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A Welsh valley will become home to Europe’s longest walking and cycling tunnel if volunteers succeed in their attempt to bring a two mile-long masterpiece of Victorian engineering back to life.
Enthusiasts say the disused Rhondda tunnel will encourage local people to lead more active lives and attract visitors to an area that has not been a tourist hotspot but has begun to attract more cyclists and hikers.
Steve Mackey, the chair of the Rhondda Tunnel Society, said: “It’s a wonderful structure. I think it will be a huge boost to an area that needs all the boosts it can get.”
The hope is that within three or four years cyclists and walkers will be able to get off the train at Treherbert at the end of the Rhondda line and head along an off-road path to the tunnel portal – or enter the tunnel at the opposite end in the old mining village of Blaengwynfi.
The councils at either end of the tunnel, Rhondda Cynon Taf and Neath Port Talbot, have begun to put their weight behind the scheme this summer and earlier this month the Welsh government awarded £250,000 to Rhondda Cynon Taf to develop plans to reopen two tunnels, the Rhondda and the nearby Abernant.
A picture from the 1970s shows the tunnel’s cap stone with ‘Please open me’ scrawled on it. Photograph: Gareth Phillips for the GuardianMackey is more invested than most, describing how as a child he spent so many hours playing in the tunnel on Sundays when trains did not run that he was nicknamed “the boy in the dark”.
When the tunnel closed in 1968, a couple of mates dangled him over the portal so he could scrawl: “Please open me” on the stone that commemorated its opening.
A few years ago, after he had been made redundant and feeling down, Mackey went for a walk miles from the tunnel and glimpsed an old stone in a blackberry bush.
He found it was the old commemorative stone with his scrawl still on it. The stone has been installed in Treherbert station and become a symbol of the effort to reopen the tunnel.
Local people are largely supportive. When the society was founded it could meet in a small club – now it needs to use the former miners’ institute, the Parc and Dare Hall in Treorchy.
The society has almost 800 paid-up members and a 4,000-strong Facebook group. It counts retired engineers and mining experts among its supporters.
The actor Michael Sheen, who studied at Neath Port Talbot college, recently visited and said it was an exciting and important project. “The potential for the tourist industry here is enormous,” he said.
Reopening the tunnel, however, is several years and millions of pounds away. For a start, ownership is an issue. In 2010, the tunnel was transferred to Highways England. The hope is that ownership will be transferred to the two councils and the Welsh government.
Then the portals will have to be dug out – an engineering challenge. Recent exploration of the tunnel when engineers accessed it through a tiny hatch and shaft revealed that almost all of the structure was intact – and as awe-inspiring as the likes of Mackey remember.
A ladder leading down to the tunnel. Photograph: Gareth Phillips for the GuardianThe tunnel was built by the Rhondda and Swansea Bay Railway company to link the Rhondda and Afan valleys and create a direct route from the coalfields to the port of Swansea.
Its engineer was Sydney William Yockney, the son of one of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s experts who worked on the Great Western Railway in England.
Work began in 1885 and at its deepest point the tunnel is 300 metres (1,000ft) below ground. The workers tunnelled in from both ends and were only half an inch out when they met in the middle five years later. Seven men died during the construction.
The project has been encouraged by the success of the Two Tunnels route in Bath, which includes an audio-visual installation, and has been popular since its opening in 2013.
After closing in 1968, a victim of the Beeching cuts, the Rhondda tunnel was buried in 1980. Tony Moon, the leader of the project to reopen it, said he believed there was a deliberate move to obliterate all signs of the coal industry. “It’s a tragedy that this tunnel vanished,” he said. “Things like the Two Tunnels in Bath show what potential projects like this have. They should be brought back into use.”
This article first appeared on www.theguardian.com
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