Extraordinary plans to turn Rhondda Tunnel into world’s longest art gallery
Proposals for an ambitious scheme to transform the Rhondda Tunnel into the world’s longest digital art space have been unveiled.
Architecture company Scott Brownrigg has unveiled ambitious plans to transform the Victorian rail tunnel – the longest disused railway tunnel in Wales – into a major visitor attraction.
The project would also include a hotel, a visitor centre with art galleries, a cafe, external performance space and a digital theatre. In addition the tunnel would contain a 40m viewing tower to provide visitors with views of the surrounding landscape.
The artistic transformation of the 132-year-old tunnel, which stretches more than 3km between Blaencwm in the Rhondda Valley to Blaengwynfi in the Afan Valley, aims to ‘place Wales on the map for global tourism’.
The project is designed in conjunction with tourism consultant Stevens & Associates, who are acting on behalf of an undisclosed joint venture between a public sector client and a private investor.
The tunnel which opened in 1890 and linked the Rhondda and Afan Valleys, was forced to close in 1970 as part the Beeching closures of railway lines across Britain.
In 2014, local group the Rhondda Tunnel Society started fundraising efforts with the ultimate aim of reopening the historic tunnel as a cycle and walking route.
If successful – at just 77 yards short of two miles long – the Rhondda Tunnel would be the second longest cycle tunnel in the world.
The project was given a boost in December last year when transport secretary Grant Shapps agreed to transfer ownership of the tunnel from National Highways to the Welsh government.
Gallery: Artist’s impressions of Rhondda Tunnel project
Since then the scheme has expanded significantly in scale and ambition. If a planning application, which is expected to be lodged later this year, is approved, it will become both a pedestrian and cycle route and a major visitor attraction with new buildings constructed at either end of the tunnel.
A hotel would be built at the eastern entrance, featuring digitally constructed timber ribs which Scott Brownrigg said “allude to the movement of a train as it disappears into the tunnel”.
The western entrance would see the construction of a visitor centre with art galleries, a cafe, external performance space and a digital theatre.
The building at this end has been conceived as a lump of coal, with “scorched” black timber cladding elevated above the hillside on slender stilts.
The tunnel would also contain a viewing tower, approximately 40m in height, rising out of the top of a 60ft ventilation shaft to provide visitors with views of the surrounding landscape.
The project has been designed alongside digital art consultancy Lumen Art Projects, with installations telling stories from the tunnel’s past.
Scott Brownrigg said it expects the scheme to attract more than 40,000 overnight stays and 150,000 day trips each year.
However, there is one significant issue with the project – the Rhondda Tunnel Society say they have not been consulted over the plans.
In a statement prepared for Nation Cymru a spokesperson for the RTS said ‘the proposal has come as something of a surprise to the Rhondda Tunnel Society’.
“We had some discussions with Professor Terry Stevens (of Stevens & Associates) up to March 2021. He is keen to develop a big arts-based project in Wales, and has been looking for a project to hang his ideas on. This proposal seems to be a follow-up to those discussions.
“To the best of our knowledge, none of the people involved in this proposal has ever been in the Rhondda Tunnel, although we have offered Terry the chance to visit it, and that is the immediate issue that we see in the proposal – it does not seem to fit with the reality of what could be provided within the confines of a single-track railway tunnel.”
The spokesperson also pointed to the huge costs of such a project.
“The other issue is cost. The Welsh Government has told us that our current estimate (about £17m allowing for recent inflation) is beyond its present means without big contributions from elsewhere. This proposal would cost many times more than that.”
However, the spokesperson for the RTS did concede that it understood the need for features that would transform the tunnel into a major visitor attraction.
“The tunnel does take well over an hour to walk from end to end, so the Society is acutely aware of the need to put a wide range of features of interest along its length if it is to fulfil its aim of becoming a major tourist attraction.
“So this proposal needs to be welcomed as a contribution to the range of possibilities for the tunnel; indeed sections of the tunnel do lend themselves to dramatic audio-visual or digital art displays. The Society’s aim is to make a visit a memorable one for all who come, and an approach in which putting the visitor experience first, ahead of re-opening an abandoned transport link, may be the best way to make it happen.”
We have reached out to Stevens & Associates for comment.
Find out more about the Rhondda Tunnel Society HERE
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