Tunnel Vision

Jo Seaman

I have grown up with stories of secret tunnels. 

Suburban myths of passages linking Victorian cellars on an old bomb site (known, rather enigmatically as The Spare Land)  in my childhood of the 1970’s and the ubiquitous smugglers’ lairs and underground escape routes of rural Kent and Sussex in my life since.  They have followed me around, intrigued me and spurred me on to explore the truth behind them.

Over the last 16 year living in Eastbourne, I have heard time and again about the tunnels that honeycomb the ground beneath the Old Town area (although I have been told of many more outside this area too). I have heard too, of the tales of vicious smuggling gangs and holy brothers who constructed and used them, and of course of the White Lady apparitions who inevitably still haunt them.  So I took it upon myself to research the reality behind these stories and where possible, physically explore these subterranean secrets.

Widely, in folklore and local lore, tunnels are said to be connecting an ancient Church with an almost as venerable pub or perhaps a parsonage or manor house, or indeed all four!  Eastbourne has at least three of these covered.  These passages are usually attributed to smugglers or to misbehaving monks and if stories are to be believed both these groups dug the tunnels here!

So, in Eastbourne, where are these tunnels located? 

To answer this question it is easiest to start off by referring to the map below which outlines the main alleged tunnels in the Old Town area of Eastbourne (you will have noticed my very original names for each).

What is clear from this is that all of these passages begin or end at one point and that is in the basement of the Lamb Inn.  This enigmatic building is a well-known and loved local pub and looks to have served a similar function for over 400 years[1].  An archaeological report written by David Martin in 1998 has been invaluable in this research and still stands as the most comprehensive survey of the building where much can be gleaned about its real history and architecture.  In brief, the present building has its’ origins in the late C14th or early C15th as is shown by features now in the basement and has had a number of phases of development, particularly in the late C15th or early C16th and then the C17-18th all of which have left their mark on the building. 

For decades visitors have gleefully descended the cellar steps accompanied by a member of staff to be shown the basement of the pub, including a beautiful vaulted undercroft and of course, the infamous tunnel entrance.  This entrance has itself been bricked up at various times but was last opened up completely around 1969 and lo and behold, behind it there seems to be the very epitome of a secret tunnel.  From the doorway you peer down at a stone arch and beyond that a pitch black void, disappearing in the direction of the medieval Church of St Mary or indeed the slightly later Parsonage Manor House.

Old Town Tunnels (a modern map overlaid by one from 1870, EBC)

So what does this mean? 

Firstly it is worth talking about the vaulted undercroft that has variously been attributed to Norman Barons or Cluniac Monks or both.  This is a very fine structure and example of high status secular architecture dating, stylistically from the last part of the C14th to early C15th (so that discounts the Normans at least).  The central boss is in the form of a pomegranate, quite a common motif in the medieval world that can represent anything from Jesus, The Virgin Mary, fertility and abundance to wealth and prosperity, so could point to a secular or ecclesiastical origin.  However, the fact that there is not an ounce of evidence that Eastbourne ever had an organised religious community (as opposed to Easebourne in West Sussex which had a well-known Augustinian Nunnery and later Priory – so an understandable mis-apprehension) would tend to discount Monks too.  What seems far more likely is that this undercroft represents the remaining part of a high-status medieval merchant’s house, which may also have partly functioned as an inn[2]

Now onto the meaty bit – the tunnel itself, the imagined entry of Tom, Dick, Harry, Fred and Charlie

First a bit of background.   The part of the cellar that is said to contain the tunnel was once not a cellar at all but a semi-subterranean ground floor of a medieval building, thus any early tunnel would have to be considerably deeper.  But before even debating this, David Martin really puts the subject to bed with his survey of 1998 where he alludes to the traditional belief that this part of the basement area has a long association with tunnels but his inspection (and others since[3] including our own) have come to the conclusion that no tunnel exists. 

Instead what we do have and for me is just as exciting, is a spectacular garderobe (or toilet) pit built around the same time as, or a little before, the medieval undercroft mentioned above.  This pit, partly cut into the chalk bedrock and partly built of well faced flint and sandstone is at least 6.5m deep and is 1.6m wide to the east tapering to just 0.6m to the west where the pit ends.  It is still partly full of soil and debris that, from a brief inspection dates to the early post medieval period and is not particularly easy to access at the moment.  After my investigation, I concur with earlier explorations and David Martin’s report that this is a pit and not a tunnel, despite initial appearances to the contrary.

The garderobe pit at The Lamb with the author at the base (EBC)

 I can’t overstate what an incredible pit this is!  Built originally to service this building and probably one to the north, both of which would have had an upper floor garderobe emptying into this pit, which at the time would have been accessible from the road so some poor ‘gong farmer’ could be employed to empty it from time to time.  The walling visible from inside would have stood above ground level to around 0.9m. This was necessary to stop anyone falling into the pit from the road and meeting a very unfortunate fate.  The doorway to the ‘tunnel’ seen from inside the cellar is probably slightly later than the pit itself, but still C14th or C15th and is a great indication that this was a high status building and also already an inn by this point.  It is actually the entrance to a separate room built against and over the pit (the original level of its wooden floor is visible in the walls) and formed a second (or possibly third) toilet associated with it.  It looks like this smallest room was accessible from the interior of the then ground floor of the building and the provision of such a profusion of privvies could well point to the building being used for hospitality at this early date.

So, sorry, so far no tunnel or at least tunnel exit\entrance under the Lamb, but on the plus side an absolutely stonking series of medieval loos!  This does sort of scupper the veracity of the other tunnel stories but perhaps it is just this exit point in the basement of the Lamb that is wrong – the others still need investigating.

Now let us explore Tom and therefore as they both ‘surface’ at the same point, Charlie too.

After the Lamb, the next most popular tunnel stories focus on the Old Parsonage or more correctly, Netherin or Treasurers’ Manor, another rather lovely building standing to the north and at right angles to the Parish Church of St Mary’s.  The present building was constructed in the first quarter of the C16th and replaced an earlier manor that was originally the Eastbourne residence of the Treasurer of Chichester Cathedral[4].  There are convincing mentions of a tunnel entrance being found at the foot of the present stairs by one of the entrances to the Manor House during renovations in the 1920’s, again in the 1960’s and in recent years.  To investigate the ‘Parsonage’ tunnels, I first had a look in the two cellars at either end of the Tudor building and pretty much proved that, like The Lamb’s undercroft, these cellars were only semi-subterranean (both have high windows to let light in) and were constructed in an existing terrace, around 1.5m high.  Thus any tunnel opening in the cellars would have to plunge significantly deeper or be above ground level all the way from this building to the pub!  Also, though there were patched up areas of masonry and modern brickwork there was no evidence of a tunnel opening in either cellar.

Anyway, local lore says that the tunnel is found by the doorway at the foot of the stairs (roughly in the position of an earlier stair to the privy chambers above) not in the cellars, so is there any evidence there?  Well, yes there is. 

First let us look at a photograph from the 1920’s (below) which shows the position of the alleged tunnel and it does indeed show something that looks a bit tunnel-like in the floor ( in the floor below the blocked window in the photo).  Also of interest is the chimney type structure on the right of the aforementioned window which itself gives us a clue as to whether this void is a tunnel or has some other function. 

As luck would have it, on enquiring about the secret passage, the Verger of the Church showed me that the carpet in this area was not secured and the tunnel was viewable on the removal of a couple of floorboards.

On inspection, the void certainly was interesting, but alas, not a tunnel.  It is a walled structure roughly 2m by 1.5m and around 0.8m deep (though the bottom was covered in rubble), more of a tank than a tunnel. On inserting my head (carefully) into the void, I could also see that the chimney connected to this tank with a small arch opening into it.  The logical thing to do then is follow the chimney up to see what was at its’ top.   

The Old Parsonage (The Budgen Collection, ESCC, The Keep)

In a small room on the first floor, indeed more of a closet, the chimney terminated in an alcove in the east wall.  This confirmed what I thought.  We had another early toilet!  This was likely to be C16th and with a much smaller cess pit, but nonetheless performed the same function as the corresponding tunnel in the Lamb. It is actually quite easy to see how these garderobe pits can be misinterpreted as tunnels, the spanning arches look like doorways, the pits themselves are large and run away from the buildings and by and large they are full of rubble (or worse!).

This discovery effectively proves that Tom the Tunnel does not exist and pours doubt on the reality of Charlie, as whatever Charlie is, it does not emerge in the Parsonage. But as we have said before, there could still be something in the tunnel story at this site as there has been in the previous two.

The tale of Charlie tunnel has always been the least believable for me as, the story goes (and is written on a variety of websites and newspaper reports) “…the monks built an underground passage from the Church to the Parsonage so they could travel unseen by the local population”.

Straight away let us do away with monks, they were at Easebourne (over 50 miles to the west) not Eastbourne, next the Parsonage was actually a residence of the Treasurer or a tenant farmer so really a passage would not be welcomed and lastly, why were the monks so shy?

Anyway, is there any truth to this at all?  In short…no. 

There are a set of steps that run down to a doorway beneath the church on the north side (roughly) opposite the Parsonage and what might look like a passage does appear to run off towards it. But a five minute inspection shows that this tunnel is actually a C19th coal store (with a hatch just visible in the churchyard above) that was used to feed the massive boilers in the room opposite beneath the Chancel of the Church.

So Charlie can be crossed off our list.

Next let’s have a look at Harry.  Unlike the other tunnels I have spoken to people who are direct relations to those who have actually been down this tunnel. 

A large C18th building ‘The Lawns’,to the north of the Parsonage was demolished in 1935 and various channels and underground passages exposed. Local children were some of the first to explore these mysterious features, noted at the time as being so large that they could be crawled through. There are also corroborative contemporary details recorded that actually give a good description of these tunnels, down to hooks for lamps, ‘used by smugglers to light their way’.  These witnesses included eminent local historian, Walter Budgen[5] who saw the passages and came to his own conclusions. 

Of all the other witnesses, Mr Budgen was the only adult (that I know of), the rest all children.  Why is this important?  As children, being smaller, everything appears much bigger, also our memories as children are not as reliable, having a lifetime of outside influences to manipulate them.  The best estimates are that these passages were 3-4 feet tall and built in brick, certainly a squeeze even for the smallest of smugglers.

The area where The Lawns once stood was and still is very susceptible to flooding from the many springs in the area that feed the Bourne Stream[6]. The description of these tunnels does suggest that these were in fact drains to keep the newly constructed cellars from flooding.  In fact to this day cellars of the nearby Star Inn still flood when there is heavy rain or  the water table is high, therefore the need for some serious drains in this area is obvious.

A newspaper article from October 1934[7], at the start of the demolition, speaks of ‘more tunnels’ being found and at that time there is no doubt in the authors mind (or any other adult!) that these were drains or water courses for the service of the house.

In this case, at least, underground structures did exist  although their use was far less romantic or nefarious than tradition suggests. It also shows that our memories can play tricks and that an experience in childhood can become something grander and more exciting after many years of remembering, mis-remembering and sharing.  It’s worth mentioning that some of these eye witnesses when questioned about the tunnels 30 or so years ago were adamant that these were the mystery smuggler’s tunnels of folklore and there is no way in their mind they could have been something as mundane and functional as drains. Although this is undoubtedly what they were.

Now for the tunnel I have Christened Dick. This is the focus of some of the most popular stories locally, connecting as it does the Vestry (or more correctly Sacristy) of the Church to the tunnel entrance in The Lamb. Probably the most memorable tale was from the recollection of a local gentleman who told me his father had heard that none other than Dick Turpin had used this tunnel on his frequent (yet elsewhere undocumented) visits to the pub. The most frequently recounted though is that the monks (sometimes priests) used the tunnel so they would not be seen entering the pub by more sober members of the community!

Obviously we have discounted The Lamb ‘tunnel’ but perhaps there is another that burrows beneath the Churchyard in another direction…if we can just find something strange going on in Sacristy.

This is latest part of the medieval Church built sometime at the very end of the C14th or early C15th and on lifting the carpet the first thing you see is a large iron grill covering a square opening in the stone flagged floor. Revealing the opening did make me feel a bit like I was in a scene from The Goonies or some other adventure film from the 1980’s.  But once again, even after just a brief inspection, it was easy to see that this ‘tunnel’, initially a brick conduit and then a large ceramic pipe heading north, was nothing more than a good bit of Victorian engineering, a drain. 

St Mary’s Church is built on a slope running down from south-north and there is evidence of springs rising in the vicinity of the Churchyard, as they do all around this part of Old Town.  These factors combined mean that drainage beneath the church is needed (and in evidence throughout) to maintain a dry and damp free building.  Reports from the C17th and C18th state that whitewashed walls in the Chancel and private Chapels had turned green with algae and it would appear that the Victorian residents of Old Town and the ambitions of the formidable Reverend Pitman (at Eastbourne 1828-90) would not stand for this situation.  At great cost heating and drainage was installed and conditions within the building greatly improved. 

An interesting point here is that most of these specific tunnel stories can only date, at the earliest, to the later C19th or early C20th as that is when the boiler steps (associated with Charlie), the substantial drains ( identified as Dick), the discovery of more drains under the Lawns (Harry – post 1935) and the restoration of the Parsonage that revealed the cavity (Tom – 1920’s) were all either created or discovered.

The cellar of Pilgrims (from the Budgen Collection, ESCC, The Keep)

The last of our tunnels up for discussion here is Fred.  Another fairly often quoted piece of historical ‘fact’ is that in the road outside the Lamb (to the south) probably during the 1960’s (but possibly the 1950’s, 70’s or 80’s) a hole literally opened up revealing a sizable brick lined channel running uphill towards Borough Lane and some ancient houses situated there.  I am pretty sure that such an incident did happen and from all the eyewitnesses I can say with some confidence that what was seen was a culvert or early drain which as we have already said were very necessary on such a sloping site with an abundance of natural springs and wells fed by the fluctuating water table. As soon as this became evident, local people remembered a story relating to a tunnel opening in the basement  of the beautiful house just up Borough Lane called ‘Pilgrims’.  This is certainly an ancient dwelling dating back to at least the C17th and probably earlier (it also has a rather tenuous link to Charles Dickens but that is another story).  Unfortunately I haven’t yet had the opportunity to look at the cellars myself, but I was able to access an  excellent C19th drawing and early C20th photograph that provide a great deal of detail of the cellars.  Despite showing alcoves, air vents, chimney supports and built in early-looking storage cupboards, there is no indication of a tunnel entrance which would surely have been of interest to the illustrator.  True, this isn’t proof that there is no tunnel, but it does indicate to me that it was not visible at the times that these images were created.  This drawing also indicates that the cellar was once part of a later medieval semi-subterranean basement, similar if not as elaborate as that found in The Lamb and this is certainly something that needs further investigation.

Well, we are pretty much at the end of a much lengthier exploration of the tunnels of Old Town than I originally intended.  But I hope that you agree that it is such a fascinating subject it would be a real shame not to look at it in some detail.  Also at this point I should point out that this is very much a precursor to a detailed report on the evidence uncovered here, not for tunnels maybe, but for some fascinating features of our architectural and social heritage.

I haven’t found any secret[8] tunnels in Eastbourne so far, but am I surprised?  Not really. Although there are hundreds of stories of secret tunnels between churches and taverns used by smugglers, shy monks or ill-fated lovers there is very little evidence for them, at least in this context around the country. As Anthony Clayton mentions in his excellent book ‘Secret Tunnels’ (Accumlator Press, 2015):

“Having read hundreds of these reports, it would appear that many residents of almost all sizeable English towns believe they are living atop a honeycomb of tunnels and passages, ignored or deliberately concealed…”

Eastbourne it would appear is one of these towns. 

When looking specifically at tunnels used in the act of smuggling, most specialists in that subject agree that of all the evidence for this undoubtedly commonplace activity, tunnelling is the ‘one least founded on fact’[9]In places like Eastbourne, there was no need for tunnels which, by their very act of construction would have brought people from far and wide to see the undertaking (you cannot be very secretive about removing hundreds of tonnes of gleaming white chalk in the middle of a thriving settlement), as many people in the Town were undoubtedly sympathetic or involved with smuggling in the C18th and early C19th.    – we have solid evidence for it. There is no reason to think that some of the cavities and cellars already dismissed as tunnels were not used to store contraband at this time and I am sure that many more await discovery. 

 It is common for architectural anomalies to be misinterpreted, for example, many a stately home’s Priest Hole is actually evidence of an earlier garderobe chute (that may conceivably have had a dual purpose at times) and it is not surprising that some of the examples we have looked like have been mistakenly identified as secret tunnels.

I believe that these stories about secret places go back a long way, although the earliest mention of our Eastbourne examples dates back to 1863, when the antiquarian M A Lower wrote of the story of a tunnel from The Lamb to the Parsonage that ‘there is not the least ground for the tradition’.[10] He was relating to a story told to him by a local source, so it must have gone back a fair few years and on seeing a bricked up doorway leading, apparently, under the road, I can see why it did.

We will continue to explore these stories and seek the evidence whatever that may be and you never know, one day one of them may just prove to be true.[11]

Secret tunnels are exciting, a common feature of literature and film, they have an allure that has led them to become, over a matter of just a few hundred years, in many cases less, part of our culture, a fact without evidence but a story with plenty of tellers.


[1] Martin D, 1998, Report No 1314, The Lamb Inn – Old Town Eastbourne, Archaeology South East

[2] There are many stories associating the Inn with pilgrims which, until recently I have rejected as romantic fantasy.  New evidence from a project looking at the Church of St Mary may just give us a hint of some truth here.  This just goes to show that all stories need careful investigation.

[3] Local researcher Fred Bridger carried out an exploration in 1971 and produced a report published in the Eastbourne Local History Society Newsletter, No 75, Spring 1990, pp 23-26

[4] The Treasurer of Chichester Cathedral was responsible for the building of St Mary’s in the C12th and the Eastbourne estate produced the only income to the Treasury in these early years and always formed a big part of it until the late C17th

[5] Reverend Walter Budgen, curate of St Marys 1899-1910, then retired to Eastbourne in 1912.  A keen local historian and researcher, Budgen has produced in my opinion, the most accurate history of the Town so far in ‘Old Eastbourne, Its Town, Its Clergy, Its People’

[6] At least 6 springs are known to rise in this area and there are probably a lot more to be identified

[7] The Eastbourne Gazette, Weds October 24th 1934 “More Underground Passages”

[8] As opposed to ‘known’ tunnels such as the C19th Eastbourne Water Works examples running from the Downs to the Town

[9] Richard Platt, Smuggling in the British Isles – A History, Tempus 2007 pg 61

[10] Sussex Archaeological Collections, Volume 10, 1858, Pgs183-4

[11] Very recently we have come across evidence that may just, even partially, corroborate another tunnel story from another part of town

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