Frome Tunnels (by Wayne Cornish, the Somerset Standard)

Myths and legends abound concerning old tunnels in and around Frome, yet to date no one except the Frome Tunnel Team seems to have tried seriously to find out anything about them. David MacGregor, manager of the Frome Catherine Hill Traders’ Association and editor of its occasional journal, The Modern Times Magazine, wrote a piece in it hoping to stimulate awareness and stir memories to find out more from readers. People further afield might be interested and I copy the edited article here for feedback and comment.

When, why and by whom they were built remains a mystery but one thing is certain, the tunnels are most certainly there. On average they are 20 feet below the surface. They are fairly uniformly four feet in width and five feet in height, are brick lined with slightly arched ceilings and have brick or flagstone floors. In places, it is said, they are high enough and wide enough to ride a horse for quite a distance.

The age of the tunnels and their function is open to question, but they are old. Frome itself was founded 1300 years ago, putting a limit on their age. One suggestion about their purpose was that they were built at the time of the Reformation for persecuted priests to evade detection by the Protestants. There are certainly connexions to all the principle churches in the town. But there are also connexions to many of the old inns and public houses! In fact it seems the tunnels are older than the Reformation. They are likely to be medieval or even earlier.

Natural spring wells abound in Frome, the famous example being the spring which emerges by the side of St John’s church and runs down a channel in the centre of Cheap Street into a culvert which enters the river Frome. At one time most of the houses in Catherine Street, Christchurch Street and Broadway had their own wells. This has led to the suggestion that the tunnels are the remains of a medieval water system. Some of the tunnels connect with deep well shafts, ventilating the tunnels and giving unseen access to potable water.

A good example is in the Ship Inn at Badcox, at the top of Catherine Hill and the junction with Christchurch Street. A glass top on a stone plinth hides the head of a 49 feet deep well over a bubbling spring. In the shaft at depths of 20 and 30 feet are two entrances to the tunnel system. The Griffin in Milk Street has a similar well but with no apparent entrances to the tunnels. However four tunnels run under the pub and a concealed entrance, bricked up, in the cellar displays the characteristic low arch and five feet by four feet dimensions of the tunnel system. Originally, there were dozens of places to get access to the system but they are now bricked up.

They are extensive in the centre of the town but radiate in various directions towards outlying points and villages like Cley Hill, Longleat, Corsley, Chapmanslade, Orchardleigh, Mells and other areas yet to be confirmed. Some local people claim to know of people who have walked underground from Trinity to St Johns and even to beyond Orchardleigh. The tunnels might even connect with nearby towns like Bruton, Evercreech and Bradford-on-Avon.

Considering the geology of the area, the work force needed to build the network would have had to have been considerable and the effort sustained for a long period.

Tracing the tunnels underground is difficult without lengthy procedures of blind surveying and dead reckoning using accurate measures and compass bearings. Money and expertise would be needed for a professional survey on these lines. In the absence of archaeological or academic interest, the tunnels are being surveyed by acclaimed local dowser, Don Reeves.

Dowsing is a quick and apparently accurate method of determining what lies below. Dowsing also gives a good indication of depth without having to drill bore holes. The main problem is that buildings often hamper the tracing of a tunnel, leaving gaps on the map where a tunnel disappears beneath a block and cannot easily be traced emerging. When the tunnels track in straight lines, as they often do, there is less of a problem but when they turn they might run along beneath a terrace of houses and be difficult to pick up again. Thus underground surveying would eventually be needed to map the tunnels properly.

One can believe in dowsing or not but Don daily puts to shame field radar and other modern techniques with nothing more than a pair of bamboo rods tied together at one end and some samples of the objects he is seeking. David promises to write Don’s biography and share with the world some of his successes.

The initial information he supplied was enough to create a burning curiosity to know more and to find out whether the tunnels really did link up or were just a lot of short runs. Local people, inquisitive about Don’s work, confirmed that there were tunnels beneath their properties or their neighbour’s, generally bricked up for safety. Building work has unearthed them for years, giving rise to the persistent legends about them. Though much of the system remains intact, parts have been blocked off by such work.

The extent of the picture when plotted on the town map gets bigger and bigger, and the work is continuing. The tunnels shown on the map are from the initial survey and it seems there are many more. The arrows show the direction of the tunnels when the survey looses them. One of the long tunnels on the map seems to have many branches which in turn branch often. It has been accurately tracked and confirmed by many property owners living above it.

Frome town centre showing possible courses of tunnels (red). River Frome (blue).

It runs down Weymouth Street, crosses Christchurch Street West and enters the Ship public house. A branch goes off up Badcox while the main tunnel carries on down Catherine’s Hill, producing several branches, one of which proceeds up High Street, turns into Christchurch Street and goes on up towards the Wesley Hall. The main course continues down Catherine Street branching again at Whittox lane where it proceeds to the Griffin in Milk Street and on to the Trinity Church. Meanwhile the main course passes under Sheppards Barton steps and down the hill, branching off to the United Reform Church. The tunnel sweeps along under Paul Street and Palmer Street, passes under the Old bath Arms at the junction of Palmer and Bath Streets, crosses Bath Street and the forecourt of St John’s Church, crosses Gentle Street in front of Argyll House, continues under St Johns’ graveyard with a branch into the chutrch and proceeds along Vicarage Street, branching off to the vicarage before crossing Christchurch Street East below Portway Chapel and continuing towards Locks Hill.

Many other interesting features are awaiting discovery and public confirmation. Large underground rooms are talked of and a large cavern beneath Selwood Print Works flooded with an underground lake. A similar large open space is rumoured in the town centre.

Exeter has two similar tunnels open to the public, water courses dating back to 1300 AD. There are far more tunnels in Frome and they may be older. Frome could be sitting on a major historical discovery unparalleled for their antiquity and abundance in any other British town. Frome could become more than an historic but neglected market town. It could become an historic but neglected market town with historic but neglected public tunnels!

An expedition to explore these tunnels and determine how safe and free of obstruction they are is being planned. The Frome Time Tunnel Team, a group of volunteers comprising those hitherto involved together with geologists, cavers, surveyors and historians, will work out a plan of campaign.

In 2004, the BBC made a documentary about the Frome Time Tunnel Team for showing on the Inside Out current affairs programme in 2005. A BBC film crew followed the activities of the explorers and Don “the Dowser” Reeves, during the hunt for the Frome tunnels. Linda Orr, the producer of Inside Out, said the filming was fascinating.

We filmed the guys over a period of about three months at the end of last year and we saw some great discoveries first hand. It was also great having Don Reeves on the project and to see how he worked. His stick definitely twitched on one of the trails we did and he was sure there was a tunnel. The overall optimism and organisation of the team cannot fail to impress anybody who watches the programme. They are still at the very beginning of the search, but there is a huge local fascination and the search isn’t over yet.
To date, several suspected tunnel openings have been found around the town and an Elizabethan ice house discovered in the depths of the Lamb and Fountain pub cellars. Robin Hill said he and his colleague, Pete Clarke, were looking forward to the documentary and to 2005. He said:

Thanks to recent press and media coverage, the project has gained palpable momentum and we have a good list of volunteers and a growing list of over 40 sites to investigate. In total we’ve had nearly 100 people contribute information, maps, or let us look around their buildings.
As a consequence of the project’s growth, Mr Hill and Mr Clarke have recently been referred by the district council to a funding body for financial support. The potential for getting the project helped by some form of modest funding now looks promising. Mr Hill added:

With so much to look at, an increasing number of records and archives to research and the growing issue of historical secrecy prior to the 1700s, the project team will need to grow in size as well as expertise. So we will be looking for all the help we can get as the project blossoms and becomes more exciting. Everybody seems to know something about the tunnels and this documentary has really brought the whole topic back into the public domain. Overall, more so than ever I am convinced that there are extensive, ancient and untapped drains and tunnels in Frome.

Reporting by Wayne Cornish at the Somerset Standard.