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What’s it like to do a Tunnel Tour?

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Last month some Royal Pavilion & Museums staff had the opportunity to do a Tunnel Tour; a glimpse into the lesser-seen servant areas of the Royal Pavilion.

Looking down the length of a tunnel with the lights on

Tunnel connecting Royal Pavilion to the Dome and Brighton Museum

Hidden beneath the regal glamour of the Royal Pavilion lie a series of interconnected tunnels connecting the Pavilion to the Brighton Dome, George IV’s riding stables at the time. Until recently, they were restricted from public access but now visitors can take a Basement and Tunnel Tour to learn more about the fascinating history below the Pavilion. In early September some Royal Pavilion & Museums staff were given the opportunity to experience one of these tours, something I’d been hoping to do since I started in January.

Our tour started in the Red Drawing Room which is usually reserved for functions. Here Visitor Services Officer Geoff explained the history of the tunnels and the Prince Regent’s interest in Brighton. The future king first visited in 1783 at the age of 21 and built the Royal Pavilion as a seaside pleasure palace. It was around this time that Dr Richard Russell had published works detailing the curing effects of Brighton’s seawater, an appealing prospect to the Prince Regent considering his already failing health. A large basement was built underneath the estate to allow servants to move freely throughout the building without risk of being seen by the Prince’s guests. Later another tunnel was built to connect the Pavilion to the riding stables for the king to manoeuvre around his estates when his weight gain caused him to become too embarrassed to be seen by the public.

After this introduction, we were led to the reception area where eagle-eyed visitors may notice a hidden door leading directly to the basement. The change in atmosphere was astounding, going from the pristine elegance of the Pavilion to the confined space of the basements. It was a telling look into the lives of the servants compared to royal company.

The first few steps of a small white staircase before curving behind a blank wall. A sign on the wall opposite reads 'to Sir Benjamin Bloomfield's office'.

Staircase to Sir Benjamin Bloomfield’s office

We were then shown to a staircase which once led to the office of Sir Benjamin Bloomfield, the Prince Regent’s secretary. It now less glamorously leads to the toilets next to the Tearoom.

On our way to the Boiler Room, our attention was diverted to a small gap in the wall which Geoff explained was the foundations of the Music Room. In the Boiler Room we were told about the gruelling conditions in which the servants in this room would have to work. Although the boiler system was revolutionary in its day, one man would be shovelling coal in this windowless room all day in overwhelming heat. One thing that caught my attention was being able to hear the footsteps of visitors walking through the Pavilion as the floorboards creaked above us.

In the adjoining room, Geoff explained to us the lengths the conservation team went to in an effort to fix a panel in the Music Room which had been damaged due to a connecting air vent in the basement.

A small enclosed area with white bricks and a darker void in the middle. A sign below reads 'music room vent'.

Music Room air vent

Continuing with the tour, we passed a series of doors leading to small rooms used as air raid shelters during World War II. Each door had an image showing the inside of the shelters, similar to the image shown below taken in 1939. One room, now used as a supply store, has an original ‘smoking strictly prohibited’ sign at the far end peeking through a stack of cardboard boxes.

The tour then led us onto the tunnels connecting the Royal Pavilion to the Dome and Brighton Museum which cost the very specific price of £1,786.01 to build. You can see where the paint has peeled due to the damp revealing the different layers applied over the years. The structure of the tunnels has been strengthened in more recent years to support the weight of the ice rink which is set up every winter on the gardens above.

Looking down the length of a tunnel with the lights off

Tunnel connecting the Pavilion to the Dome and Brighton Museum

To be walking the very tunnels the Prince Regent once walked is a surreal experience, one which can now be enjoyed by visitors.

Black pipes running along the length of the tunnel.

Pipe along tunnel

There were plans to hold these tunnel tours about three years ago, before a pipe suddenly burst causing the tunnels to flood, requiring work to be carried out on the floors.

If you look up while walking along this particular tunnel, you’ll see a number of small round windows in the ceiling; one of the few glimpses of daylight. These may look familiar to a keen eye as they can be seen from above while walking through the Royal Pavilion Gardens. You can tell by the depth of the windows that you’re getting further and further underground as you head towards the Dome.

As we were nearing the end of our tour, we passed a panel showing evidence of the original 1867 wallpaper of the Dome when it was converted from riding stables to a concert hall. We eventually emerged from the tunnels into the Brighton Museum gift shop, where we concluded our tour. Even George IV knew any good tour should exit through the gift shop!

A white wall with a dark panel vaguely showing the design of original wallpaper. A sign next to the panel reads 'original 1967 wallpaper'.

Original 1867 Dome wallpaper

Tasha Brown, Museum Futures Trainee