When I was a boy I loved reading about ‘Wonders of the World.’ Not merely the Ancient Wonders like the Colossus of Rhodes but also the more modern ones, such as the Grand Coulee Dam. It never occurred to me to wonder how a thing got ‘Wonder of the World’ status and it still doesn’t. So I hereby present our very own Liverpool and Wirral Wonder of the World: The Mersey Tunnel.
There was a railway tunnel before it, and another road one after it, but say ‘The Mersey Tunnel’ round here and everyone knows where you’re talking about. It’s our Wonder of the World.
I’ve always loved it but never thought of seriously exploring it until one of those September Heritage days a few years back when Sarah suggested we go and have a look. So we did, and she took a load of pictures. But since I wasn’t writing a blog then, they’ve lain unused.
Then last Friday, when I took this photograph of the lovely George’s Dock ventilation and control station at the start of my North Docks walk, I remembered our visit to the Mersey Tunnel in 2011 and decided I would now write about it.
First, a bit of history.
When it was opened in 1933, then ‘officially’ opened here in 1934 by a passing king and queen, this was the longest underwater road tunnel in the world.
As you can see, the Tunnel is circular. The roadway occupies the top half. The bottom was intended to be for a train or electric tramway, but that never happened. We’ll see later what it’s used for now.
I’d admired the architecture of the Tunnel and its ventilation shafts all my life. But I thought the shafts were just that, air intakes. I knew nothing. But I was about to find out a lot more.
This room is the control centre for this Tunnel and the Wallasey one.
Sadly, though, none of this beautiful stuff does anything anymore. The 1930s sci-fi future has been and gone. Flash Gordon has left the Metropolis.
Next we’re taken to see some real and enduring Wonders of this World.
You see, when the Tunnel was first designed they were just going to have air intakes, ventilation shafts were air could flow in and out naturally. But it’s explained to us that early on in the construction period, a shorter tunnel in New York was having trouble with drivers becoming drowsy with the petrol fumes. Therefore they decided powered ventilation would need to be designed and installed ( much more about this and what it did to costs and future tolls here). And it’s this powered ventilation we’re here to see. This tall building is not just an air shaft, you see, it’s a working machine, as are the other ventilation shafts you might have seen on both sides of the river.
If this seems like a boyish appreciation of ‘stuff’ then it’s fair I should report that we both stood there with tears of wonder in our eyes, seeing, hearing and feeling the heft and the glory of the human ingenuity displayed before us.
After the ventilation tower we’re taken down. To The Tunnel itself soon. But first, to the George’s Dock.
Now I’d always assumed this old dock had been filled in when the Three Graces (Liver, Cunard and Port of Liverpool Buildings) were constructed early in the 20th Century. But this close to the river the reclaimed land is by no means dry, as we’re about to find out.
We’re taken to an opening in one of the cellar walls, where in a darkness too deep to photograph we can just make out the arched foundations of what we’re told is the Cunard Building. Then, with a practised flourish, our guide throws a stick tied to a rope through the opening and we hear a splash as it lands in water. On the surface the George’s Dock may be gone, but deep down around the cellars here, it lives on.
Much, much deeper down next…
Standing on a small observation platform you might have noticed as you’ve driven through, we’re in the top half of the circular tunnel, where the roadway sits, half a mile or so from the Tunnel entrance. And our guide won’t let us take photos here. ‘You might distract the drivers,’ she tells us. ‘They probably think you’re all police officers anyway!’
Next it gets even better. We go down into the bottom half of the Tunnel. Where, as you may remember from the photograph of it being built, the train or tram was going to run.
Instead of tramlines it’s carried all kinds of telephone lines and services over the years, we’re told. Including, at the moment, broadband cables between Liverpool and Wirral.
Next we walk along a pathway to the side of the lower tunnel you can also see from the black and white construction photograph above.
When you’ve driven through the Tunnel over the last few years you may have noticed green doors to the side of the roadway in several places. Going through any of these doors would take you down to one of several new Refuges under the main Tunnel.
Leaving the building at the end of our tour, Sarah finds that the attention to detail in the place’s design extends everywhere.
Outside, this somehow Egyptian theme continues.
And a wonder it is. One you’d be well advised to go and explore. It’s not just a hole in the ground to drive through you know.
As well as being a work of engineering genius, The Mersey Tunnel is a work of art. Here are the credits for the artists:
The Mersey Road Tunnel was started in 1925, to a design by consulting engineer Sir Basil Mott. Mott supervised the construction in association with John Brodie, who, as City Engineer of Liverpool, had co-ordinated the feasibility studies made by consultant Engineers Mott, Hay and Anderson. The main contractor was Edmund Nuttall. In 1928 the two pilot tunnels from the Liverpool and Wirral sides met to within less than 25 millimetres (1″) of their aim.
The Tunnel entrances, toll booths and ventilation building exteriors were designed by architect Herbert James Rowse, who is frequently but incorrectly credited with the whole civil engineering project. Their decoration is by Edmund Thompson. These are Grade II listed buildings. More than 1.2 million tons of rock, gravel, and clay were excavated; some of it used to build Otterspool Promenade, and some to fill the old quarry in Storeton Woods.
Of the 1,700 men who worked on the tunnel during the eight and more years of its construction, 17 were killed.
At the time of its construction it was the longest underwater tunnel in the world, a title it held for 24 years.