under the hills
out the remarkable history of the railway tunnels under the
glorious hills almost caused Malvern to miss out on the railway
building boom of the Victorian age.
As the great railway lines fanned out across the country there
was an obvious need for a line linking Birmingham, the workshop
of the world at the time, with the coal fields of South Wales.
logical route for the line from Worcester to Hereford would
have followed the present day A4103 which skirts the northern
end of the hills.
and actual routes for the railway line between Worcester
This though would have left Malvern off the main line, and the
great and the good of the town weren't prepared to let that
They lobbied for the main line to go through Malvern, and that
meant a tunnel under the hills.
This was a huge engineering undertaking for the mid 1800's,
and the technology of the day meant that the tunnel had to be
dug using picks and shovels by a small army of Welsh miners.
Three air shafts were dropped vertically through the hills,
both to provide ventilation when the tunnel was complete, and
to allow eight faces to be worked at the same time.
The work, tunnelling through some of the hardest rock in the
country, was not easy and two firms went bankrupt trying to
build the tunnel.
The work was finally completed in 1861 by a local engineer Stephen
Ballard, who's family still live around Colwall, at the Herefordshire
end of the tunnel.
Coal for the locals
The first train to make the journey was a coal train from South
This was good news for 100 householders in the village of Colwall,
who were given a ton a coal each to mark the opening of the
The original tunnel is 1,323 yards long and has a gradient of
1 in 23, which is quite steep for a railway line.
There was a law passed requiring trains to stop at Colwall station
so that they didn't pick up too much speed in the tunnel.
Malvern's famous water also proved to be both a blessing and
Water constantly ran into the tunnel as it was being built,
but when the tunnel was complete the water was collected and
used to refill the steam trains that used the line, and also
to pipe water to Great Malvern station.
The navy moves in
As trains got bigger conditions in the tunnel grew worse for
the drivers and firemen on the footplate.
There was only a four inch clearance between the smoke stacks
of the largest steam trains and the top of the tunnel.
This meant a very smokey five minutes as the trains passed through
the tunnel, and there are documented cases of people passing
out on the footplate due to the fumes.
After a partial collapse of the tunnel roof around one of the
ventilation shafts in 1907 it was decided to build a new tunnel.
The Victorian tunnel closed in 1926, but still served a useful
purpose in the second world war.
Bizarrely for land-locked Herefordshire and Worcestershire the
navy took over the old tunnel and used it to store torpedoes.
Now it is the home to a colony of rare bats and only receives
the odd human visitor in the shape of engineers making safety
But there have been suggestions that the old tunnel would make
an ideal cycle route, though for the moment the bats have the
place to themselves.
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