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Rumblings were heard deep beneath the streets of Newcastle long before the Metro transport system was built. Diane Varty dons a hard hat to venture into the darkness
As you stroll along the crowded pavements of Newcastle city centre, you would never guess that 65 feet below you runs a 170-year-old tunnel that has provided work and sanctuary for generations of people who live in the city.
Named after the young Queen Victoria, the tunnel has had a long and fascinating history since its beginnings as a colliery wagonway for the Spital Tongues Colliery.
This mysterious arched, brick-lined tunnel is one of Newcastles closely guarded secrets.
At the time, the colliery owners found that not only was it expensive to transport coal through the streets of Newcastle, but also that the residents complained about the noise and disruption to their lives too. The owners solution was to propose an underground route to run from the Town Moor to the Tyne, where the coal would be loaded on to ships.
Taking two years and ten months to construct, the Victoria Tunnel was designed by engineer William E. Gilhespie and opened with great pomp and ceremony on April 7th, 1842, by the Mayor of Newcastle.
The underground route originally cut 2 miles through Newcastle from Spital Tongues to the mouth of the Ouseburn. The Albion band played as 200 workers gleefully celebrated the tunnels opening with supper and strong ale, served up by Mrs Dixon of the Unicorn Inn in the Bigg Market.
Eighteen years later, after the colliery could not attract a new buyer and all the equipment was auctioned off, the pit closed and the tunnel was left in darkness for almost 70 years.
In 1928, enterprising Thomas Moore opened a mushroom farm using 1,500 feet of the river end of the tunnel. His business, unfortunately, closed in 1929 although some other farmers grew mushrooms there until the 1950s.
During the approach to World War Two, Anderson shelters meant for city gardens or yards were found to be too large to erect safely so that the planners in charge of Newcastles defence had to think of something else to protect their citizens, and they recalled the long disused, damp and dusky tunnel.
In 1939, at a cost of 37,000, the colliery tunnel was converted into a World War Two air raid shelter for up to 9,000 people. Chemical toilets, which people remember smelling strongly of disinfectant, were placed in canvas cubicles near the entrances and wooden benches were set along the walls. Five hundred newly-installed bunks helped Novocastrians and their children to cope with those night-long bombardments.
Engineers placed blast walls at the entrances to absorb the pressure of possible bomb detonations just outside and prevent injuries from flying debris. Electric lights and a new concrete floor completed the renovations inside the old wagonway.
After 1945 and the end of the war, the tunnel was deserted again, only being looked at in 1954 as a possible shelter when nuclear war seemed that it might break out. Fortunately, the underground sanctuary was never needed for that contingency and, in 1976, the tunnel, from Ellison Place to Queen Victoria Road was incorporated into the citys sewage system.
Part of the tunnel is now a heritage site run and maintained by the Ouseburn Trust, whose dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers are delighted to help evoke the history and mystery of the Victoria Tunnel. It was developed by Newcastle City Council in 2006, and was funded by Heritage Lottery and Single Programme money.
The old wagonway mostly swarms with children on educational visits and adults thinking about how fortunate they are not to have to crowd down there when the air raid sirens start to wail.
The tactile panel outside the main entrance was carefully developed in consultation with local members of the Newcastle Society for Blind People.
The tunnel entrance at the Ouseburn Farm, Lime Street, ushers you on to the gentle sloping path into the start of the 766 yards (700 metres) of surviving tunnel. For your tour, youll be issued with a smart hard-hat with its mounted torch, and, if youre very tall, you might have to duck a bit as the tunnel ceiling swoops down in certain areas. Stringent health and safety precautions are in place to prevent injuries.
If youre thinking of paying a visit, wear your winter woollies because the tunnel keeps a constant temperature of 12 degrees C.
Reopened on April 27th 2009, the first year saw 4,500 adults and 1,500 school children paying a visit to the attraction.
The space is confined so visitors are limited to twelve at a time. Booking for tours is essential and the friendly, knowledgeable volunteer guides will keep you right. The tours begin at Lime Street. Adults pay 3, children under twelve 2 and those under five go free.