Victoria Tunnel & Ouseburn
Ouseburn village is an area to the east of Newcastle Upon Tyne city centre and can easily be walked there in around 10 - 15 minutes. Once a bustling and important part of Newcastle's thriving industry, as those industries died out, so did Ouseburn. The area was a post-industrial wasteland from the 1950's when a large portion of it was used as a landfill site. In the late 80's a group was established who were committed to regeneration of the area and preserving it's important heritage. Ouseburn Trust still exists today and are landlords and developers in the area.
They have managed to turn this once derelict and forgotten area into the creative hub of Newcastle which is now considered a desirable postcode!
As you walk through Ouseburn, there are reminders everywhere of it's industrial history from remnants of kilns and chimneys to old mill buildings which sit along the water's edge.
The area is now home to a number of artist spaces, galleries, live music venues, pubs, restaurants and even a farm and stables!
In 2008 funding was secured to repair and restore Victoria Tunnel and in 2010 Ouseburn Trust opened a 700m stretch of the tunnel for guided tours by volunteers. Since then Victoria Tunnel has won awards and commendations and is rated the number 1 thing to do in Newcastle on Trip Advisor.
This begged me to ask the question that, as a lifelong resident of Newcastle (and it's surrounding area), WHY HAVE I NEVER BEEN THERE???
I put that right recently by booking tickets as part of my resolution to be a tourist in my hometown this year.
We woke to a good covering of snow on the day of our visit to the Tunnel so I was less than thrilled about the prospect of spending 2 hours in a damp, cold tunnel! To my surprise we were reliably informed on arrival that the tunnels were a balmy 12 degrees centigrade all year round. Yay!
We arrived about 20 minutes before the tour was due to start and we were invited into the office to wait. As the others in our tour group arrived, we watched a film about the history of Ouseburn and how it has been revived over the last 30 years. This was really interesting and gave a good background about the area in general.
The tour begins from the office and the entrance to the tunnel is a few minutes walk. On the way however, the guide pointed out various landmarks and stopped to talk about the history of them all. Once at the tunnel it was hard hats for all and off we went.....
Our guides, Donald and Peter were true to their word about the temperature in the tunnel. It was warmer than outside certainly! They also added that because the tunnels are well sealed and have a good oxygen supply, they are not too damp and have no undesirable residents (i.e. rats). Interestingly, Donald also informed us that he's never even seen a spider in all the hours he's spent down there. I'm not gonna lie, that definitely settled my squeaky bum!
So, it turned out the tunnel has a really interesting history and served a couple of different purposes over the years. After a period of transporting coal by horse and cart through the town and residential streets, the locals protested and the colliery owners of Leazes Main Colliery were eventually told to find an alternative means of getting their coal to the river. Work began on the tunnel in 1839 and in 1842 it began to transport coal from the colliery on Newcastle's Town Moor down to the waiting ships on the River Tyne.
The tunnel was only ever designed to transport coal wagons and it was built on a slight slope so gravity did the work. A rope and stationary steam engine was used to attach to the last wagon to haul the empty wagons back to the pit once they'd been emptied. The picture below gives an idea of the size of the wagons and the size of the tunnel. It would definitely be a tight squeeze!
Despite the tunnel being a success, the colliery was not and it closed in 1860. Sadly the tunnel was left to rot until World War 2. As Britain prepared for war, people were instructed to practise air raid precautions and it was decided that the tunnel would be converted into a communal air raid shelter for the citizens of Newcastle. The tunnel was cleaned and blast walls were added to prevent potential bomb debris from going up the tunnel. A further 7 entrances were added so people could access the tunnel from several parts of the city. The tunnel was also fitted with benches, basic wooden bunks and chemical toilets. With a total length of 4km, I can only imagine how cramped (and smelly) the place must have been! Particularly considering that people would sometimes be down there for 8 hours at a time. Sometimes in total darkness.
I know I've gone over a bit of the history here but you will learn so much more by doing the tour. The guides are so knowledgable (probably why they won Best Team at the 2015 North East Museum Awards) and make the experience one that you will enjoy and certainly leave knowing more about Newcastle and its history.
The practical stuff
The Trust run tours at least 7 times a week. At present they run most days except Tuesdays and Wednesdays and are on at a variety of times so you should be able to squeeze it in.
It is advisable to book tickets in advance as the tours can only accommodate 15 people at a time and they do get booked up. The tour lasts for 2 hours although there are some 1 hour tours during school holidays which are more child friendly if you are taking children. The standard tour is not suitable for children under 7 but the 1 hour tours can accommodate younger children.
The tunnel is accessible to an extent in that there is ramp down to it. However, wheelchairs would not be able to access beyond the blast walls. The ground is fairly even for those with mobility issues, however there are parts that you'd need to look out for such as some areas where bits protrude from the ground. The guides are good at pointing this out before you trip though!
The cost of the tour is £6 for adults and £4 for under 16's. The entry fees go towards the running costs of the tunnel so by visiting, you are contributing to ensuring this fab piece of history is around for others to enjoy for years to come.
The office can be found at Victoria Tunnel Visitor Centre, 55 Lime Street (next to Ouseburn Trust office and opposite Seven Stories), NE1 2PQ.
Buy your tickets from here.
If you plan to stay in the area to explore, be sure to check out the Trust website where you can find details of local restaurants offering discounts on production of your ticket. I definitely recommend a walk around the area to get a feel for this little creative oasis. Theres some pretty good street art worth checking out too.
Please feel free to get in touch if you are visiting the North East and want some ideas and recommendations for places to go, see, eat. As a "lifer" I've got good knowledge!