Yesterday, I enjoyed a delightful short walk around the village of Box. Box is a Wiltshire village between Chippenham and Bath. It lies within the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The village has a Conservation Area, with many of the local buildings having special architectural merit and/or historical interest. Most are built of local stone. Quarrying was a key industry in the past. The quarries provided stone to abbeys and local great houses, and the historian John Aubrey wrote in the late 1600s: ‘The quarry at Haselbury was the most eminent for freestone in the western parts before the discovery of Portland quarrie.‘
Quarry Hill Woods, which I walked through, is the site of old quarry entrance shafts which collapsed leaving deep scars in the landscape. The area is now partly taken over by beech woods. From the western end of the woods is a superb view of the Box Valley flanked by the high ridge at Colerne.
I took refreshment at The Quarryman’s Arms, which is a lovely, traditional pub with outstanding views across the Valley, toward Bath.
My walk had taken me across Box Hill, where, beneath my feet, lies Box Tunnel. I’ve travelled through Box Tunnel hundreds of times on the Great Western Railway trains between London and Bath, Bristol and beyond. Passengers lament the sudden disappearance of their mobile phone signals as the train enters the 1.83 mile-long tunnel. 21st Century tech-niggles aside, the tunnel is an astonishing feat of engineering. Construction started in 1838 and the tunnel opened on 30 June 1841. The architect was the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. At the time of opening, Brunel’s Box Tunnel was the longest railway tunnel ever built. Thirty million bricks were used in the construction (made in Chippenham), and every week one ton of gunpowder and one ton of candles were consumed.
It was the wonder of the age as can be seen from an 1841 report: ‘On Wednesday this magnificent Railway was opened … Now, after very great difficulties and impediments, the tunnel has been completed … and it will remain a wonderful monument of the powers of human intellect and industry… persons will be able to travel from London to Bristol in about four hours – 120 miles in four hours!‘
Described at the time as an almost impossible project, about four thousand men (and 300 horses) worked on the construction. It was dangerous work and more than 100 deaths were recorded, as well as non-fatal serious injuries.
As well as the tunnel, Box is famous for one of its past residents: Rev Wilbert Awdry
The author of the Thomas the Tank Engine books, Rev Wilbert Awdry, wasn’t born in Box but he came here at the age of six in 1911. He lived in three different houses in the village: The Wilderness, Townsend and lastly Lorne Villa (now House), opposite the Tunnel entrance, where he lived with his parents between the ages of nine and 17 years old. They renamed the house Journey’s End. He wrote the stories many years after he left the village, starting in 1943 with The Three Railway Engines for his son, Christopher, who had measles. Over the next thirty years, he published 26 books.
I enjoyed everything about my visit to Box and I’m eager to return to discover more of its charms.