A VISITOR asked me if I knew where there were any tunnels on the Isle of Wight.

When you’re on holiday, everyone has something they like to look out for, why not tunnels? Of course there are plenty. The Needles Old Battery has the famously claustrophobic searchlight tunnel, Ventnor Botanic Garden has that curious long straight tunnel to the sea, and there are those old railway tunnels — and bits of them — scattered around.

But there are also vaguer tales of hidden tunnels to mysterious locations. Who has heard the stories of the tunnels that meet in the cellars of Northwood House? Or the strange myth of the smuggling tunnel all the way from Vernon Cottage to the mouth of Shanklin Chine? Some of these are true… but others may be more fanciful.

These stories seem to crop up again and again, and not just here on the Isle of Wight. I’ve worked at nature reserves and country parks across the country. Sooner or later, wherever I am, someone will come up with a tall tale of some subterranean shenanigans.

I recall when I worked on the Cambridgeshire fens older folk would swear there was a buried passage that ran between two nearby monastic ruins.

The tunnel was said to be full of treasure, of course — another bit of the story that is rarely omitted. The practical difficulty of building a miles-long tunnel through soft peat in lands below sea level seemed to pose no challenge to local folk’s faith in these supposed mediaeval sappers. Not to mention the sheer pointlessness of building it in the first place when walking on the surface would surely have been a more practical solution.

At another job I was working close to Netley Abbey, near Southampton. This ancient monument really does have tunnels, an early form of flushing toilet that washed the waste out into Southampton Water.

Sure enough, people would whisper to me conspiratorially about how the monks carried their chests of wealth down the conduits to hide from King Henry’s men. At least there actually were tunnels in that case, but an ecclesiastical privy seems an unlikely candidate location for hiding gold, and the history of Netley Abbey suggests the monks were far from well-off anyway.

I think that these stories come down the generations and originate in our ancestors’ belief in an underground fairyland. This was once a very common theme in folklore and literature right across the country. Many folk tales have the key elements of a mysterious, maybe dangerous, underground realm; and of course the added frisson of gold and treasure. Often a poor traveller is lured to enter a door in a hillside or river bank, never to return.

It’s not hard to see how this dramatic and recurrent theme might account for some of the stories we share even today.

Of course, the other explanation is that the tunnels full of gold are real. Tell me your tall tales of tunnels on the Isle of Wight!