Dark, subterranean and secret: 10 UK tunnels you must explore
Why are tunnels so much more exciting than corridors? They fulfil similar functions, moving people from one place to another. But while a corridor belongs to the prosaic world of the everyday, a tunnel resides in the imagination. It is dark, subterranean, secret, redolent with possibilities such as treasure.
I blame Enid Blyton. Every one of her adventures, with the possible exception of Noddy, had a tunnel. They opened into amazing worlds. They got the Famous Five out of awful scrapes. In real life, however, tunnels are not always underground – and they have many roles. Try these out for size.
Eight hundred years of tunnels at Dover Castle
Dover Castle was a key player in Operation Dynamo, the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940, and its network of chalk tunnels was famously visited by Winston Churchill. You can also see the siege tunnels, on the landside, from the time of King John. Second World War fans should visit the Fan Bay Deep Shelter along the coast in the White Cliffs.
Entrance: Castle tickets £20/£13.20 adults/children aged 5 to 17, include tunnels. 10am to 4pm winter weekends only, new opening hours from April 1 (english-heritage.org.uk).
Stay nearby: There are two English Heritage self-catering properties inside the walls: Peverell’s Tower (sleeps 2) from £465 for 4 days and the Sergeant Major’s House (sleeps 6) from £560 for 4 days.
Aberglasney Yew Tunnel, Carmarthenshire
The Aberglasney gardens near Llangathen surround a Grade II*-listed house and Elizabethan cloister garden. Creep into the Yew Tunnel formed by the trunks and branches of yew trees so entwined you can’t tell how many there are. It was probably planted by the Dyer family in the eighteenth century. If you’re inspired by horticulture, check out the Rhododendron Tunnels at Sheringham Park, Norfolk, in Spring which lead to viewing towers high above the massed blooms (nationaltrust.org.uk).
Entrance: Daily except Christmas Day, 10.30am to 4pm (10am to 6pm summer); £8.50 adults, free for Under 16s (aberglasney.org).
Stay nearby: Stay in one of two estate cottages (both sleep four); from £350 for seven nights – book early.
Ripley Tunnel, Greenwich Old Royal Naval College
The Painted Hall and Chapel, which face each other across Wren’s famous vista at Greenwich, are connected by a subterranean tunnel nicknamed the ‘Chalk Walk’. It was designed by Thomas Ripley for the use of naval veterans, has a bowling alley and is lined with the coats of arms of naval officers, including those of Admiral Lord Nelson.
Entrance: Access free, although it may be worth waiting until the Painted Chapel reopens after extensive restoration in March. Open daily, 10am to 5pm (ornc.org).
Stay nearby: De Vere Venues Devonport House is minutes away; doubles from £84.
Margate Shell Grotto, Kent
This eccentric construction, unearthed in 1835, is mostly tunnel – faintly-lit, steeply-sloping and decorated floor-to-ceiling in hearts, flowers and geometric patterns made of shells from nearby beaches with a few exotics thrown in. These curving tunnels and subterranean chambers are as thrilling as they are puzzling.
Entrance: Tickets £4.50/£2 adults/children aged 4 to 16 (shellgrotto.co.uk).
Stay nearby: The Reading Rooms on Hawley Square are a 10-minute walk away; doubles from £160.
Dudley Canal Tunnel, West Midlands
Under Castle Hill lie centuries of history and 428 million years of geology, including the trilobites known as ‘Dudley Bugs’. Fossils dot the walls of the eighteenth-century canal tunnels dug for the lime and iron industries, still open thanks to generations of activists. Guides steer electric boats through the labyrinth, stopping at Shirts Mill Basin, open to the sky, and Singing Cavern, named for the moaning of the wind. On longer tours, try the traditional method of ‘legging’ the boat through the tunnels.
Entrance: 45-minute trips Wednesday to Sunday 10.30am to 3pm, October to January; £8/£7.50 adult/child. Two-hour Dudley Tunnel tours Sundays only March to October; £15.25/£14.25. Museum and café open daily (dudleycanaltrust.org.uk).
Stay nearby: The 18-month-old Travelodge Dudley Town Centre is a 10-minute walk from Castle Hill by public footpath; boubles from £29 per night, excluding breakfast.
Wembley Players’ Tunnel
A highlight of the Stadium Tour is the Players’ Tunnel, ‘the point of no return’; the transition between the relative calm of the dressing rooms and the roar of the arena. It’s large enough to fit two teams, the children accompanying them, match officials, mascots, photographers and Wembley staff – but the bust of Sir Alf Ramsay and a sign above your head make the message quite clear: you’re in the Home of Football.
Entrance: Non-match days only; £19/£12 adults/Under16s; VIP Tours £60/£45. Advance booking 0800 169 9933 (wembleytours.com).
Stay nearby: 10 Manchester Street is a 44-room boutique hotel a few blocks from the Baker Street Underground; doubles from £148.
Queensway Mersey Tunnel, Liverpool/Birkenhead
On July 18 1934 curtains hung over the entrance to the Queensway Mersey Tunnel for its grand opening by King George V and Queen Mary in front of a 200,000-strong crowd. The road tunnel connects Liverpool with Birkenhead and the excellent hard-hat tours include the control room’s giant ventilation fans.
Entrance: Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays 5pm and Saturdays 10 am; over-10s only (merseytravel.gov.uk). Advance booking 0151 330 4504 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stay nearby: 30 James Street, flamboyantly Titanic-themed, is in the ‘streaky bacon’ Albion Building, almost opposite the George’s Dock entrance; doubles from £74.
Traquair House, Peeblesshire
It’s hard to find anywhere more secret than a priest’s hole built in anti-Catholic Scotland during the seventeenth century: the price of being caught was a hideous death. At Traquair the family kept a priest to say mass and tutor their children. He used a secret staircase hidden behind a bookshelf to hide from the authorities, and so can you – it’s still there today.
Entrance: Daily April 1 to October 31, weekends only in November; advance tickets £8.50/£4 adults/children (traquair.co.uk).
Stay nearby: Traquair House has three rooms; doubles £200 per night including full Scottish breakfast, and as a nine-bedroom self-catering estate house.
The Deep, Aquarium Tunnel, Hull
Ever seen a potato grouper or a honeycomb whiptail ray? The (sturdy) glass tunnel at The Deep, lit by the dim blue light of the oceanic world, supplies magical views of its swimming denizens, including nurse and zebra sharks, stingrays and the UK’s only green sawfish. Just don’t think about the 2.5 million litres of water over your head.
Entrance: Online tickets £12.15/£10.35 adults/children aged 3 to 15 (thedeep.co.uk).
Stay nearby: The Holiday Inn Hull Marina is right on the water; doubles from £74.
River Caves, Blackpool Pleasure Beach
In 1902 a spectacular subterranean water ride opened beneath Blackpool Pleasure Beach. You can still chug through, oohing and aahing at the vivid displays, from dinosaurs to pharaohs. Over the entrance is a ‘Tunnel of Love’ sign, left there after Corrie filmed an episode here years ago (Vera had a fancy man in Blackpool).
Entrance: Wristbands £23/£21 Over 12s/Under 12s advance online, £39/£33 gate (blackpoolpleasurebeach.com).
Stay nearby: On-site Big Blue Hotel offers one night with breakfast and wristband; doubles from £129. The posher BLVD Hotel is slated to open June 1; doubles from £160.