Unique problems call for a unique solution. Richmond’s ambitious tunnel was certainly unique, but came with its own problems, and was never built.
Richmond has dreamed for decades of finding a way to relieve the terrible traffic its town centre suffers. The narrow and ancient bridge over the Thames is one problem; the fact that any route avoiding the town involves a climb up the surprisingly steep Richmond Hill is another. A bypass further out would encroach on Richmond Park, an ancient Royal hunting ground, which verges on the unthinkable.
In the heady and optimistic 1960s, planners thought they’d found a solution: dive under the Park, and level out the hill, with a tunnel.
Often an incredibly simple answer to a longstanding problem will turn out to have its own difficulties. As reality began to bite in to the road programme, it was soon obvious that the Richmond Hill Tunnel was a long way beyond the possible.
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This description begins at the northern end of the route and travels south.
North Sheen - Ham
The route would begin at Manor Circus, which today is a small roundabout on top of a railway bridge where the A316 Lower Richmond Road meets the B353 Manor Road. This would have been a major interchange, and Manor Road travelling south would have been widened to form an important Secondary Road.
Continuing across the A305 Sheen Road and into Queen’s Road, the route would branch off to the east at Pesthouse Common, following Lower Grove Road and skirting the cemetery. It would pass through the graveyard at Grove Road Gardens. A strip of land would have been claimed from the western edge of Richmond Park, allowing the road to pass around the eastern end of Cambrian Road and Chisholm Road.
The tunnel would begin here, passing underneath the westernmost part of Richmond Park and the gate opening on to the town, and providing a steady and gentle gradient downwards. It would bypass the difficult junctions on Richmond Hill and the worst part of the steep slope.
Emerging into the open part way down Star and Garter Hill, the road would meet the A307 Petersham Road, from where the existing road would lead ahead into Petersham Village, and a new bypass would head away to the east.
The A307 Petersham Bypass would also claim small areas of Richmond Park, travelling around the back of Bute Avenue to finish on the A307 again near Sandy Lane.
Rise and Sheen
Before the formation of the Greater London Council, when Richmond was still a borough in Surrey, there were grand plans for the town’s road network. The story is told in detail on the M3 and A316 page, but here on the eastern side of the town centre there was a longstanding plan to upgrade the B353 to form a sort of bypass, allowing through traffic to avoid the A307 through Richmond.
As time went on, the plans evolved away from any sort of road improvements in Richmond itself, and came to focus on ways to keep motor traffic out. As a result, the B353 idea became ever more critical.
By the late 1960s, the new Richmond Borough Council had its own plans to bypass a short length of Queen’s Road, but they were uncertain how to improve it at the top of Richmond Hill, where a steep slope and the presence of the Royal Park made widening or realigning it virtually impossible. Fortunately, it was now considered a Secondary Road by the GLC’s transport plan, and so there was a new interest in its future at County Hall.
The GLC commissioned a firm of engineers called Bullen and Company to investigate all the Secondary Roads in Kingston and Richmond, and propose improvement work that might be carried out. Most of their suggestions were ideas for improved traffic signals or local widening.
At Richmond, though, the concept of an eastern bypass still held sway, and their plans were more imaginative. The GLC’s existing plan for a Petersham Bypass would be linked to Richmond’s tentative changes on Queen’s Road by an ambitious new bored tunnel, carrying the road under the Park, easing the steep slope and solving at a stroke the traffic in Richmond town centre and the difficulties with its bypass.
The consultants noted that the existing development controls on the A307 through Richmond - which prevented new buildings pressing in too close to the road, so that it could eventually be widened - should be relaxed. There would now only be a requirement for new construction to leave a clear width of 40 feet (12 metres), which was only enough for two lanes plus footways, and was a clear sign that the route through the centre would be sidelined.
The consultants may never have published a final report. Their preliminary plans were produced around 1970, and some of them unexpectedly turn up among planning documents for Ringway 3’s Southern Section, since the consultants were attempting to coordinate their work with the motorway project.
Unfortunately they were working in a bubble of optimism that would not last for much longer. Their commission came at a time when the GLC believed it would build all its motorways and improve all its Secondary Roads within the next 30 years; they would, surely, need detailed plans ready to go for all the work they’d be doing on the Secondary Road Network in south west London. Bullen and Co were busy producing plans to enable two lanes of traffic each way on all these routes and were anticipating a high level of spending.
By 1970, though, the political tide was turning, and over the two years that followed it became ever more clear that the GLC’s ambitious roadbuilding plans were going to face concerted opposition. They were also beginning to look like a flight of fancy in the face of the slowing economy and rising interest rates. Spending on infrastructure megaprojects was the easiest thing for any government to cut as it tightened its belt.
In 1973, following local elections, the GLC scrapped its motorway plans in their entirety. No record seems to have been left detailing the impact this had on the Secondary Road Network, but it seems fairly clear that ambitions were scaled back across the board. Certainly, by the time the Greater London Development Plan came to be published in 1976, it was a much changed document.
The eventual policy for Secondary Roads was a shadow of the original intention. The 1976 Plan stated clearly that they would tend to be the existing roads, unimproved, employing traffic restraint measures to keep things moving.
In this world there was no place for building tunnels and slicing sections off the sacred Royal Parks. The narrowed ambition for the existing A307 was more in keeping with the new world order.
Sure enough, the “roads map” accompanying the finished plan shows only the existing A307 and B353 as Secondary Roads, with no Petersham Bypass and no tunnel. No official statement marked their passing but they had clearly been abandoned.
Richmond has been making do with what it has ever since - as, in fact, most of the rest of London has too.
- Plan showing tunnel and surrounding improvements is extracted from MT 120/273.
- Route map contains OS data © Crown copyright and database rights (2017) used under the terms of the Open Government Licence.
- Photograph of Hill Street is taken from an original by Stacey Harris and used under this Creative Commons licence.
- Route, North Sheen-Ham; Petersham Bypass; Bullen & Co. study; changes to development controls on A307: MT 120/273.
- Pre-GLC plans for Richmond Town Centre: "Two-lane main road may not be needed now", Richmond and Twickenham Times, 21 March 1964; "£3m. road is planned", Richmond, Twickenham and Barnes Herald, 1 January 1965; "£3m road plan approved", Richmond, Twickenham and Barnes Herald, 22 January 1965.
- Published GLDP statement on Secondary Roads: "Greater London Development Plan: Approved by the Secretary of State for the Environment on 9 July 1976". (1976). London: Greater London Council.