The railway tunnel was built at the same time as the north wing of the house (completed 1845-1850). The tunnel is on two levels meeting the north wing at the 2nd and 3rd floors. It is believed that the lower tunnel was never used and is merely a bi-product of the method of construction, large brick arches and brick vaults forming the support for the working tunnel above (rather like an aqueduct or viaduct was used to span a valley).
The height of the tunnel varies along its length but in the main is 1.5m (5 feet) to the eaves and 2.3m (7 feet 9 inches) to the apex. At its highest point the floor level is some 30 feet above ground level. The presence of coal dust in the service shafts provides witness that the tunnel was in use for some time. However, the length of time that it was in use is unknown.
We assume that the coal ‘Butties’ were loaded from a horse and cart at the wharf end of the tunnel and then pushed by hand through the tunnel to the delivery points. It is hard to imagine any other way of powering the vehicles. Vehicles drawn by animals would need a turning area, which, given the dimensions of the building, would not have been available.
In the 1937 Contents Sales Catalogue Lot 855 describes a railway coal trolley 4ft. 6ins. by 3ft. by 3ft. 6in. high. By the pencil notes it was possibly sold for 12 shillings.
The tunnel today measures some 58.7m (approx 192 feet 7 inches) and is believed to have been 86.7m (approx 284 feet 5 inches) at its original length. It served around 6 shafts which lead to areas such as what is now the Computer lab (3 shafts); what is now the maintenance workshops (2 shafts) (possibly the bakery and butcher); what is now the Library (1 shaft) (originally the kitchen). There is a further shaft which serves what is now the audio visual store and the basement below. What is interesting about this shaft is that it is beyond the limits of the railway tunnel and the north wing by some 3m. The cast iron chute from this shaft is still intact in the basement, being about 12mm thick and 600mm across.
There are records of many other houses having service tunnels of other underground structures. Locally, houses such as Stoke Rochford, Belton House and Belvoir Castle (‘The Dooms’) all have some kind of service tunnel either to deliver coal and goods into the house, or to connect one part of the house to the other, to deliver food from the kitchen to the dining room for example. What seems to be unique about the tunnel at Harlaxton is that it joins the house at high level, using gravity to deliver the goods rather than the use of expensive and time consuming hoisting equipment to haul goods up to the higher level.
It is this unique feature that prompted English Heritage to contribute to the restoration of the tunnel and it is hoped that this is the beginning of a lasting partnership with the Manor, with a view to restoring more of the hard landscaping structures in the future.
The restoration was completed in 2001, at a cost of £47,150, and with English Heritage contributing 40% of this cost.
“The house at Harlaxton being situated on the side of a steep hill, that part of the offices containing the coals is to be on a level with the upper floor of the house; and from this coal-house to each floor railways within the house will be formed, along which the coal will be conveyed in small railway carriages, and dropped in suitable places of deposit, whence they can be taken as wanted for the service of every floor. We have noticed in Vol. XV. p. 449., that the same result has been accomplished at Bridge Hill. We may add that, in the general conservatory at Chatsworth, all the coal will be supplied to the fireplaces, and all the ashes removed thence, in small iron carriages on underground railroads, such as are used in coal mines.”
Bat Hibernation Surveys
Surveys of hibernating bats are carried out annually in January and February by the Lincolnshire Bat Group. The original January 2000 survey, prior to refurbishment of the tunnels, showed small numbers of hibernating pipistrelles, brown long-eared bats and one barbastelle, a rare bat at the northern edge of its range in southern and central Lincolnshire, in cracks in the brickwork. English Nature (now Natural England) had to be consulted for advice, so that the bats could be worked round and their hibernation sites retained, and the work was completed by winter 2001. All three species of bats returned and the Lincolnshire Bat Group have continued doing surveys in January and February ever since.
There have been some changes over the survey years. A barbastelle or two continued to appear every winter until 2012, but one was present in the 2014 survey. Likewise, pipistrelles continued to be recorded until 2008, but have not been seen since. However, 2 or 3 brown long-eared bats continue to be recorded each winter (just 1 in 2014), though not in the same places. For this latter species it would seem simply that the original bats have died off, to be replaced by others. The most likely explanation for the loss of the others is that with warmer winters the tunnels have not been cold enough for them, as both species frequently choose extremely cold sites to hibernate in, often only a degree or two above freezing.
Bats and their roosting sites are protected all the year round from disturbance and damage. In the case of the tunnels this applies only during the hibernation season of November to March (inclusive), and therefore visitors are not allowed down there during this period.
Squires, Stewart (2012). Country House Tramways: Belton House, Harlaxton Manor and Stoke Rochford Hall. Lincolnshire History & Archaeology, Vol. 47, p.29-34