"It's a sort of build-up of gunge": Public tours of tunnels beneath Brighton's Royal Pavilion

By Ben Miller | 25 February 2016

Stretching along 60 subterranean metres beneath George IV's exotic pleasure palace, limewash is the only constant on the walls of the Royal Pavilion's dark tunnels

A photo of a large dark tunnel leading beneath the royal pavilion museum in Brighton
The passages beneath the former royal residence could scarcely offer a greater contrast to the unrestrained lavishness above them: pock-marked walls, wires, musty old non-descript boxes and gas vats mark out the hollow chambers of these rat run-style caverns and their often pretty uneven floors.

A photo of a large dark tunnel leading beneath the royal pavilion museum in Brighton
John Nash, who redesigned Henry Holland’s original 1787 Royal Pavilion 28 years later, was very derogatory about the basements, lambasting their inextensiveness and susceptibility to rot. “The Pavilion wasn’t built on the best foundations,” says Meg Hogg, which might not come as a surprise given George IV’s famous desire for short-term gratification.

A photo of a large dark tunnel leading beneath the royal pavilion museum in Brighton
“It was thrown up as a kind of ‘ooh, you know, we’ll go there and then when I’m gone who cares?’ It wasn’t built to last, which is why these basement areas are quite few and far between. There’s an air vent to the music room in order to stop the people inside from dying of carbon monoxide poisoning, which is thoughtful of them.”

A photo of a set of stairs leading upwards at the Royal Pavilion and Museum in Brighton
Bottle stairs leading upwards© Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
One twisting bottletop stairway leads to the office of Sir Benjamin Broomfield, a prestigious member of the household and “a fun character”, says Hogg, until his attempts to stop George buying jewels for his final mistress, Lady Conyngham, who responded by trying to ship Broomfield to Ceylon. But Broomfield’s rise from lowly duties illustrates the diversity of people involved in the sub-pavilion over the centuries, with the rooms of maids and footmen within darning distance of nobility.

Hogg and fellow Visitor Services Officer Geoff Greenwood have devised a set of six tours along the tunnel between now and the end of March. “It is linked with George,” she acknowledges, “but it’s been a pretty essential part of the city for a long time, often in quite unseen ways. It’s nice to know that we’ve always been here for the people of Brighton.

A photo of a large dark tunnel leading beneath the royal pavilion museum in Brighton
“One of the struggles of this area is that it’s quite hard to get people to understand how it relates to the building upstairs. Even for someone who works here it’s nice to be able to figure out these things.” A set of enormous old pipes could have heated the building from under the floor. “It was far too hot and people complained about it constantly,” adds Hogg, noting a Princess who believed the heat irritated her eye condition.

A photo of a large dark tunnel leading beneath the royal pavilion museum in Brighton
The storerooms were used as air raid shelters during World War Two, although the building was never hit, and you can only just make out the lettering on the doors. They enhance the sense that these spaces have remained largely untouched, bearing nothing of the rarefied glamour of the Pavilion interiors. The tunnel cost the strange price of £1,786.01, built in 1821 and 1822 by cutting a trench across three underground streams, capped with a ceiling and covered with earth not that far below ground.

A photo of a large dark tunnel leading beneath the royal pavilion museum in Brighton
Ridges in its flanks concentrate the light of lamps, the floor is barrelled to stop it from water sagging, and bits of the original white mastic are visible over the floor. “They painted it a pique colour – very George – then several others, white and cream, over the decades,” says Greenwood.

A photo of a large dark tunnel leading beneath the royal pavilion museum in Brighton
“Nothing adheres to damp walls except limewash, so they’re on a hiding to nothing whatever they put up. I think it’s lovely. It’s a sort of build-up of gunge.” The lamps aren’t perfect for photos and Greenwood warns visitors to stay mindful of their height in a place built for practicalities – if not a small town’s worth of wash baskets.

An image of a 19th century painting of the Royal Pavilion and Museum in Brighton
Nash's view of the Pavilion in 1826© Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
“There was so much laundry that it actually had to be sent off site 200 years ago,” says Hogg. “One time they sent out a load of towels, 740 dozen and 11. There was one missing in the order and they noticed: out of 8,891 towels, they saw that one was missing.

"They were unhappy about that. I don’t even know what they were using all those towels for, there were only about 20 people here. George was a fastidious man. He loved a good bath.”

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Three more tunnels to tour

Clifford Road Air Raid Shelter Museum, Ipswich
Hidden beneath a Suffolk school playground, among quiet residential streets, this shelter provides a vivid picture of life during World War Two. Hundreds of feet of substantial concrete tunnels were sealed up and forgotten in 1945. Thanks to their solid construction, they were in excellent condition when they were rediscovered more than 40 years later.

Jersey War Tunnels, St Lawrence
this complex of tunnels houses an award-winning exhibition - Captive Island - telling the definitive story of the Occupation.

Ramsgate Tunnels, Kent
An immersive history lesson on what life was like in the dark days of World War Two. Learn about the construction and use of the Victorian Railway Tunnel as well as the smaller chalk dug system, the later use of the tunnels for a narrow gauge electric train and a look at 'Tunnel Town', a recreation of the purpose-built units which people called home.
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