Archaeologists find 'world's oldest railway tunnel' in Derbyshire

The moment when the tunnel was reopened after 30 years The tunnel was reopened three decades after being sealed up
The archaeologists used a digger to excavate the original course of the railway Archaeologists used a digger to excavate the original course of the railway
An archaeologist at the entrance of the tunnel uses a laser scanner A laser scanner revealed the interior of the tunnel
An archaeologist stands inside the tunnel at Fritchley The walls were found to be surprisingly well-preserved
Two children sit on a wall waiting for a train in this black-and-white postcard from the 1930s. The line was still operating in the 1930s

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Archaeologists in Derbyshire have found what they believe is the world's oldest railway tunnel.

The tunnel lies on the route of the Butterley Gangroad, a horse-operated railway built by 1793 to link the Cromford Canal with limestone quarries at Crich.

A £17,900 Heritage Lottery-funded investigation found parts of the tunnel are as old as the line.

The line closed in 1933 and the tunnel was sealed up in the 1980s.

Trevor Griffin, who is project managing the work for the Derbyshire Archaeological Society, said he thought the tunnel could be older than the one regarded as the world's first - which is also in Derbyshire.

He said: "The tunnel that was currently generally considered to be the world's oldest was on the Peak Forest Tramway and was built in 1795.

"There are a couple of tunnels in the North East with claims to be older but one of those no longer exists and the age of the other can't be proved."

The Mechanical Traveller

The two-year project began in January. The society worked with Wessex Archaeology to reopen the tunnel and made a three-dimensional computer model of the interior using laser scanning.

The history of railways

The Rocket, designed by George Stephenson
  • 1801: Cornishman Richard Trevithick builds Britain's first full-scale railway steam locomotive. However, his inventions meet with little commercial success
  • 1812: Matthew Murray produces the first commercially successful steam locomotive for the Middleton Railway
  • 1813: The "Puffing Billy" is built by William Hedley to pull coal wagons at Wylam Colliery
  • 1814: George Stephenson builds his first locomotive
  • 1825: Stephenson builds the Locomotion for the Stockton to Darlington railway - the first public steam railway
  • 1829: Stephenson and his son Robert design The Rocket, the most advanced locomotive of its day

Written evidence suggested the railway was operating by 1793 and Mr Griffin says they were able to prove the line must have run through the tunnel.

The Butterley Gangroad, which was engineered by Benjamin Outram, was modernised in the 1840s and turned into a narrow gauge railway.

Mr Griffin added: "Its other claim to fame is that 200 years ago, in November 1813, a Scottish engineer named William Brunton tried out a locomotive here which was built at the Butterley works in Ripley.

"It was the first steam locomotive to operate in the East Midlands. The locomotive was rather peculiar in that it pushed itself along with two mechanical legs that looked rather like ski sticks."

A larger version of the locomotive, named The Mechanical Traveller, operated in the North East.

This larger version killed 13 people when its boiler exploded in 1815 in the first recorded railway accident.

The Butterley line continued to be used by steam engines until 1933. The tunnel was used as an air raid shelter during World War II.

The society was approached by the current landowners to investigate the tunnel.

When the work is completed, Mr Griffin said the tunnel would be sealed up again to preserve it.

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