Kirkby Stephen In Search of Tunnels
I started this quest with stories and legends of a network of old tunnels below the town that were used during the Anglo-Scottish Border Wars to hide and escape from the Scots. The Scottish border had been at Rey Cross on Stainmore until it was moved to the Solway Firth by King William II, Rufus of England in 1092. The wider border area saw no sustained period of peace until after the Union of the Crowns in 1603 with both official conflicts and unofficial ‘Reiving’ taking their toll over the centuries. The frequent invasions led to the local castles, Pele towers and fortified manor houses being built to defend the area and protect the inhabitants. Locally, we had Brough Castle, Hartley Castle, Wharton Hall, Lammerside and Pendragon Castle. The streets of Kirkby Stephen were built with deliberately narrow entrances (since widened) into the town and very narrow alleys. There could well be some truth that this was the reasoning behind building tunnels but were there other motives and do they really exist?
Another story is that tunnels were built to join pubs to the old Brewery at Frank’s Bridge. A series of brewers have occupied this site including Francis Birbeck after whom the bridge was named, it has also been known as Rowlandson’s Bridge. The last on this site was Harker & Rawlinson Brewery. Brewery House was the Manager’s house. I am sure some people’s imagination runs to smuggling by boat up the River Eden but, to be more realistic, it is believed that barrels of beer that were transported underground carried less duty than over ground.
There have been two other notable breweries in Kirkby Stephen over the centuries. At the beginning of Nateby Road there was a range of brewery buildings making up R. Winter’s Brewery and at Hall’s Newsagent on the Market Square, The Old Brewery or Thomas Mason and previously Abraham Dent is said to have dabbled in breing at one time. We must note that large amounts of water are required for this process. Earlier, brewing was a smaller scale operation with bar type establishments brewing their own and larger houses brewing domestically rather than tea or coffee.
I have also heard tales of tunnels blocked up as tombs containing plague victims. Our last recorded plague was in 1597/8 when 40% of the population died in Penrith. A whole family is recorded as being wiped out in Brough at this time. Recent scientific and historical investigations have led some researchers to believe that this was not the traditionally held, Black Death, Bubonic Plague but an Ebola type virus or even Anthrax. (better tread carefully)
Then I have learnt of the rather incredible tunnels from Bloody Bones Lane to Wharton Hall where Catholic priests hid from Cromwell, Kirkby Stephen Church to Hartley Castle and Wharton Hall to Pendragon Castle which I have had to dismiss as being fairytale but perhaps having a place in books of legend and mystery. There is a local phrase “so they say”.
The majority of Kirkby Stephen is a conservation area made up of predominately 18th and 19th century buildings with a few 20th century additions between. There are a few noticeable 17th century buildings and some which have been altered making them appear much younger than their facades would show. Most occupy the same or similar footprint of original wattle and daub dwellings. This naturally makes the dating of some cellars very difficult especially with continuous use over the centuries, they would have been altered and repaired many times. No cellar detail is recorded on English Heritage listings or local records that have been found. By the nature of tunnels they tend to be secretive. The church has an older and continuous history of renovation and rebuilding.
I have visited just about every cellar in Kirkby Stephen to track down tunnel entrances and connecting cellars which has led to many unexpected discoveries, leaving some mysteries still to be solved and perhaps a follow-up publication in time. Some old cellars have already been either filled in or blocked off and may have held other secrets years ago.
The cellars are of different ages, styles and sizes but they are mostly easy to understand. Some have communicating doors where the buildings were originally one. Some with fascinating features where cellars have been used as kitchens with range spaces, wells and storage on stone shelves are very common. Most have their original stone steps and some older cellars have the remains of up to three flights of stone steps where buildings have been altered over the centuries. There are coal chutes, beer drops, hatchways and previous street entrances all adding to the variety.
We start in (Upper) Market Street at the 20th century bank building of Hong Kong & Shanghi Banking Corporation (HSBC) which was formally Midland Bank and earlier a private two story double fronted thatched house occupied the site*
A few years ago when houses were being built at the back of the bank and the Kirkby Stephen Sports and Social Club, a tunnel was broken into. Some brave souls went down the tunnel which appeared to stretch from behind HSBC bank towards Frank’s Bridge but is blocked both end with rubble. This is a real tunnel that can be walked in with niches for candles, beautifully constructed and some considerable length. It is now completely sealed to be discovered once again in the future but photographs have been taken which provide proof of its existence. This particular tunnel represents a very real candidate for a tunnel to the brewery at Frank’s Bridge, if any did exist or perhaps an escape route to Hartley.
The Kirkby Stephen Sports & Social Club, formally the Working Men's Club before alteration had been owned by a Mr. Mason a brewer who also ran it as a boarding house for the Girl’s Grammar School. Earlier parts are believed to date to 1691.* Eden Outdoor Clothing was the New Inn owned by I. Bainbridge.* Both these buildings are good candidates for a brewery tunnel.
Move on to the Mulberry Bush Café at 35 Market Street, a 19th century building with a square cut cellar to the right hand side. At the street side wall in this cellar there is an entrance into a small vaulted chamber extending beyond the building which with a concealed entrance would have made an excellent hiding place, but is it a blocked tunnel that went across the street? Some years ago, in living memory, when digging up the road a tunnel was found** but I have found no evidence of the other side in any building opposite.
A previous owner of the King’s Arms, a Mr. Powley also owned the Tourist Information Centre building and ran it as Assembly Rooms, it is believed that it was Mr. Powley that built the tunnel between the King’s Arms cellar and the T.I.C cellar. If you look below the nearest grating you will see the door out of the King’s Arms cellar going into the tunnel. Inside the T.I.C. it has been bricked up.
In the cellar of the Tourist Information Centre there is another bricked up door way but I do not know whether this is really the rumoured tunnel to the Pennine Hotel or just a cellar entrance from street level which is quite common.
Head north past the Tourist Information Centre to 23 Market Square, now the Dentist, this building is believed to be a later addition that encroached on a larger market place. It was extensively altered after 1820 to create another floor and extended at the back. * The cellar has often been used as a shop with an entrance down the railed steps. You will also notice a bricked up elegant entrance with a step up above the cellar steps on the ground floor. At the opposite end of this building next to The Bookshop there is a door entrance in the cellar into a vaulted room slightly larger but very similar to that at the Mulberry Bush. At street level you can see a rectangular infill which is in the cellar roof.
Now this is where this gets interesting for, in the cellar under Hewiston and Harker opposite there is a vaulted corridor adjoining this cellar which is of similar construction. It extends level to the front wall of the bookshop only a few feet distance. I can only surmise that these two structures were joined either as a tunnel between the two buildings or as a vaulted cellar under a previous larger building. The solicitor’s building is probably 18th century with dorma windows being added in the 19th century. * Note the cart entrance.
Proceed to the north easterly corner of Market Square into Stoneshot between Enhance Hair Salon and Hall’s Newsagents. At the end of the newsagents building you will see some stepped buttresses which is where the Sun Inn was demolished in the 1960’s. Below here there is a cellar entrance which has a very old piece of church masonry as a balustrade probably from when the church underwent alterations at some stage. Within this old cellar there is a boarded up entrance into a’ so called’ tunnel. Before I started this quest I was told by everyone that this was the entrance to a tunnel that went down to the river and some had it dividing off to the church. Many around in the 1960’s say it only went as far as the cottages behind.* I was privileged to be given the opportunity of venturing in and to my surprise found a natural cavern with walls of Brockram and red sandstone. A well used by the old Sun Inn has been sunk into the floor with some 12 foot depth below. The well and the cavern both fill with water making this a very dangerous place to venture. Within the well there appears to be a channel at right angles going towards the church. It is possible that this is a second chamber but the entrance is narrow requiring some very experienced pot holers to explore below the water level. At the back of the cavern where it narrows there is a section that has had a slab of stone inserted to mend the roof and is surrounded by masonry; this is where a heavy vehicle went through when demolishing the Sun Inn. *** It is pure speculation whether this or the well hides a natural water outlet to the river. This area could have been used many centuries ago to hide but there are very few signs of human habitation and the narrow entrance makes it unsuitable for regular use.
It is said that there is an underground lake in this area that is the main source of supply of water for this side of town and I have seen many old wells that have been sunk in quite a wide area giving credence to this information rather than just a single spring. The Old Brewery must have used water from this source. This cavern could well be part of a series hollowed out by water in sandstone pockets below the town.
Archway Fish & Chips
On the opposite side of Market Street, The Archway fish & chips and Aroma Shop occupy the 19th century terrace at 32-36 which was built on the previous sight of the Crown Inn* Below the Archway Fish & Chips there are two cellars, a rectangular front cellar which matches the building and an interesting rear long vaulted cellar which pre-dates the existing building and runs parallel with the street. The entrance to the rear cellar is in the next door Aroma shop under the partition wall. A legend is told that this is part of a tunnel that once ran the full length of this side of the street but I have found no evidence to support this. This vaulted cellar reminds me of that below Hewitson and Harker. At the northern end of this street, The White Lion uses a rectangular cellar that is below the next door 2 Ravens shop. There was previously one building that has either undergone extensive alterations or complete rebuilding as the date above the door indicates, in 1876.
Further along Market Street towards the traffic lights is Fletcher House built in 1833/7. Below the garden of Fletcher House there is a large vaulted cellar which pre-dates and has been annexed to the existing house’s enormous cellar. This is somewhat of a mystery because the previous house was on a footprint very similar to the present house. Does it predate two houses or was there access from somewhere else or the garden? Within this vaulted cellar there are bricked areas that could be blocked entrances or just reinforcements.
Vaulted stone cellars have been used in our area dating back to the 12th century castles and were common in large houses in the 14th and 15th centuries. Local 17th century houses have small rectangular cellars just under the floor showing wooden beams and are not vaulted. Can we therefore assume that the vaulted cellars were built between the 12th and 15th centuries? Are they all blocked tunnels perhaps even made out of old sandstone caverns for easy building? The tunnel behind HSBC is more likely to be of a later date particularly if it had anything to do with the brewery. There may be other voids under our town that will be rediscovered at some stage and enable investigation.
Experts please step forward. This has been a fascinating study and I will do my best to record findings precisely for further reference. It is hoped that sometime soon some of these structures can be seen by visitors to our town.
Original research by Ann Sandell 2007/2008
* Kirkby Stephen by Anne M.A. Anderson & Alec Swailes
1985 and Tom Fawcett 1817
** Shelia Wilkinson
*** Mark Peterfield