The history of Cuilfail Tunnel: a quick run-through

You could describe the Cuilfail Tunnel as the reason many people don’t visit Lewes, because it allows traffic on the busy A27 road to bypass the East Sussex town. It’s around 430 metres long, boring through a chalk hillside at the eastern edge of Lewes.

The tunnel was opened in December 1980, although it’s part of a traffic planning process that started before the Second World War and involved a couple of angry public inquiries in 1964 and 1972. Work on the bypass road was started in 1975, with the tunnel excavation beginning a few years later. One of the alternative plans involved demolishing a row of houses along South Street, so it’s easy to see why this was such a controversial subject.

More recently, the Cuilfail Tunnel was renovated in 2009 with more than £2 million of government money. New cladding and new lighting helped reduce future maintenance costs, while a special wireless booster means car radios are much less likely to fade out when you drive through.

The unusual name for the tunnel comes from the Cuilfail area of Lewes, although it’s not originally a local word. Just over a hundred years ago the land above the tunnel was owned by local solicitor Isaac Vinall who named it after the area in Scotland where he stayed on holiday. Apparently the Gaelic root means ‘shelter or ‘retreat’.

And the tunnel’s not just a modern landmark. It’s also the gateway to an art installation. At the Lewes end you’ll find a spiral sculpture of Portland Stone that suggests a giant ammonite fossil – the kind of thing you might still discover in the chalk that the tunnel cuts through. It was created by Peter Randall-Page and was placed here in 1983 to mark the tunnel’s opening. Locally it’s often referred to as a snail, which is perhaps an appropriate metaphor for the state of traffic if the tunnel hadn’t been built.