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The Tunnels of Temple Meads

 

Following visits to a few of Bristol's more subterranean attractions on an Open Doors Day, I stumbled into some fellow cavers whilst sneaking around the bits of Redcliffe 'Caves' still closed to the public. We got to chatting and I found out they had been on a tour of some tunnels under Bristol's railway station; Temple Meads. I had got wind of these tunnels in the side note of a council newsletter some time ago. Despite a certain amount of lateral thinking and quite some persistence I had been unable to get a look around them.

Tales about the size of the network made for raised eyebrows and with some of what I thought was gentle probing I managed to get a name and a number to contact. Surprisingly I had the details of the station manager. This is not something I would have had a hope of getting out of any publicly accessible part of the country's railway structure.  I would very much like to pass this on to the readers of this article, but unfortunately the number is ex-directory and the manager wanted it kept that way.

Anyway, I arranged a tour around the underground bits of the station and managed to get permission to bring along a few mates. It was on a weekday, but all that I asked who could escape work readily agreed and a date was set.

Henry Bennett, Mike Wilson, Bob Cork and myself showed up at Temple Meads main entrance with overalls and headlamps having pretty much no idea of what we would be in for. Cooing over Mike's motorbike and dodging seemingly homicidal taxi drivers we were introduced to a platform manager dressed in a suit with a little torch. Feeling a little silly with all our caving kit we followed him around the platforms looking like we were going mountain climbing.

The tour started above ground and a few anxious looks were exchanged as the manager started taking us through the history and future of the station, its trains their engines and so on. Not really what we were hoping for! Thankfully the trainspotter's bit didn't last long and we were ushered into a private lift. We emerged in an enormous tunnel running all the way under the station. You could hear the trains thundering away above and various individuals with overalls and carts pottering about the place like something out of a James Bond film. They had a fire last year down there and whilst redecorating they had simply painted over all the melted fixtures and fittings making the tunnel look a bit like a Dali painting.

The underground sections of the station were quite large. After the main tunnel we had seen there were a couple of other tunnels and a large number of arches which ran back for a long way under the station. Many of these interlinked to form a maze of sorts. The construction was of simple brick lined, arched roofs with a flat floor.

The tunnels were used to shelter from air raids during the Second World War. Under the station we came across 2 sections of track with points on. The guide informed us that these were used to train people up on fixing points when the Germans tried to blow them up. Apparently we got pretty good at it. There was an air raid shelter as well. This had bathrooms, bedding areas, the lot, but it had very recently caved in so we couldn't get in to have a look. The damp and deterioration had reduced the shelter to a pile of twisted rust and timber.

We proceeded to a second gated area and after exploring a number of wandering tunnels we found some tiny train tracks. These ran up a gentle incline past a stooping section, to a loading and storage area. Standing there admiring some formations on the walls the manager let us know we were right under the restaurant in the middle of the station. Sure enough, if we all went quiet we could hear people chatting away over lunch and brewing up cups of coffee. Apparently the restaurant had been the first class lounge and diner in times gone by and all food was brought in this way. The access hatch to the restaurant had sadly been concreted over. I reflected that it would have been quite fun to have emerged from the floor next to some couple eating their lunch.

One thing we did not expect was the sheer amount of booze the first class travellers had got through in their day. Before the days of the British Rail sandwich first class rail travel was sheer opulence. The wine cellar stretched on for ages. I reckon it held between 10,000 and 16,000 bottles of wine including a locked off section for the pricey stuff. Some of the bins still had the labels on, somehow unmarred over time in the damp environment.

We picked our way around rubble, decaying electrical fittings and piles of random railway type tools and spares back to the secondary tunnel. Here we climbed some steps and popped out of a door in the middle of platform 7. This was the end of our tour. It had been interesting, but not amazing if I am honest about it. Something to add to an Open Doors Day tour around Bristol rather than an outing in itself. Well worth seeing if you are in the area on the day though. We thanked our guide profusely and wandered over the road to find the nearest boozer. Not a bad way to spend a morning and an interesting little diversion into a bit of Bristol most of the population will never see.

By Henry Dawson