There is a whole world of tunnels, mines, caverns and other underground haunts to explore in the UK. From walls that ooze bitumen to hand-carved tunnels at the seaside, we pick out some of the more quirky, lesser known and interesting underground attractions open to the public. We discover the Devil’s Arse, an eccentric 19th century philanthropist, a place where both Dr Who and Merlin hung out, how to leg it and the eighth wonder of the world. So why not join us on a journey to the dark side as Contrary Life picks out some subterranean gems and hidden passageways?
Tunnels: the long and short of it
Make a grand entrance with the Thames Tunnel
We start our pick of tunnels with the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’, or so the attraction was dubbed when it opened in the 1840s. The Thames Tunnel attracted an amazing 50,00 visitors on the day it first opened. Back then visitors would descend into the tunnel to be met with shops and entertainment.
Built to cash in on getting cargo from one side of the river to the other, the creation of the tunnel had been so dangerous and time-consuming that it was never used for its original purpose. In 2010 the tunnel was reopened as part of London Overground.
Why not visit one of the great wonders of the Victorian age and take a tour of The Grand Entrance Hall? Take a Guided Walk of Brunel’s London for just £9 per person. The Brunel Museum also holds special events in the tunnel throughout the year, check out their website for up to date information.
Eccentric Liverpool and the Williamson Tunnels
The Williamson Tunnels Heritage Centre is the only tourist attraction in Liverpool dedicated to 19th Century philanthropist Joseph Williamson. Who? I hear you cry. Well, I’ll tell you. Joseph Williamson was born on the 10th March 1769 near Darton in Yorkshire and moved to Liverpool around 1780. Williamson acquired some land and began to develop it, indulging his fascination with tunnels.
In the early 1830s it was decided to drive a tunnel from Edge Hill Station into the town centre. The work was to be carried out by Stephenson (of steam locomotive, the Rocket fame). The tunnel was to run beneath the corner of Williamson’s land and one day a dark figure emerged underground frightening Stephenson’s men. When Stephenson came to investigate he was confronted by Joseph Williamson who explained that he had just ‘dropped by’ to show them how to dig tunnels.
In 1818 Joseph retired from business and devoted his energies to the eccentric excavations for which he is most remembered. Visitors can now take a tour through this eccentric man’s hobby. Tickets for the tour cost a reasonable £4.50 for adults, £4 for concessions and £3 for children.
More info: www.williamsontunnels.co.uk
Tunnel Tours at the Roman Baths
The Roman Baths in Bath are fairly well-known to tourists but it is possible to take Tunnel Tours which allow people to see a side of the attraction that is not usually seen. Tours include a chance to see the vaults and parts of the Roman Baths and temple not on public display. It’s a great opportunity to discover the hidden Georgian and Victorian history of the site. Tours need to be booked in advance and are included in the admission price to the baths.
More info: www.romanbaths.co.uk
Modern engineering on The Mersey Tunnel Tour
Tunnels have an important use for traffic in our cities, yet we barely think about them, never mind think of them as a place to visit. Why not take the opportunity to think about our functional feats of engineering in a new light and participate in the Queensway Tunnel tour?
This unique behind the scenes tour gives you the chance to explore beneath the city including seeing the Control Room in operation, an Emergency Escape Refuge as well as the giant ventilation fans working.
The tour takes approximately 2 hours and is held on a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday at 5pm and Saturday mornings at 10am all year round. Tours should be booked in advance and cost £5.
More info: www.merseytunnels.co.uk
Watch out for ghosts at the Victoria Tunnel
Experience the double-life of a tunnel running beneath the city of Newcastle. Step inside the Victoria Tunnel attraction and find out about life during the second world war with air raid warnings to replica beds that people would have slept on as this underground system became a haven for the local people. Going back in time even further you can also experience life in a Victorian waggonway, as the tunnel was originally built in the 1800s to transport coal from the colliery to the river. There are 5 tours a week, with tickets costing £5 for adults and £2 for children. Just be sure to watch out for ghosts as some say the tunnel is haunted!
The Tar Tunnel and its curious walls
The Tar Tunnel is one of the more curious tourist attractions near Ironbridge in Shropshire. It is the place where miners digging in 1787 struck a spring of natural bitumen, a black treacle-like substance. The bitumen was turned into pitch, lamp black and rheumatics remedies. Now you can walk along this brick-lined tunnel where the bitumen still oozes through the walls. Don’t forget to pick up your hard hat on the way in.
The Tar Tunnel is one of ten Ironbridge Gorge Museums. It is open from 10.30am to 4pm until 4 November in 2013. Entry costs £2.95 for adults, £2.50 for the 60 plus and £2.25; under 5s free.
More info: Contact the Ironbridge Visitor Information Centre on 01952 433 424 or visit www.ironbridge.org.uk.
Enjoy four tunnels on the Monsal Trail
Why not take in some tunnels by bicycle? The Monsal Trail in the Peak District features four long and two short tunnels and runs along the former Midland Railway line. This traffic-free route takes in some great scenery as well as 400m long tunnels that have only been accessible for the last few years. Apart from experiencing our railway heritage in a leisurely fashion the route also takes in several mills, a viaduct and lime kilns, giving you a great sense of the history of the area.
More info: www.peakdistrict.gov.uk
Ride the longest cycle tunnel
Thanks to the local community and Sustrans, the Two Tunnels Greenway which links Bath to the surrounding countryside now gives cycle fans a chance to ride, traffic free, along 5km of pathway. Also built along an old railway line, this route takes in the 1672m long Combe Down Tunnel and the 408m long Devonshire Tunnel. It is a shared path so is also available for walkers and wheel-chair users to travel along too.
Learn the art of legging with Dudley Canal Trips
Dudley Canal Trust run guided boat trips through tunnels, providing a unique way to explore 420 million years of history. Take a two-hour trip through the 2888m long Dudley tunnel and learn the art of legging, tour limestone mines and caverns, and enjoy a light and music show in the Singing Cavern.
There is also a longer six-hour tour which takes in the Dudley tunnel and the Netherton tunnel as well as travelling down a striking flight of locks at the Parkhead Conservation Area. Taking place during the summer months the tour also takes in Bumble Hole Conservation Area and the impressive and historic Cobbs Engine House.
Two-hour trips cost £11.70 for adults and £10.80 for children while the six-hour trips cost £15.75 for adults and £14.75 for children.
More info: www.dudleycanaltrust.org.uk
Walk under the Thames using the Greenwich Foot Tunnel
The Greenwich Foot Tunnel is a lesser-known treat for those wanting to explore the underside of the capital city. Visitors can travel 50ft below the Thames, through the eerie 1217ft long tunnel.
The tunnel has its own history, celebrating its 110th birthday this year. During World War II the northern end was damaged by bombs – this is why some of the tunnel has a smaller diameter, as the repairs included a thick steel and concrete inner lining.
Explore the sloping, tile-lined tunnel taking you from Greenwich to the Isle of dogs, passing the 200,000 glazed white tiles lining the walls.
More info: www.visitgreenwich.org.uk
Dover Castle’s underground secrets
At Dover Castle explore the darkly atmospheric Secret Wartime Tunnels including Operation Dynamo, which allows visitors to immerse themselves in the Dunkirk evacuation. There is also an Underground Hospital, recreating the sounds, smells and atmosphere of the underground Second World War hospital with its operating theatre and WAAF dormitory. To complete the underground experience at Dover Castle there is an interactive exhibition covering the Napoleonic Wars and the First World War as well as WWII.
Dover Castle admission which includes the Secret Wartime Tunnels costs £17 for adults and £10.20 for children.
More info: www.english-heritage.org.uk
Tunnels Beaches – a seaside wonder
Tunnels Beaches, Ilfracombe, is a unique network of hand carved tunnels leading to sheltered beaches and tidal Victorian bathing pools.
At the tunnels you will find information on how the tunnels came into existence as well as hilarious guides to Victorian etiquette for boys, girls and for when boating with the ladies!
The beach itself has been voted one of the top beaches for rock pooling and provides a great safe place to take a family for a day out. Admission for adults costs £2.50 and for children £1.95.
More info: www.tunnelsbeaches.co.uk
As Contrary Life comes up for air, don’t forget to check back tomorrow for Part 2 of our trip underground…