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Brunel's Great Tunnel Through Box Hill

A hilly walk around Box Hill, famous for its stone and Brunel's greatest engineering achievement.

Distance 3.3 miles (5.3km)

Minimum time 1hr 45min

Ascent/gradient 508ft (155m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Field and woodland paths, bridle paths, metalled lanes, 15 stiles

Landscape River valley and wooded hillsides

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 156 Chippenham & Bradford-on-Avon

Start/finish ST 823686

Dog friendliness Can be off lead on Box Hill Common and in woodland

Parking Village car park near Selwyn Hall

Public toilets Opposite Queens Head in Box

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1 Facing the recreation ground, walk to the left-hand side of the football pitch to join a track in the corner close to the railway line. When you reach the lane, turn left, pass beneath the railway, cross a bridge and take the arrowed footpath, to the right, before the second bridge.

2 Walk beside the river, cross a footbridge and turn right. Cross a further footbridge and continue to a stile. Walk through water-meadows close to the river, go through a squeeze stile and maintain direction. Shortly, bear left to a squeeze stile in the field corner. Follow the right-hand field edge to a stile and lane.

3 Turn right, then right again at the junction. Cross the river, pass Drewett's Mill and steeply ascend the lane. Just past Mills Platt Farm, take the arrowed footpath ahead across a stile. Continue steeply uphill to a stile and cross the A4. Ascend steps to a lane and proceed straight on up Barnetts Hill. Keep right at the fork, then right again and pass the Quarryman's Arms.

4 Keep left at the fork and continue beside Box Hill Common to a junction. Take the path straight ahead into woodland. Almost immediately, fork left and follow the path close to the woodland edge. As it curves right into the beech wood, bear left and follow the path through the gap in the wall and then immediately right at the junction of paths.

5 Follow the bridle path to a fork. Keep left, then turn right at the T-junction and take the path left to a stile. Cross a further stile and descend into Thorn Wood, following the stepped path to a stile at the bottom.

6 Continue through scrub to a stile and turn right beside the fence to a wall stile. Bear right to a further stile, then bear left uphill to a stile and the A361. Cross over and follow the drive ahead. Where it curves left by stables, keep ahead along the arrowed path to a house. Climb the steps to the left, bear right to pass Washwell Cottage and follow the drive uphill to a T-junction.

7 Turn left, then on entering Henley, take the path right, across a stile. Follow the field edge to a stile and descend to an allotment and stile. Continue to a stile and gate.

8 Follow the drive ahead, bear left at the garage and take the metalled path right, into Box. Cross the main road and continue to the A4. Turn right, then left down the access road back to Selwyn Hall.

Box is a large straggling village that sits astride the busy A4 in hilly country halfway between Bath and Chippenham. Although stone has been quarried here since the 9th century, Box really found fame during the 18th-century when the local stone was used for Bath's magnificent buildings. The construction of Box Tunnel also uncovered immense deposits of good stone and by 1900 Box stone quarries were among the most productive in the world, employing over 700 men. Little trace can be seen above ground today, except for some fine stone-built houses in the village and a few reminders of the industry on Box Hill.

In 1833, the newly created Great Western Railway appointed Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59) as engineer. His task was to build a railway covering the 118 miles (190km) from London to Bristol. The problems and projects he encountered on the way would help to make him the most famous engineer of the Victorian age. After a relatively straightforward and level start through the Home Counties, which earned the nickname 'Brunel's Billiard Table', he came to the hilly Cotswolds. (Incidentally, the Provost of Eton thought the line would be injurious to the discipline of the school and the morals of the pupils.)

The solution at Box would be a tunnel, and at nearly 2 miles (3.2km) long and with a gradient of 1:100 it would be the longest and steepest in the world at the time. It would also be very wide. Already controversial, Brunel ignored the gauge of other companies, preferring the 7ft (2.1m) used by tramways and roads (and, it was believed, Roman chariots). He also made the tunnel dead straight, and, never one to 'hide his light', the alignment was calculated so the dawn sun would shine through on his birthday on 9th April. Unfortunately he did not allow for atmospheric refraction and was two days out!

All was on a grand scale: a ton of gunpowder and candles was used every week, 3 million bricks were fired to line the soft Cotswold limestone and 100 navvies lost their lives working on the tunnel. After 2ıı years the way was open, and although Brunel would ultimately lose the battle of the gauges, his magnificent line meant that Bristol was then a mere two hours from the capital. Although artificial, like many large dark holes, the tunnel has collected its fair share of mystery with tales of noises, people under the hill and trains entering the tunnel, never to re-emerge. But as is often the case, the explanations are rather more mundane. To test excavation conditions, Brunel dug a small trial section alongside what is now the eastern entrance and the military commandeered this section during World War Two as a safe and fairly secret store for ammunition, records and top brass. Sadly it is not a passage to Narnia!

While you're there

Visit Haselbury Manor at Wadswick (east off B3109) for its recently restored, richly varied landscaped gardens, with stone and yew circles, a rockery, formal gardens, rose gardens and laburnum walk. Visit the heritage centre in nearby Corsham to learn more about the Bath stone quarrying industry in the area.

What to look for

Explore Box and locate the Blind House on the main street, one of a dozen in Wiltshire for disturbers of the peace. Look for Coleridge House, named after the poet who often broke his journey here on his way to Nether Stowey. Also look for the former Candle Factory on the Rudloe road that once produced the candles used during the building of Box Tunnel, and head east along the A4 for the best view of the tunnel's entrance.

Where to eat and drink

In Box, you will find both the Queen's Head and Bayly's offer good food and ale in convivial surroundings. Time your walk for opening time at the Quarryman's Arms on Box Hill. Enjoy the views across Box from the dining room with a pint of locally-brewed ale, just like the local stone miners once did.

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