Light at the end of the (Glenfield Railway) tunnel

I’m Helen Wells, I’ve been the Historic Environment Record Officer at Leicestershire County Council for over 10 years.  My job is basically curating what we know about buried and built archaeological remains in Leicestershire and Rutland.  I don’t usually get to leave the office, but I’m going to tell you about a rare trip away from my desk – into the Glenfield Railway Tunnel.  The tunnel is recorded on the Leicestershire and Rutland Historic Environment Record and I’d always wanted to go inside.

So, as part of the Festival of Archaeology, I recently accompanied a group of others into the dark, damp, chilly, disused railway tunnel.  Not publicly accessible, the only access to the tunnel is via special trips.  A footpath runs past the portal.  Since us archaeologists are in a team with ecologists at the County Council I should also say that the tunnel is a hibernation roost for bats, and it’s illegal to disturb them…

Expedition into the tunnel!

Expedition into the tunnel!

The tunnel was one of the earliest railway tunnels in the world, designed by George Stephenson; its construction was supervised by his son Robert.  It opened in July 1832. Due to the pioneering nature of the engineering works, there were various unexpected hitches.  One of these was that the trial borings had suggested clay and stone, but running sand meant the tunnel had to be completely lined in bricks.  It cost £17,326 to built instead of the budgeted £10,000 – well over a million pounds in today’s money.

Glenfield Tunnel in 1969

Glenfield Tunnel in 1969

It closed in 1966 and was bought by Leicester City Council in 1969 for £5.  The east end of the tunnel was filled in by a housing company, so though you can walk through a door in the mainly blocked up tunnel portal at the west end, the east end is only accessible via a manhole and a steel ladder.

(The following two pictures were taken by a colleague in 2007.  The 1969 aerial photograph higher up the page shows the railway line before it was filled in.)

Blocked eastern end of the tunnel

Blocked eastern end of the tunnel

Metal ladder at east end of the tunnel

Metal ladder at east end of the tunnel

The tunnel is not far below the ground, and whereas it originally ran through fields, today it is covered in houses.  This has led to problems!  In 2007-8 strengthening works were carried out, with reinforced concrete arches inserted into the weakest areas of the tunnel.  This work cost £500,000, which makes the original £1,000,000 spent to build the tunnel look rather more of a bargain!  (And the £5 it cost to buy the tunnel in 1969 less of a good deal…)  The reinforcements were a striking feature of the tunnel during my recent trip.

Concrete reinforcements inside the tunnel

Concrete reinforcements inside the tunnel

Though a fascinating place to visit, it is very difficult to know what can be done to re-use the tunnel.  The eastern end being buried does mean it’s tricky to re-use as a cycle path, for example.  Though it has turned into a maintenance headache, if it hadn’t been bought in 1969 who knows what would have happened to it.  It’s a brilliant bit of early railway history.  If you get the chance to visit I’d definitely recommend it!

Want to find out a bit more?

This article at Forgotten Relics has some great pictures, one of which demonstrates the tight clearances this tunnel had.

The Leicestershire Industrial History Society have some great resources on the tunnel.  Keep an eye on their events for further tunnel expeditions!

Finally, a quick mention for Story of Leicester, who provided many of the facts I used here.

A king and a cardinal

The day started early when I arrived at the office at 7.30am to my desk in the planning department. Up on the 11th floor of our aging glass and concrete building I opened my email and commented on the possible archaeological implications to a planning application. It’s all fairly standard and corporate stuff. The day then got more corporate when, at 10am, all the folk in the planning service gathered for a briefing in the central part of our office. It is all about what the service is to do in light of Government policy, how the service needs to improve the time in which planning applications are to be processed, and what may happen in light of further cuts to Government grants.

From here on in the day perked-up considerably:

As some of you may recall Leicester was the scene of some attention a six months ago when it was officially announced that the skeleton found some five months earlier, in a blast of publicity, was indeed that of Richard III. It all goes to show that you never really know what is buried beneath the surface. In the early stages of this project, some 18 months before, I recall saying to Richard Buckley, the Project Director. ‘You do realise that there is no chance of finding him. Most likely his remains will have gone long ago, but at least we may get to know something about the long lost friary.’

How wrong can you be? Not long after the trial trenching started, the bucket of the mechanical excavator encountered human remains. However, it was a few days and a lot more digging before the excavators realised that this skeleton was in roughly the location described in contemporary documents; in the west end (choir) of the chancel of the church, and returned to carefully exhume the remains in such a way as to preserve as much of the evidence as possible before it was taken to the lab.

Following the confirmation that the remains were those of the infamous (or should that be much-maligned?) King, the City Mayor acted swiftly and purchased a disused school next to the now famous car park. The school is to be transformed into a new Richard III visitor centre which is due to be opened next Spring. There is to be an entrance lobby to the visitor centre, occupying part of what was formerly the school yard. So the people who excavated the site last year returned to the site a couple of weeks ago. All that was seen of the chancel last year were a couple of 2m wide slots, this time they have investigated the majority of the chancel, giving them the chance to clear-up some of their previous misapprehensions and to recover three of the skeletons identified last year, so that they can be analysed in the lab.

The previous day the widely publicised lead coffin and the remains it contained had been removed from its resting place in a stone coffin. A host of VIPs had also visit the site on that day (the City Mayor, the Secretary of State at the DCMS and various people who decide on the City of Culture bid). I had decided to avoid this circus and take, Mike, our Head of Service to see the site. I took Mike onto the viewing platform. But the crowd was such that it was difficult to see much, so I took him round to the site itself, and got Matt, the site Director, to explain the site to him. Matt’s team were a vastly experienced group, and had done a great job exposing the remains and lifting the bodies.

The afternoon was spent on my only substantive contribution to the Festival of Archaeology. I crossed town to Leicester Abbey, where the Parks Service was hosting its own activity afternoon and where Cardinal Wolsey is believed to have been laid to rest. After spending some time chatting to some of the visitors, I gave a guided tour of the Abbey ruins. It was a lovely, sunny afternoon and the group I was guiding was a wonderfully varied group comprised of schoolchildren, young women with babies and toddlers in buggies, several adults and the usual smattering of retired people. It was a pleasure to share my enthusiasm for the site with them.


Four Days in the Life of a Postdoctoral Researcher

Tuesday, June 26

I have recently proposed an online course for the Institute of Continuing Education at the University of Cambridge. My day started with a meeting at Madingley Hall to discuss this idea with the manager of the courses. The online provision is a novelty at Cambridge and the manager has been surprised how many of the customers are apparently totally new to the ICE and create a truly global audience. Thus, my idea needs a rethink in order to fulfil their remit to be able to run the course at least three times and reach a wider audience with a less area-specific title. The course seems to stay in development. Luckily, the manager has to put on his second hat as the manager of the International Summer School so I will have until late August or September to brainstorm.

After the meeting I headed to the University Library to check the dates suggested for the calibrated chronology of the late central Italian prehistory. The book in question seemed to be in the open collection so I decided to go the Department of Archaeology first. I had a series of illustrations to do for an article; thus, I needed to scan some slides with a slide scanner and to check old GIS coverages in order to edit the figures needed for the wetlands volume Water : Movement – The importance of rivers, lakes and wetlands in prehistoric societies edited by Andrea Vianello. It turned out that the slide scanner had not been connected to the network since the last network update and I had to get the departmental computing officer David Redhouse, the network administrator required to add an USB appliance, to come and get the scanner online. In addition, for some reason scanning slides is always prone to random difficulties. This time one slide turned all black and one bright red; if only one had foreseen how redundant the old photographic forms were to come and how quickly slide scanners became obsolete. I shiver with the thought of upgrading from the current modes of storing them.

I scanned the slides for the illustrations and saved them in order to edit them later and proceeded into creating a series of new ArcMap coverages in order to have the correct features in my figures. Since I can edit all new CorelDraw files further at home later during the week, I just created the content I needed and imported it to the CorelDraw for later editing and use. The day finished with fetching the book I had looked for in the online catalogue earlier from the stack in the UL and updating the dates taken from my PhD.


University Library at Cambridge

University Library at Cambridge


Wednesday, June 27

This morning saw me giving a lecture in the Exploring Art course (Makers and Materials II) in the Embrace Arts. This course is part of the Art History lecture series in the Richard Attenborough Centre at the University of Leicester. These courses are organized by the Institute for Lifelong Learning at Leicester. The course director was sitting in this time in order to assess me and start the process of including me officially in the tutor panel. Considering that W. G. Hoskins taught at the Vaughan College and for the Workers’ Educational Association, I am not in bad company.


My slide

My lecture is about to start


The lecture on Phaidias at Olympia, a topical subject due to the arrival of Olympic flame relay to Leicester on Monday, went well and the learners seemed interested and enthusiastic.

In the afternoon I started to edit the illustrations but managed to make very slow process, since I had to crosscheck different place names mentioned in the text and their locations.


Thursday, June 28

In the morning I uploaded my archaeological blog ‘Landscape Perceptions’, where I did blog about this Archaeology Day last week. This week’s topic was ‘Summer Season of Archaeological News’ in which I discussed some Roman glass beads from Japan. I try to be topical; thus, I have reviewed both Pub Archaeology and Mary Beard’s excellent ‘Meet the Romans’, while discussing important archaeological topics. As a busy working mother, I am lucky to be able to keep a weekly blog!

On this particular day I had to make some preparations for my coming short work trip to Rome. I have to keep my Italian mobile number alive by crediting it at least once a year. This I could have sorted otherwise – online or bothering colleagues – but for drawing a few diagnostic pieces of pottery for an article I am preparing and meeting the new inspector for Crustumerium where I excavated between 2004 and 2008 you have to travel to Italy. In order to make swifter moves from the airport to the centre, from the centre to the Institutum Romanum Finlandiae, where I store some utensils, and from Rome to Civita Castellana, I have hired a car. I try to make this trip on a shoestring so avoiding the extra insurances in the car rental place is paramount. Thus, I had to buy a car hire excess insurance online that was much cheaper than any tie-ins.

Secondly, I needed a new cabin trolley. My husband will be leaving almost immediately for Turkey for work on my arrival so he could not lend his but I had to go to the city centre to buy a new one. I managed to spend almost two hours while comparing models, weights and volumes in different department stores and to lose my toddler son in the process. It is good to know that the security in the shops can be used to spot runaway children with extra energy…

I also had to send a recent article, out about a month ago, to the inspectors in different Superintendencies whose areas I was discussing in my article ‘Political landscapes and local identities in Archaic central Italy – Interpreting the material from Nepi (VT, Lazio) and Cisterna Grande (Crustumerium, RM, Lazio)’. In addition, there were e-mails from the first hostel I am staying in Rome and a follow-up message from the lecturer responsible for the Landscape History courses in the Institute of Continuing Education at Cambridge to deal with. I also finally received a photo register file from my assistant.


Friday, June 29

As I suspected, my Friday looks like it will be less than exciting. I have to do a job application, continue editing and compiling illustrations for the article I now have the material for and look at briefly some other texts in order to make progress on them. I will look at the summary of the activities before turning off my laptop in the early evening.


Editing illustrations

Editing illustrations


*          *          *

Not unsurprisingly the time flew and I barely got the illustrations ready – all 15 of them. I also wrote the list of captions and inserted the references into the text. There is one illustration I am not happy with but I have to do it later; its colour scheme does not take the change to the greyscale well. I may also have to include a 16th figure in order to show more of the real landscape in a photo. The other texts have to wait until next week. One is always optimistic what one manages to do in one day…

Tells of space and time….

I’ve always always loved learning and reading about the ancient world. It seems to me to be full of unsolved mysteries and puzzles, tantalizing enigmas about who-done-what and what happened where. Definitely by the time I got to University, I knew I really wasn’t even interested in anything else other than the distant past. I am currently researching for my dissertation in MSc in Web Science at the University of Southampton, and I’m looking at how to represent ambiguities in the spatial and temporal elements of the ancient cities of Mesopotamia.

red pen on line drawing of Code of Hammurabi (Old Babylonian)My path to this MSc has been long and winding. During my undergrad years at Birmingham University I focused on studying Mesopotamia and the cultures of the Early Bronze Age in the Near East. I learnt to read Sumerian cuneiform, as well as various dialects of Akkadian – I’d say that Sumerian and Old Babylonian remain my favourites, and in the course of my current research I’ve got the opportunity to again engage with these elements from my academic past.


Archaeology with a foot in three countries

I’m *really* a field archaeologist, but with the financial climate wavering here on the Åland Islands (an autonomous region of Finland) too, when it came to a decision between a nine month contract as a museum assistant at Åland’s Maritime Museum or the probability of no work in archaeology at all this year, the museum won. Still wanting to stay involved with archaeology – I’m also a recent graduate of the MA in Historical Archaeology by distance learning at the University of Leicester – I am now working voluntarily on the ongoing Kinchega Archaeological Research Project based at Leicester. So, at present, my day as an archaeologist doesn’t really begin till I’m home from work, sitting (back) in front of a computer, and right now, inputting entries from early twentieth century stores records into a database. The entries relate to an early twentieth homestead in Australia that has been under excavation since 1998, and the database will enable the records to be analysed in conjunction with evidence from the excavations. When I’ve posted this I’m going to fiddle with some total station data from the same site, with the aim of eventually creating shiny new maps and plans in ArcGIS. One aim of the project is to make the data and research available digitally, to make it much more widely accessible – and this, of course, is a Very Good Thing……

A week in the life of an FLO

A week in the life of a Finds Liaison Officer

By Wendy Scott, FLO forLeicester, Leicestershire andRutland.

Saturday 16th July

My first ‘National Archaeology Fortnight’ event. I am doing an identification session at Melton Mowbray museum today.  During the week I assisted the local detecting and fieldwork groups mount an exhibition for NAF in the Community Showcase. So I have a wonderful backdrop of Roman, Medieval and post medieval metalwork and pottery! I have met two new finders and recorded some good material.

Sunday 17th July

Festival of History!  Today was a very long but very enjoyable day. We always have a stand in the English Heritage marquee and we usually manage to speak to hundreds of people about our work, especially when it rains and they run for cover!  Watching re-enactors of all periods mixing together is quite weird, I’m sure it must confuse the kids! The afternoon dogfight between a Messerschmitt and a Spitfire was cool (obviously the spitfire won!)

Monday 18th July.

Today I am having a well earned rest! I am just in the office to return equipment used over the weekend and to collect a couple of small treasure items which I am passing on to our manager, Roger Bland tomorrow. He will then take them down to the BritishMuseum for the curators to identify and prepare a Treasure report for the Coroner.

Tuesday 19th July

Regional meeting,  BirminghamMuseum. This is when we catch up with each other, discuss issues, organise events etc. Today we had a special treat. We visited the Conservation lab to have a look at Staffordshire hoard objects being cleaned before going on display. They get more amazing the more we see them!  We also said goodbye to Duncan Slarke, Ex West Mids. FLO (the person the Staffordshire hoard was reported to).  Hes off to a new life in Oslo. Lykke til Duncan!

Wednesday 20th July

Today I dealt with Treasure paperwork, passed on purchased Treasure to the Museums staff and took delivery of a medieval gold ring which needs to go through the Treasure system. I spent the rest of the day editing photos (taken at a MD club meeting) ready to add to our website.

This evening I am going to the  launch of   ‘Visions of Ancient Leicester’ A book showing reconstructions based on the last 10 years of extensive excavation in the city.  A large Roman coin hoard,  a treasure case I worked on, recently purchased by Leicester City Musuems.

Thursday 21st July

Today I am trying to get some records on the website. I have a collection of objects including a group of early Medieval metalwork, which has confirmed the location of a long suspected Anglo-SaxonCemetery in the Melton Mowbray area. So as well as adding these to the website I have alerted local Archaeologists who have been wondering where the cemetery might be!  This morning I also processed some Museum Identifications which may or may not end up on the web too.

Friday 22nd July

More data entry today (it never ends!).  I have written a Treasure report for the ring I collected on Wednesday and sent that to the British Museum for checking. I also had the joy of submitting my quarterly financial claim, which always involves fighting the County Council Finance system for a few hours!  Last job of the day was packing my car with Roman material and kids activities for Saturday’s event.

Saturday 23rd July

Meet the experts’ at Harborough Museum. My last NAF event, today we are concentrating on the Iron age and Roman periods to compliment our wonderful Hallaton Hoard display (over 5,000 Iron age coins excavated from a ‘temple’ site). I have been showing people Roman coins and artefacts and getting children to design their own coins. My Colleague Helen Sharp has been teaching people about life in the Iron age and letting people make their own replica coins, always immensely popular!

I’m now off on a camping trip with my extended family, so enjoy ‘Day of Archaeology!