Weird Norfolk: The hidden tunnels in Gorleston and Great Yarmouth
- Credit: ©Copyright Mike Page, All Rights Reserved
Deep below our feet, there is a world we only hear about in whispers.
And so it is in Gorleston, where stories have been passed down about the tunnels that once ran from river to town, from shore to shore.
The Reverend Forbes Phillips was the Vicar of Gorleston from 1893 until his death in 1917 and while in position, he also wrote a great number of books and plays.
Known as the Fighting Parson, he was regularly brought before local and county magistrates on the grounds of libel, slander, vandalism and assault.
He once attacked the offices of the Yarmouth Mercury and horsewhipped its editor after the paper published an unflattering cartoon.
As an author, writing under the pen name Atholl Forbes, he wrote an account of the High Street Vicarage where he lived, which he later revealed was completely based on fact.
“I live in a house that was constructed with a view not only of the Yarmouth Roads and the North Sea, but a further one of plundering the Revenue...,” he wrote in The Romance of Smuggling.
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“Beneath my feet as I write are large and roomy cellars, once used for the storage of imported goods, and until a few years ago a subterranean passage connected these with a landing stage by the waterside…”
Meanwhile, on website gtyarmouth.co.uk, a tale is told of tunnels that snaked beneath both Gorleston and Great Yarmouth.
There was, according to Arthur E Bensley, who is quoted, rumour of a tunnel that was beneath the old Anchor and Hope pub at the Harbour’s Mouth that ran to the river.
The pub had boasted a lookout tower for beachmen to watch for shipping in distress before an organised lifeboat service existed and a mortuary to store any victims of the sea before they could be suitably dealt with.
Demolished in 1897, The Pier Hotel was later built on the site.
Another tunnel was said to run from The Feathers Inn on the High Street to the river in the 1700s and a third from the old Priory of the Austin Friars on the top of the High Street to the river.
Another tunnel was bored under the River Yare in the 1900s: 7ft wide, it linked North Quay to Cobholm and carried fresh water from the Broads through mains via the 161ft Caister water tower to serve Gorleston.
Mr Bensley describes walking through the tunnel only to find that the access on the other side was blocked: “It was really eerie on the way back, as a coaster was making its way up river to Norwich and the sound of her propeller and engine became almost deafening as it passed overhead!”
Just 15 feet under the river bed, for years, water company employee Mr R Calver walked the wooden-floored tunnel six days a week, ensuring all was well.
He went through a hatch off North Quay to descend a 50ft shaft to cross painstakingly to Cobholm, inspecting the pipes and the 218 numbered segments joined together to create the facility.
In 1949 the Great Yarmouth Mercury sent a reporter to accompany Mr Calver on his routine inspection by torchlight.
Unsurprisingly, the journalist worried about seepage spots and mini-stalactites, and wondered why segment 108 was marked with a prominent N while neighbouring 109 had an S.
Mr Calver explained that they noted the exact middle of the River Yare and the old boundary between Norfolk (on the Yarmouth side) and Suffolk.
On gtyarmouth.co.uk, a story offered by Lorraine Davidson (nee Bell) tells of childhood dashes under the river: “A group of us Cobholm kids were returning from a day in town, when we were playing in a yard where we were not supposed to be, and noticing an angled sided wooden structure, we began to have a look and finding a lock broken we all began to climb down - not realising the danger – into the dark tunnel.
“While walking across, we heard a boat above travelling to the Cobholm side – we walked along a narrow plank with pipes on either side.
“When we got across to the Cobholm side, we began to climb up, but the stairs ended at the top and we had to climb round the outside of the tunnel by clinging on to holes in the sides with our fingers. We all made it out, but if one of us had slipped, we would have fallen to our deaths.”
This under-river tunnel was blocked in 2019, the gateway to an eerie underworld sealed. As to the other tunnels, rumours still fly.