The Tunnel House is a classic Gloucestershire pub. It was originally built as the New Inn in the 1780’s for the navvies working on the two mile long Sapperton tunnel on the Thames & Severn canal. There was a huge loss of life during digging of the tunnel in 1788-90. The inn provided lodgings for the navvies and occasionally the Tunnel House was used as a makeshift mortuary. When the canal was operational the tunnel had to be negotiated by ‘legging’, a slow laborious and physically demanding process, which necessitated the consumption of several pints beer by the ‘leggers’ as means of compensation for the arduous task. The ornate southern portal of the canal tunnel is only a few yards from the inn.

The Tunnel House was badly damaged by fire on January 17th 1952.

Wilts & Glos Standard, Saturday 26th 1952 – Second outbreak at Tunnel House: A second outbreak of fire at Tunnel House Inn early last Friday morning approximately 24 hours after firemen had been first called to the scene, completely destroyed the building, leaving only the bare walls standing. It was not until 4 o’clock the previous day that firemen from Cheltenham who had relieved the Cirencester brigade, left the scene, confident that the blaze had been extinguished, after hoses had been played on it all day. Workmen on Friday morning saw smoke again coming from the building and the Cirencester brigade were called. On their arrival they found the remaining part of the inn already in flames and within a few minutes of their arrival the roof collapsed into the basement. A strange feature of the fire is that the sign above the door was left intact and not even scorched.’

Wilts & Glos Standard, Saturday 21st August 1954 -Tunnel House makes progress: Exterior work on the restoration of Tunnel House has been virtually completed, but some months are likely to elapse before one will be free again to quench one’s thirst in this two hundred year old inn on the edge of Cirencester Park.

Tunnel House was gutted by fire in January 1952. Builders have ceased work on the inn until November, when they will start work on the interior. The reason for this break in operations, as given officially, may provoke a smile: it is to permit the builders to make progress with other outside work during the months of summer!

Meanwhile, drinks will continue to be served in the temporary premises at the rear of the inn by the licensee, Mr P G Brown, who, with his wife and four other occupants of the house – including a baby of 18 months – who escaped by the upstairs windows of the blazing inn on that cold January night nearly three years ago. The house has been wholly re-roofed and given dormer windows.

Wilts & Glos Standard, Thursday May 9th 2002. The night fire broke out at inn: (by Peter Grace)

Iris Blackarby, from West Yorkshire, has been in touch with some interesting information relating to our recent articles on the fire that destroyed the Tunnel House Inn in January 1952. Iris, then Iris Goff, is the last surviving member of the family living at the inn when the fire broke out. At the time she was a tiny baby living there with her parents, grand-parents and uncle and aunt.

Her uncle was Philip Brown, the landlord, and her grandfather was Joseph Norton. Her grandfather had left Oaksey in the 1800’s eventually finding employment at Buckingham Palace, where his duties included waiting at table on Queen Victoria and King George V. As a souvenir of those days he had a collection of medals awarded to him for services rendered to the many dignitaries who came to the palace receptions. After the Second World War he returned to the Tunnel House to take up the tenancy as landlord. He remained as such until 1950 when Iris’s Uncle Philip took over, although her grandparents stayed on in residence.

It was her grandfather who discovered the fire when checking the premises after closing. A beam over the fireplace in the club room, which evidently had been smouldering for some time, ignited and smoke poured up the stairs. He was able to give the alarm and everyone living in the inn escaped, although Iris had to be carried by her parents across the roof to safety.

Unfortunately, however, their pet labrador died in the fire and all the ribbons on her grandad’s medal collection were destroyed although the medals themselves are still in the family. Lord Bathurst was the owner of the inn at the time and the family were re-housed in Noah’s Ark cottage in Cirencester Park and, as a temporary measure, a timber, military style-type hut was erected in front of the burned out shell of the inn until the latter was rebuilt

The daughter of Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman, Candida Lycett Green wrote in ‘The Oldie’: “Along the bar and around the two log fires are the most eclectic mix of people and objects imaginable. Hearty fresh faced Cirencester students, arty bearded and crocheted craftsmen, their women in felt hats with babies on their hips, horse girls in puffas and jods with Jilly Cooper giggles, local farm workers with tractor oil up to their armpits and nattily suited estate agents from Tetbury. There are piles of old copies of Hello!, stuffed weasels and otters, mad sofas, redundant dentists’ chairs, copper pans, old advertising signs, carnations in cut-glass vases, juke-box and fruit machines (seemingly soundless and on their lowest volume at lunch time anyway), good stew, postcards of pert gigantic breasts on sunny beaches and photographs of racehorses winning at Cheltenham….

The advertising signs that Candida refers to include Stroud Brewery and other brewery signs.

Courtesy Michael Wilkes
Courtesy Michael Wilkes

Gloucestershire Echo, Monday, April 16th 2001 – Foot and Mouth Crisis; Landlord – I may be ruined: A landlord says he faces a grim future if business does not pick up at his pub near Cirencester. Chris Kite, who runs the Tunnel House in Coates, says he has never known the pub to be so quiet in the 20 years he has been there. About 75 per cent of his trade used to come from ramblers. The foot and mouth crisis has meant Mr Kite must rely on locals and students. The pub is at the end of a track off the main road.

Mr Kite said: “In March our takings were down by almost £6,000. Weekends aren’t so bad because many of the locals come in for lunch or a quick pint but we have lost a lot of trade from mid-week walkers. At the moment we’re just ticking over but I’m worried about our future in the long term.”

Gloucestershire Echo, 27th March 2001 – Foot & Mouth Disease

Gloucestershire Echo, Monday 13th February 2006 – Drug claims at royal pub investigated: Drugs were allegedly sold at a Gloucestershire pub while it was packed with royals. Prince William was at the Tunnel House Inn in Coates, near Cirencester, when the dealing was said to have taken place on Saturday. Undercover reporters from the Sun newspaper were allegedly offered cannabis, cocaine and poppers. The drug deal was filmed by secret cameras in the pub’s toilets.

Prince Harry, 21, Princess Anne’s daughter Zara Phillips, 24, and son Peter, 28, were also in the pub. Police have launched an investigation. The pub is a favourite with the royals when they stay at Prince Charles’ Highgrove estate.

William was enjoying drinks with friends on his first free weekend after five weeks of Army training at Sandhurst. The group were said to have downed spirits and beer and danced. One of Prince Harry’s closest friends, Guy Pelly, 23, was there. Guy was accused of introducing Harry to cannabis when the prince was 16 – a claim he vehemently denied. A drinker at the pub said: “The princes are here a lot, Harry more than William. William always behaves himself.”

Matt Ford, spokesman for Gloucestershire police said: “We had a call alleging offences were being committed at the pub. We didn’t find any evidence when we attended. Subsequently further allegations have been made and we’ll be looking into it. We hope we’ll be sent the filming from the night to help with our enquiries.”

The Tunnel House Inn’s landlord Andrew Freeman was unavailable for comment today.

Wilts & Glos Standard, 16th February 2006 – Drug claims at pub: Police are looking into claims that class A drugs can be bought with ease at Cotswold pubs after revelations in the Sun newspaper. The story hit the front of a red top tabloid when reporters claimed they were offered cocaine, cannabis and ecstasy at the Tunnel House in Coates, while Prince William was nearby, enjoying a drink with his girlfriend Kate Middleton. Police spokesman Matt Ford said officers were looking into the allegations that drugs had been purchased but said no formal investigations had been launched. He said officers had attended the Tunnel House on Saturday night but no arrests were made and no suspicious substances seized.

Instead reporters from the newspaper took away suspected drugs which they claim were sold to them in the pub’s toilets. Andrew Freeman, landlord of the Tunnel House, said he was deeply unhappy with the allegations of drug taking at his pub or the way in which it was brought to the attention of the public. He said: “It’s not good, I can’t really comment. We are disappointed with the press coverage and we do not condone it – whatever element of the truth there may be.” Mr Freeman also dismissed allegations of drug taking in the pub car park as ‘complete rubbish’.

Dave Watson, chairman of the Licensed Victuallers Association in Cirencester said he felt sorry for the way Mr Freeland and the Tunnel House had been treated. He said: “It is a shame that a national newspaper reports an allegation on its front page, that they have the headline without proof. What are they doing with the alleged drugs? They have been taken away for analysis – anyone could say that. It is totally unfair. All pubs are as vigilant as they possibly can be.”

A rare Bowly’s Entire window on display inside the Tunnel House. June 2010.

In a post on Facebook in May 2022, the team at the Inn said: “Very sadly the Tunnel House Inn will be closed for the foreseeable future as we are unable to come to an agreement with the landlords that would have enabled us to continue trading.

“It has been a pleasure to run this pub and I hope that the next custodians make a success of it.”

Stroud News & Jounal online, 17th June 2023 – Plans could see Trouble House near Cirencester reopening:

Plans for holiday chalets and an extension have been approved for one of the area’s most historic and best-known pubs. The Tunnel House at Coates near Cirencester closed in September 2020 with managers saying they were ‘unable to come to an agreement with the landlords to enable us to continue trading’. On Wednesday, the Bathurst Estate was been granted permission by Cotswold District Council for a single storey extension to both the pub and the barn. The proposals also include use of nearby land to place six modular holiday pods which could be rented out for between £125 and £200 a night. The initial proposals included outdoor hot tubs but these have since been removed.

The applicant says the inn has been vacant for about two years and the proposals are vital to reopen the pub which would provide jobs for up to 20 people. But some residents along with Rodmarton Parish Council objected to the proposals over concerns the chalets will hurt the area of outstanding natural beauty, disrupt the tranquillity of the area and impact the nearby grade II-listed Thames and Severn Canal.

A Rodmarton Parish Council spokesperson told the committee the proposals would have a disastrous visual impact in the area and called on them to reject the scheme. He said there was no financial justification in the public domain to prove the need for this accommodation to enable the functioning of what used to be a popular pub. “There are clearly alternative ways to provide accommodation in a more sympathetic and sustainable way.” Jacqueline Brown, a resident who objected to the scheme, also raised concerns over the holiday pods at the meeting. She said there would be noise and light pollution which would disturb wildlife.

The Bathurst Estate’s planning agent spoke of how the accommodation was vital to ensure the future of the historic pub. “The pubs closing across Gloucestershire and further afield are those that do not enjoy the benefits of accommodation. The consistent vision for the accommodation units at the Tunnel is that they will provide overnight stay for couples who wish to enjoy a quiet retreat. Staying in one of the units would allow guests to enjoy the dark skies and nature and the units have been designed with this in mind.”

Map Reference: SO 965005

Licensing Details:

Owner in 1891: Earl Bathurst of Cirencester Park  (free from brewery tie)

Rateable Value in 1891: £18.0s.0d.

Type of licence in 1891: Alehouse

Owner in 1903: Earl Bathurst of Cirencester Park (free from brewery tie)

Rateable Value in 1903: £12.0s.0d.

Type of licence in 1903: Alehouse

Closing time in 1903: 10pm

Landlords at the Tunnel House include:

1891,1903 Joseph Norton.

1913 Mr R.B. Norton

1946-1950 Joseph Norton

1952, 1954 Phillip George Brown

1960’s Sidney and Pat Potter

1981,1999 Chris Kite

2003,2007 Andrew Freeland and Rupert Longston

Email from James Johnston, June 2023.

Sid Potter and his wife Pat who worked at the Kingshead in Cirencester Marketplace for Michael Haigh-Gannon before becoming the licensees of the tunnel in the 1960s. They and their lovely daughter Janie rang the pub for a couple of decades before Chris Kite took over.

Softly spoken and kind, Sid was a throwback to the 1950s, always up for a laugh, the atmosphere in the pub was akin to the officers mess on an RAF base during the war.

Sid had been the head waiter at the Kings Head in Cirencester so knew everyone locally, he made a great success of the pub which became a firm favourite with the students from the RAC Royal Agricultural College. Regular parties were held between the college and the teacher training college in Cheltenham, a large bus full of girls arriving on a Friday evening much to the huge joy of all assembled. 

They ran dances in the old pig shed at the back of the premises, this carried on under Chris Kite trading as Norma’s, one of his multitude of lady friends, until somebody accidentally burnt it to the ground.

Retiring to Wales, Sids ashes were interred at Coates Village Church a service attended by a large number of his former customers.

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