separating trains by set periods of time, rather than by signalled blocks of track, was a very bad idea. It was all very well allowing a train to depart along a section of track at set intervals of a few minutes, but if one of those trains came to an unexpected halt, there was no way for the driver of the train behind to know, until it was far too late…

By the latter half of the nineteenth century, tunnel portals had moved away from Classical, Saxon/Romanesque and castle allusions. With the railway essentially accepted by society, tunnel portals were allowed to stand on their own merits, though the best ones were still works of art. In London, the Crystal Palace and South London Railway opened a branch line in 1865 to serve the relocated Crystal Palace in Sydenham. Just before the terminus at Crystal Palace High Level station was a short tunnel, which goes by a number of names, though Paxton Tunnel (the name commemorates the architect who designed the Palace itself) seems the most common. Its south portal is a thing of wonder.

Paxton Tunnel, south portal. Photo by ethanlittle [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Constructed of red and cream brick, its colours match those of the Crystal Palace Subway (subject of this earlier The Beauty of Transport article). Its details are exquisite, with the bricks arranged to make a sort of cogwheel pattern around the tunnel mouth, interspersed by large sculpted stones. Flanking pilasters have cream brick sections standing proud of the red bricks. Though the line to Crystal Palace High Level has long since closed, the tunnel portal remains.

As the expansion of the railway network slowed, there simply wasn’t the same number of tunnels to decorate, so inevitably our picturesque tunnel portals tend to date from Victorian times, and reflect Victorian tastes in architecture. At least, they do in Britain. Overseas, examples can be found in much more recent design idioms. Though attractive tunnel portals outside Britain need an article of their own to do the subject justice (I’ll add it to the list…), two American tunnel portals bring the story up to date. The first, opening in 1928 is the Moffat Tunnel in the Rocky Mountains just west of Denver.

Moffat Tunnel, east portal. Photo by Mackpie [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons
Its construction knocked miles off the difficult Rollins Pass through the mountains, which was frequently snowed in. The tunnel’s muscular portals are good examples of Inter-war Modernism. Ventilation in the long tunnel is difficult though – when you go through the tunnel on an Amtrak train, you’re told to keep the windows closed.

Meanwhile, Alaska’s extraordinary Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel sports two portals which would probably be best described as Postmodernist, with structural elements making a pattern of triangles within triangles. The tunnel dates from the 1940s, and started life as a railroad tunnel constructed by the American military. The military eventually pulled out, and the 1960s saw tourist traffic to the town of Whittier increasing, with cars conveyed on flatbed railroad trucks. That sounds perfect to me, but by the 1980/90s the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities wanted to improve car access. After considering several options, it decided on an ambitious plan to convert the railroad tunnel into a hybrid rail/road tunnel, with cars and trains taking turns to use the tunnel. It opened in its new form in the early 2000s. New tunnel portals were designed as part of this conversion process.

Anton Anderson west portal. Photo by Gabor Eszes (UED77) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5], from Wikimedia Commons
Their distinctive triangular design, with sloping roofs, stems from a very practical need: withstanding avalanches (of a pressure of 1,000lbs/square foot on the Whittier portal). Because the tunnel is single track width, not only do trains and cars take turns, they do so in each direction. In each hour cars pass through from east to west for 15 minutes, followed by 15 minutes for westbound trains. Then there’s 15 minutes for cars from west to east, and then 15 minutes for eastbound trains. It’s one of the great pieces of unusual transport infrastructure. Actually, why am I just writing about it? Where’s my passport…?

Bibliography and Further Reading

Alaska Department of Transportation history of Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, here, and design features, here

Primrose Tunnel, Historic England listing citation, here

Clay Cross Tunnel, Historic England listing citation, here

Milford Tunnel, Historic England listing citation, here

Box Tunnel, Historic England listing citation, here

Clayton Tunnel, Historic England listing citation, here

Bramhope Tunnel, Historic England listing citation, here

Moffat Tunnel, at American Rails, here

…and anything linked to in the text above.


6 thoughts on “Tunnel Visions

  1. Two points: I think I once saw drawings for the proposed Channel tunnel portals but they were abandoned due to cost considerations. I have to say I quite like the understated A3 tunnel entrances. They remind me of the Tellytubby houses for some reason!

  2. Pedant alert – the channel tunnel portal shown is the French one. At Folkestone the tunnel entrance is at the foot of a hill named Caesar’s Camp.

  3. Not one of the longest tunnels around, but another UK curiosity is the East tunnel at Bangor station and its “Egyptian” portal:

    Not a style often encountered in British railway architecture.

  4. When you get back from Alaska, you might enjoy a trip to China – I have no pictures but, on my bus journey from Shenzhen to Dapeng, I felt much safer in the road tunnels knowing they were guarded by the massive dragons sculpted at each end!

  5. Some notable canal tunnel portals pre-dated and perhaps influenced the railway tunnels you cite. Daneway portal of the Sapperton Tunnel on the Thames and Severn Canal, which opened in 1789, was built in a Gothic style and was restored relatively recently although the tunnel itself was closed in 1933. The Coates portal at the other end of the same tunnel – over two miles away – is also of interest. (Compare and contrast with the Harecastle tunnel portals on the Trent and Mersey Canal, mere afterthoughts in comparison). And then there is Higham tunnel on the erstwhile Thames and Medway Canal, which “influenced” the later, parallel railway so much that it bought the line and converted the tunnel for its own use!

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