It’s taken 76 years, but the Queensway Tunnel has finally received its red carpet premiere. Starring (OK, we use the term loosely) in the latest Harry Potter film, The Deathly Hallows, the world’s first underwater road tunnel looks suitably Gothic and grim – seems that, to a location-hungry film scout, all those exhaust fumes and sooty deposits are a real find.
But take a good hard look at the tunnel’s feature-film close up – for it’s about to get a long-overdue (£12 million) scrub down.
First to go? Those edge of carriageway railings. The reason? Tired and emotional Wirral residents thinking a stroll under the water has got to be better than waiting for the tunnel bus.
“The railings make the tunnel look like an easy route home when you’re drunk,” SevenStreet’s tunnel guide, Alison Smith says, “but we see the casualties, and trust us, it’s not.”
“We started taking the railings down to prepare for the re-cladding operation, but we’re probably going to leave them off. The tunnels look less inviting without them.”
She’s not wrong. Still, the tunnel must have looked a lot more inviting when it was first opened. Back then, it was a gleaming procession.
The walls along the carriageway were lined with shiny black vitreous glass and Art Deco wall lighting, polished to perfection every evening by a team of cleaning ladies.
Away from the shiny new cladding, and the glare of the Potter production crew, the Tunnel’s labyrinthine hidden passages, its hidden lower section (the tunnel’s a perfect circle – the carriageway flying above what should have been a tram route below), its service ducts and ventilation chambers are the real stars, ensuring that, whatever happens, the show must go on.
During this week’s Long Night (and every week throughout the year, come to that) the Tunnels Tour offers us the chance to crawl, creep and burrow our way into a period of our city’s history that’s more fantastical – and ambitious – than any blockbusting film franchise.
The Tunnels Tour is no ordinary, sanitised heritage tour. You’ll find no between-jobs actors donning flat caps and boot polish smut on their cheeks when you volunteer to dive below the city’s streets, and explore the inner workings of city’s literal ring road.
Suitably attired with hard hats and hi-vis, SevenStreets plunges into the hollow core of the George’s Dock ventilation shaft.
Here, huge cast iron fans whirl and thrum, sucking mammoth lungfuls of air from the yawning cavities of the air ducts above – and it’s here, in the engine rooms, pistons pumping, you start to get a sense of scale. And of the immense engineering project which, daily, around 100,000 of us take for granted.
“Nothing had ever been built like this, anywhere,” Smith tells us, as we start our tour in the exhibition hall where perspex models, diagrams and dioramas do their best to capture the scale of the undertaking. But there are some facts that seem impossible to compute. When work started, no tunnel of comparable diameter (44 feet/13 metres) had ever been built. Nor anything to match its length or ambition.
But build it they had to do. In 1901, just 36,000 vehicles crossed the river, by ferry. By 1921, the figure had reached 640,000. The queues for the ferry gridlocked the city.
“The construction of the tunnel was carried out by 1,700 workers,” Smith says, “and the bedrock was cut away with pick axes, by hand, with light explosives only very occasionally.”
Seventeen workers died in the process. But the engineering feat was a resounding success – the two tunnels meeting to within an inch of true, below 80 feet of river bed, and a further 20 feet of sandstone.
Tunnelling took five years. Fitting out, several years more, with the tunnel opened – to world attention – on July 18th 1934 by King George V. Today, maintenance and new computer monitoring systems aside, surprisingly little has changed. When they built the tunnel, they built it (and the tolls, alas) to last.
We’re standing in a huge fan housing chamber. We could be in a scene from Metropolis. Either that or Wallace and Gromit, for there’s something of the steam punk about the super-sized, 28 feet wide, fans, their propellers large enough to cope with the exhausts of the decidedly un-green 1930s vehicles.
Alison gives the order for the fans to be turned on. They’re as old as the tunnel itself – and the one we’re standing in front of has the wonderfully prescient name of ‘The Walker Indestructible’. As we said – built to last.
The power of the machines sucks us ever closer. We grip onto handrails and, ever so slightly, look a little paler. The city’s air sucked down into its innards.
“The air inside the Tunnels has a pollutant concentration of only nine parts parts per million,” Smith says, “so there’s no need to close your windows when you’re driving through. Compare that to a level of 20 parts per million on the pavements of James Street, and you realise that the tunnels have some of the cleanest air in the city.”
“Originally, this area was a bridge connecting the Strand to the outer wall of St George’s Dock,” Smith says. The roof above our heads is the arches of a 200 year old bridge connecting the city to its outer harbours. The arches now carry the weight of the Port of Liverpool building.
Through an opening in a crumbling brick wall, Smith throws a plumb line. It splashes into the Mersey beneath our feet. That we’re somehow in a place that’s neither river, nor land, has a curiously unsettling effect on us. And we’re still heading downwards.
You think the Three Graces are on solid ground? Think again. Like the city they represent, a river runs through them. Smith takes us to another hole in the wall and shines her torch through. There, in the gloom, the brick stilt foundations of the Cunard Building rise out of the subterranean caverns of the Mersey. Forget Venice – Liverpool’s waterfront palazzos are as amphibious as the Yellow Duck Marine.
By the time we reach the outer perimeter of the tunnel, having negotiated tiny capillary-like service tunnels, interlocking doors and service ducts, like a DVD extras scene from Aliens, we’re 120 feet down. Air hurtles past us, from the echoing ventilation chamber above, and on into the receding darkness of the tunnel’s outer skin. Along the tunnel’s length it’s forced up through holes in the carriageway, forcing warmer exhaust fumes up, and out through the tunnel’s roof.
“Ventilation was something of an afterthought,” Smith says. “It was only when drivers in New York’s Holland Tunnel started falling asleep at the wheel that the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning were understood. Fortunately, it was discovered in time to add the ventilation towers to the plan.”
At a cost, though. Their addition added another £2million – taking the project to around £8million in total. Scaled up to today’s money, that would be about half a billion pounds. Or half a Liverpool ONE, in our money.
We clamber downwards to reach Central Avenue – in every way a mirror image of the Queensway Tunnel’s carriageway above. Its ceiling, the tunnel’s roadway. Its floor, a trickle of groundwater, and silence.
At intervals along its length, blast-proof chambers provide sanctuary. They’re the refuges you reach on the other side of the recently installed green ramp ways you’ll spot along the Queensway’s carriageway. Inside, they look like Sunday League changing rooms – crew benches, a toilet, bottles of water.
Outside, they’re linked to a gantry running the length of Central Avenue. Like bus-stops on a buried and long-forgotten route. But don’t bother consulting a timetable. Nothing moves along Central Avenue but a faint breeze, stolen from the city above.
“This would have been a tramway, but the ferries and train companies objected, so it remained unused,” Smith says.
Now it’s a superhighway of another dimension, carrying the fibre optic cables that keep the two sides of our region in constant communication.
In the future? Who knows. But SevenStreets thinks it would make an awesome skate park.
If heaven is a half pipe, this is its hellish alter ego.
Mersey Tunnels Tours, £5
George’s Dock Building, The Strand
Tel: 0151 330 4504
Long Night, 18 November
Various venues, Liverpool
Full list of events here