Brunel Trail Part 7: Middle Hill to Box

(3.5 miles; circular walk 4.5 miles)

This walk forms part of a waymarked trail from Keynsham to Box, devised as part of the celebrations for Brunel 200. Originally published in April 2006 as an appendix to The Ringing Grooves of Change: Brunel and the Coming of the Railway to Bath, this downloadable version will enable walkers to explore all or part of the trail without having to carry the book along with them.
Maps are not included as part of the trail because the Ordnance Survey produce much better ones than we could possibly hope to. OS Explorer Maps 155 and 156 are recommended; alternatively, small sections of these maps can be downloaded for free at www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/oswebsite/getamap/

This is the grand finale of the Brunel Trail; if you only have time to do one of the sections, this is the one to do. To get to the starting point by road, drive east along the A4 from Batheaston for two miles. Take the second left (signposted Middlehill, Ditteridge and Colerne). The starting point is the crossroads a couple of hundred yards down the lane. If using public transport, the bus from Bath to Chippenham will set you down at the Northey Arms, just past the turning off the A4.

Starting at the crossroads, head east down the lane marked with a footpath sign, passing a short row of houses, and cross a stile. Head straight on to a archway under the railway. Once through the archway, which the footpath shares with a culverted stream, carry on across the field, noting above you to the left the western entrance to Middle Hill Tunnel. At only 198 yards long, it is less well known than Box, although its two portals are extremely attractive. Their monumental classicism is relieved by a deep bracketed cornice. The arch is divided into segments, with a scroll-pattern keystone. It is flanked by pilasters rising to the parapet, decorated with fasces — an architectural feature derived from the bundle of rods borne before a high-ranking Roman magistrate. If Brunel was aware of the derivation of the motif, he may have been indulging in a sophisticated architectural joke here, decorating the tunnel leading to the great Box Tunnel with the symbol of something carried before a dignitary. The tunnel was built by George Findlater of Brislington.

As the path curves round the hill, you will see, above you, the spoil heap on top of the tunnel, crowned with beech trees. Climb towards it, go through the gateway to the left, and, through a break in the fence on the right, you will see the top of the eastern portal of Middle Hill Tunnel.
The view from here, looking towards Box Tunnel, is one of the most splendid railway panoramas in the country, yet, because it is not near a road, it is almost unknown.

Retrace your steps down the hill, rejoin the path and head in the direction of Box Tunnel (ignoring the footpath heading towards the church). Go through a kissing gate and carry straight on. A small diversion to the right here, over a small wooden bridge, will give a good view of another culvert, once again displaying fine stonework, under the railway.

The path comes out in Box village, with a high-arched skew bridge to the left. On the far side of the road was Mill Lane Halt, opened in 1930 and closed in 1965. Turn right and walk up the road. When the pavement gives out, take the footpath to the right. At the main road, turn left and head towards the bridge over the railway line. The steam engine you pass on the right, incidentally, has nothing to do with the railway. Known as a Marshal Portable, it was used to power farm machinery.

Looking back down the line towards Middle Hill Tunnel from the railway bridge, the area now covered by storage tanks was once occupied by a siding where Bath stone was loaded onto railway wagons. It is still known as the Wharf. The viewing platform looking towards Box Tunnel, on the other side of the road, was added in 1986 with a plaque recording the restoration of the tunnel portal. Unfortunately, vegetation has somewhat obscured the view since then. It is still a magnificent sight, though, like a triumphal arch dwarfing the trains scuttling in and out of it.

Fifty yards up the road on the right, go through a stile and walk up the field towards the beech-covered spoil heap. At the corner of the field, cross another stile. The next stile is just left of centre in the hedgerow at the top of the field. Once through it, turn left up the road.

At the next road junction, take the right-hand fork. If you look carefully, you will see, behind the houses on the right, a wall round one of the circular shafts up which spoil from the tunnel was hauled, and which were later used for ventilation. To build Box Tunnel, 247,000 tons of oolite and Fuller’s earth was dug out by pick and gunpowder and hauled up shafts by horses walking round gins. The shafts and the tunnel were frequently flooded, and over 100 men died in the course of construction. It took five years to build and when it opened in 1841 it was the longest railway tunnel in the world.

At the next crossroads is the old Box Tunnel Inn, one of many beerhouses opened to serve the navvies building the line. It is a quiet enough spot now, but at one time it was the hub of one of the nineteenth century’s most ambitious engineering projects, with as many as 4,000 men working on it.

If the Cold War had spun out of control, and the bombs had fallen, this spot would have been quieter still. Deep below, in a warren of caverns and tunnels hacked out in the nineteenth century, however, 4,000 men and women (it is curious how the figure recurs), would have been going about their business, running what was left of the country.

With that thought in mind, retrace your steps back down the road, but, instead of crossing the stile back into the field, carry on down Quarry Hill. Just after passing Barn Piece on your left, you will see an old factory. This is where a ton of candles a week were made for the men building the tunnel. Just past the factory, turn left into Townsend — the oldest part of Box — and take the alleyway to the left of Townsend House. At the bottom is the old Chequers, closed for several years, but with an embargo on conversion to housing.

Carry on past the old Box Brewery on the right and the old Steam Mill on the left. At the main road, cross over to the old Manor House and Barn. Turn left and walk up to the Queen’s Head, where celebrations were held to mark the opening of the tunnel. There could be no more appropriate place to finish our Brunel Trail.

To get back to the cross roads at Middle Hill, carry on past the Queen’s Head, and, just before the Bear Inn, turn right down Church Lane, passing Springfield House (the old Poor House) and the church. At the end of the lane follow the footpath down to the right. Cross the stream at the bottom, and you will see Middle Hill Tunnel ahead of you. All that remains is to retrace your steps across the field, under the railway and back to the crossroads.

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