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Going underground in Suffolk

PUBLISHED: 12:18 17 January 2018

Cattle Tunnel, Needham Market (c) Andy Rogers, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Cattle Tunnel, Needham Market (c) Andy Rogers, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Archant

There's a 'hole' lot of mystery and intrigue right beneath our feet here in Suffolk, says Peter Sampson

Dig deeply enough beneath the tarmac of Angel Hill in Bury St Edmunds and you’ll find yourself in a maze of tunnels rather like some vast underground Gruyère cheese.

Of course, you might bump into a ghostly nun called Maude Carew who’s supposed to have poisoned Humphrey, the then Duke of Gloucester, in 1446 but don’t let that put you off.

It didn’t deter a bunch of locals in the 19th century from planning to explore the tunnels but, when it came to it, only one of them had the nerve actually to clamber in. He played a violin as he went, so that his friends could hear how far he’d gone and where he was.

Off he went into the darkness. Gradually, minute by minute, the sound of his music became fainter and fainter until it died out altogether. There was only silence. And the man was never seen again.

Wolf in the Grounds

Suffolk’s riddled with tunnels.

There’s the famous one in Newmarket which is supposed to run from Palace House to Nell Gwynne’s House. It was dug, they say, so that Charles II could pop across to see her without being too obvious about it.

Ipswich has a huge network of tunnels, including one from the cellars of the Ancient House that runs out to Nacton. The same Charles II is supposed to have used it during his escape after the Battle of Worcester in 1651, at the end of the Civil War, though boring old historical fact suggests that he never came anywhere near Ipswich at the time.

Ipswich underground railway system

Most of the tunnels, though, will have served less distinguished purposes.

A lot of them, apparently, run from Suffolk beaches to the cellars of some pub not too far inland. Presumably, smugglers would beach their boats at dead of night, loaded to the gunwales with crates of duty-free, and carry the loads of brandy for the parson and ‘baccy for the clerk to be looked after for a few days by a friendly pub landlord while they made plans for selling it on.

You’ll find that sort of tunnel, or so rumour has it, running from the Greyfriars ruins at Dunwich to the Ship Inn not far away. Another runs from Dunwich to Blyford, there’s another in Southwold and another runs all the way from Dunwich to Leiston and then on as far as Framlingham.

Dunwich greyfriars

Other tunnels may have served as hideaways for recusant Catholics or as part of Cromwellian battle tactics or been re-used as air-raid shelters during WWII. One or two preserve the scurrilous whispers of ecclesiastical high jinks, such as the legend of a tunnel running between a nunnery at Bergholt and a priory at Bentley.

“The sound of his music became fainter until it died out altogether. And the man was never seen again”

Bungay and Blythburgh, Hoxne, Eye, Lowestoft, Grundisburgh and Glemsford – they’re all among the places that lay claim to the existence of a tunnel or tunnels, with dark stories about what they were built for and when and for whom.

St Mary's ruins

It’s all great fun, of course, precisely because there’s an enjoyable amount of ‘perhaps’ and ‘maybe’ and ‘allegedly’ and ‘possibly’ and ‘might have been’ in all the crisscrossing rumours and legends and traditions that surround this sort of thing.

We can give free reign to our fondness for plots and secrets and conspiracies and things that go bump in the night, for stories about stones that grow and pillars that rotate at midnight and suicides’ graves.

There’s a good deal of nodding and winking and much nervous glancing over the shoulder when people recount these very local stories about tunnels and crossroads and ponds and bridges (like the Goldbrook Bridge near Hoxne, under which King Edmund hid from the Danes until a newly-married couple saw his spurs glinting in the moonlit water and he was dragged off to his death and the bridge is now cursed and no newly-wed couple dare cross it, even nowadays, just in case) and old trees and forgotten mounds in the corners of fields.

King Edmund of East Anglia

All nonsense and absurdity? On a par with a belief in fairies and mischievous pixies? Only fit for the geriatric and the senile?

Well, maybe, but there were strange stories going around about the Sutton Hoo area in the old days and look what they eventually found there.

In any case, nonsense and absurdity is an accusation which doesn’t come well from a world only too ready to believe in the reality of TV and pop celebrities and in the latest fashionable ‘ology or ‘opathy.

After all, it’s rather nice to know that there’s a subterranean Suffolk down there somewhere, real or not, a Suffolk crowded with the ghosts of monks, smugglers, recusants, priapic monarchs and murderous nuns.

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