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Is there is a tunnel across Cuckfield Park? (3)

In the final part we look at some recent evidence that might give support to the legend of a tunnel under Cuckfield Park.

In article one in this series of three articles we looked at the likelihood of having a tunnel in Cuckfield by looking at other local towns and villages in Sussex and beyond.

In article two we established that the most likely owner of Cuckfield Park to have constructed a tunnel - Henry Bowyer - had good reason to be concerned about his security.

Miss Fairbrace (left) and Miss Black c1950

Fred Wheatland was brought up on the Cuckfield Park Estate and the story of the alleged tunnel was well known to both himself, his grandfather and other estate workers - and indeed more widely among villagers.

On one occasion around 1968 his grandfather, who was head gardener on the estate, was asked by Mrs Fairbrace, the Principal of the domestic science college based there at the time, to take some fruit and vegetables from the garden to the kitchen. On arriving at the back door he noticed a builder's vehicle parked outside from local contractor Stephen Knight (based in Whiteman’s Green) whose men were doing some work at the house. Fred continued:

'On going into the kitchen he saw the builders further up the corridor in the wine cellar area. In a conversation with one of the workers he was told, that during their work, they had exposed an entrance way to a passage. The passage had collapsed about 15 feet in (5m) and was deemed to be unsafe. It was subsequently filled in, bricked up and invisibly rendered.' Was this the starting point of the legendary tunnel?

The mysterious semi--circular arc (circled in red) on Rev JH Cooper's 1912 church plan in his book

In his teens Fred was a choirboy in the early 60s Fred went on: 'One day I was doing what choir boys often do - got up to mischief. The lads were swinging on a rope in the West Tower of the Church. With the help of a push from another boy I gained sufficient height to land on top of a cupboard. And, to my surprise, I looked down and saw that the cupboard wasn’t a real cupboard at all - it had no contents and had a false back.'

He explained that it had been designed to match a couple of others in the Tower area. From his vantage point he could see water a long way down behind the ‘cupboard’. To confirm this he dropped pebbles down and could hear a splash a long way down. This was in the north west corner of the tower. Could this be the other end of the tunnel perhaps?

Mysterious quadrant on the church plan

Curiously the church plan in Rev JH Cooper's 'The History of the Parish of Cuckfield' shows a semi-circular arc drawn in this very location.

We wonder whether the reflooring of the church, carried out in 2012 reveal anything? Maybe someone can come up with some helpful answers.

The practicalities of tunnel construction

The North East corner of Cuckfield Park seen from the air

If a tunnel did exist between the mansion and the church then let's consider its possible route. Starting with the north wall of the house and ending at the tower of Holy Trinity Church. This is 0.351 miles (620 yards or 565 metres).

The route is almost exactly East-West allowing for the deviation of magnetic north since the mid sixteenth century. This could have been usefully enabled tunnellers to use a compass during construction - or maybe the precise alignment appealed to the devout churchgoing residents.

There is less of an elevation difference between the house and the church than you might imagine - from the contours of an Ordnance Survey map it appears to be 50 ft to 65 feet (15-20 metres). This would be a very gentle climb uphill to the church.

The possible direct tunnel line superimposed on an 1897 map

But a tunnel needn’t be in a straight line - and might it might deviate to avoid obstacles such as trees or ponds. A straight line would go close by a pond and a small copse of trees. Trees would have been a greater problem 450 years ago as the park was more forested then. A map confirms that the pond existed in the early 1800s and might be a natural feature that predates this.

Passing close by the pond could have been all part of the plan - it would allow the builders to incorporate concealed ventilation in the bank of the pond, and even enable the tunnel to drain off water leaking from the tunnel roof and flowing down the hill. It might have been the main exit, or an additional exit. At 800 feet from the house a tunnel of this length seems more practical and sensible.

North elevation of Cuckfield Park

Further evidence of insecurity

On arrival - pedestrian access only from the Clock House

In the previous article we looked at the Bowyer's potential safety concerns at the time. And we get some clear evidence from the occupancy 100 years later by Charles Sergison (1655-1732), that the front of the property was unusually secure. The evidence comes from an article written by Mark Antony Lower in the Sussex Archaeological Collections:

'Cuckfield Place possesses the adjunct of an entrance gate, some few yards in advance of the mansion. It is known as the clock-house' as it contains a clock, which is supposed to regulate the time of the house. Of its date there is no record, but I think it may be assigned to the reign of James I.

'It is built of brick, and is shown on a map of the estate drawn in 1681. There was formerly, on each side, a flanking wall, so that no carriage could enter the courtyard, and visitors were compelled to alight at the archway, and the porter who lived in the clock-house admitted them to the front door across a wide paved court.'

This 'closed even to guest's carriages' description also matches the layout on an 1809 Sergison estate map in the West Sussex Archives. So there is a good chance that this was the same in Bowyer's day. I am not sure what the guests would have thought when getting out of their carriages in the pouring rain and crossing the courtyard to the house.

The railings up to the Clock House were previously walls - and walls additionally protected the gardens on all sides. We can presume, as the Bowyers were makers of armaments, that the easily defendable Clock house - would have been well stocked with guns and ammunition. As a last line of defence the house would have resisted attack too. Considering all this, the protection for its occupants had been well considered.

Tunnel lining issues

Returning to an escape tunnel, there are a number of troubling constructional issues which are a fundamental challenge the likelihood of the tunnel legend.

North East corner showing a raised lawn

The exceptional length of the tunnel presents many problems. To prevent collapse it would have had to have been lined with wood, brick or stone - and large quantities would have been needed over this considerable distance.

On the positive side, all these materials were available on the estate. Local clay could have been used to make bricks on site, there is building sandstone quarried on the estate and the parkland was well wooded.

The geology

The geology of the Park estate varies from solid sandstone to soft clay, both of which could present their own problems - being too hard, too soft and offer drainage issues. As for suitability for tunnelling - we need a geologist to ascertain that.

The second concern is ventilation. There would have to have been regular sources of ventilation - and while essential over such a distance - these could also betray the presence and route of the tunnel.

What method was used to tunnel? Unless the builders were dealing with solid rock the easiest way to construct the tunnel would be ‘cut and cover’. This is the way the tunnel into the central area of London Heathrow Airport was built. You cut a trench, construct the tunnel and then backfill. The downside is that all the locals would guess what you were up to. If they are friendly, maybe not a problem, if they are not (as we know they were not) - then this would be unwise.

But the Cabinet War Rooms in London were constructed in full view of the Luftwaffe and they had no idea that a key target was being built. Perhaps cover stories of drainage works might have been fabricated to cover the activity.

Why has no evidence been detected

The tunnel route to the church crosses the Park and, over 450 years, it seems probable that at some point there might have been subsidence and a collapse. There was also a chance that landscaping work or building work would have revealed it. Then again, the route crosses a main road and you might have thought that the vibration of heavy traffic might have resulted in a tunnel cave-in or that roadworks would have betrayed the route. Nothing has been found in any records about this.

Sergison Estate field boundaries superimposed on a modern map*

A curious field shape close to the Church

Intriguingly the Sergison estate (according to the estate plan of 1809) owned a narrow strip of land to the south of what is the Church Platt today leading right up to the church tower. This would mean that a tunnel from Cuckfield Park would not have had to undermine any houses - and the odd shaped field was protected as being part of the estate. The adjacent plot to the north was rented from the estate by the Burrells. An assumption here is that the estate did not materially change from the Bowyer's time.

*I have tried to simulate the field positions on the map above, but the original plan was crudely drawn and the field boundaries cannot be accurately placed.

Does the rear provide better cover for an escape route?

Most likely option?

So if a tunnel exists, I have to favour an exit somewhere near the pond, north of the house. And to give the house occupants the greatest chance of escape there may have been more than one escape route out of the house.

Perhaps one alternative route would have been to lower ground at the rear of the house. It would have provided good cover and led fleeing occupants away from the main entrance. They then could have made their way between two ponds and westwards towards Ansty, or they could have headed northwards towards in the direction of what we call New England Wood today.

There are other possibilities. Could the now bricked-up basement passageway have led to an underground ice house beneath the raised garden to the north? This would most likely have been added during the nineteenth century. Or did the tunnel have an exit just beyond the garden boundary wall - or to the cottages to the north?

In conclusion

In these articles we have considered the likely arguments, and discussed some circumstantial evidence which may deserve further exploration. We would welcome any further information and discussion on this subject - either via the Cuckfield Gossip Facebook page or directly to our contact page on this website - about this or other tunnel rumours.

So we don't have a definitive answer on the Cuckfield Park to Cuckfield Church tunnel, for the moment at least. But I hope you have enjoyed the read and maybe learned one or two things along the way.

Malcolm Davison


POST SCRIPT Since we published the first article in this series Martin Buck posted in Cuckfield Gossip Facebook Group that his grandmother once told him of a rumour of another tunnel from Butler's Green House to Cuckfield Park 1.5 miles (2.4km) away, and Andy Revell confirms of having heard of this one as well. Many of the arguments that apply to the church tunnel apply to this one too - and the distance does seem exceptional.

Jocasta Fearn posted that her mother believed there was a tunnel from Cuckfield Park to Ockenden Manor which was used as a priests' tunnel.

Nancy Towner's mother-in-law was a kennel maid at Burnt House and she was told that a tunnel went from the house to Cuckfield Park and the house was associated with many spooky tales.


The tunnel route map is superimposed on an 1897 map.

The drawing of the Clock House, and Mark Antony Lower text came from 'Sussex Archaeological Collections Relating to the History and Antiquities of the County, Volume 25', Sussex Archaeological Society, 1873.

Second map shows information from Sergison Estate data superimposed on a modern map from

Rev JH Cooper's 1912 church plan

Many thanks to Fred Wheatland for his contributions, including the photograph ofMiss Fairbrace and Miss Blac .

Researched and written by Malcolm Davison.


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