The Life and Works of John Rennie (7 June 1761 – 4 October 1821)

Kennet & Avon Canal - Bruce Tunnel

David Newman & Nicholas Hopkins

It has long been known that the Great Western Railway drew water from the Kennet & Avon Canal in order to service the steam locomotives at Savernake Low Level Station situated immediately above the Bruce Tunnel. As far back as March 1988, it was reported in the Kennet & Avon Canal Trust’s magazine The “Butty” (issue 119) that K&ACT NB Jubilee had set forth eastwards from Wootton Rivers with an HTV camera crew on board. The approach to the Bruce tunnel was filmed and during transit of the tunnel shots were taken of the pipe through which water was pumped to the station above.

Michael Hawkins, a fifty-year-long serving member of the Canal & River Trust Operations team, also has memories of a pipe leading from the north side of the tunnel wall into the canal. Phil Collins from Burbage has known the tunnel and station for all his life, and he remembers playing in the tunnel as a child when, of course, the Summit Level would have been dry. Phil explains that having spoken to older friends in Burbage that worked at the station, it is remembered locally that there used to be another GWR water extraction point towards the eastern portal of the tunnel.

More recently, in 2023, the Operations team went to the Bruce Tunnel to investigate damage to the brick tunnel lining, assumed to have been caused by a boat strike. Gwilym Smith (Operations Team Leader) can be seen inspecting the damage in Fig 1. By this time, the pipe leading down into the water was missing. This inspection revealed the existence of a hitherto forgotten gallery which had been bricked up, 120m in from the west portal on the north side tunnel wall. The vertical channel can be seen in Fig 2 with a metal filter screen (Fig 3) at the base leading from the bed of the canal. The channel opens into a vaulted brickwork gallery where there are remains of pipework which had once connected the pump to canal water via the filter screen. Fig 4 shows the bottom rungs of a ladder, the end of a heavy-section beam and fill-in rubble supported by what appears to be two lengths of Brunel’s GWR wide-gauge rail – undoubted proof that this is a GWR installation making use of the gallery and shaft originally incorporated by John Rennie when the tunnel was built. Its purpose at the time was either for construction access or emergency escape during the build as no information can be found to indicate that this chamber was ever intended as an escape route for boatmen. Incidentally, it is not unreasonable to suggest that such a convenient source of water was the reason why GWR chose to build the station here.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4

Also visible are electrical conduits and wiring, maybe for lighting when maintaining the pump workings. Looking vertically up the shaft (Fig 5), the ladder, pipework, and supporting beam can be seen, showing that there is climbable access to the surface. Note the pump valves (Fig 6) and in close-up “GWR” can be seen cast into the valve body.

Savernake Low Level Station

In October 2022, I obtained permission to enter the old station site to search for the top of the shaft under the supervision of a Construction Manager from Network Rail Asset Protection department. He also carried out a buried services search for the station but without result.

Beforehand I had created a what3words waypoint at the base of the shaft inside the tunnel and used this to identify the point where I thought the shaft would exit above. We initially searched expecting to find a concrete capping over the top of the shaft but instead, we found a bricked-in doorway in the supporting wall of the north side cutting (Fig 7). A Permanent Way hut (Fig 8) is thought to have been built over the tunnel shaft entrance to house the steam pump mechanism. This little hut stood facing Savernake West signal box at the point where the branch line to Marlborough turned away from the main line. The end walls back and front were built in red brick (English bond) although the back wall is completely buried in the embankment. Part of the front was timber framed and boarded with vertical tongue-and-groove planks. Woodwork was cream with a brown door and brown gutter. The roof was of tarred black corrugated iron. Significantly, there was a slatted vent over the window.

The bricked-in doorway (Fig 7) is all that remains to be seen today.

Fig. 5
Fig. 6
Fig. 7
Fig. 8

Much of the correspondence relating to the waterway and water supply to the station carries the heading GWR Engineers Office (Canals) Bath. The subject of water supply to the station is of some significance in this correspondence due to the close proximity at this point of the Kennet and Avon canal which had opened in 1810. The coming of the railway was an ill fortune for the canal, and is well-chronicled elsewhere. Canal traffic had gradually declined and the K & A was taken over by the GWR from 1st July 1851.

The first item of significance is dated September 1877 and refers to the amount of water consumed at Savernake; other papers from October 1878 onwards refer to an alteration in the train timings on the Marlborough branch rendering it impossible for the branch engine to pump water at Savernake. The driver would remove the engine’s whistle, connecting a pipe and tying the whistle chain down. In this way steam would be available to drive the pump, though such an operation was notorious for its not inconsiderable use of steam from the locomotive boiler. This meant a light engine movement from Marlborough to Savernake and return, either before or at the termination of the day’s service. Understandably, the suggestion was made that a small boiler be fitted in the pump house at Savernake, thus saving the expense. The pump house itself was located on the north side of the bay platform and was fitted with two steam pumps, which remained in use until at least November 1936. Approval was then given for an electrically driven centrifugal pump to be installed at an estimated cost of £280. This operated automatically, presumably actuated by a float switch, whenever a certain volume of water was drained from the storage tank via the water columns.

Station water came from the canal for many years and where taps existed the standard ‘Not Drinking Water’ signs were located. An interruption in this supply is reported in July 1915 through the water level of the canal having dropped; this in turn was due to the pumps at Crofton having ceased working owing to a lack of coal. Crofton pumping station was a major factor in the supply of water to Savernake station. Water was also supplied by the GWR to the proprietor of Savernake Forest Hotel who in 1928 is mentioned as a Mr. Bain. Bearing in mind the doubtful quality of certain of the supplies obtained from Savernake it is interesting to speculate where this was obtained and what the hotel used it for. It can be seen from the sketch drawing, Fig 9, that at some time there was a plan to supply water from the pumping house to an adjacent cattle trough.

Fig. 9