Knowle and Totterdown Local History Society
When I looked out of the window on Sunday morning my heart sank: the sun was shining, skies were clear and all was set to be the warmest day of the year so far. What a pity I’d committed to spending 2 hours this afternoon under 30ft of rock! So it was with quite a heavy heart that I set out at the best part of the day to find our starting point, the Avon Gorge Hotel foyer. Shirley and I were the last to arrive but Peter Davey was waiting with the rest of the K&T crowd. He explained that the hotel owned the railway tunnels and so had an interest in welcoming groups of visitors. The hotel has recently changed hands and so we shall wait and see how proactive the new owners become when it comes to renovating some part of the old buildings.
Leaving the hotel, we first walked past the old spa building. It appeared to be a low-roofed, but vast area but Peter showed us photos that showed it to be a very glamorous dance hall. As it turns out, looks are deceptive: street level is only half way up on the inside making the space for a large ballroom. Jean remembered dancing here with her hubby back in the day.
As I cast a last, longing look at the terrace cafe, bathed in warm sunshine, we climbed through the gated iron railings toward the downward steps from the elegant Clifton spa area to the railway’s top station. Here we saw one of the original iron turnstiles which let passengers enter one by one onto the tram system.
Everywhere there are brackets, fittings and pieces of memorabilia of times when the tunnels played their part in other periods of Bristol’s history: as a transport system from Hotwells to Clifton; and as protection during World War II as a shelter for many local people.
Today’s electricity system, although reminiscent of Heath Robinson, keeps the tunnels safe for small parties of visitors and volunteer workers. The effect of the light bulbs disappearing into the distance down the tunnel is both a welcome and atmospheric sight.
Peter took us down a staircase that had been built within the wide tunnel during the war. There were two long sets of stairs, one on either side and the tunnel itself had been divided by brick walls to form sections that had differing uses. The first was used to make and repair the ballast balloons.
The mid-way blocked areas were used as air raid shelters where people lucky enough to have tickets, could come to stay safe during the bombing attacks. The rails had been removed and the steep drop had been blocked out in steps, three abreast. Each person had one “shelf” in this area which allowed them just about enough room to lie down. Once the war was over, the refuge-seekers left their hum-drum kit behind in the tunnels: obviously considered worthless once Britain was peaceful again but during the war years, these cups, blankets and small home comforts made life bearable for them as they had to leave their homes to shelter from the blitz.
At the bottom of the tunnels, and blocked by a thick brick wall from the hoi-palloi above, were the rooms reserved for the BBC. Although ventilation had been thoughtfully provided by high-level holes in the brickwork dividers between the shelter stages, the lower tunnel and Hotwells station had been blocked off and ventilated separately to ensure the BBC could transmit come hell or high water (with climate change, this remit would have needed some rethinking these days). Bristol “Whiteladies Rd” was the substitute for London and Clifton Rocks was the backup for Whiteladies.
These lower rooms had been totally wrecked: as far as we know by various hobos who used the open tunnels after the war until they were closed to the public for safety reasons although the BBC may have done some damage in rescuing any kit when the war ended and they no longer needed this sanctuary.
At the very bottom of the shaft there is welcome daylight from the Portway where cars into Bristol whizzed by almost within arm’s reach. No wonder it is sealed by an iron grate: it would probably be a sudden end if you popped outside to look at the river. By crawling through a 4ft x 4ft hole in the thick wall we arrived at the lower station where you can just make out the top of the arches that decorate the Hotwells entrance. In a dark corner there were saucy sketches of curvy women (photos withheld in the interest of political correctness) leaving us to wonder whether the BBC staff manning the studios during air raids had other business on their minds or if they were hobo-art. We were told that there never had been a broadcast from the tunnel although the preparation was in place – to the point where there was a coded message to be sent to an undisclosed recipient (followed by a cyanide pill) if Bristol were to fall.
From this point in our tour it became clear that the only way was up – literally! More than 300 steps later we found ourselves back at the Clifton station where we made our way around a small museum area with exhibits including photographs of the lower stages (for those who would find the tunnels too challenging) and various artefacts found by volunteers over the years.
Outside, once more in the sunshine, we were taken round to the back of the top station to see the impressive architecture. With the magnificent terrace cafe overlooking us on one side and Brunel’s fine bridge the other, this stylish facade is beautifully set off. It would be lovely to restore the dance hall section to some useful function. You can’t help but think it would make a perfect wedding hall. One day ... maybe. Perhaps the new owners of the hotel will invest and consider making it more than a store room?
Peter and his small group of volunteers continue to make small but sure steps to renovate the tunnels so that they can tell their own story of Bristol’s past. There is no chance of restoring the railway again: in any case, it possibly has more impact as a piece of history as it stands, telling us two very different stories from opulent spa railway to air-raid shelter.