I was born and bred just outside of Newcastle city centre. I have the Geordie accent, never lost even after years of living elsewhere. I have the renowned Geordie ability to venture out in freezing temperatures minus a coat. What I’ve realised I don’t have is a great grip on the local history of my own home town. Spending a few days back in ‘The Toon’ last month as a hometown tourist, I seized the opportunity to begin putting that right. Starting with a tour of the Victoria Tunnel.
Modern day Newcastle is a city break destination with a thriving arts scene, a plethora of places to eat and drink and shopping prospects galore. But before Newcastle built its reputation on fun, it was built on industry. This was the city of ship building, manufacturing and coal.
The desire to make industry ever more profitable led to the creation of The Victoria Tunnel. Devised in 1838 by a couple of canny lads and colliery owners by the names of Porter & Latimer, the tunnel was designed as a wagonway to be the quickest and most efficent way to carry coal from the mine to the River Tyne. Completion in 1842 was celebrated with a cannon salute and a party in the city’s Bigg Market. Incidentally, the Bigg Market is still famous for its party atmosphere and weekend shenanigans.
Despite being an amazing bit of design and engineering, the tunnels working life ended in 1860. Closure of the pit meant closure of the tunnel, and shortly after, the river end of the tunnel was demolished to allow for construction of a bridge. In 1928, an optimistic entrepreneur attempted to develop the Victoria Tunnel Mushroom Company , but neither the business nor the mushrooms grew and so the tunnel was largely forgotten.
Fast forward to 1939 and local people found themselves in need not of mushrooms or a wagonway, but of shelter. As well as being a target as a port and industrial city, The River Tyne was used by German pilots as a navigation aid and as a last point for dropping bombs before returning to mainland Europe. The tunnel was pressed into use once again as a public air raid shelter.
New entrances were added, but being placed from inside the tunnel it was a bit ‘best guess’ at where they came out. Hence why entrances ended up in unusual places, like someone’s garden. I’m sure they were thrilled. Basic facilities were added including bunks, benches and nurses stations. Toilets of a sort were provided. There’s no plumbing down there, so you can imagine. The end of the war meant the end of the tunnels purpose and, once again, it was closed and left in darkness.
Our guide for the tour was wickedly funny and engaging, and obviously had a real passion and in depth knowledge of the city and how it coped in WW2. From stories of the ‘Byker Grannies’ who planted themselves in the shelter at lunchtime to stake out space for their families to the mystery of the missing lightbulbs, the tunnel’s stories were spun vividly to life.
Despite meticulous research from a team of committed volunteers , there is one thing in the tunnel that even our guide couldn’t explain. When the tunnel was reopened as a visitor attraction, a small crucifix and roll of honour was discovered on the walls. There are a couple of theories, but has never been confirmed why it was made or who it represents. Perhaps one day someone will visit the tunnel who will recognise a name. Or maybe, despite a well documented history and all the visitors who pass through, that will be one secret the tunnel will keep to itself.
From the tunnel exit, its a short walk onto Newcastle’s scenic Quayside with its famous bridges and buildings and from there a pleasant walk back up into the city centre. Walking around Newcastle after the tour, it was amazing to think that this city of historic and interesting streets has something pretty special tucked away beneath them too.
Tours for the Victoria Tunnel leave from the Victoria Visitor Centre at 55 Lime Street in the Ouseburn area of the city. Tours are delivered by a team of volunteers and can last one or two hours. Hard hats and torches are provided. Closed toe, sturdy shoes are a must, Find all the details here.
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