Friday, 14 August 2009
How do you lose a tunnel?
Newport has a rich underground life with cellars, many interconnected stretching from street to street.
None of these cellars, basements and tunnels are as yet inhabited by werewolves, vampires or ghouls but the premises are there, desirable and vacant to let.
One of the more interesting and persistent legends are those focused on the supposed secret passages in and around Newport Castle. One went under the river Usk to the parish of Christchurch. Who built it, or why is not explained, nor has the tunnel been found.
One tunnel was, however, and then subsequently lost. Only in Newport could you lose a tunnel.
Between 1890 and 1899 Newport castle was a Lloyd and Yorath brewery. Its water came from an old well in the old castle grounds but by 1891 its water had all but disappeared.
Harry Jones, the brewery foreman, went down the well to investigate, and there he discovered a stone-walled tunnel heading in the direction of Shaftsbury Street. With only a candle to guide them, Jones and another man explored the tunnel, wading through a fast flowing stream to its source at a well in Thomas Street.
In 1901 the last of the town’s wells (Baneswell) was closed and sealed. The water would have had a meaty taste because the well was clogged with dead rats. Rats not ghouls infested Newport’s underground. In 1920 16,000 rats were trapped or killed in the town. Three years later several babies were bitten in their prams by rats, probably in revenge.
But that didn’t stop the search for the ‘lost tunnel’.
In 1931 an employee of the Borough Engineers Department rediscovered the tunnel whilst draining an overfull well. His tunnel forked, with one branch going on to Thomas Street and the other going left towards the Old Green Hotel which then stood on the corner of High Street and Dock Street.
Again, who built the tunnels and why, have never been discovered, but at this point the question becomes academic because the tunnels were once again mislaid. Busy roads now surround the castle, but during their building no tunnels were found. In 1951 eighty five year old Harry Jones was asked to relocate the tunnels, but too old perhaps, he failed.
For those interested, Haydn Davis has written several interesting chronicles on Newport's history, all available in Newport Library. But my brief survey has now ended, probably not before time. Its only validity in what is essentially a record of one baffled spirit is that History is a consuming interest, along with the arcane. In Newport you have both.
Find the tunnel!