How Brunel dug Harbury Cutting

The recent landslip at Harbury has caused major disruption to railway journeys along the Chiltern line.

So we are looking back at the history of the Harbury Cutting, particularly the geological problems which the engineers faced during its 19th century construction.

As the Courier/Weekly News reported last week, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the Great Western Railway’s engineer, planned a tunnel at Harbury but the geology proved unstable and a cutting was put in place.

Reader Valerie Kay Bugg has submitted this old photograph (above) of the Harbury Railway Cutting.

She said: “I am forwarding to you the above as the subject is very topical at the moment. I got the print and information from a member of Leamington History Group, John Baldwin.”

On the back of the print is written: “Harbury Cutting, near Leamington, Lower Lias. Presented by J C Bull Esq 1875 to Revd P B Brodie” And in Brodie’s hand is a label: “I give after my decease this plate, photograph of Harbury Section to the Warwick Museum Natural History ~Society, April 1892.”

The photographer was Netterville Briggs, photographic artist, of 16 Upper Parade, Leamington, and Baker Street, London.

The Birmingham and Oxford Junction Railway (a subsidiary of the Great Western) completed its Oxford-Birmingham line in 1852.

One of the obstacles the engineer had to overcome was the scarp south of Leamington near the village of Harbury. Here the harder Lower Lias limestones rise above the flat marl plain on which Leamington is built.

Although a bare 200ft rise, the scarp was thought to be too much for the engines of that day. So a cutting was dug, which became one of the longest and deepest in England and no mean engineering feat for its day.

White’s 1850 directory records it as being 104ft deep and 600ft wide. Limestone spoil from the mile-long cutting was dumped along the proposed line of the railway to form an embankment to the north.

Thus the railway line was graded so as to overcome a major natural barrier with the gentlest possible climb.