Hostelry

Are there tunnels below Gloucester and Cheltenham? The truth behind the myth

Gloucester is criss-crossed by subterranean passages that run to and from the Cathedral beneath the city’s streets. Or at least it is if you believe local legends that have been in currency for many a long year.

The most ambitious of these tunnels is said to run from Llanthony Priory (now part of the Gloucestershire College complex) and St Peter’s Abbey, as the Cathedral was called in pre-Dissolution times.

It was supposed to call first at the old Llanthony Bridge Inn, which called time for the final time in the 1970s and was demolished in 2008, then on to the Fleece Hotel in Westgate Street before continuing to the Cathedral.

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Weight was added to the veracity of this tale by the fact that the section of passage that ran under the Fleece was used as a pub. Gloucester folk of ripening years may well remember the hostelry, called the Monk’s Retreat, which was a popular city centre watering hole in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Archaeological investigations revealed that the Monks’ Retreat was indeed set in a 12th century, stone-vaulted structure supported on Norman pillars. The Fleece hotel occupies the site of an inn built by Benedictine monks in Gloucester to provide accommodation for pilgrims visiting the shrine of Edward II, so the notion of them installing a connecting tunnel has a ring of possibility about it.

The New Inn in Northgate Street was also built by the abbey for pilgrims. This wonderful building, acknowledged as one of the finest medieval galleried inns in the country, is also said to have an underground tunnel that links it with the Cathedral.

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So that’s the legend, but what’s the truth?

In the 19th century a labourer digging foundations in Westgate Street was reported to have fallen into a tunnel, but then one man’s tunnel is a less romantic man’s drain, or so a sceptic might say.

The vaulted, underground room that was the Monk’s Retreat could be a section of tunnel, or it could be a warehouse installed by a wealthy Gloucester merchant in the 12th century named Benedict the Cordwainer who owned property in Westgate Street.

Secret passages are an exciting idea. But on a more realistic level, why would medieval monks go to the enormous trouble and expense of installing such major civil engineering feats, especially in Gloucester where the close proximity of the Severn means that flooding is an ever present possibility and the water table is often close to the surface?

Cheltenham is said to have its own secret tunnel. The story passed down by oral tradition (I’ve never seen it in print anywhere) is that a priory once stood on what is now the corner of Malvern Road and Malvern Place. An underground passage, so the story goes, ran from this building to St Mary’s parish church in the middle of town.

It’s a story that would be lovely to believe, but it’s also one that is surely unlikely to be true. For a start the tunnel would have been 1,000 yards in length, which is no mean undertaking. Then it would have been dug in land descending Bayshill that is dotted with springs, so surely flooding would be inevitable. And perhaps most telling of all, there’s no record of a priory at that locality in ancient times.

A document from AD 803 concerning a dispute between the Bishops of Worcester and Hereford about which of them was entitled to revenues from a priory in Cheltenham does exist, in fact it’s the first time Cheltenham is mentioned in print. But that priory stood somewhere in what is now the Cambray area of town.

However, if you go to Malvern Road you’ll see that when the range of grand, early Victorian houses called Lansdown Terrace was constructed, the builders left a walkway that goes through to Lansdown Terrace Lane. The walkway follows the line of the supposed tunnel, so could it be that the developers were reluctant to build over it for some reason?

Stories of underground passages radiating from Tewkesbury Abbey are not difficult to uncover. According to some of these tales passages were built by the Benedictine monks as escape routes should they be attacked, while others linked the monks with local hostelries so that they could nip out of an evening for a pint of foaming ale without the abbot knowing.

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Unlikely tales you may be thinking. But if they had wanted to go to the expense of installing such tunnels at least we know the monks could have afforded to do so.

Tewkesbury’s monastery was one of the richest in England. Not only did it stand at the heart of one of the most productive agricultural regions in the country, the abbey was also well endowed by powerful medieval families and owned swathes of land in South Wales in the neighbourhood of Roath, Cardiff.

So is this local tunnel talk founded on truth, or it is all romantic ramblings? Well, in 2005 a 700-year-old tunnel was discovered near Linlithgow in West Lothian, Scotland. Ten feet underground and a mile in length, the stone-lined passage is still being examined by archaeologists, but is thought to have been built by Carmelite monks for a reason as yet not known.

If they did it in Scotland, why not here?

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