What is it about a tunnel that excites us so? Last week’s story about the secret one in a New York synagogue fascinated the world, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that no one knew why the thing had been built in the first place. Police attempted to close it, and indeed fill it with cement, leading to fights with a group of young men trying to defend the tunnel, which went under the street and led to at least one other nearby building.
Maybe it’s the word “secret.” Of course that explains our interest in Tom, Dick and Harry, the three tunnels dug during the Great Escape. Roger Bushell, who masterminded the exit from Stalag Luft III to “make life hell for the Hun,” insisted everyone use the code names for security’s sake, threatening to court-martial anyone who even said the word “tunnel.” Shored up with wooden slats from the prisoners’ beds (fewer than half remained to support each mattress), and lit by candles made from fat skimmed off the top of their soup, it was Harry that eventually got the nod. After the escapees were recaptured and killed, a fourth tunnel was started but ultimately abandoned. It was called George.
Meanwhile back in Blighty, London Underground tunnels acted as bomb shelters, and, in the case of those at Aldwych station, as a safe place to store the Elgin Marbles. Fifty years later the Prodigy used the same tunnel in the video for “Firestarter.” London owes he Tube system to James Henry Greathead, inventor of the “tunnelling shield,” which allows you to excavate without disturbing the ground — the first two lines (Metropolitan and District) had necessitated digging up the street, laying the tracks, then covering them up again. Look on the Tube map and you’ll see that whenever one of those two lines crosses a “deep level” line, it goes over it rather than under it, to mimic reality. There’s a statue of Greathead outside the Bank station — its plinth is a ventilation shaft from the Tube. And the Underground even gets clever with its pedestrian tunnels: the mosaic tiling in the one at Green Park leading from the Jubilee line to the Piccadilly gradually changes from gray to blue.
Criminals love a tunnel. The one through which the Minis escape Turin in The Italian Job was actually a newly built sewer between Birmingham and Coventry. The stunt drivers slalomed to get the cars climbing the tunnel’s sides, and nearly managed a full 360-degree corkscrew, but in the end gravity defeated them. The drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman spent an estimated $50 million, and moved more than 3,000 tons of earth, in constructing the mile-long extravaganza which allowed his escape from a Mexican prison in 2015. It had a ventilation system, electric lights and a motorbike fitted to rails.
The night before their execution at Newgate jail, condemned prisoners were ministered to by a clergyman from St. Sepulchre over the road, who avoided the crowds already gathering for the next day’s entertainment by using a tunnel linking the two buildings. These criminals were, by definition, the ones who’d got caught. Rather like the two Australian thieves who tried tunneling into a jewelry store in 2013, but accidentally ended up in the adjacent KFC. What a bore.