Voted THE number 1 thing to do in Newcastle on TripAdvisor, a trip down Victoria Tunnel has been on my to do list for a long time and it absolutely didn’t disappoint. I headed there yesterday afternoon with my friends Molly and Sarah and participated in a two hour tour which was as funny as it was fascinating.
Victoria Tunnel is, in a nutshell, a 19th century wagonway originally built to transport coal from Spital Tongues Colliery to the Tyne and then later converted into an air raid shelter during WWII. It is 2.25 miles long, but only 700 metres of it are currently accessible. The entrance to the accessible section of the tunnel is in the Ouseburn Valley and that is where we began our tour with the knowledgeable and incredibly funny Steve.
Steve entertained us with various stories and facts as we walked through Ouseburn – my favourite of which was that back in the early to mid 1800s there were 129 pubs in Ouseburn Valley. Today there are just six and I still think of it as being a fairly boozy little part of Newcastle. Of course, back then pubs weren’t what they are today – Steve said a pub could literally be somebody’s living room, but STILL – 129. Wow.
Upon reaching the entrance to the tunnel we were given a hard hat and a torch (and so OBVIOUSLY took a couple of photos) and were told that we were first going to hear about the tunnel during WWII before being handed over to another tour guide to hear about the tunnel during the Victorian times.
During WWII a lot of people in Newcastle didn’t have the outdoor space to build an Anderson Shelter to protect them during air raids and so an alternative was needed. The government initially gave just £9000 to convert Victoria Tunnel into an air raid shelter – a slightly optimistic figure given that the eventual cost exceeded £37000! Again, Steve told us a number of stories about life in the tunnel during the war. These ranged from sad stories, such as one about a man who suffered such horrendous shell shock during WWI that when WWII began he moved into Victoria Tunnel and stayed there for the entire duration of the war, to funny and inspirational tales. I won’t repeat all of the stories here; firstly because I have no chance of remembering them all and secondly because I would hate to ruin the surprises for anybody thinking of heading down the tunnel. I will, however, share my favourite story… During WII up to 7500 people could be spending around 12 hours a night every single night for weeks in the tunnel. There were only 600 bunks available and the tunnel was a damp place with (unsurprisingly) poor air quality and pretty horrendous toilet facilities. At some point the government became concerned about the health of people having to endure this environment night after night and sent somebody from the Ministry of Health to investigate. He spent 24 hours in the tunnel and then asked a local man what he thought about the situation and apparently the man responded:
“Wey man hinny, you’re better off damp than deed!”
After which the man from the Ministry of Health sent a letter back to the government saying something along the lines of “Being from mining stock, the people of Newcastle are possibly better fitted constitutionally to resist underground damp conditions than those in the south”. Or, as Steve put it, people from Newcastle were a lot tougher than “southern softies”.
After hearing the WWII stories we were handed over to another volunteer; Kelly. After having been so impressed by Steve, Kelly had a lot to live up to and she absolutely nailed it, providing us all with a range of humorous tales about the tunnel’s early days. Victoria Tunnel was the brainchild of two men, Porter and Latimer, who, eager to get involved in Newcastle’s thriving coal industry, had bought Leazes Main Colliery, only to discover that the coal they were mining was of low quality and thus unpopular with the people of Newcastle. Unperturbed, the men came up with a simple solution – they would instead sell their coal to people who seemingly had lower standards when it came to coal quality – Londoners. What Porter and Latimer needed though was a way of transporting their coal from their colliery down to the river Tyne and thus the idea for Victoria Tunnel was born. It took only 200 men just 2 years and 10 months to build the 2.25 mile tunnel and when they were finished they were taken out on a three night bender to the Bigg Market to celebrate. Yes, really. Apparently they were given a lot of pies as well, although I am not completely sure why. The tunnel opened in 1842 and, although initially a financial success, was in operation for just 18 years before the pit and thus the tunnel were both closed. Again, Kelly told us numerous other stories about the tunnel and again I won’t repeat them all. I can only say that considering we were essentially just in a dark space underground, with not a great deal to see, the two hours in the tunnel were perhaps the two most fascinating I have spent on any activity thus far on this blog. I am so grateful to people like Kelly and Steve who give up their free time to provide such an interesting and entertaining experience and I really cannot recommend it enough.