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Report - Beech Hill Deep Tunnel Shelter, Luton - March 2009

LutEx

28DL Full Member
28DL Full Member
#1
I'd heard stories of tunnels under Luton for years; it's actually what got me into exploring in the first place. Although this was far from my first explore, it was special as it was the first site I'd researched, located and explored myself.
It all began with a lot of googling and several pretty successful trips to the Luton and Bedfordshire Archives Office in Bedford and the National Archives in Kew.

With Europe ramping up for war again, Luton would be a target due to RAF fighters based at the airfield and the Vauxhall Motors factory almost next door (Vauxhall suspended car production in 1940 to dedicate the line to manufacturing the Churchill Tank). The Town Hall approved construction of four deep tunnel air raid shelters on 19th May 1939 for use of citizens within the borough, with tenders amounting to £32,359 (nearly £2m today) being approved in August and October that year.


Luton sits in a chalk valley at the Eastern end of the Chiltern Hills at the source of the River Lea - and it very quickly became apparent to contractors and the local authority that

'the chalk to be tunnelled was not of the character expected'.

After falls in the Upper George Street tunnel, permanent linings were decided upon for all four tunnels, with the Town Hall on the advice of the Chief Engineer approving an additional £22,524 (£1.4m) for these.

Beech Hill Deep Tunnel Shelter

Beech Hill Tunnel was dug under Bury Park in Luton, to the West of the Town Centre. At 294 yards in length and 6'6" wide, 1,411 people could be sheltered at any one time. Construction cost £11,874 (£712,000 today) which worked out as £8. 8. 4. (£500) per person sheltered. In May 1940, the Borough Engineer proposed shortening the tunnel by 230ft and replacing two proposed entrances in Durbar and Mansfield Road with a single deep entrance in Claremont Road. Serious concerns were raised that due to the heavy cost of construction of the deep entrance, the cost saving would only be in the region of £110 (£6,600) but would

'...obliterate accommodation for 460 persons. I am rather dubious as to whether this saving is worth the loss of accommodation...'

The tunnel was shortened.

Beech Hill did its job until the end of the war, protecting its occupants from multiple raids on the town by the Luftwaffe. In 1949 plans were approved to remove public entrances and seal them with concrete slabs, due to the cost of installing obstruction lighting outweighing the facilities the tunnel provided. Breakaway joints were installed, with the assurance that
'if required, the shelters could be made available for public use within two or three days of the announcement of an emergency.'



Plan of Beech Hill tunnel, the blue section never being constructed


I'd found them! I decided to go for a quick reccy to see if I could find any likely lids to check, so jumped in my car and rolled round to Bury Park. High-vis donned, I popped a lid and found what I initially thought was a drain. "Worth a look", I thought, so I dragged a couple of cones from nearby and whacked some good 'ole Screwfix hazard barrier tape round the hole. I climbed just below pavement level to find another ladder descending further. It was a long way down - maybe a 20 metre drop via two 70-year old, rusty, near-vertical ladders. I was on my own, in a chamber under the pavement, looking down into the (almost!) unknown.



Urban Camouflage



Under the tarmac



Lookin' down

The sensible thing to do at this point would have been to chalk it down as a successful find, close up and return with other people. That's not what I did.

Instead, I ran excitedly back to my car and grabbed a rope and harness. If either of those ladders went, I'd be pretty screwed without a top rope considering nobody knew I was down there. If the ladder went, I wouldn't fall to my death and in the worst case I could SRT back out again. I had no idea what the air was like in the shelter, but luckily I had a personal GDU which I trusted would let me know if I had to leave.


Down I went into the damp darkness. The ladder was holding and seemed a bit more solid than it looked. A couple of minutes of climbing later, I found myself in the main shelter itself. The shaft I had entered via appeared to be an emergency exit situated halfway along the tunnel and was at the deepest point.


The Deep Tunnel


I walked the length of the tunnel, past several dog-legs designed to limit the impact of a direct hit on any part of the tunnel...and discovered there wasn't a lot left in there. I hadn't been exploring for long then and only had a shitty camera with a maximum of 4 seconds exposure so I only grabbed a few shots before leaving. Actually, that's one reason - the other being I was pretty damn on edge and paranoid something was going to go wrong, not least that I was going to get an unexpected visitor falling in from the pavement way above!


Not-so-lonely chairs



Gloominess



Camera and tripod in bag, I reattached to the rope and made my way back up the ladder into the light. Closing my makeshift work site up, I smiled at a couple of people walking past; they had no idea what was directly under their feet.
 

Clive Beasley

28DL Full Member
28DL Full Member
#3
I'd heard stories of tunnels under Luton for years; it's actually what got me into exploring in the first place. Although this was far from my first explore, it was special as it was the first site I'd researched, located and explored myself.
It all began with a lot of googling and several pretty successful trips to the Luton and Bedfordshire Archives Office in Bedford and the National Archives in Kew.

With Europe ramping up for war again, Luton would be a target due to RAF fighters based at the airfield and the Vauxhall Motors factory almost next door (Vauxhall suspended car production in 1940 to dedicate the line to manufacturing the Churchill Tank). The Town Hall approved construction of four deep tunnel air raid shelters on 19th May 1939 for use of citizens within the borough, with tenders amounting to £32,359 (nearly £2m today) being approved in August and October that year.


Luton sits in a chalk valley at the Eastern end of the Chiltern Hills at the source of the River Lea - and it very quickly became apparent to contractors and the local authority that

'the chalk to be tunnelled was not of the character expected'.

After falls in the Upper George Street tunnel, permanent linings were decided upon for all four tunnels, with the Town Hall on the advice of the Chief Engineer approving an additional £22,524 (£1.4m) for these.

Beech Hill Deep Tunnel Shelter

Beech Hill Tunnel was dug under Bury Park in Luton, to the West of the Town Centre. At 294 yards in length and 6'6" wide, 1,411 people could be sheltered at any one time. Construction cost £11,874 (£712,000 today) which worked out as £8. 8. 4. (£500) per person sheltered. In May 1940, the Borough Engineer proposed shortening the tunnel by 230ft and replacing two proposed entrances in Durbar and Mansfield Road with a single deep entrance in Claremont Road. Serious concerns were raised that due to the heavy cost of construction of the deep entrance, the cost saving would only be in the region of £110 (£6,600) but would

'...obliterate accommodation for 460 persons. I am rather dubious as to whether this saving is worth the loss of accommodation...'

The tunnel was shortened.

Beech Hill did its job until the end of the war, protecting its occupants from multiple raids on the town by the Luftwaffe. In 1949 plans were approved to remove public entrances and seal them with concrete slabs, due to the cost of installing obstruction lighting outweighing the facilities the tunnel provided. Breakaway joints were installed, with the assurance that
'if required, the shelters could be made available for public use within two or three days of the announcement of an emergency.'



Plan of Beech Hill tunnel, the blue section never being constructed


I'd found them! I decided to go for a quick reccy to see if I could find any likely lids to check, so jumped in my car and rolled round to Bury Park. High-vis donned, I popped a lid and found what I initially thought was a drain. "Worth a look", I thought, so I dragged a couple of cones from nearby and whacked some good 'ole Screwfix hazard barrier tape round the hole. I climbed just below pavement level to find another ladder descending further. It was a long way down - maybe a 20 metre drop via two 70-year old, rusty, near-vertical ladders. I was on my own, in a chamber under the pavement, looking down into the (almost!) unknown.



Urban Camouflage



Under the tarmac



Lookin' down

The sensible thing to do at this point would have been to chalk it down as a successful find, close up and return with other people. That's not what I did.

Instead, I ran excitedly back to my car and grabbed a rope and harness. If either of those ladders went, I'd be pretty screwed without a top rope considering nobody knew I was down there. If the ladder went, I wouldn't fall to my death and in the worst case I could SRT back out again. I had no idea what the air was like in the shelter, but luckily I had a personal GDU which I trusted would let me know if I had to leave.


Down I went into the damp darkness. The ladder was holding and seemed a bit more solid than it looked. A couple of minutes of climbing later, I found myself in the main shelter itself. The shaft I had entered via appeared to be an emergency exit situated halfway along the tunnel and was at the deepest point.


The Deep Tunnel


I walked the length of the tunnel, past several dog-legs designed to limit the impact of a direct hit on any part of the tunnel...and discovered there wasn't a lot left in there. I hadn't been exploring for long then and only had a shitty camera with a maximum of 4 seconds exposure so I only grabbed a few shots before leaving. Actually, that's one reason - the other being I was pretty damn on edge and paranoid something was going to go wrong, not least that I was going to get an unexpected visitor falling in from the pavement way above!


Not-so-lonely chairs



Gloominess



Camera and tripod in bag, I reattached to the rope and made my way back up the ladder into the light. Closing my makeshift work site up, I smiled at a couple of people walking past; they had no idea what was directly under their feet.
Nice to see it again I beat you by 60 odd yrs ! I went to beech Hill School and the public entrances were in the school grounds and covered by cast concrete slabs with a standard sewer inspection cover on the top. As I and my close class mates were into all things underground we knew instantly what these slabs were covering so at lunch time we walked up through the school gardens and managed to lift the lid and with only a box of matches descended the steps and started walking down the tunnel. Unfortunately we had been seen by other boys and we were called out by a teacher and marched off to the Head where all 5 of us received the cane ! The Head had the hatch cemented over as a deterrent ? oh dear what a waste as a few days later we returned after school armed with some tools! and chipped the cement off ! This time we had torches and explored the entire shelter including the escape shafts 1 in conway rd and the other clairmont rd one. Happy days.PS have you entered the deep shelter at Luton Station ?
 

Nailz

28DL Full Member
28DL Full Member
#4
This is awesome! Congrats on the pay off, I would have been down there like a rabbit too, but probably with less safety gear...
 

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