“You see down at the bottom of that shaft there, right? Yeah, just there. Biggest rat I ever saw in my life, it’s down there right now. Dead. But it’s huge.”
The workman holds his hands up apart like he’s saying he caught an enormous fish. “This big, I swear.”
Senior Keeper Tim Thearle, who is in charge of conserving all these historic buildings, including the work being done in the Royal Pavilion Gardens, nods his head in agreement. He saw it too.
This week I was lucky enough to join Tim’s (very rare, months in the persuading) internal staff-only guided walk along the secret tunnel that links the north end of the Royal Pavilion to the basement of Brighton Dome, going right underneath the Royal Pavilion Gardens.
One section is scaffolded.
None of it’s really safe yet but most of it feels exactly like I’d imagined; ancient air, uneven tread, with alcoves for artworks or (more likely) lighting.
Along the length there are five vertical shafts from the ceiling poking up 3-4 feet to the surface, which would’ve let in air and light. Originally these had round glass tops and in fact, just a few centimetres down in one of the flowerbeds in the gardens, one of these original shafts remains untouched.
The Dome was George IV’s ridiculously luxurious stables; horses living in far greater comfort than many local people, housed in a circle around the edge of the main dome building, with a common area in the middle. So the Dome is older than the Royal Pavilion – he built the stables first. Apart from bringing mistresses in and out through the tunnel, George also used it to go between the two buildings incognito, after he got so fat he was embarrassed to be seen by his subjects. Everything is connected in this town – our grubby seaside party atmosphere entirely inspired by our time as host for errant triple-x, heavy banquetting royalty. By the time George gave up on Brighton and retreated to a shack in the gardens of Windsor Castle, he was obese, gout-ridden and surrounded by his exotic pets, not long from death.
Currently you can’t exit both ends – even if you walk all the way to the Dome end, it’s still locked: I snuck downstairs at the Dome end to get this dim pic of their entrance. Dome staff store their bikes in the entranceway.
The ultimate goal (obviously) is to enable public tours down this tunnel. However, quite apart from making it structurally safe and protecting the tunnel itself long-term, they also need to figure out logistics of how to let people in, since neither exit is anywhere near a public area of Dome or Royal Pavilion buildings.
I’ve been obsessing about tunnels since I first arrived. Here’s my first photo (from a few weeks back) of when it was first revealed from above by renovation work. Even though it’s obvious – with hindsight – what this is, I loved that it’s not marked and many people are walking by this repair work every day with no idea what they’re looking at. I’m so glad I stumbled on it by chance, rather than being told by experts.
They’ve now added layers of protective polystyrene and soft pipe covering, as well as a side wall to help take the load (big trucks park in this area because of concerts and productions in The Dome)… and today it’s all been waterproofed as well.
When they finish working on this section, they’ll dig up the next section – nearer to the Royal Pavilion – and continue until they’ve preserved the whole lot.
Chris T-T, Blogger in Residence