The Ness Tunnel
The Ness headland, the promontory of Permian breccias, and much of Shaldon and Ringmore were purchased by Lady Elizabeth, widow of Thomas, the 1st Lord Clifford of Chudleigh. Together with Ness Cove Beach and Ness House this became the summer residence of the Clifford family.
The tunnel runs through the headland down to the beach. It’s not a scary tunnel; it’s solidly-bricked and well-lit, wide enough for two people to walk side-by-side; it takes only a couple of minutes to reach the beach. There’s a first straight section (with a ventilation shaft on its right) descending gently, then a junction and bend of about 30° right followed by a similar slowly-descending section, then a bend of 30° left leading to a flight of steps, then finally a sharp bend left to the beach exit.
As described in Mary Waugh’s Smuggling in Devon and Cornwall: 1700-1850, the present tunnel is clearly diverted – there must be a further tunnel segment behind that green wall at the junction. Then there’s the larger, but blocked, second tunnel entrance at the beach end, to the left of the current public one: presumably this was the original, “large enough for a carriage drive”.
There are various theories on the tunnel’s origin.
Firstly, the tunnel is known locally as the “smugglers’ tunnel” but maybe this is an obsession with linking to alleged smugglers any small, obscure, picturesque or unusual way of reaching a beach!
Mary Waugh in her book ‘Smuggling in Devon and Cornwall: 1700-1850’ (Countryside Books, 1991) writes “the so-called Smugglers’ Tunnel … A ruined limekiln at the entrance suggests the reason it was cut”. Lime landed on the beach at Ness Cove would have been transported through the tunnel, along with other goods, to service a lime kiln built into a rocky cliff which separates the beach from the area beyond.
Another theory is that it was simply private beach access for Lord Clifford, whose marine villa was the house now occupied by the Ness House Hotel. This is the purpose cited in a number of 19th century regional guides, for example ‘The route book of Devon’ 1846 p195:
“The Ness now forms a pleasant little lawn to the marine cottage of Lord Clifford, situated just under it. His lordship has cut a tunnel 210 feet long through the base of the cliff, large enough for a carriage drive, communicating with the beach outside.”
During WW2, the tunnel was blocked by causing a roof fall. This is still the case but another exit to the beach was built a little distance away for use by holiday-makers and the local populous to enable this secluded and private beach to be used. It got into the news at the end of March 2014 when two people were trapped at Ness Cove by a landslip at the beach end of the tunnel.
Extracted from various sources: