I became heavily involved in Urban Exploration in the mid-noughties, and it lit a fresh creative spark in me. You almost felt like you were going on a secret mission every time you left the house with your camera gear. Over the following years, I explored and photographed all sorts of abandoned places. These included mental asylums, hospitals, power stations, military bases, factories, forts, mines, bunkers, catacombs, and even a Russian submarine and a Royal Navy ship. These were exciting and often dangerous times. But looking back now, I came close to losing my life on a number of occasions. Some of these urbex (short for ‘urban exploring’) locations were used for film or TV, but one crossed over with my lifelong passion for James Bond.
Living in Lincolnshire, the Nene Valley Railway near Peterborough is only about an hour away. One of my local exploring buddies back then (I’ll call him Tim) came up with the idea of visiting the Wansford Railway Tunnel there, which supposedly had some old train carriages in it. It then occurred to me that this was known as the location for the filming of Octopussy and GoldenEye, the tunnel being particularly recognisable from 007’s 1983 outing. It was between Christmas and New Year and our understanding was that the railway was closed during this period, making it easy for us to approach unseen and, as the urbex motto stated: “take only photos, leave only footprints.”
We parked far away from the station on the roadside and cut across the fields, then down the steep banking steps to the far entrance of the tunnel (the Octopussy end). This avoided the need to go into the station area, unless we felt like chancing it after exploring the tunnel and the carriages.
Once on the track side, we carefully surveyed the scene and all was quiet. It was great to be at Bond location and I played through the scene from Octopussy in my mind as we took some initial photos. Wansford Tunnel is over 600 yards long and we could just about make out a train sat at the station platform beyond the far end of the tunnel, and what appeared to be the carriages we were looking for at that end too. The tunnel was wide enough for two tracks, but it seemed that only one ran all the way through, the other ending the tunnel so rolling stock could sit in the darkness at the station end.
With everything seemingly quiet, we set our cameras up for long exposure photography, put our head torches on and headed into the tunnel. Urbex isn’t a hobby for those who get easily spooked and an old railway tunnel that gets darker and darker the further in you go isn’t for the fainthearted. We reached what we felt was halfway, to find a life-size skeleton hung up on the tunnel wall. It must have formed part of the heritage railway’s experience for tourists taking the seven-mile trip along the track, and then back again.
Tim and I took more photos and headed further down the tunnel, now getting fairly close to the carriages parked on the siding track. By now we must’ve been 400-500 yards into the 616-yard tunnel, with the A1 traffic whizzing past somewhere above us. Now that we were much closer to the station end of the tunnel something caught my eye: it looked like the train on the platform had steam coming out of the engine funnel. The angle was so tight from inside the tunnel, but I could swear that it was starting to move. I turned to Tim and said, “Is it me or is that train moving?”
It was at this point that absolute panic set into the pair of us.
There we were, 400+ yards into an almost pitch-black railway tunnel, and a steam train was starting to slowly build up speed towards us. It was fight or flight time, but fighting (or hiding) wasn’t really an option, especially seeing that there weren’t any ventilation shafts in Wansford tunnel. The only option was to quickly pick up our camera gear and run for our lives! Now, I’d been a 200 and 400 metre runner in my teens, but those days were well behind me. Pure adrenalin was fuelling me now. Could we really cover more than 400 yards in the dark over loose stones, cross the track and get out of the tunnel before train caught up with us? It wasn’t going to be easy, but we had to try.
As we sprinted through the darkness with all of the effort we could muster, the terror level stepped up another gear when we heard the train enter the tunnel behind us. The sound was suddenly booming along the tunnel walls. I started to pull ahead of Tim and, as I approached the entrance to the tunnel, I quickly looked back and saw that even though I was going to make it, he was going to be touch and go.
The train’s whistle blew long and hard. The driver had clearly seen a pair of idiots on the track ahead, but believe me, we didn’t need the additional warning. I came out into the daylight, went straight up the banking steps and over the gate at the top. I lay on my back absolutely spent, lungs and muscles screaming – and praying that Tim had made it out alive too. He had made it, but only by the absolute skin of his teeth. He’d reached the end of the tunnel, immediately turned right and thrown himself onto the banking as the train came rushing out of the tunnel. Bond and Natalya running from the train and throwing themselves to the ground in GoldenEye comes to mind (well, that was filmed just down the track). He pulled himself to his feet and struggled up the steep banking steps to join me.
A bit further down the track was a small platform. From our elevated position at the top of the bank, we could see the train grind to halt. Staff jumped off and started looking around for any sign of anyone on, or around the track. We sloped off across the fields and got the hell out of there as soon as we could.
As a post end credits sequence, on the journey home we hit black ice on a roundabout and 360’d in Tim’s van. Normally our adrenalin would have kicked in, but neither of us had any left. So, we just looked at each other, laughed and kept going. We’d had enough excitement for one day.
We joked about our action-filled experience many times with friends over the coming months, recounting the moment that we were nearly killed by a steam train in a James Bond filming location. The moral of the story is: always check whether the trains are running.
Last modified: 3 January 2024