The Civic Society column with David Winpenny

The entrance to the tunnel and the Gothic Temple, Studley Royal. (Copyright - David Winpenny)
The entrance to the tunnel and the Gothic Temple, Studley Royal. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

Few of us would want to be accused of having tunnel vision. For some, of course, tunnel vision is a distressing ophthalmic condition. But the words are more often used of someone with a single way of approaching a problem or a situation – it’s perhaps even more pejorative than ‘blinkered’.

Yet real tunnels have always held a great fascination for humanity; as our ancestors roamed the earth’s surface they were intrigued by what lay beneath their feet, and used caves and natural tunnels for shelter and protection – and for their art. And ever since, tunnels have been dug for all manner of reasons.

The portal of Brunel's Box Tunnel.

The portal of Brunel's Box Tunnel.

These thoughts are prompted by work currently being undertaken at Norton Conyers, just north of Ripon, to repair a tunnel in the grounds. It appears to date partly from the 18th and partly from the 19th century. Its purpose was to preserve the view of one of the hall’s residents, an earlier Graham baronet, from his breakfast room window; he would see the workmen passing to and from the stables, so he decreed that they were to walk in the ditch below the ha-ha wall and then into his newly-constructed tunnel, which took them into the yard behind the stable block – always out of his sight.

He was not alone in wanting to keep the lower orders hidden. Many 18th and 19th Century houses used tunnels to shield the eyes of the gentry from any view of servants going about their work. There are impressive examples at Calke Abbey in Derbyshire, at Castle Coole near Enniskillen in Northern Ireland, at Blickling Hall in Norfolk and at Cromarty House in Scotland’s Black Isle; the latter is said to be haunted by a Green Lady.

Also in Scotland, Paxton House, near Berwick-upon-Tweed, has a tunnel linking the kitchen (kept well away from the main house in case of fire) to the main below-stairs areas.

It was not always the servants who were kept out of sight. Unsightly deliveries such as coal were also kept from aristocratic eyes; at Chatsworth, for example, there is a tunnel through which coal, unloaded at nearby Rowsley station, was transported, unseen by most, in coal wagons on small-gauge rails through the grounds to the coal store, from where it was used to stoke the boilers in the vast greenhouse known as the Great Stove, demolished in 1920.

One of the entrances to the Coal Tunnel, Chatsworth. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

One of the entrances to the Coal Tunnel, Chatsworth. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

Part of the route went under the great Cascade at Chatsworth – in a tunnel looking as if it was there in the 18th Century; walking through it is quite an exciting experience, especially as water from the torrent above can shower through the brickwork in places.

Such experiences were not new; the poet Alexander Pope had a tunnel dug in 1721 to connect his house to his garden, which was across a public road.

He treated his tunnel as a grotto, lining it first with shells and later with geological specimens that would glitter in the candlelight.

At Studley Royal there is another sort of tunnel – one expressly intended to give you a certain frisson of terror as you entered. It’s the Serpentine Tunnel – more a dog-leg than a serpent, with only a single bend, but sufficiently curved for visitors to feel they are stepping into complete darkness, as their exit is invisible from the entrance.

The 51-yard-long tunnel, made in the 1730s, was constructed by digging a trench into the rock and then covering it with limestone blocks covered in rough tufa.

The Studley tunnel is an early example of a trend that came to the fore later in the century. This was the taste for the Sublime – being impressed by the aweful majesty of nature.

There are gardens that use tunnels to give their visitors this sense of awe; the prime example is, perhaps, Hawkstone in Shropshire, where a labyrinth of tunnels was dug within the soft sandstone, with occasional apertures from which to view the landscape below.

Even in the more serious 19th Century tunnels were used in gardens. At Biddulph Grange in Staffordshire the mid-Victorian garden includes an Egyptian Temple made of clipped yew; enter through its stone doorway and you are in a tunnel.

Ahead of you is a squat statue of the Ape of Thoth, according the Egyptian mythology the author of all works of science, religion, philosophy, and magic.

The statue is lit from above with light filtered through red glass. Turn right along the tunnel – and you emerge from a half-timbered Cheshire cottage.

None of this is strictly tunnel, as it’s not underground, but by the time the garden at Biddulph was being designed there had, of course, been many years of professional tunnelling, not just in mines but for canals and later for railways. Tunnels such as Standedge, opened in 1811 on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal and highest and longest canal tunnel in the United Kingdom, were the wonder of the age.

Train tunnels, too, were considered stupendous works; Box tunnel on Brunel’s Great Western Railway was particularly celebrated; when opened in 1841 it was the world’s longest railway tunnel – and it’s said that Brunel aligned the eastern end so that on 9 April, his birthday, the light of the rising sun would shine through it.

Sometimes Victorian railway tunnels were given elaborate castellated or classical entrances; Bramhope tunnel near Leeds has one such – replicated in miniature in the churchyard at Otley as a memorial to 24 men who were killed during the tunnel’s construction.

These days tunnels are often larger but rather more utilitarian in appearance; visitors to the Faroes can travel between the islands on a network of modern tunnels, for example, and tunnels through mountains and under rivers and seas can be found around the world.

London’s Crossrail project – now officially the Elizabeth Line – is delving ever deeper beneath the capital, ready for its full operational opening in 2019. And there are now discussions about a new tunnel, up to 18 miles long, beneath the Peak District to link South Yorkshire and Greater Manchester.

All this tunnelling seems to fulfil some human need – perhaps, after all, everyone suffers from some degree of ‘tunnel vision’.