The Architecture the Railway Built – Bramhope Tunnel

The Architecture the Railway Built – Bramhope Tunnel

Published 4 October 2021 | Average read time
6 min read
Stories From the archive Industry-leading

Television presenter Tim Dunn joins a night shift in the latest episode of The Architecture the Railways Built to find out what it takes to look after our Victorian infrastructure.

Watch episode four of series three on Yesterday to watch Tim and our engineers inside the beautiful Bramhope Tunnel in Leeds.

The two-mile tunnel on the line between Leeds and Harrogate opened in 1849 and was one of the longest in Britain when it was built.

Tim steps inside a mainline tunnel for the first time – just after midnight in January – with Ian Wilson, one of our tunnel engineers. He joins teams carrying out routine maintenance to make sure train services can continue running safely and reliably.

Tim said: “Bramhope Tunnel has one of the most magnificent entrance portals you’ll ever see! I’m really pleased we are able to showcase it in this series of The Architecture The Railways Built.

“It’s fascinating to hear how important the railways were to Leeds in general and I’m grateful to Network Rail for giving us such amazing access to such a wonderful place, and also to Leeds Museum for letting us borrow John McGoldrick as to tell us all about it too.”

Presenter Tim Dunn and tunnel engineer Ian WIlson on the tracks inside the Bramhope Tunnel
Engineer Ian Wilson (left) with Tim Dunn inside the tunnel during maintenance

Ian said: “Bramhope Tunnel is a vital part of West Yorkshire’s railway history and it was great to take Tim and the crew inside it.

“I’m looking forward to viewers finding out how it was built, the challenges it still brings today and how we continue to maintain it so trains can continue using it for years to come.”

The North portal

Presenter Tim Dunn in front of the Victorian Bramhope Tunnel during the winter, daytime
Tim Dunn beside the Bramhope Tunnel

A well as finding out about the history of the tunnel and how it was built, Tim explores the Grade II listed north portal, which resembles a Victorian folly or a castle in the woods.

The gothic-style North portal, in rock-faced sandstone, was built between 1845 and 1849 by engineer Thomas Grainger, according to Historic England. It’s one of our most striking Victorian structures, with its turrets and ornate frame – or cartouche – with fleece, fish and wheatsheaf emblems.

The tunnel was initially proposed in 1843 and an estimated construction cost of £800,000 (about £99.5m in today’s money) was approved in 1845. However, the cost rocketed and reached a final £2.15m (more than £260m today) by 1849, according to Grace’s Guide.

Two sighting towers – one of which remains today – were built for the engineers so they could check that the line stayed straight. From 20 October 1845, the navvies sank 20 shafts to enable access for tunnelling, which began after the foundation stone was laid in July 1846.

Our archive holds the original drawings of the Bramhope Tunnel, including the plans for the North Portal. Below you’ll see the signal room planned for one of the turrets, and the bedrooms and living room, presumably for the signallers.

Original drawing from the Network Rail archive of the North Portal of the Bramhope Tunnel
Close up of original archive drawing showing the interior of the turrets of the Bramhope Tunnel

Close-up of the spiral stairs leading to the turret’s living room:

Engineer Thomas Grainger’s signature at the bottom of the plans:

An original archive drawing of a section of the Bramhope Tunnel
Original archive drawing of the geology at the site of the Bramhope Tunnel

Lives lost

He also visits the memorial in Otley – in the form of a model of the Bramhope Tunnel – to remember the workers who lost their lives during the tunnel’s construction.

Thousands of navvies and their families lived in 200 wooden bothies in a field opposite Bramhope cemetery, beside offices and workshops. There were a further 100 such bothies elsewhere along the line.

The conditions were hard. Grace’s Guide says: “Day– and night–shifters were said to take turns to use the beds, as was normal for sailors of the time. However, sailors had their own bedding to unroll onto the bare bunk or hammock, whereas many navvies may have had little of their own. This tunnel was built at the height of the Hungry Years, and many poor Irish refugees were working on the railways.”

Grace’s Guide says working at the tunnel was dangerous due to the rock at the Horsforth end, which was difficult to blast. There was also frequent subsidence and flooding. Death and injury were so rife that the Leeds Infirmary even had a cart to transport workers in need of medical help from the site to the hospital. By the time of the tunnel’s completion in 1849, 24 men had died.

The memorial, on Church Lane in Otley, Leeds, is itself Grade II listed.

Read more:

Our history

The Architecture the Railways Built – Newcastle

The Architecture the Railways Built – interview with presenter Tim Dunn

Film: Discover the Network Rail archive

Incredible Stephenson railway history rediscovered

The Architecture the Railways Built – Royal Albert Bridge 

The Architecture the Railways Built – Huddersfield station

The Architecture the Railways Built – Severn Bridge Junction

The Architecture the Railways Built – Barmouth Viaduct

The Architecture the Railways Built – London St Pancras International

The Architecture the Railways Built – Ffestiniog Railway

The Architecture the Railways Built – Ribblehead Viaduct