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The Underground Tunnels of High Wycombe

| November 27, 2015

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A few evenings ago my good self was listening to a programme on Wycombe Sound 87.9FM when a guest in the studio raised the topic of underground tunnels in High Wycombe.

During the radio programme it was mentioned that the tunnel network is not documented.

Well, it just so happens that only a few evenings previously my good self had been sitting in my private library at my ancestral home inspecting a paper on the very tunnels in question.

The paper, which I obtained from Wycombe Reference library many years ago, had been written by LJ Mayes, a respected author on the history of Wycombe.

Not many people know this but in Wycombe town centre there is a network of underground tunnels, nobody is quite sure what they were for or who constructed them but they are definitely there and there is evidence to prove it.

The tunnels are located in the High Street area and run up Priory Road towards the current site of the museum at Castle Hill House in Priory Avenue. Another tunnel, linked to Wycombe Abbey, was discovered in the 1960’s when the Abbey Way roundabout complex was constructed.

Whether it’s one tunnel or a series of tunnels forming a network is open to question.

In this blog I hope to shed some light on the tunnels of High Wycombe, explain more about them and collect together the references available on them.

Castle Hill House

The tunnel at Castle Hill House was know about as far back as the 19th Century.

In 1820, an archaeologist by the name or Dr. Browne Willis carried out archaeological investigations on Castle Hill, during which several subterranean rooms and passages were discovered leading from Castle Hill Mount down to the Parish Church and the town.

The tunnel was uncovered at a spot on the Western end of the Mount. The report of that investigation is documented on the archaeology section of the Bucks County Council website on which there is a link to the archaeological object report.

The first link in the last sentence also mentions that in 1909 a passage was found under Castle Hill House that lead out beneath the garden in a South or South Westerly direction.

During construction of the railway to Oxford excavations revealed a tunnel leading in one direction towards Castle Hill House and in the other towards the town centre. (Source : ‘Underground Tunnels’ by LJ Mayes). Was this an extension of the tunnel discovered in 1820?

The Castle Hill Tunnel is also mentioned in the following :

Priory Road

The Priory Road tunnel starts opposite the Wesley Church, at the back of what is now Primark (Source : ‘Underground Tunnels’ by LJ Mayes). This was once the location of Wheelers Brewery before it moved to Easton Street.

The tunnel runs down towards the High Street to what used to be ‘The Grapes’ public house on the Northern side of the High Street (now a well known High Street chemist). The tunnel is believed to pass through the vault of the Parish Church, through the basement of the Antelope public house and on to the High Street.

According to accounts this was a big broad tunnel with rails running down it and barrels of beer being transported on small tracks.

Going off subject for a moment, I believe the Parish Church has a large vault underneath it the entrance to which was block off during renovation works when a large memorial was placed over the entrance.

High Street

The Priory Road tunnel, after leaving the basement of the Antelope appears next at number 1 High Street, currently a barbers shop, then runs along the back of the properties on that side of the High Street.

Several businesses in the High Street had to brick up the tunnel which ran through their properties in order to maintain security.

It is believed that another branch of the tunnel leaves the basement of 1 High Street and runs towards the Falcon public house however this is not documented.

It is possible (not proved or documented) that these tunnels also linked to the second (and last location) of Wheelers Brewery in Easton Street (on the corner of Queen Victoria Road / Easton Street where the Royal Mail sorting office is located).

A picture of the vaults under Wheelers Brewery can be seen at the following link on the Sharing Wycombe’s Old Photographs site :

Vaults under Wheelers Brewery (Easton Street) : http://swop.org.uk/swopimg/web/RHW02007.jpg

Abbey Way

During construction of the Abbey Way roundabouts in the 1960’s a workman discovered a tunnel when his pneumatic drill went through the tunnel roof. Obviously the tunnel had to be filled in to make it safe for the traffic to pass overhead.

This tunnel was a link from Wycombe Abbey to the Abbey’s kitchen garden which was located in the area we now know the St. Mary Street (search in the linked document for the term ‘kitchen garden’).

The roof of this tunnel was very ornately decorated with flints. A photograph of the Abbey Way tunnel, including one of the entrance can be seen at the following links on the Sharing Wycombe’s Old Photographs site :

Conclusion

So why could the tunnels have been constructed and by who? Well, this next paragraph is purely speculation and guess work.

The Castle Hill site has been linked to military activity. Perhaps the tunnel were used as an escape route for anyone in Castle Hill should it come under attack? If the military settlement at Castle Hill came under attack then soldiers could run down the tunnel and come up behind the attackers and mount a surprise attack?

As for the tunnel leading from Priory Road to the Castle Street end of the High Street, well, it was could have been used to transport beer from the brewery to the plethora of public houses that lined the Northern side of the High Street. But surely it would have been too expensive to construct a tunnel simply for transporting barrels of beer that could have been transported above the surface?

Perhaps the Priory Road/High Street tunnel was a storm drain? There certainly was a storm drain constructed in the High Street indeed it discharged into the tail race of Pann Mill which annoyed the miller as the storm drain brought not only water but mud and debris too.

The purpose of the Abbey tunnel is clear and obvious. It was a link to the kitchen gardens located a short distance away in St. Mary Street.

Well, that certainly was a marathon blog, hopefully some will read this and spur them on to research the topic of Wycombe’s underground tunnels further as there is so much we do not know.

Perhaps you know more about the tunnels? Why not leave a comment and let us know?

What do you think?

*My blogs are published every Tuesday and Friday evening around 8.00pm here on the WycombeToday.com website.

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