A famous General with an illustrious career in the British Army once owned a stunning country house in one of the UK’s home counties. So charming was the location, that Queen Victoria later turned up in disguise as a prospective buyer. With many square kilometers of land, the huge estate was left untamed for most of the General’s life, but after his retirement from the army, he put his time into improving the grounds, and adding many beautiful features to them. Many of these are well known and seen every day by passers by but others lie further in, out of sight of prying eyes, inaccessible after a very recent, high profile sale and renovation of the location which has transformed it into one of the country’s, if not the world’s most sought after homes.
Among the General’s most interesting additions was the construction of a series of tunnels, their purpose unknown. Having propped up the chalk for over three hundred years they are now well worn. Visible only from the small surrounding valley, the arches carved into the chalk face lead into an underground chamber containing the broken plinths of former statues. A human foot carved of stone, from another Romanesque garden feature rests beside.
At one end of the ten metre chamber would have stood a grander statue, long gone. In the shadows at other end of the room is a thick steel gate, padlocked firmly. behind is a narrow unlined tunnel curving to the right, then left, until it leads out of view but to the inquisitive explorer the mysterious gateway is no barrier.
The first section of tunnel leads to a junction. One of the passages is now infilled and not from a natural collapse it would seem. There is definitely no evidence of that on the surface. Where it leads is a mystery. There are other tunnels here which are much more visible to the public on the estate’s riverside cliffs so there could well be more.
Looking into the main passage the torch light disappears into the darkness. There is no end, or turning in sight. The clean chalk lining is holding well 300 years on with no signs of distortion. At reaching this point I was in shock of what I had discovered, with no idea of where the long tunnel would take me.
Now more than a hundred metres in, a slight incline is just visible in the distance. The tunnel is only partially lined and now the bare walls appear to crumble onto the floor. The question on my mind is ‘Why?’ Why go to these lengths? Is it a religious site or what? Other local estates of the time are famous for their extensive tunnels with histories of illicit, drug fuelled orgies and satanic cults which certainly gets the mind racing.
After around 180 metres of walking finally something is visible up ahead. Unfortunately this is a brick wall. It has, at some point in time been breached, the hole leading out into woodland, with no light outside to see I guessed that was it but vowed to return under a clear sky one summer evening in the future.
After further research dredging the internet for whatever scraps of information I could find I returned, armed with nothing more than a reference suggesting ‘a network tunnels’ rather than just the one. I had a feeling there was more to this interesting grotto than I had previously seen and set out hiking across the lush, green countryside on a warm evening to find out.
Timing was not ideal, it was dark again by the time I arrived at the entrance and even darker by the time I reached the other end. Out I climbed, into the woodland to be greeted with a warren of uneven earth with a surprisingly large number of openings into a small, U shaped chalk face, some looking natural, others obviously man made . Buzzing with the possibility that they may all follow separate routes I tried hard to remain pessimistic and was right not to expect much. The entrance to the original passage is surrounded by a series of small caverns linked to one another. Partly propped with cut stone, but mostly bare chalk. The key features are a concrete channel in the floor, possibly for the later installation of electricity cables as their remains are also lying on the floor. Still, to me the exact purpose of these chambers is unknown. They are a distance from the main house so use as a pantry or ice house seems impractical. I would expect the General had them constructed as an underground hideout in the event of war.
A lonely school chair remains down here, presumably from the house’s former use as a boarding school. I can imagine the boys sneaking down here for a smoke and a beer to get away from the regimentation of their institutionalised school lives. The sell by date on a few rusty beer cans goes back to 1984 so this is quite likely.
Further investigation is needed to find out the true extent of the underground network. I am sure I will post those images soon enough but for now the site can retain some of it’s elusive mystery.