Adventure is out there – The Wenvoe Tunnel

Adventure is out there!

Last Sunday I fulfilled a long held dream. For years I had wanted to walk the Wenvoe Tunnel.

This is a large tunnel running underneath Culverhouse Cross in Cardiff.  It is arrow-straight with a single air shaft halfway along.

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This map shows the route of the tunnel. The large buildings in the top left are Marks and Spencer and Tesco at Culverhouse Cross in Cardiff. The black line shows the extent of the tunnel.

The Barry Railway Company started work on the Wenvoe Tunnel in 1888. It was built to create a direct link down to Cadoxton and Barry Docks from the South Wales Valleys. The line was 18½-miles long from Trehafod into the docks in Barry. It is the same line that ran along Walnut Tree Viaduct near Tongwynlais. In 1898 the tunnel was completed and in full use.  It was, and still is, one of the longest tunnels in south Wales at 1867 yards, a shade over 1 mile long.  The tunnel was closed in 1964

Three intrepid explorers set off on a sunny Sunday afternoon. We were glad it was dry and sunny; the tunnel now suffers badly from flooding, with waters reaching a depth of four feet after heavy rainfall. A walk through in winter is not recommended.

Access to the tunnel is reached from Marks and Spencer car park at Culverhouse Cross Retail Park and we parked our car in the car park, actually just behind Tesco and headed off through some thick undergrowth and then down a steep bank.

 

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We then crossed over a fence and a small field and found ourselves in a pleasant meadow where grass and clover grew in abundance. We followed a winding path.  After less than five minutes we found our absolute hidden gem. Situated near one of the busiest road junctions in Wales is the mysterious entrance to the long disused tunnel.

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It was magical! We stood at the brim of a deep, oval cutting, the northern portal somewhere below.  A slippery slope led down to the flooded cutting and the old track bed, silent now for almost fifty years. Bright green weeds and algae were thriving in the still water.  One step in the mud and my legs almost disappeared from my knee down.

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We knew from other explorers that the fence was completely sound other than a missing spike above the lock, but one of the fence slats to the left of the gate is loose, and can be rotated around and we squeezed through with only a minimum of embarrassment.

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The excitement was almost unbearable. The tunnel is dead straight (with a gradual ascent from the north portal).  It is wide too, and in its day carried double track all the way. We entered excitedly, led by Gaz.

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Immediately you could see the south portal 1867 yards away just a tine chink of light. We could hear water dripping; otherwise all was silent in the magical world of The Wenvoe Tunnel.

 

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Walking through the tunnel was quite easy as a large water main runs the length of the tunnel and makes an excellent causeway to keep out of the damp.  The main supplies the town of Barry with its water.

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Except for the very southernmost portion of the tunnel, both walls and roof are neatly lined in brick.  There are no bulges, cave-ins or repairs evident.  The most striking features are the calcite and rust deposits that have formed on the walls; some are truly amazing.

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We made our way through stopping often to take photographs and be amazed at some of the sights there. We saw curtain stalactites forming on the curved walls, jet-black secretions and thick rust build-up, and some portions of the wall are completely encased in calcite.

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Along the edge of the tunnel are markers, each one marking the old measurement of chains. At the 46-chain mark, we came across a huge airshaft, which dominates the tunnel.

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It’s massive, almost the entire width of the tunnel.  Enough light spills down it to be able to turn all torches off whilst nearby, and directly below it a huge pile of assorted junk has built up.  We stopped here, amazed at what we saw. When I was young we used to look at the top, which used to stand near the Old Culverhouse Cross Roundabout near the old caravan park, but to be at the bottom and in the middle of the tunnel was magical.

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We pressed on and as we neared the southern end we noticed that our voices had begun to echo much less and we saw that the tunnel was not brick lined here but natural stone. The tunnel builders must have had to blow their way through the rock here. We guessed we were nearing the site of The Wenvoe Quarry. As we neared the end we saw that it again was brick lined.

An interesting and little known fact is that Royalty often spent the night in the tunnel if the royal train was in the area! During the Second World War especially, if the King and Queen were on a visit to the area in an effort to keep them safe in case of air raids during the night, the Royal Train was run into the tunnel and remained there until the morning. Guarding it was relatively easy, although they would have had to stop coal trains using it during that time.

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Looking back down the tunnel from the south portal.

 

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We stayed for a few minutes for a photo shoot before the long journey back along the pipe to the northern portal. The journey back seemed shorter although no less fascinating.

We reached our starting point tired but exhilarated. Gaz, Muzzy and I felt our expedition had been a great success

 

What a journey, what a thrill! The only thing missing was the thunder of a steam train thundering through with its precious cargo of black gold, but then somehow the magic, which came with the desolation and silence, might not have been there.

One story from the past is recorded:

I used to know an elderly gentleman who’d grown up in the 1920s in Ebbw Vale, and whose father was friendly with one of the signalmen who manned the Drope signal box near The Wenvoe Tunnel. On one visit he was able to walk into the tunnel and stand in one of the safety recesses in the wall while a locomotive thundered past. It was, he said, both the most exciting and the most frightening thing he’d ever done!

I hope this forgotten gem remains untouched and available for generations to come.Image

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34 thoughts on “Adventure is out there – The Wenvoe Tunnel

  • I walked this last Sunday. I climbed over the double fence at the Southern end to take some photos. Your “ramblings” made me actually want to walk it, rather than talk about walking it! Fascinating place.

  • after the tracks were lifted and before the piggery above the Wenvoe end polluted it, the streams both sides of the ballast were full of sticklebacks,I also saw a lot of grass snakes sunning on the embankment, behind Wenvoe station we found a lot of slow worms under the slates fallen off the roof .The Drope end was good for collecting frog and toad spawn.

  • This is absolutely fascinating, having worked in the vale of glamorgan parks department for an number of years we often heard tales of the tunnel and other tunnels in the area. So glad that you documented it with wonderful images as I’m now in Australia and may never get to explore this gem!

  • Fantastic story and pictures, I was always fascinated by the old railway as a youngster after playing in the river by the Drope viaducts before they were demolished, and marvelling at how high they were from the ground and my Nan recalling stories of when the trains used to run along the line. I remember the HTV news report on the demolition of them and feeling really sad that they had gone, my older brother and sister recall playing in the tunnel as kids in the 70’s. I will walk this one day, it’ll bring back warm fuzzy memories!

  • That was absolutely fascinating thank you Mark and co I had never heard of the Wenvoe tunnel and you 3 gave a very interesting account of your ”adventure”

  • Done it back in 1985(I think) when we bunked off school on St Davids Day, we all got caught coming back by deputy head Mr Allen on Glan Ely sports field.Great day though, the entrance back then was all bricked up and no fence was there and the A4232 was just being finished.

  • Fascinating! My partner, Ann, and myself have recently got the bug for tunnel hunting. I’ll be sure to look this one up. Many thanks

  • We used to bunk off school (Glan Ely) and have an adventure (Without Torches may I add lol), the mind plays tricks in that dark, the pipe we walked on felt a 100 feet up, and the water below wasn’t a trickle, felt as if raging river to take you away if you fell. Only talking bout this to mate last night, why checking if still there. Very COOL! Especially when 11yrs old.

    • I just realised after reading full story, that the little trickle I now thought was raging below may have been 4-5 feet as this man rightly says. Just glad I didn’t go in that murky water, could have ended badly.

      We were kids who climbed trees, got chased by orchard owners/farmers etc. At adulthood we felt able to adventure out into life on own and take what comes at us without anti depressants etc….lol

  • I searched the Drope tunnel on Google because my Mother had told me that her Grandfather ( so my Great Grandfather) was one of the stonemasons that built the tunnel. He moved to Cadoxton to work on it having previously worked on the Severn Tunnel.
    Great Photos.

  • I realy enjoyed reading ur article! Wd had such great fun there when we were kids, can remember sitting on the top of the hill where the tunnel was underneath! We used to walk half way thro and run back! Brilliant memories! Love to walk all the way thro!😊

  • As most of us who live in the South Wales area understand, Cardiff Airport and the town of Barry could benefit from an economic boost. In recent years there have been various proposals to build a connecting road from the M4 to the airport, similar to the Heathrow Spur from the M4, but these have met with vociferous opposition.

    One way to achieve these transport aims while minimizing the impact on the environment might be instead to have a direct rail link coming off the Great Western mainline to Barry and the Airport. The tunnel that Roger & friends walked through at Wenvoe is key to this.

    An express rail link could be achieved by reusing the old line between the old Drope Junction and the old Biglis Junction via the old Wenvoe Station, the gently meandering curves of which can still be seen today.

    http://tinyurl.com/pvauwv2

    The connection to the airport would also need a spur from near Porthkerry to the Airport. Together, these two new lengths of track would enable express trains running from between London to Swansea to call direct at both Barry and Cardiff Airport.

    For the most part, a reopened line could follow the route of the old line except where it approaches the old Cadoxton Sidings which is now the Coldbrook estate. Clearly a new junction at Biglis would be slightly further to the east of the original.

    Over the next few years new Hitachi express trains are going to be rolled out to serve the Great Western route. These will be faster than the existing 125s, shaving about 20 minutes off a journey between Swansea and London. That is time that could be used to go via the Airport and Barry.

    One major benefit of such a rail link is that it would serve a huge catchment area, extending from West Wales and the Valleys through to the West of England thereby helping to take pressure off Heathrow. Passengers would be able get on trains from as far afield as Fishguard and Paddington and go direct to Cardiff Airport without changing train.

    Proposed route:

    I have tried on numerous occasions to draw this possibility to the Minister for Transport at the Welsh Government for her consideration, but so far without success

    Photos of the old line:

    This album shows the old Barry Railway line around about the time it was being taken up. It starts from Tynycaeau Junction, goes south through Drope Junction, the North Entrance of Wenvoe Tunnel, the South Entrance of Wenvoe Tunnel, and down through Wenvoe to Biglis Junction:

    https://www.flickr.com/gp/nicholasmarks/9Mo7HT

    This album expands on that showing the connection from the Great Western at St Fagans to the Barry Railway Line going north to Tynycaeau Junction, the single line connecting from Peterston Super Ely to Drope Junction (now infilled but still traceable on Google Maps), the tunnel at Garth Mountain, and Walnut Tree Viaduct near Taffs Well:

    https://www.flickr.com/gp/nicholasmarks/n235oz

    Credit for these photos goes to Brian Mills of TrackBed.com

  • Further note: You might notice a map with a squiggly line draw around it. This was a temporary railway put in place around the viaduct after it partly collapsed in December 1897. This line ran very close to the where Cardiff Airport’s apron and terminal are today.

    And to think there should be such outcry against a spur there today! People don’t know they’re local history!

    http://www.stopthespur.org/

  • The top of the ventilation shaft is at the back of PC World at Culverhouse Cross.

    You might notice the small white sign attached to the building with the letters CTD – apparently a reference to Cadoxton.

    • Really enjoyed reading your account of the journey…….I remember the steam train going under the bridge from cadoxton park area to Palmerston with my mother to visit family…..great pictures…..thank you

  • Thanks for the memores. Used to live in Wenvoe as a kid and a good friend of mine lived near the old station near there (Chris Coles). We spent many good times in that tunnel 🙂 would would thought holding candles or a torch if we were lucky. The middle with the big shaft to the surface was the halfway point, and we often would go the whole lenght on the pipe that ran through it.

  • I used to live in Ely back in the sixties and used to bike it up Emos hill and on to Wenvoe station to do some train spotting It was a very sad day when they closed the railway Bet they wished the line was kept open looking at today’s traffic

  • Used to live in Wenvoe and went to the primary school until circa 1964.

    What happened to the reservoir up Morfa Lane? Went fishing there many times.

    Loved standing on the bridge and wait for a steam train to go beneath 🙂

  • Last time I saw it ,it had been drained to about 6″ of water and there were loads of trails of toad spawn in it. That would have been it the mid 70’s . Looking on Google earth where i remembered the position it looks filled in and grassed over.

  • I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article – especially because I’d wanted to explore the tunnel during my last year of school at Glan Ely High, but my female friends hadn’t felt brave enough to go there with me.

    I e-mailed this article to my father, wondering if he knew about the tunnel. I hope you’ll enjoy reading his reply as much as I did.

    “I have just had a lovely trip down ‘memory lane!’ Thanks to you sending me this fabulous article and photos of the Wenvoe Tunnel.

    I was in the Boys’ Brigade (15th Cardiff Company, Archer Road Baptist Church) as a lad from the age of 12 through to 19 years of age.

    When I was about 14, I went for a long walk from a Boys’ Brigade Whitsun camp with my elder Boys’ Brigade friend, who happened to be the Captain’s son. It must have been around 1958, the year I left school. Without the Captain’s knowledge, we walked from the Camp in Peterston Super Ely to meet up with some girls from our Church. My friend had arranged it and I can’t remember how we met up with them. I merely followed as he led the way. Somehow, all four of us (or was it five?) found ourselves at the entrance of this tunnel that evening and I can remember us daring to walk into it by stepping along the sleepers of one of the two lines that ran through there. I don’t think we intended to walk the entire length but we soon became caught up in realising we might just as well carry on as go back!  We could see the shaft of light descending from the large roof vent at the centre of the tunnel and decided to head towards it. It was a frightening thing to do but I didn’t want to show my fear to these girls and I boldly led the way. We walked what felt like a very long time, trying to steady ourselves as the darkness deepened then gradually became lighter the further in we went.

    It was then that it happened – an approaching train drawn by a terrifying steam engine was rapidly approaching along the way we had come, forcing us to take cover. I hid my fears once again and flattened myself against the side wall of the tunnel as the train slowly steamed past, filling the entire space around us with thick black, choking smoke! The little light at the end of the tunnel that we had been heading toward had now vanished and we had no choice but to carry on walking along the centre of the track, ‘feeling’ our way step by step in the pitch darkness. We realised that somehow if we just kept going we would reach the other end – but it was scary!  The fear of another train coming quickened our pace. We spoke loudly to each other through the smog, praying and wishing for the smoke to lift. I remember looking up the shaft at the centre of the tunnel but can’t remember if it was before or after the train had passed us. Trudging along for half a mile or so in complete blackness was no joke!

    It was then that the next thing happened – I tripped and fell onto the track, and was amazed to see the light at the end of the tunnel quite clearly below the ‘ceiling’ of smoke that was gradually rising upwards. I laughed and shouted to the others to ‘duck’ down and see for themselves. God only knows how long we had trundled along with little more than our heads hidden in the smoke, not knowing it was completely clear only a foot or two below shoulder height! I have laughed since many times about that – trying to keep upright as we walked with our heads only immersed in smoke!  

    Eventually we exited at the other end, well before the second train came along.  But it was an experience I have never forgotten. There was no romance between us with those girls that night – only relief that we had come to no harm. We bade them farewell and headed back to camp.

    It was rather late when we got back and I remember Captain David Plank giving my friend a roasting for being away for so long from camp and for having taken me – a minor – with him. I still communicate with this old friend and his wife (one of the girls who was with us that night) with cards at Christmas. They have a family and live in Canton, Cardiff.

    Looking back, I think we must have entered the tunnel from the ‘Drope end’, near St Georges. It was a daring exploit at the time, and the fear of the train approaching and spraying us with steam and smoke as it passed at such close proximity in a darkened, unfamiliar place below ground is something I will never forget!

    All of 60 years or so ago.  My word, am I really THAT old?  Ha ha!”

  • Great explore-thanks for sharing. I walked Wenvoe Tunnel around 25 years ago & nothing much appears to have changed except the palisade fencing at the ends now.

  • As a kid growing up in ely this used to be one of our fav playgrounds (and whitehall quarry in Wenvoe). The air shaft in the middle is amazing (the first time through we thought the light was the end of tunnel then excited to realise we were only halfway through) Me RD, JB and AH would quickly scramble up the bank through the farm (chased by dogs no doubt)

    There was also a similarlarly appealing huge concrete cistern thing on Leckwith Hill which we always intended to explore but would’ve need some rope to lower ourselves into. Never got around to it – i may go back next time im in ely and see if its still there as this was about 25 years (shudder) ago.

    Happy Days

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