Is there a secret secret tunnel between Cuckfield Park and the Holy Trinity Church that was built in the sixteenth century? Evidence seems to be building to support a legend dating back some 200 years. In this feature, over three articles, we examine the evidence.
In the first we will look at the broader background of the historic use of tunnels between old buildings. In the next we consider what might motivate the builder of the house to also construct a tunnel. And, in the concluding article, we look at the actual evidence for the existence of the Cuckfield tunnel, and consider any obstacles there might have been to its construction and conclude as to whether there is any merit in the myth or not.
There is certainly an appetite for tales of secret passages and these have fed rumours of subterranean networks beneath many ancient towns and cities. These include Brighton, Lewes, Chichester, Guildford, Exeter, Northampton, Peterborough, Shrewsbury, Norwich, Knaresborough and many more. Scores of known tunnels are already documented, while some are actively being traced - others are proven to be an unsubstatiated fallacy.
Why are they built?
Underground passageways were built for many different reasons - for stealthy travel, as a means of eluding the monarch, the church or warring locals. They have also been used to escape from imprisonment or from a siege. And, especially in the case of Sussex, they have proved invaluable for smugglers to conceal the illicit movement of people and goods and for the safe keeping of contraband such as wine and spirits.
Tunnels vary considerably in dimensions. As for length - they may be just a 100 feet (30m), but more usually they are 500 yds (0.5km) and some are much longer. Heights vary from a tight 18 inches (45cm) to seven foot (2.2m) and more. They often feature a concealed exit to hide people escaping.
So let's have a look at a few examples, and more especially the ones closer to home.
Examples of ancient tunnels include those at Muchalls Castle in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Its ‘Cave Room’ in the castle is connected to Gin Shore - a smugglers cove - a distance of c2300 feet (700m) and with a 100ft (30m) descent to the sea below.
Bishop’s Palace, Exeter
At the Bishop’s Palace in Exeter, and elsewhere in the city, some 1400 ft (425m) of passages connect the cathedral and other buildings to benefit from fresh water from outside the city. Some 80% of them are still there today.
Elsewhere there are many examples of water and drainage ducts being built with the potential use of a future escape route also in mind.
Ufton Court, Tunnel to the woods
Ufton Court in Berkshire, a house dating from 1474, was raided at least twice in the hunt for priests in hiding. Some of their refuges were found in 1599 along with a small fortune in gold plate, but their human quarries had made good their escape down an escape tunnel. Traces of the passage has since been found leading to the nearby woods.
Reigate Castle, Surrey
The Castle mound in the centre of Reigate has a network of subterranean chambers and passages beneath it. These were documented as long ago as 1586. I worked in an office immediately above them for eight years - and still haven’t visited them! The Barons’ Cave (the collective name for the passages) was allegedly the secret meeting place for medieval barons on their way to sign Magna Carta. But their original purpose was to extract sand, and believed to date back many centuries.
The Royal family has ‘top secret’ escape tunnels out of Windsor Castle (to a street below) and from Buckingham Palace (to the underground system). So secret, in fact, that they have been widely publicised, filmed and photographed for the press and TV!
Windsor Castle’s Curfew Tower, the impressive battlement above the road which winds its way past the castle stands 100ft (30m) high and 13ft (4m) thick walls at its base. It was built by Henry III as part of a series of defensive improvements between 1227 and 1230. A sally port was also constructed, this tunnel through the walls would either enable a discrete escape route or could be used to harass a besieging army beneath.
There is a servant's tunnel in Johnstown Castle in Co. Wexford, Ireland some 280 feet (86m) long. And there is a big contrast between the lavish C19th entertaining upstairs and the lengthy walk made by their servants necessary to pander to their needs. The magnificent house and estate has recently been reopened to the public after a major refurbishment project.
Sussex is rich in examples of ‘mysterious secret passages’ and there are a wide variety of reasons as to why they were built.
A 'secret tunnel' exists at Pevensey Castle, near Eastbourne, which dates back sixteen centuries. It links the ancient fortifications with a house in Westham, over 2.5 miles (4 km) away, called Priesthawes. The house is believed to be Norman in origin. The tunnel is just 18 inches (45cms) high although some experts have dismissed it as a drain even though its lengthy route would suggest otherwise. Reportedly it was reused during the Second World War although there is no record of why. It’s not open to the public.
Royal Pavilion, Brighton
If you want to physically walk down a local tunnel there is one 200 ft long (60m) that runs under the Pavilion gardens. It links the Royal Pavilion with Brighton Dome, the former stables.
Built by George IV, who at the time was grossly overweight and unpopular with his subjects, to enable him to cross the estate without being seen, and visit his beloved horses. The cost of digging and lining the tunnel which they did using the ‘cut and cover' method was £1783 in 1821, that's about £150,000 today. Just occasionally the Royal Pavilion allows the public to visit it.
This 2012 video is by the former Keeper of the Royal Pavilion, Andrew Barlow.
Alice in Wonderland's ‘rabbit hole’, Brighton
Consort House on Lewes Crescent in Brighton has a ‘secret tunnel’ that’s believed to have inspired Lewis Carroll to write ‘Alice in Wonderland’ that allows fortunate residents to head from their £4m property's secluded and exotic garden - down to the beach front.
You can see more here 'Alice in Wonderland's rabbit hole' from the Daily Mail:
There is whole different world beneath your feet in the Old Steine in Brighton. In 1874 Sir John Hawkshaw designed a seven mile brick-lined sewer to transport the sewage from Portobello on the Telscombe Cliffs and out to sea at high tide. Today that is just part of 44 miles (70km) of tunnels that are forty feet (12m) below pavement level. Although the system was once a popular attraction for visitors sadly Southern Water has now closed it to the public.
Excellent photographs were taken four years ago by professional photographer Adam Bronkhorst:
The Priory, Lewes
The intervention of the Covid pandemic impacted plans to reveal more beneath the Cluniac Lewes Priory. The Lewes Priory Trust is still hoping that Historic England will finance an archaeological dig. They were to excavate the lavatorium - where the monks washed their hands before meals - and then, more excitingly, explore a mysterious tunnel.
Chichester city centre
There are many tales of tunnels under the streets of Chichester, mostly seeming to claim links to the Cathedral. One such is in South Street.
Matthew Hansford, proprietor of Hansford Menswear, described a blocked-off passage in the cellar of his shop, which he believes may have led in that direction. He observed, ‘The shop used to house the vicars and people who worked at the cathedral but I haven't been down there as it is breeze-blocked up.’ He added that the passageway was open in the 1870s and was once used by burglars in the 1970's to break-in to the shop. Today there is a tunnels group in Chichester trying to track down all the ancient subterranean passages.
On the website Triskele Heritage created by Dr James Wright FSA, an expert on building archaeology, discusses myths relating to mediaeval buildings and their reputed interlinking by a network of tunnels. His lockdown lectures included Guildford’s Subterranean World which is a mine (excuse the pun!) of information.
These have included proposed links between the Royal Grammar School and Allen House or the Star Inn and Holy Trinity and St Mary’s church. But naturally Guildford Castle is of particular interest said to be connected to the Angel Hotel, King’s Head, Royal Oak, NatWest Bank, St Catharine’s Chapel and Racks Close Quarry and other locations.
And lastly - and certainly not least - there is Cuckfield. Ockenden Manor (formerly Ockenden House), which is reputedly to be the home of the ‘grey lady’, a sad but friendly ghost. She is believed to have been a chambermaid who was known to have used this route to meet her lover. She was killed when the tunnel linking Ockenden Manor (or Ockenden House as it was then) to the old King’s Head (in the High Street) collapsed on her after a minor quake. It’s said that her ghost can be seen running to and from the old tunnel entrances.
Just as the location of King’s Head is most probably wrongly given as South Street when it's earlier location in the High Street seems more likely, the reason given for the collapse also seems improbable. The most likely explanation, if the myth is true, is that the tunnel ran under the coaching yard behind the hotel and it gave way under the vibration and weight of the stage coach traffic above.
But the very fact that a discrete passageway was built, presumably by the wealthy landowner to receive 'pub grub' and a freshly poured pint, seems insufficient reason for the expense and trouble. However the length of 350 feet (100m) is quite a feasible length.
Conclusion of part one
So there are plenty of examples of ancient tunnels in Sussex, Surrey and beyond - at least where geology will allow. Most of the older towns seem to have examples. As for their age, they appear to have been mannoy constructed in the more turbulent times of around the c14th and c15th when landowners were very much concerned about looking after their own personal safety and that of their families.
In part two of these articles we will consider the many reasons why the builder and owner of Cuckfield Park, John Bowyer, would have been motivated to build a tunnel.
Priesthawes from Sussex Depicted: Views and Descriptions 1600-1800 (Sussex Record Society) by John H. Farrant
Lewis Carrol's Alice in Wonderland inspiration https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/4491760
Baron's Cave, Reigate https://letsgowiththechildren.co.uk/places-to-go/the-reigate-caves/
Guildford Castle courtesy Sophie Garrett.
Thumbnail picture is a compilation of a picture of a Shakespearean procession in Stratford-upon-Avon and a photograph taken in Brighton Sewers.
Location map by Malcolm Davison. Map data with open database licence from openstreetmap.org. Copyright link.
Contributed by Malcolm Davison.