In the summer of 1987, the cellars of Borley Place flooded after a heavy
storm. This should have ended all speculation about the purpose of the
'tunnel' that had been discovered crossing the road in a north-south
direction between Borley place and the barn next to the rectory. It was
not a tunnel, or a store for treasure, but a storm-water culvert, called
locally a 'wellum', and
very effective it would have been in keeping Borley Place dry had it not
become blocked and damaged. We do not have much summer rain, but when it
comes, it can come in bucketfuls. Because the clay of the area does not
drain easily, most houses have arrangements to ensure that storm water
does not run into the house, and the roads have a number of culverts under
them to stop the road flooding during a cloudburst. Modern owners often neglect these
precautions, fill in ditches and block culverts, and are caught out when
the big storms arrive.
In the next parish, a similar culvert once burst under the pressure of storm water
Dec.20th.1866. A large drain that carries water under the street at Foxearth, burst on Thurs. evening during a heavy storm, near Mr.Gardiner's gate, the water pushing along the street making it impassable. In the evening the water subsided, during the height some cottages opposite the school were flooded.
Suffolk Free Press December 20th 1866.
There have been many occasions in the area when houses that are normally a long way from water are suddenly flooded, even in summer, when these 'wellums' or culverts become blocked. (see In Tulip's Time 2005 Philip Rowe Archive, Bulmer)
The discovery of the Borley culvert or tunnel was remembered by Claudine Mathias, the Rector's wife
On 12 September 1957, workmen were digging a trench in Hall Lane (and just outside the farm buildings which are located immediately across the road from Barley Place) when they broke into a tunnel with their mechanical digger....[ Leonard Sewell and L G Rayner] were able to examine the tunnel in great detail and for some distance. They reported that the tunnel was constructed of red two-inch thick Tudor bricks which were still in good condition, although the floor was covered with earth. The width of the tunnel was 32 inches, the height of the walls was 12 inches and the height of the arched roof at its central point was 28 inches. The tunnel ran at approximately right angles to the road and its northern end terminated in the front garden of Borley Place. At this point the condition of the tunnel had deteriorated somewhat and its progress was blocked by a brick wall, but its direction indicated that it would have linked up with the cellars of Borley Place. There is an alcove in the cellars at an appropriate point which could have been the position of the entrance to the northern end of the tunnel.
Claudine Mathias in Borley Rectory, The final analysis 2003
The biggest problem with this 'tunnel' or culvert is that it entirely misses Borley Rectory or the church. It is impossible for this to have been the tunnel that forms any part of the Borley Rectory legend. The lime mortar we left unpointed on the inside, so was never intended ever to be seen. It would only have been of use to two foot high people anyway. Despite this, it was featured in the local press at the time, and has been reported in detail in two books on Borley Rectory. There have been a number of stories about tunnels at Borley Rectory. Harry Price gave a rather fantastic description in his first book
The remains of a portion of an underground tunnel can be seen in the farmyard of Borley Rectory. Apparently it had caved in at some period in the remote past. It is impossible to trace it very far, and no one appears to know for what distance it is blocked. ... portions of the tunnels -or a tunnel - have been discovered in various places in a direct line between Borley and Bures, a township seven miles from Borley, on the River Stour, and partly in Essex and partly in Suffolk. ... Whether this tunnel-of small, ancient bricks-was used as a means of escape from some possible danger, or for some military purpose; or whether it was constructed as a purely domestic arrangement between the monastery and nunnery, is a matter of conjecture. I have been told that the entrance to a second tunnel, or perhaps the entrance to a branch of the Borley-Bures tunnel, is still extant in the farmyard of Borley Place, the ancient house opposite the Rectory. A tunnel from Clare is supposed to meet the one from Bures somewhere in the Rectory grounds.
Harry Price, from The Most Haunted House in England p26
Harry Price adds a bit of detail in his second book
The Rev G.E, Smith had actually stumbled on a caved-in portion of the tunnel or secret passage in the Rectory Grounds. He had the cavity filled -in
Harry Price, from The End of Borley Rectory p 26
Many people noticed that, when carts went past the rectory cottage, there was a 'hollow ring' as people or horses passed over parts of the road, or if cartwheels rumbled over it. In 1933, Ian, Marianne Foyster's son, discovered a tunnel:
Ian stayed with us 'round this time, and really led the world a merry
chase. Irish, 18 years of age and full of fun, he enjoyed himself to the
hilt. When he was not off hunting, he was singing through the house at
the top of his lungs one minute, and the next he would be out in the
garden hunting for buried treasure.
All that he ever found were the remains of what had once been a tunnel. It went under the road leading into the field by the churchyard. I decided that it might have been the remains of a sewer system of an earlier time. I forbade him to enter it. He was not the kind you can forbid much, and traced its entrance to the cellar. I was exceptionally thankful when its entrance caved in, and soon after that he returned to Ireland.
Marianne's unpublished Autobiography, quoted in The Ghosts That Will Not Die, Chapter 6 by Vince O'Neil
One can see from these extracts that the culvert, or wellum, discovered under the road between Borley Place and the farm is entirely different to the one that had been in the rectory grounds, which Rev Smith and Ian Shaw came across. This has eluded recent searches, and presumably must still be there. It would seem likely that the latter system was the foul water system for the Herringham rectory, which was positioned under the kitchen wing and courtyard of the later Bull rectory.
It is difficult to make very much of the legend of the tunnel uniting the monastery at Borley with the one at Bures. Of course, there were no monasteries in either place, and the tunnel would be an engineering feat even today. The story seems to have been invented, by the younger Bull sisters. There are similar stories around that involve either monks or smugglers and that link other unlikely locations in East Anglia too, so it may be that the story was borrowed from elsewhere. We can now be fairly sure where this particular legend came from. In the neighbouring parish of Glemsford, on the other side of the Stour valley, is a much stronger legend of a tunnel, ghost and monk. To quote from the classic history of the parish,
It is probable that the present fascinating building was erected in the 16th Century upon an ancient site. There are many stories of this house most suggesting that it was at one time a monastery, and it is said that a secret tunnel linking it with the Church still exists. Several ghost stories are told of this area and from them it appears that a ghostly figure of a monk walks the paths near his ancient haunts. In a mellow light with its ancient roofs and chimneys the old house has an air of enchantment and mystery.
Rev Kenneth Glass: A short History of Glemsford 1967
Monks Hall is a lovely house, and a beautiful setting, overlooking the Stour valley opposite Borley. The house itself is a far more suitable setting for ghost stories than Borley Rectory as it is undeniably old. The tunnel legends were taught in the local school and local people will give all sorts of details. The church tower was used as a lookout post during the war and it is said that the tunnel's entrance was used as a shelter in case of air attack. There is a slab of stone outside the West Door which is said to be the entrance to the tunnel. Local people say that the tunnel still exists in parts, though some is now collapsed, and that it is possible to determine its' course across the field between the hall and the church. It was said to have been used at the Reformation to enable monks to worship in the church undetected. I fear it is my sad duty to record that the tunnel is almost certainly fictional. There was never a monastery at Monks Hall and there is no evidence of a tunnel between there and the church. However, it is interesting how live the stories are, compared with the similar legend at Borley, which, in contrast, can not be found amongst the local residents at all. This story seems to have been lifted by the Bull girls wholesale from the next parish in the same way that the coach with its headless coachmen came from the neighbouring Acton.
There are many Essex legends of tunnels. The Bull sisters came up with the absurd story of a tunnel from Borley to Bures nunnery. A better known legend, which may have been the inspiration for this story, is the tunnel from Wormingford, running beneath the Stour to Bures Church, and used by 'Bloody Mary' when she went to church.
There are several stories of tunnels leading to and from abbeys. In September 1960, a tunnel was said to have been found leading from the ruins of Latton Priory 'six feet high, and with little alcoves every twenty-five yards where you could sit and rest.'. Coggeshall Abbey is said to have a tunnel leading all the way to Colchester. Locals would say that it went under the main road (A120) and that one could hear the change in tone of the 'clip-clop' of horses hooves as waggons passed over the spot. There is supposed to be a tunnel from Birchanger to Thremhall Priory. Sometimes, these tunnels are said to go under rivers and marshes, such as the one from Stratford Langthorne Abbey to Barking Abbey.
It is not just the Abbeys and monasteries that have tunnel legends: At Knolls Hill there is said to be the bricked up entrance to a tunnel that went from Blackbush Farm to Knollshill Farm, and another to Highhouse farm. Amongst the plethora of legends about tunnels, there is said to be one from a Tudor Hunting Lodge at Buckhurst Hill to the Horse and Well inn at Woodford, and another at Mark Hall in Woodford.
These tunnels have long held a fascination for the historian. all have been investigated. There was once even a 'Tunnel Club' in Essex dedicated to finding them, and the historian E.A. Rudge dedicated a great deal of energy to tracking them down. Just a few have been found to have any basis in fact, and all of these, like the ones found at Lees Priory, turned out to be conduits for water and sewage.
One should not automatically disbelieve old stories of tunnels. Ancient tunnels are occasionally discovered. Most of them are to be found around the big houses of East Anglia, and came about for a number of different reasons. Most are actually storm drains or culverts. Some are foul drains, some are parts of the cellars of demolished wings, and a few were put in so that servants and deliveries could come and go without disturbing the privacy or view of the residents. You will see some that are actually the entrances to ice-houses and others that were corridors to connect the cellars in two separated wings to facilitate the transfer of barrels and wheeled loads. Very rarely, tunnels were an eccentric whim of a wealthy member of the Gentry who wished to create an underground folly. East Anglia has very few mines, though there are some tunnels that were part of the chalk-mining and brick-making industry. Nearby Sudbury is riddled with tunnels in the chalk dating back to prehistoric times, and parts of houses and gardens occasionally disappear alarmingly into the ground when they cave in.
The design of the renaissance house in England often required that the kitchens, formerly separate, or in a utility wing, should be placed in the cellar. this presented all sorts of practical problems for the delivery of supplies and access. Resourceful architects often used tunnels to get round these problems. When kitchens were subsequently moved to lighter and airier spots in the house, the tunnels were often bricked up and forgotten about until their rediscovery caused unnecessary excitement to subsequent generations and were often the source of lurid legends of passion and violence.
Ancient storm drains can be large enough for a man to stand in. Nearby Lavenham is a good example of this, where the drainage system is post-mediaeval and completely effective. It goes on for miles, and certainly gives the lie to the idea that the towns of five hundred or six hundred years ago were not keen on drainage.
My own house, just three miles from the rectory, had a splendid outside toilet enabling three people to sit together. Unfortunately, it is no longer in working order but it used to make good use of the running water afforded by the fact that the house was a water-mill. A beautiful brick culvert led the water from the river to the shed from where it flowed beneath the seats and through another culvert underneath the mill to the tailrace. The culvert is constructed of special trapezoid bricks, manufactured to the correct shape to give the arched top. It is a work of art, and it is hard to believe that such a fine construction was ever made for such a mundane purpose. Nobody here ever had the lively imaginations of the Bull sisters, so no legends ever appeared involving tunnels, and nobody ever explored the culverts looking for treasure, but it provided a fine Neccessarium for generations of the miller, his family, and his workers.