Nicholas Owen meets the men who made the Hindhead Tunnel a reality
PUBLISHED: 19:19 13 September 2011 | UPDATED: 06:32 20 May 2014
Due to open this summer, the £371 million Hindhead Tunnel, which runs under the Devil’s Punchbowl and forms part of a new stretch of the A3, will be the longest road tunnel under land in the UK. Nicholas Owen donned his hard hat and went along to find out more about this great feat of engineering
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine February 2011
Photos by Andy Newbold
A few years ago, Paul Arnold stood in a quiet and lush bit of woodland just outside Hindhead and struggled to picture how it would all be changed. Eventually, vast numbers of trees would be cleared away and hundreds of acres gouged out so that two huge tunnels could be built. The purpose: to shift 30,000 vehicles a day under rather than through the surrounding protected heathland site.
“At the time, it was very hard to imagine that it would ever really happen,” says Paul, as we catch up over a cup of tea in his office at the site. “But here we are nearing completion.”
Indeed, in just a few months time, the Hindhead Tunnel, which at around one-and-a-quarter miles will be the longest road tunnel under land in the UK, should be open – and the traffic jams through the village, which have been frustrating for so many motorists using the busy A3 trunk road, will finally come to an end.
A team effort
Paul is one of two men in charge of the project. In his case, it has been a very long job: his involvement stretches back almost a quarter of a century, to when the M25 motorway, the last big road construction in Surrey, had just been completed.
“I joined what was then the Department of Transport, and was given a list of half a dozen projects to work on,” he remembers. “One of them, would you believe, was the Hindhead Tunnel scheme.”
Now aged 60, as the Highways Agency senior project manager, he is the government’s man in charge, though he couldn’t have done it without his right-hand man. For the last eight years, he has been working in close co-operation with 52-year-old Paul Hoyland, project director for Balfour Beatty, the main contractor, which has its head office in Redhill.
The two Pauls’ base is a sprawl of temporary huts beside the A3 close to the beautiful Devil’s Punchbowl, a large hollow of dry sandy heath a couple of miles north of Hindhead itself. “We have separate offices,” says Paul Hoyland. “Not right next to each other, but pretty close. We can pop in and out to discuss things.”
You get the impression these two genial and highly experienced civil engineers would be unlikely to have many outright arguments.
Their work and that of hundreds of others, from truck drivers to specialist tunnellers, means the twin-tunnel project will come in within the near-£400 million budget and a little ahead of schedule. And all because of a bottleneck caused by the narrow crossroads in the centre of Hindhead.
“It should help bring the village itself back to life,” says Paul Hoyland, as we discuss the blight that afflicts old places like Hindhead when too many cars and lorries trundle through at all hours of the day and night.
A tour of the site
Before taking photographer Andy Newbold and me to have a close look round, the two Pauls remember some of the unusual aspects of laying out in total four miles of new roads, of which just under a mile-and-a-quarter are the twin carriageway tunnels burrowing beneath a hill just to the east of Hindhead.
For example, the Devil’s Punchbowl area is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, which means special care had to be taken over wildlife. And some very small wildlife at that. In one place, a colony of dormice was discovered. Because trees would be chopped down near them, and dormice apparently don’t like moving across open ground, two bridges were strung up, consisting of two narrow tubes. “We don’t really know if any dormice actually used them, though,” admits Paul Hoyland.
After examining maps and plans, Paul Hoyland gives us a lecture on safety before we clamber into high-visibility overtrousers and jackets, surprisingly comfortable steel toe-capped boots, and put on tough plastic glasses and gloves, followed of course by the obligatory hard hats.
Squeezing into a chunky people carrier, we set off from the construction base down the gentle hill towards the northern tunnel portals. The vehicle looks like any family motor, except it has fire-resistant equipment under the bonnet. Any blaze underground is dreaded: witness the two fires that caused chaos in the Channel Tunnel. We drive gingerly around all sorts of building paraphernalia, past the almost finished control room where staff will monitor passing traffic, and into the southbound tunnel.
“We paint the tunnel walls magnolia,” says Paul Arnold. “White would create glare as car headlights hit them. There are specially loud loudspeakers so that information can be broadcast if there is a problem. Radio programmes can be broken into to give information if there is an incident. There is complete video surveillance from end to end. And there are cameras, which will measure average speeds, covering traffic entering and then leaving the tunnel portals. So don’t be tempted to speed through!”
Above us, men are installing long strip lights while others are busy in the side tunnels, which connect the northbound and southbound carriageways. Sturdy fire doors, costing £40,000 pounds each, are going into these narrow side tunnels so that in an emergency drivers can get away from any flames.
As the Pauls chat away about what is needed to burrow through and equip a modern tunnel, their eyes roam around, making sure everything is being done precisely to plan. Says Paul Hoyland: “Oh, I usually spot something whenever I come down here. Something to chase up.”
Perhaps the most tricky aspect has been the sandstone soil that had to be dug out to take the new route under the hill. It is fairly easy to slice through, but a muddy mess to handle afterwards if it rains, and it has rained a lot during the four years of building.
Amid it all, how have local people reacted? Surprisingly well, both men agree. The real gritty part, the digging out of the actual tunnels, was a round-the-clock operation. In one place, they struck a solid rock formation. Right above where machinery pounded away at the rock there were houses, and those living in them could feel the vibration. “We offered them hotel accommodation until we were finished,” says Paul Arnold. “But they all said no. They all stayed put.”
The old and the new
The new tunnels are only for motor vehicles. A very interesting solution was found to provide for cyclists and horse-drawn vehicles. The existing A3 through Hindhead will be closed and returned to heathland. At the same time, a byway will be opened for the bicycle riders and the horses, following an almost-disappeared trackway through the woods that was the original London to Portsmouth road. So, old and new are playing their parts to solve a 21st century congestion problem.
After seeing inside the nearly-complete tunnels, we are driven round to the south of Hindhead, where a short trek through woodland brings us to a platform with a grandstand view of the works going on below. The two bosses talk about what they will do next.
Paul Arnold, originally from Kent but now living in nearby Guildford, plans to retire to spend more time helping at his local church of St Saviour’s. His wife has been along several times to observe progress. “I also have an 18-month-old granddaughter who’s in Canada and who is absolutely fascinated by building sites and equipment,” he says proudly. A follower in her civil engineering grandfather’s footsteps one day, perhaps.
As for the other Paul, who commutes to Hindhead most days from his home in Essex, he is ready for a new challenge: “I’m hoping to get involved with the Crossrail project in London. That would be fascinating.”
We have a last look down at the gaping mouths of this striking new feature of the south west Surrey landscape. Even the men who have overseen it all are impressed. “Most people,” says Paul Hoyland, “think a tunnel is just a hole in the ground.”
“Yes,” chimes in Paul Arnold, “it’s amazing what goes into building one.”
HAVE YOUR SAY: What do you think about the new Hindhead Tunnel? Will the tunnel be the solution to the area’s traffic problems? Let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
The Hindhead Tunnel in numbers…
- The Hindhead Tunnel project will have cost £371 million
- In total, 4 miles of new roads have been built as part of the project
- Of this, just under 1.25 miles are the twin carriageway tunnels
- Landscaping means 200,000 new trees and shrubs will be planted
- More than 60 miles of cable will control safety and lighting equipment