Bizarre Tales Beneath our Feet
Beneath the landscape of Great Britain lie thousands of miles of forgotten tunnels.
Half a mile beneath me as I write, in the heart of the Nottinghamshire coalfields, a labyrinth of mining tunnels lies dark, damp and forgotten, having last felt the tread of human feet seven decades ago. There's one such shaft half a mile beneath my house.
Coal mines are one thing – but other tunnels – and their contents, are the source of legend, fear and mystery. As you sleep tonight, deep beneath you ‘flushers’ – the special breed of men who keep our sewers flowing free, will wade thigh-high in filth, braving rats and disease in a dank, dark world one step from hell – simply to keep the tons of daily human waste on the move. The history of London’s Underground rail network is rightly the breeding ground of a great horror yarn. Tunnels are the stuff of nightmares; they are somewhere we simply do not want to be. Here’s a witty extract describing the 1972 film Death Line from the website www.tvcream.co.uk.
‘The premise: Russell Square tube station is playing host to a series of gruesomemurders (including a show stopping spade-through-head) uncovered by a token boring young couple (the man played with rainforest- strength woodenness by David Ladd, son of cowboy short-arse Alan and, more pertinently, brother of the film’s producer Alan Jr.) when they find respectable civil servant James Cossins face down on the stairs. This same station was the scene of a disaster in Victorian times, when the roof collapsed on a group of tunnel workers, trapping them underground. Could these two tragedies be linked? Well, it wouldn’t be much of a film if they weren’t, and fortunately they are – in a marvellously inventive way.’
A Victorian Conspiracy?
As urban legends go, the following story seems, on the face of it, to be just that; an urban legend. But there’s more to this yarn than meets the eye.
In 1973, a young student called Pamela Goodsell was walking in a park in the Sydenham area in South London. She decided to take a short cut through an area of shrubbery. As she elbowed her way through the bushes, she felt the ground begin to give way beneath her feet. Within seconds she was tumbling down a dank-smelling shaft, soil falling all around her. With a violent ‘thud’ she landed on something hard, flat and wooden. Above she could see a distant, bright circle of light from the hole which had opened up beneath her feet. Stunned, she sat there for some seconds, catching her breath and hoping no bones were broken. She was in some kind of tunnel. From her pocket she took a box of matches and struck one. She had landed on the roof of what appeared to be a Victorian railway carriage. She stretched out and leaned over the edge of the roof and lit another match. What she saw sent her pulse racing. Through the grimy carriage windows, strewn with cobwebs and flecked with mould, she saw the skeletons of up to thirty passengers, still in rotting Victorian clothes. As the match burned her fingers and went out, she forced herself back into the shaft above her head, driven upwards by sheer terror, using her hands, knees and feet against the shaft wall until, bruised, grazed and gasping she hauled herself back into the daylight. Still terrified, she ran home and tried to convince herself that this had all been a dream.
She reported her grisly find to London Transport, but was told that she must have imagined all this; there was no record of a tunnel beneath the park, and even if there was, the likelihood of a train being sealed in there – still with passengers – was simply in the realms of fantasy.
Of course, I thought so too. It’s the kind of yarn Hammer Horror would have used – as we’ve already seen when Christopher Lee and Donald Pleasance did star in 1972’s Death Line.
Yet, quite by chance, as I was looking through some copies of the Illustrated London News for the year 1864 I came upon a story dated September 10th that year which may indicate that the mysterious Ms. Goodsell’s experience may just have been real.
T. W. Rammell was a Victorian engineer obsessed with the idea of the ‘pneumatic railway’. In 1864 a 600 yard brickwork tunnel, 10 feet high and 9 feet wide, was built to demonstrate his invention, ‘from Sydenham to the armoury, near the Penge gate’.
This would not match up with the area known today as Sydenham Wells Park, which is too far north. But the nearby Crystal Palace Park has a Penge Gate, and Rammell’s tunnel is supposed to have run from there to the Sydenham entrance.
Rammell’s train was driven along the tunnel by air pressure gained from a large fan wheel. To quote the article;
“When the journey is to be performed the brakes are taken off…the carriage moves by its own momentum into the mouth of the tube, passing in its course over a deep air well in the floor, covered with an iron grating. Up this opening a gust of wind is sent by the disk (fan) when a valve, formed by a pair of iron doors, hung like lock-gates, immediately closes firmly over the entrance of the tunnel, confining the increasing atmospheric pressure between the valve and the rear of the carriage…”
|Rammell's big demonstration of his pneumatic railway as depicted in the Illustrated London News, 1864.|
Thus the train would glide silently and cleanly along – a real novelty in the grimy steam era of 1864. “Instead of a train being used at Sydenham, there is one very long, roomy and comfortable carriage, resembling an elongated omnibus, and capable of accommodating some thirty to thirty- five passengers…”
Visitors to the grounds of the Crystal Palace could take this 600 yard underground journey, which lasted just under a minute, for sixpence return.
So, what happened to Rammell’s tunnel? Is it still there? Did some passengers take a one-way ride? Had it not been for the financial crisis of 1866, Rammell may have been the founder of the London tube system. In October 1865 he began work on the half mile Waterloo and Whitehall underground tunnel between Whitehall and the edge of the Thames. But Rammell ran out of funds in 1866 and his tunnel, (which apparently still exists) was abandoned.
I put out an unsuccessful appeal on London’s LBC Radio for Ms. Goodsell to come forward. Nothing was known of her whereabouts either now, or at the time of her experience. But Rammell’s tunnel is a fact. Is there a coachload of corpses beneath the park? There have been attempts to (if you’ll excuse the phrase) ‘get to the bottom’ of this mystery. Archaeologists, the BBC and others have come to the conclusion that story is full of holes, 20% fact and 80% romantic myth. No corpses have been found. But how did a modern urban legend like this get started?
Can such an immense engineering project as a tunnel simply vanish into history? The answer is yes. You can’t see tunnels – they’re underground. There are some bizarre remains down there, too.
Waldorf-Astoria or Roosevelt Platform under the Grand Central Station, New York. It was first used in 1938, but being famous because of Roosevelt, who wanted to hide this way the fact that he has polio and using a wheelchair. His train is still there, which was large enough for the President's armoured car, which could be taken underground via a giant elevator.
In 1912, The Degnon Construction Company were hard at work beneath the streets of New York building the City’s new subway system. One morning in February 1912, the soil before them suddenly gave way and the startled engineers found that someone had been there before them. They were amazed to find a perfectly engineered subway tunnel, with a carriage still on the tracks. At the end of the tunnel was a sumptuous 120-foot waiting room with murals, chandeliers and expensive tiling.This construction had been a massive, secret project carried out by one Alfred Ely Beach, famous in the USA as the owner of the successful magazine, Scientific American.
Back in the 1860’s, Beach had been inspired by Rammell’s attempts to run a pneumatic railway in London, and had decided to build his own beneath New York. Political forces were against him, and he was refused planning permission.
KING ARTHUR’S RESERVE
In 2002 I interviewed the late author Barry Herbert, who had been enjoying some success with his books on railway ghosts . During the conversation he told me a peculiar story of his meeting with a retired Sheffield engine driver, who, like him, was a dedicated railway buff.
Warning; FOAF imminent - (a ‘friend of a friend’) yarn!
Other than the location, Sheffield, Mr. Herbert refused to give me details of his footplate friend’s identity, claiming that the retired driver had signed the Official Secrets Act.
The aftermath of the 1963 Beeching Report, which decimated Britain’s rail network, coincided with the dark days of the Cold War and the growing paranoia around the possibility of nuclear Armageddon. As a long-serving steam locomotive driver, the hapless Sheffield railwayman was among many who were designated the sad task of seeing their faithful engines, which were to be replaced by diesel units, off onto their final trip to the breaker’s yards at Barry Island in South Wales. He’d already heard strange stories of footplate crews being sent home early from work only to return to find ‘their’ engine had vanished during the night. Then, one night in 1967, he’d been approached by ‘a man from the MoD’ and was asked, along with a selected few other drivers, to become part of a special crew taking selected locomotives on a journey not to the scrap yard, but to a secret location, where they would be mothballed for future use. However, every driver, fireman or Fat Controller employed in this scheme was required to sign the Official Secrets Act and never reveal the whereabouts of their slumbering Thomas Tank Engines.
Urban Myth - or Conspiracy nuttery?
The facts are thin on the ground, but there were selective records kept of all locomotives decommissioned and scrapped. Members of the train spotting fraternity are noted for their meticulous thoroughness, and those with a keen eye soon spotted the absence in the records of approximately 70 engines. It is known that at one time the Royal Engineers ran courses for the Sappers in steam loco driving . With the closure of the Longmoor Military Railway in 1969, which ran 70 miles between Liss and Bordon in Hampshire, the MoD lost its own in-house training facility. All this could be cited as circumstantial evidence, although it doesn’t prove locos were ‘spirited away’. However, if they have been hidden, then their location remains the Holy Grail for romantically-minded rail fans.
|A fine Stanier 8 preserved and ready for action|
This secret fleet of locos, claimed by train aficionados to be Stanier 8 and 9F models, most of which were only 10 years old, with an expected service life of between 50 and 100 years were to be kept in reserve in the event of a nuclear attack. The USSR had already done this, as had Sweden and some other Eastern European countries. It became known as the SSR (Strategic Steam Reserve). Railway fans of a more quixotic bent saw these fine machines in the role of a mechanical King Arthur, ready and waiting to answer the call in the hour of Britain’s need. Being organically propelled vehicles, and, at the time, the UK having huge coal stocks, they offered the prospect of some kind of transportation in an apocalyptic Mad Max landscape where everything electrical had been trashed due to the immense electromagnetic radiation given off by a nuclear blast.
The majority of serious railway observers regard the SSR as nothing more than a fanciful legend. But this is the age of conspiracies, and there’s no shortage of determined choo-choo theorists out there who remain determined to follow the rusty rails which they hope will lead to Arthur’s mothballed leviathans. So - if there’s any veracity in all this - where are the missing locos? Time to go underground.
It’s well known that had the Soviets threw a few megatons at us, then whilst we, Joe Public, would end up as crispy bacon, our noble leaders would have survived at the British government's alternative seat of power in the underground ‘city’ known as Burlington , 100 feet below ground at Corsham in Wiltshire. Covering 35 acres, 1km long and 200 meters across, its ten miles of tunnelling was built between 1956 - 61 to safely house 4000 ‘worthies’ - the Prime Minister, Cabinet Office, local and national government agencies, intelligence and security advisors and domestic support staff. After Burlington was decommissioned in 1991, it still remained secret until it was declassified in 2004. You’ll find no railway lines down there, because our rulers had their own fleet of battery powered buggies to get around on. However, some SSR hunters cite Burlington’s close northern neighbour, - Tunnel Quarry
|The eastern portal of Box Tunnel, Wiltshire, UK. The disused entry to Tunnel Quarry is on the right. Much speculation has surrounded the purpose of the long-removed line into the tunnel, the tunnel itself and the station deep within. Derek Hawkins [CC-BY-SA-2.0], from Wikimedia Commons|
Central Ammunition Depot as a potential loco store. It has underground railway platforms and a siding which many ‘hunters’ claimed as the final wartime destination for the Royal Train, transporting the Windsors to Burlington bunker; and that the 4,000 Whitehall staff’s requisitioned trains would disembark there ready for them to take up their Burlington residence. Tunnel Quarry remained in MoD hands, to house the Corsham Computer Centre, and its rail link to the ex GWR main line could have been used to house the SSR .
Another favourite potential locomotive hidey-hole is Brunel’s 1836 Box Tunnel between Bath and Chippenham. Rail travellers would be familiar with the Western portal to the tunnel, but there’s also an elusive Eastern portal. This is a small side tunnel to the north leading to an underground quarry which supplied the fine Bath stone used for many buildings along the line. Some claim that the locos are hidden away there behind large steel doors.
Then, in 2000, I came across an intriguing web site run by one of the SSR’s leading enthusiasts, Rory Lushman . Headed ‘Heapey, There’s Trains in Them Thar Hills’, this is a solid testament to the boundless investigative determination of an enthusiastic urban (or in this case, rural) explorer. After dismissing the idea of the Box Tunnel as the SSR’s hiding place, Lushman tells us “I was put in contact with a man called Paul Screeton who told me about another possible site. Paul has been investigating for many years unusual stories across the country, especially those concerning rail myths. He came across a railway worker who claimed to have seen lines of locomotives at an old former Ordnance factory in Heapey, Chorley.” The ensuing ten pages offer all manner of tantalising hints - elderly locals who used to call this place ‘the steam train graveyard’, and mysterious reports of nocturnal comings and goings. After his lengthy exploration of the site (albeit from a restrictive distance)
Lushman sums up:
|One of the Heapey Tunnels. Photo by Rory Lushman.|
“The locals recount the tales of the steam trains being kept in the hillside. We know for definite that the site is still visited by lorries and the police. What is going on in this small village of Heapey? Do the locals care? Is there something more than old ammunition, or maybe even new ammunition kept in the hillsides. Could old steam trains be kept there?”
Of course, this was all pre-Google Earth. So using this I took a look at the site and indeed there are four roads which end in tunnel entrances, and the site is still secured by serious fencing and walls, and patrolled by security guards. Could there be trains in there? Not according to secret bases expert Alan Turnbull . Turnbull admits that Heapey is still secret and still active, but has doubts about King Arthur’s locos.
Other possibilities include one of the three Woodhead tunnels in Yorkshire (although the favoured Tunnel 3 now carries National Grid cables), locations in Wales, and Scotland has its own clan of SSR hunters. This, for example, is from a forum discussion on the subject at http://www.secretscotland.org.uk/ :
“SSR is a possible explanation for the long tunnel in Greenock from the top of the town (where the Kilmacolm line and the link to the Paisley line join) to Princes Pier. This remained double tracked and the rails were still there the last time I looked …Why would you leave the rails in a disused tunnel? The rails also continued through the Paisley link tunnel joining the Wemyss Bay line at Inchgreen … and I am talking recently.”
Ultimately, the Strategic Steam Reserve wears the same mythical cloak of Joseph of Arimathea visiting Glastonbury, or Adolf Hitler staying at a B&B in Liverpool on the late 1920s. Anti-SSR adherents (and they’re legion) have some strong counter arguments. Locos stored in damp tunnels would need regular attention to stop them seizing up or rusting away. And here’s another thought - perhaps we already have the SSR in the many preserved steam lines throughout the country. But these mighty iron beasts, waiting there in the subterranean darkness … it should be a notion to keep any fortean in motion.
Romantic hogwash? Would any government at the height of the cold war have been so stupid as to destroy all but a few private engines and those run by museums? It seems doubtful.
Beneath the fields and streets of our country lie citadels, halls of refuge for the rich and powerful, and thousands of miles of hidden tunnels. Perhaps what keeps us from knowing more about this underworld is our fear of the dark, the deep and the unseen.
Bainton Roy The Mammoth Book of Unexplained Phenomena Constable & Robinson, London, Running Press Inc. USA.
Bainton Roy The Mammoth Book of Unexplained Phenomena Constable & Robinson, London, Running Press Inc. USA.
Herbert, Barry; RAILWAY GHOSTS Railway Book Club, 1985
Richard Trench & Ellis Hillman; LONDON UNDER LONDON John Murray, 1984.
Lambert, Anthony J., Editor, 19th CENTURY RAILWAY HISTORY THROUGH THE LONDON ILLUSTRATED NEWS. David & Charles, 1984.
White, H. P. FORGOTTEN RAILWAYS David & Charles 1986
Laurie, Peter BENEATH THE CITY STREETS Granada Publishing 1979