Unless your journey is really necessary you shouldn’t be travelling at the moment. If you’re not passing through the subject of today’s article as part of an essential journey, please save up visiting it until we’re all able to move freely again.
So. Where were we?
Last time, we left the story of purpose-built under-river pedestrian tunnels (qualifications which will become important later) in 1912, with the opening of the Woolwich Foot Tunnel in London (The Beauty of Transport 15 April 2020). Fast forward a few decades, and a few miles upstream, and the Festival of Britain was taking place in 1951 on the South Bank. It bequeathed London the Royal Festival Hall, and also included some showy structures that had shorter lives, most notably the Dome of Discovery and the near-gravity defying Skylon.
Newcastle upon Tyne’s contribution to the Festival of Britain was neither as ostentatiously flashy as the last two, nor as culturally significant as the first. But Newcastle, a practical, straightforward and muscular city, came up with something which embodied its own character: the Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnels.
The idea for transport tunnels under the Tyne, slightly downstream of Newcastle city centre itself, had been around since the 1920s. There was an urgent need to improve access to the shipyards, lead and chemical works which lined the Tyne in this area and which employed large numbers of workers. The only transport available for crossing the river though, was unreliable ferries.
It was 1937 before the idea was formally adopted by Northumberland and Durham County Councils, who planned a scheme involving three tunnels: one for pedestrians, one for cyclists, and a road tunnel. The late 1930s wasn’t the best time to progress a large-scale multi-year engineering project, and it took until the end of the Second World War before The Tyne Tunnel Act was passed in 1946, authorising construction. Even then, post-war austerity meant that only the pedestrian and cyclist tunnels would be progressed in the short term. The larger and more expensive road tunnel would have to wait.
One imagines that describing the Tyne’s new tunnels as a contribution to the Festival of Britain was a canny way of assisting secure funding for the project, probably not the first time that an existing scheme had been hitched to a national celebration with project funding available, and certainly not the last. After all, did all those “Millennium” projects suddenly appear out of nowhere when we decided to mark the arrival of the year 2000 with a capital spending splurge?
Construction on the Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnels began in 1947 and despite not really being a Festival of Britain scheme at all, it opened in July 1951, bang in the middle of the Festival of Britain. Apparently it wasn’t fully complete at the time of its official opening (a situation in which the later Millennium projects would also frequently find themselves).
Recently refurbished and brought back to its original splendour, if not exactly its original design, the Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnels is not only a very useful piece of transport infrastructure, but a very attractive one. It shares similar design concepts with the Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels, but 50 years later, fashions and technology had changed, and the Tyne’s tunnel exudes a more modern style by the bucketload.
Like the Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels, the Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnels is served by two circular rotundas, on the north bank at Howdon and the south bank at Jarrow. They are built of red brick (like the entrance buildings at the Greenwich and Woolwich tunnels) and have a double opening at the front. But that is where the similarities end. There is no decorative ironwork on the windows here, just stylish large windows with Crittall-style frames. Rather than the glass domes at Greenwich or the copper cones at Woolwich, the rotundas for the Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnel are capped with splendid thin shell concrete and asphalt dome roofs, which Historic England likens to the much less enduring Dome of Discovery.
Inside, the Tyne rotundas are far more spacious than their ancestors in London. Under the planetarium-like domed roof which features attractive texturing that also absorbs noise, the walls have a dado in cool turquoise-green tiling.
And in contrast to the lifts and staircases in the rotundas at Greenwich and Woolwich, those on the Tyne housed a pair of escalators. Running down a single shaft, these wooden escalators were the longest single-rise escalators in the world when the tunnel opened.
The escalators were supplied by Waygood-Otis, whose smashing logo can still be found because two of the original four escalators are still there.
The escalators also feature the county shields for Northumberland and Durham at the ends of the escalators, made of bronze and finished with enamel.
Although not an uncommon model of escalator, the Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnels’ escalators’ decking and side panels are made of marbled green linoleum (when I was young every bathroom in the country seemed to have a toothbrush beaker made of a plastic that looked almost identical) rather than the polished plywood which was the standard finish. At the bottom of the escalators there is a large circulating area before the start of the pedestrian and cyclist tunnels themselves. This area is where the tunnel’s lifts are linked to by narrow side passages.
Although the main access to the Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnels was always intended to be by the escalators, which by nature of their continuous operation can handle much larger passenger flows than a lift, lifts have always been provided as a secondary option. This was an arrangement apparently inspired by the St Anna tunnel in Antwerp.
The lifts are not accessed from the entrance rotundas, but from separate buildings off to one side. These square lift houses have flat roofs, chamfered corners and walls with square projections. With the squared off porch at the entrance, these buildings clearly hark back more to the inter-war Modern style of architecture in which the plans for the tunnels crystallised than the post-war period in which they were constructed.
Back in the circulating area at the bottom of the escalators, the entrances to the pedestrian and cyclist tunnels are signed with some glorious serif lettering; very 1950s civic. From here on, the two tunnels run in separate bores under the Tyne. (This is why the official name is “Tunnels” even though it’s really one thing, and the escalator shafts are just a single bore, thus making it hard to describe either singly or plurally when writing…)
Although not immediately obvious visually, the two tunnels have different diameters. The pedestrian tunnel is 3.2m in diameter and the cyclist tunnel is 3.7m, and both are 275m long (the escalator shafts add another 120m or so in total). The cyclist tunnel was the first dedicated cycle tunnel in the country. Both tunnels feature the same decoration inside, and it is marvellous. Eschewing the white tiles of the Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels, the Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnels features square turquoise-green tiles on the lower portions of the tunnel walls, and rectangular cream tiles above, separated by a line of narrow dark green tiles. The tiles were supplied by Carter & Co of Poole. There is something of a late Charles Holden London Underground station about the whole effect, whilst also being wholly unique to the tunnel. The colour combination is very effective and very smart.
Perhaps the most famous bit of tiling in the tunnel is at the halfway mark in each bore. There, at the old border between Northumberland and Durham counties, is a vertical strip of green tiling and either side, decorated tiles which read “County of Northumberland” and “County of Durham”, just so you know where you are.
The tunnel was very successful at first, with some 17-20,000 users every day. But over the following decades usage declined in step with the decline of the industries on the banks of the Tyne that the tunnel had been built to serve.
By the 2000s the tunnel was looking very run down. Having secured Grade II listed status in 2000, Tyne and Wear Integrated Transport Authority launched a refurbishment project to bring it back up to standard, and the tunnel closed in 2013. It would be a refurbishment project that took six long years to (mostly) complete, and it would go on so long that it would outlive the Integrated Transport Authority itself.
Originally planned to take just two years, timescales slipped and a £6.9m budget ended up at £16.2m. As so often happens in the restoration of built heritage assets, unforeseen issues caused delays and cost increases. Contractors went bust and asbestos contamination was worse than feared (it’s always asbestos, isn’t it? It sometimes seems like it was the only building material used for anything in the first half of the 20th Century). But finally, in August 2019, the tunnel reopened for business.
Thoroughly cleaned and refurbished throughout and with damaged tiling replaced with new by heritage tiling specialists, the tunnel hasn’t looked so good in ages. The floors are mostly new while bright new lighting really shows off the Tunnels to its advantage.
It was decided that the now aged escalators should be replaced, although this was done in an unusual way. At each end of the tunnel, one of the escalators has been removed, to be replaced by a glass-sided inclined lift. The other escalator has been retained but preserved as a static feature. Clear panels have been installed on the side of the escalator so that passengers in the inclined lift can see the internal escalator mechanics, and the escalator shafts have been given a colourful lighting scheme.
Although users can walk up or down the escalators (I have done, and going up is a bit steep), if you have a bike, a pushchair, or don’t want to walk the steps, there is now a choice of two different lifts to get from the surface to the tunnel and back up again. The vertical lifts are being retained, but as they are smaller than the inclined lifts, it is expected that most people will use the latter.
The rotundas have had their roofs completely overhauled and been cleaned and decorated throughout, with their windows replaced.
To get a good sense of what a trip through the Tunnels is like, check out this Vicki Explores video:
However, the tale of the Tyne Pedestrian and Cycle Tunnel’s lengthy refurbishment isn’t quite over yet. When it reopened in August 2019, the inclined lifts weren’t ready, and it was expected that they would come into operation in September that year. By January, however, they were still not open for business, with the North East Joint Transport Committee blaming the suppliers of the inclined lifts for problems with the doors. They weren’t operating in March when I visited, and they’re still not operating now. But the vertical lifts (also thoroughly overhauled) still give step free access until the inclined lifts start working, and the tunnel is already proving very popular again. Over 20,000 pedestrians used the tunnel between November and December 2019, alongside nearly some 6,400 cyclists.
One of the non-original features of the tunnel restoration has been bringing the tunnel into line with the visual identity originally developed by Newcastle-based design agency Gardiner Richardson for the Tyne and Wear Metro and which has been rolled out since across most of the Nexus-managed elements of the area’s transport network.
The last time The Beauty of Transport looked at Nexus’s transport network visual identity was in early 2017, but it has been expanding since then, not least to serve the needs of the Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnels.
The Nexus visual identity has been imported to the tunnel mostly through newly applied directional signage. The signs use the distinctive and charismatic typeface Margaret Calvert designed for the Metro, now called ‘Calvert’, applied as white lettering on black backgrounds (the standard colour scheme initiated by Gardiner Richardson).
The tunnel’s entrance rotundas sport their equivalent of Metro station nameboards over their entrances alongside the tunnel’s unique logo.
Each member of the Nexus transport network family has its own logo, with an uppercase white Calvert letter on a coloured background. The tunnel is no exception but in a rather quirky move, its logo is not T Tunnel but U Tunnel (U, presumably for standing for Underground or Under-river).
This logo has clearly been through a slightly complicated design process. Although the orange-brown background was established as the tunnel’s unique colour identifier by 2018 (see below), there was an earlier version which used a sort of teal green, clearly influenced by the coloured tiles within the tunnel. The green version appeared on tunnel refurbishment newsletter updates and on printed information about tunnel replacement bus services at the nearby bus stops.
This isn’t the only new transport mode logo added to the Nexus family in the last few years. Since The Beauty of Transport‘s last article on the subject, Nexus has been busy expanding its collection. In 2017, Nexus had logos for: M Metro, B Bus, F Ferry, P [car] Park (mostly used on the Nexus website but occasionally on signage within Metro stations), C Cycle (used on websites and leaflets but which has since appeared on information applied to cycle lockers) and R Rail (disappointingly still restricted to the website and not applied at railway stations).
In 2018, Nexus launched a transport consultation exercise, and did so with a graphic that revealed several new transport mode logos. It omitted P Park though, so as far as I know there has never been a single piece of Nexus publicity or signage in which all the mode logos have been corralled in one place.
Joining the family this time were C Car (on a cerise background), W Walk (lime green), T Taxi (raspberry pink) and U Tunnel in its brown version. The existence of T Taxi might appear to explain the selection of U for Tunnel by having already taken up the obvious letter, except there are Cs for both C Car and C Cycle, so there is precedent for two modes with the same identifier letter. That said, Transport for the North also uses a Calvert T for its traffic news Twitter profile picture, so maybe three Ts was a bridge too far:
None of this slightly eccentric approach to selection of transport mode identifier letter and colour stops me wanting a set of mugs (and/or other merchandise) featuring each of the logos, a suggestion I made in the 2017 article about Nexus’s transport network visual identity but which it sadly still hasn’t taken me up on. I live in hope.
Having looked at the Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels a fortnight ago, and the Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnels this time, that all but wraps up The Beauty of Transport’s look at the UK’s purpose-built under-river pedestrian tunnels. Or does it? Remember at the beginning of the article I said that qualification was important? Well, according to Historic England in the Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnels’ listing citation, it is “one of four purpose built pedestrian tunnels under rivers still operating in the UK.” So where is the fourth? No-one seems to know because no other foot tunnel in the UK quite fits the definition; being either no longer in use, or not purpose built as pedestrian tunnels. After a Twitter discussion, it seems that the Clyde Tunnel in Glasgow is the one that Historic England must have had in mind, but that wasn’t purpose built for pedestrians, instead having a pedestrian tunnel under the surface of the road which runs in the same tunnel. But if you have a better idea, do let me know…
Bibliography and Further Reading
For the benefit of my father-in-law, who likes to know how things are engineered, see here for a series of videos about how the Tunnels was constructed
Some history on the tunnel from The Chronicle, here
The saga of the glass inclined lifts from The Shields Gazette, here
Listing citation for the Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnels, here
…and anything else linked to in the text above