Surrey Deep Shelter IV
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What: Air Raid Shelter
Where: Coulsdon, Surrey
Built: c. 1940-3
Architect: Surrey County Council, Roads & Bridges Dept.
Abandoned: c. 1975
Last Known Condition: Generally good, subject to vandalism
Page Updated: January 2018
Once the stuff of a rich local mythology involving underground mortuaries, hidden medical experiments and nuclear paranoia, the mysterious tunnels below what was Cane Hill Hospital in Coulsdon have recently been the subject of much research which has grounded them firmly in established fact - some would say this takes something away from them, but to me the history is nearly as interesting as the myth.
I've been wanting to go to the tunnels for as long as I've known about them. Actually, what I really wanted to do was visit Cane Hill itself, the brooding Victorian asylum which imprinted itself so deeply on the local psyche for so many years, and which, through photos posted on 'urban exploration' websites inspired my early adventures creeping around derelict and decaying buildings. I wanted to, but I missed it - demolished before I got around to making the trip. Nowadays even the some of the websites have disappeared. As it happens though, the tunnels have little to do with the old hospital, at least directly. They are a destination in their own right, dark, cavernous and disorientating, full of subterranean rumblings and the slow drip of water percolated through chalk above.
The Brighton Road Deep Shelter was built by Surrey County Council to protect the population of Couldson who did not have access to their own shelters from air raids. It is not recorded exactly when the tunnels were excavated, but a larger complex at Epsom was constructed c.1941 on a very similar plan, though unlike Coulsdon the blueprints were actually completed as designed; at Coulsdon, only about ⅔ of the planned tunnels were ever dug, probably due to the immense cost involved and the proliferation of private domestic shelters elsewhere.
The complex comprised three parallel tunnels driven into the hillside with two interconnecting tunnels (the original plan called for four) between them. Spoil from the diggings was piled in a large bank in front of the three offset entrances to provide blast protection. There is little known about the wartime use of the shelter, and it has been suggested that it was actually taken over by the Canadian Military (who were very active in this part of Surrey) during the latter part of the war.
Although now redundant, the shelter was resurveyed post-war as a potential fallout shelter, either for civillian, or more likely strategic purposes. Ultimately, nothing came of this, and the tunnels were put up for sale.
Of the many disused tunnels left behind by half a decade of war, most were abandoned; some were retained by government or military, and others found use as mushroom farms or wine cellars. in 1949, Coulsdon found novel use as the manufacturing facility of Cox, Hargreaves and Thomson Ltd, who made lenses for telescopes, cine-cameras and other precision optics. The facility's constant 54℉ (23.3℃) without detectable variation throughout the year meant that the glass would not expand or contract, and the long, straight tunnels proved ideal for test focussing.
The underground factory remained in use for nearly thirty years, despite being, by all accounts, a rather unpleasant place to work - cold, damp and without any daylight. Electrical failures were common - a result of moisture condensing inside the fuse boxes - until a primitive dehumidifier was improvised from a rewired refridgerator, and the machinery was prone to corrosion. The factory closed in the mid 1970s and the company was wound up in 1978.
After this, the tunnels were used as storage for a garage, and then as a dumping ground for all manner of junk before being sealed in the 1980s. It wasn't until the a couple of decades later that access again became possible, and since then there has been a war of attrition between the landowner, who keeps sealing up the entrance, and the local youth, who keep digging it out again.