Ancient Dorchester Tunnels, Dorset

After years of searching for possible ancient tunnels in Dorchester and finding dead end after dead end, local newspaper The Dorset Echo reported on two successive finds by Antelope Walk caretaker Terry McGrath within a week of each other.

Luckily, I have contacts who work in the shops in Antelope Walk, and one morning I happened to have my camera gear on me and descended in to the depths of the Dorchester tunnels.

Rumours of tunnels under the Dorset county town have been widespread for decades. I had found several possible entrances, been under different shops in the main high street, and still had one left to explore when the Echo articles were published.

History

The Dorchester tunnels that run under Antelope Walk and the notorious Judge Jeffreys are stories which are often told hand-in-hand. Legend was, that the judge who lodged in High West Street during the Bloody Assizes would take a secret passage to the court room (now tea rooms) in Antelope Walk to preside over the awful trials following the Monmouth Rebellion.

The Oak Room tea rooms and the door which could have linked up to the tunnels below.
The Oak Room tea rooms and the door which could have linked up to the tunnels below.

Underground

It felt very surreal to climb down in to the tunnels via shop floors and passageway trapdoors. The tunnels under Antelope Walk no longer connect to one another, but visiting each part individually it soon becomes clear where they once linked up. And there’s an obvious route from High West Street, to directly underneath the old court room. Looking in the tea rooms there’s a secret door amongst the lavish wood panelling, not so secret now as it’s being used as a larder! Terry & I both agree this could well have housed a staircase from the lower level tunnel.

As Dorchester town councillor, David Taylor continues to explore these tunnels along with Terry (and hopefully Dorset County Museum in the near future) I’m sure they’ll find more interesting parts and be able to piece together more of the fascinating history of Dorchester.

Update

The continued effort to find more of Dorchester’s hidden past is well and truly underway. Councillor David Taylor has been busy finding more of the county town’s subterranean history and I have ear-marked a few of my own sites to investigate.

Many years ago I heard of a house in Fordington, a Saxon era region of Dorchester, beneath which lies a large tunnel, like nothing found below Dorchester yet.

Finding the house wasn’t as difficult as I first thought it might be. A large metal grate in the public footpath indicates the tunnel’s existence. A stairway leads down in to the tunnel. Dating from around 1810 the main section of the underground space was in fact a cellar for the long-gone Brewhouse that once stood above it, however at the North-Western tip of the impressive cellar a section about half the size quite obviously would have carried on underneath Fordington and directly towards Dorchester, coincidentally the exact area of Cornhill, Antelope Walk and South Street where other tunnels have been found & rumoured. Could this tunnel really be over half a kilometre long? It seems anything is possible at the rate new discoveries are being made in Dorchester. One thing is for sure, there’s more to be found and you’ll see the photos here.

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Comments

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34 responses to “Ancient Dorchester Tunnels, Dorset”

  1. Chris Robinson says:

    I remember being told that there was a tunnel(s) under The Old Tea Rooms at the top of Town. Rumour was that a local builder Harry? Copp found them and put a duck down to find where they lead. The story goes that the duck was found by the river along from Hangmans Cottage. Fact, fiction, Chinese whispers? Who knows.

  2. Chrissie Fudge says:

    Is there a map of the tunnels that have been found?

  3. Linda says:

    Not sure it was a tunnel, maybe a well. Under 2 Princes St. When the ‘new’ flooring was put in a large hole with bricks or stones was found. As it was a working shop, they couldn’t risk telling anyone as the fear of archeology survey shutting them down.

    Often wondered the purpose behind it.

  4. Harry says:

    To gain access did you simply ask permission from the shop owners? Or did you have to seek other advice?

    • The Urban Explorer says:

      It was the result of a few very specific circumstances, my partner was working at one of the shops that the museum history team planned on looking under so she told me about their visit and I basically just turned up! She was friends with the caretaker of Antelope Walk at the time (since retired) and he was happy to show me around all the other basements in the area. I’m not sure whether you’d get much success turning up and asking, but it’s worth a shot I suppose! I don’t think all the shops have access underground, but give me a shout via e-mail and I give you a list of ones that I know do.

  5. Terry says:

    I rented a bungalow on top of Ridgeway which was originally owned by the government which was the security for the nuclear bunker cut into the hill which is still there and used by Toymaster for internet sales. I’ve been inside and had a look round but there’s a blast door that is sealed which is rumoured to lead to a siding in the Ridgeway railway tunnel for the council members to travel to bunker. Meant to be a railway tunnel under library that would connect up with train line somewhere.

    • The Urban Explorer says:

      Terry, have you read this report? http://www.subbrit.org.uk/rsg/sites/r/ridgeway_hill/index.html

      I believe if there was any door leading to the train tunnel under Ridgeway they’d have mentioned it. Have you seen on a map how far away the tunnel is from the AAOR building? While it’s all very romantic and a great Cold War fairytale, I just can’t see it myself. I’ve also been inside Ridgeway AAOR, and I truly believe it’s just a concrete building used for the sole intention it was built for – observation & communications, accessed via road & the front door. I also can’t see the purpose in the “railway tunnel under library”?

      I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer I’m just thinking logically and based on similar locations. However, like with all these rumours, I’d love to be proved wrong!

    • Derek Downton says:

      This sounds possible as there is evidence elsewhere that railway tunnels were a useful safe access point for personnel and supplies during hostilities

  6. Charlotte morton says:

    I worked for custodial services and Dorchester crown court cells have door block off as it is a tunnel that was used many years ago

    • Thomas Steckler says:

      Dear Charlotte,

      My name is Thomas Steckler and I am currently at university in the process of planning a Photo-Journalism based documentary for our course. Our main idea for our documentary will be based on Abandoned Locations with the viewing platform of VR and we are hoping to be able to film in any of the Dorchester Tunnels as one of our possible locations.

      We are looking towards people to interview as part of the documentary to share more insight into the location’s past, why it was abandoned, what experiences people had there etc. Is there any possibility you would be willing to help us with this whether it’s through a written interview or more preferably a recorded message for us or depending on location if we could film an interview with you? My email address is:

      T.Steckler.16@unimail.winchester.ac.uk

      We look forward to hearing back from you.

      Kind regards,
      Tom

  7. David Fox says:

    Fascinating and thank you.

    In the 1980s I worked running the Assoc of Parish & Town Councils from 57 High West St on junction of HWS and Glyde Path Road. No tunnel to report, but when the sole toilet (on the second floor)toilets stopped working, it was found that it had simply been emptying into a old well which had consquently acted as a sepctic tank of sorts.
    The building belonged to DCC, and after the well was flushed and sucked clear, it was sealed over.
    Dorchester must be full of such sources of water, though in that chalk the likelihood of cross contamination must have been high.

  8. Mike says:

    There is a cellar under Goadsby and Harding Estate Agents that had a blocked up tunnel (from memory). The cellar was actually under High West St. I also own a property in North Square which used to be a pub called The Half Moon House. Apparently this is where the hangman used to walk from his cottage, along the River Frome and stop for a beer before “doing his business”. This property actually has a ‘double’ cellar and rumoured to have tunnels. Have never come across the tunnel but when developing we did expose the cellar. Dorchester is steeped in fascinating history – hope the tunnels can be opened to the public one day.

    • Deborah Bowden says:

      Hi Mike
      Someone is looking for information or photos of The Half Moon House in North Square.

      Check out the “you’re over 30 & from Dorchester group” on Facebook.

  9. Katy says:

    When I had my shop in Antelope Walk I occupied two sites during that time and both had passage ways! The big shop, largest in the walks had a blocked off door way in the underground basement and was Joshua’s Gift Store for a while after I closed.

    The other store was opposite and was a florist and is now a gift store and had a trap door in the second entrance that led down to a sealed basement. This had the original worn steps from years of use that are now hidden from view and this basement would have connected up with all the passageways under the tea rooms! It was very interesting but hard to explore! I recommend having a look under the trap door it’s literally just in the doorway and so easy to access!

  10. Jacky Branagan says:

    I worked in The Oven Door in the early 1990s, I believe it is now Costa Coffee. There is an underground tunnel there, but it was blocked off when the building was converted from the old Shepherd and Hedgers, that was there for years.

  11. Josh says:

    When I worked for JJB Sport, now FatFace in South Street we found a celler like area under the main shop floor where the tills used to be, might be worth a look quite a large area but was never able to explore the area.

    • Roy Warburton says:

      Yes Josh. That shop back in the 60s was International Stores, and indeed it had a large cellar, there was a open concrete staircase down at that time, about 20ft from the rear of the shop on the side facing Next and leading forwards towards South St. This is where a lot of stock was kept. This is also where there was a large counter, and the girls would weigh up and bag up loose dried fruit and the like, as you say it was a large cellar the width of the shop, but I do not remember if it goes to the end at South St. but at least 50/60ft in that was. Yours, Roy.

  12. Stephen Taylor says:

    When I used to work for Lloyds Bank in the 1980’s there was a generator in the cellar, accessed from the then shared side entrance to Arthur Savage Insurance in High West Street. There was a brick lined tunnel leading off the generator room under high west street. We were never permitted to explore, though the rumour was that it lead to the old courts.

    Worth an enquiry.

    • The Urban Explorer says:

      Very interesting, Stephen. I knew there was something running underneath the bank but that confirms it. I doubt they’d let me anywhere near it being under a bank and all, but might be worth a go.

  13. James says:

    Interesting pics. My mother in law owned a house on Princes Street and that house had an odd cellar – arched roof with alcoves that looked like tunnels. Having seen these pics I’m certain it was part of this network at some point – they look very similar.

    • Grant Mulry says:

      Hi I used to work in a warehouse which is now gone opposite the pub next to a bakers shop and Angel Builders on the otherside it was storage for Dingles and it looked like an old shop or house at some point in Princes Street.

      In the basement it was vaulted and looked like it had been bricked up going parallel to Trinity Street towards High West Street and the old courts. It’s now all car park and probably used to connect to the old saddlers in High West Street but in the basement there was a gap on the right hand side which when you dropped something down went down a long way like another tunnel underneath or maybe a well. Long way down though.

      • Andy Venton says:

        Hi Grant. The shop of which you speak was E. W. Venton and Son, Ironmongers – the ‘son’ being my dad Terry Venton, later joined in the business by his brother, my Uncle Ron. I grew up exploring the shop and after leaving school worked there myself for about 6 years until Dad and Uncle retired and sold the premises to House of Fraser (formerly Genges). I well remember the cellar which looked similar to many of the photos above, and often wondered if it ever joined up with the legendary tunnels. My Dad had told me that the cellar had once been used as a firing range, though I can’t remember when or who by.

        • Piers says:

          I used to use the firing range, entrance was gained by going through a passage next to Down To Earth (17 Princes St) which has since been widened, turned right once through and there was a doorway with stairs going down. Once under Down To Earth you walked along a passageway parallel to Princes St about 6 metres and there was a 2.5 metre high tunnel like a wine vault running perpendicular to Princes St towards the Wessex hotel. Probably 25 metres long. Dimly remember the Wessex owned it. Friends used to have the flat above Down To Earth and we parked our bikes round the back in a courtyard.

  14. Seth Brody says:

    Hello. From viewing what you have discovered on all locations I was just wondering if this particular site has been mentioned and re sealed or is it still accessable as you have inspired me and my girlfriend to now search these locations so just wanted to thank you :)

  15. Greg says:

    What a shame so much modern brickwork has to intrude over the original, though of course it can’t be helped. Still it looks impressive, I’d love to have an underground space of my own!

  16. Joan Dickinson says:

    Wouldn’t that be just a fantastic place for a ghost walk!

  17. Millii Stewart says:

    I guess this place isn’t open to the public which is a real shame!
    Is it owned by the council?

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