Sidmouth cliff watcher voices Salcombe tunnel fears

PUBLISHED: 17:06 09 August 2009 | UPDATED: 09:53 18 June 2010

CLIFF watcher John Govier, whose Sidmouth seafront home is close to Salcombe Cliffs, believes there is little left of the Victorian s attempt to build a railway tunnel to Hook Ebb.

CLIFF watcher John Govier, whose Sidmouth seafront home is close to Salcombe Cliffs, believes there is little left of the Victorian's attempt to build a railway tunnel to Hook Ebb.

In a bid to discover more, Sidmothian John has been doing his own investigations and this picture, taken by fishing friend James Hutchings, clearly shows a circular side entrance into the cliffs, which could, thinks John, been meant as a ventilation shaft.

The tunnel is linked inextricably to attempts to build a harbour for Sidmouth over the centuries.

John said: "Shipping played the major part in transportation, so it was in 1836 that the scheme to build a harbour at Chit Rock was the most serious attempt ever.

"An Act was passed for a Chit Rock harbour. The foundation stone, which still remains, was laid at Chit with great ceremony and the stone to build the harbour walls was to come from Hook Ebb."

Hook Ebb lies at the other end of the seafront beyond Salcombe Cliffs near Weston and there are many examples of Hook Ebb rock still remaining in Sidmouth, including John's own garden wall in York Street.

"Before the idea of getting rock from Hook Ebb via a tunnel and railway, the rock would have come by sea," he said.

"Probably a sturdy wooden boat would be loaded at Hook Ebb at low water, floated off when the tide came in, rowed back to Sidmouth, beached and, when the tide went out, unloaded."

Alternatively it might have been taken up the River Sid and unloaded at the Ham, but this would have been a difficult process.

A railway line was laid from Chit across the seafront road, a viaduct bridging the river at Port Royal.

Work on the tunnel started at Pennington Point and the first machine to pull the rocks on the railway was manually powered, but the rocks were too heavy.

"A steam engine was sent for and arrived to cheering and ceremony, but apparently would not fit in the tunnel," said John.

"By 1837 all the Chit Rock Harbour Company's money was spent and the scheme was abandoned forever."

There are varying reports as to how long the railway tunnel was built - either a third or half a mile towards Hook Ebb.

John says its entrance disappeared in around 1960.

He said: "When I played in the tunnel as a child the length of the tunnel was about 40feet and the back end had collapsed then.

"Personally I think that most of the tunnel has fallen in or eroded from Pennington Point for the first 150-200 yards."

There are still some unanswered questions, he said.

"There is obviously some tunnel left where the hole is but how much I don't know and how deep the tunnel was bored in the cliff I don't know or where the end is."

*Can you shed further light on the tunnel mystery, call reporters on 01392 888 500.

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