Tunnel vision

8 10 2010

Tunnel leading from the courthouse to the prison, Oxford

Tunnels are primarily functional spaces: they provide an efficient thoroughfare from A to B. In addition, tunnels are usually subterranean and thus are also associated with security. So, underpasses provide citizens with a safe escape from road traffic; other types of tunnel offer security for authorities – governments, the military, etc. Sometimes, tunnels provide routes for clandestine activities that try to circumvent above-ground control, such as the underground routes in and out of Gaza that open up its otherwise closed world. Yet, it’s always difficult to control access to tunnels and they invariably end up being both utilitarian throughfares and illicit hideouts. In this dual identity they take on symbolic power, much of it borrowed from older associations between the underground and hell.

This example from Oxford demonstrates the sense of the return of the symbolic into the utilitarian. This tunnel was built underneath the city’s courthouse, linking it with the nearby prison. Constructed in 1841 with the courthouse itself, this strange space is only one of two in the UK, Castlereagh Prison in Northern Ireland being the other, built in the late 18th century and from which derives the phrase to be ‘sent down’.

The entrance the tunnel in the Oxford courthouse

In the Oxford courthouse, the convicted prisoner would descend steps in front of the assembled crowd, into a narrow tunnel, now used for storage, through a holding area, and perhaps a toilet stop, then onwards through an iron gate  and down again into a more forbidding tunnel which would have ended up in the receiving area of the prison. The Oxford tunnel was last used in the early 1980s, most famously for the ‘sending down’ of Dennis Nilsen, the notorious serial killer of gay men.

The final section of the tunnel towards the prison

We might say that this is a functional tunnel – simply an efficient means of transport to prevent prisoners from escaping – but it has obvious symbolic meaning as well: the convicted criminal would descend before the eyes of the court, literally cast down by the judge (God’s divine representative on earth) into the symbolic hell of prison – both the iron gates and two levels of descent reinforcing the notion of ‘going down’ into an infernal region. Now, of course, the tunnel is blocked up – a dead end; the prison a luxury hotel and the function and symbolism of these spaces forever altered. However, court employees still work in the offices between the two tunnels, the squeaky hinges of the tunnel door sometimes provoking in them old fears of subterranean spaces inhabited by the unquiet dead.

Underpass from Headington to Barton, Oxford

Tunnels are always thresholds of one type or another – and even mundane underpasses like this one between Headington and Barton on the edge of Oxford, represent the passing of one zone into another. It is said that people will walk much further than necessary just to avoid an unpleasant underpass like this one.

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