Monday, 3 October 2016

Going Underground...Victoria Tunnel

But I want nothing this society's got
I'm going underground (going underground)
Well, let the brass bands play and feet start to pound
Going underground (going underground)
Well, let the boys all sing and let the boys all shout for tomorrow
Lyrics by the Jam

Cluny Building reflected in the Ouseburn, designed by John Dobson.  Now a bar and live music centre, but has served as a flax spinning mill, steam powered flax mill and Scotch whiskey bottling plant.
2nd Oct.  With no thoughts about birds or other wildlife, apart from wondering if we might come across sewer Rats, we headed towards the Ouseburn area of the city.  Now I remember this area very well from my childhood, although at that time my knowledge of it was gained from distant views from the bus (trolley-bus usually), as I travelled over Byker Bridge on the way to the city centre.  At that time the area where the Ouseburn meanders down to join the Tyne looked far from inviting and I never ever felt any urge to explore it.  This was many years before any thought was given to the Metro Bridge apparently kept together with epoxy-resin.   Over the years I’ve very occasionally skirted across the edges of the place without giving it much thought.  Today the area is physically and culturally very different and this was my first time for more extensive exploration, primarily underground in the Victoria Tunnel.  We were joining the guided tour, after an invite from members of the Northumbria Dry-stone Walling Association to join them.  It turned out to be a two hour tour not to be missed.

Bridges.  In the foreground the road bridge, behind is the metro bridge and in the distance the railway viaduct.

Boat built by children.  Out side of the Seven Stories National Children's Book Centre
I’m not going to give lots of information about the actual tour as that would spoil the experience for any locals or others who get along in the future and of course if you have already been along then you don’t need to be told.  After parking up we met our very knowledgeable and friendly guides at the office where there was a nice selection of books and thankfully a toilet.  The initial part of the tour was above ground checking out some of the historic sites along by the Ouseburn, including the old site of the Maling Pottery factory and the Cluny building.  Then we entered the Victoria Tunnel.

Photography wasn't easy down there and this is one that went wrong.  I do think it gives a good impression of the atmosphere however!
The tunnel which runs under the city was opened in 1842 and used then as a wagon-way to bring coal from Spital Tongues Colliery down to the River Tyne and we learned much about the building of the tunnel and its subsequent use as a wagon-way.  As the Second World War approached the tunnel was reopened and used as an air raid shelter, and not an especially comfortable one by the sound of it.  Folk often stayed down there for eight hours sat on wooden platform type seats although the lucky few had wooden bunk beds.  As the book says, better damp than dead.  I tried not to imagine the smell!  In the 1950s there was even talk of possible use as a nuclear bunker, but thankfully that proved unnecessary but it does underline how close we were to nuclear destruction during the Cold War.

One of our guides giving out the info.

My brother getting a close look at what would have been used as a chemical toilet during air-raids.
Visits to the Ouseburn section of the tunnel were begun in 1998 by the Ouseburn Partnership, but ceased in 2006 when the tunnel began to show signs of structural strain.  Funding provided by Tyne and Wear Partnership and Newcastle City Council ensured that the necessary repair work was carried out.  Access was improved and the public tours began again in 2009 following a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.  There are one hour and two hour tours.  We had joined a two hour tour and were taken 700 metres into the tunnel.  It is a very atmospheric experience, especially when all the lights are put out and the tape is played of an approaching wagon load of coal!  In the even we saw no Brown Rats and we were told in fact there are none to be found in there.

If you look carefully you will see a crucifix built into the bricks.  This was done as this is under St Dominic's Church.

Bricks used for the wall of the tunnel were made from the boulder clay removed by the workmen who dug the tunnel.  Curves in the tunnel can be seen where it has avoided boulder clay to large to remove easily.  The lower wall is made of stone that was retrieved from the building work going on in Grey Street (under the design of John Dobson) at the time.  This image shows where the different materials join.

Yes that's Sam under the hard hat.  The protection was certainly required if you were over 6ft and even I scraped the roof a couple of times when at low points.  

My brother heads towards the exit with group members.

I was brought up with stories about the wartime air raid shelter under the railway bridge at Byker, but I confess I knew little to nothing about Victoria Tunnel and never expected to be down there.  It’s an experience not to be missed.  My thanks go to the volunteer guides.  I’m hoping to get back down to the Ouseburn soon for some photography and perhaps some birding.

1 comment:

  1. I was down the tunnel a few years back, as one of the guides (back then) was a fellow choir member. It's very interesting and many locals don't know it exists!