John Woodhouse: Lack of vision leaves historic tunnel on a road to nowhere
WHILE we've become increasingly used to swathes of North Staffordshire infrastructure being put up for sale – Stoke town centre has six days left for bids on eBay – one of the more unusual items came on the market this week.
The mile-long Harecastle Railway Tunnel, above, is being sold by the Department for Transport. The price is unspecified but it's been mentioned as a way of solving the public sector housing crisis.
Sadly, the tunnel can't be bought by the likes of me and you. A shame really as I've always considered Dancing On Ice a programme best watched at a distance of 1,600 yards.
Don't expect to see it, the ultimate room without a view, on Grand Designs either. Planning authorities are notoriously touchy about granting parking permission for a 16-ton locomotive.
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Indeed, the DfT has said it will only sell the tunnel to another public body able to take on the structure's considerable upkeep obligations. And in the present fiscal climate that rules out its obvious second use as an old people's home. To me, prohibiting private sector involvement is an error. Effectively we've just waved goodbye to the country's longest pound shop.
Similarly, I could see the Harecastle Railway Tunnel having great appeal as an indoor play area. Many's the time I've been to one of those places and hoped to sit half a mile from the children.
The problem is that the structure dates back to 1848. Like Bruce Forsyth, it requires an ongoing maintenance programme.
Railway authorities abandoned it back in the 1960s when it was deemed too small for modern rolling stock, a fact discovered in unfortunate manner when the first diesel to London became wedged in it.
Over the years, the tunnel has become associated with ghostly presences, although as far as I know, the inner Cabinet of Stoke-on-Trent City Council has never met in there.
Two crashes are said to have occurred in the murk in the late 1800s. The spectre of those passengers who, halfway through, changed, unplanned, for the Pearly Gates is said to haunt the darkness. When Psychic Sally went down there she was overwhelmed by ancient complaints about the price of sausage rolls.
You'd think maybe the tunnel could become a visitor attraction (if the Cumberland Pencil Museum can succeed, anything can) but it is hindered by poor public access. There are alternatives but few parents would happily see their children winched several hundred feet down the ventilation shaft.
Experts point to two similar tunnels in Hampshire which were used for mushroom farming. However, it was a short-lived venture. And anyway most people can find a ready stock of mushrooms when they remove the panels round the bath.
My suggestion for the Harecastle Railway Tunnel is that the HS2 be diverted to go through it. Several dozen tons of state-of-the-art express train careering through at 200mph would certainly liven things up for those sauntering through the canal tunnel below.
Whatever, it's hard to see what can be done with the cut-through now. It looks set to become an algae-clad memorial to a great industrial past, a bit like central Birmingham.
The truth is that tunnels, unless on a walking or cycling route, just don't readily lend themselves to changes of use. People will no doubt be having the same debate about the Meir road tunnel in 200 years time, although admittedly an artery frequented by peeved commuters and Eddie Stobart lorries lacks the same romanticism.
Maybe sometimes you just have to admit defeat and move on. It's just a pity the private sector can't get involved. That steam-thru McDonald's would have been amazing.