Blog (Single Entry)

Secret Tunnels

03Nov

Earlier this year I was invited to write the foreword to Antony Clayton’s new book Secret Tunnels of England: Folklore and Fact. The invitation came from a talk we gave together in the Salon for the City series, which I’d highly recommend attending if you enjoy drinking cocktails in fragile tea cups and listening to historical lectures. Antony was kind enough to let me re-post my foreword text here, which I hope will inspire you to go read the whole book, which is not only engaging but gorgeous!SpineInside Cover TitleTOC

 

I studied for my PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London, where I spent a great deal of time poring over maps and books to gather information about tunnel systems, including, of course, Antony Clayton’s incredible book Subterranean City: Beneath the Streets of London.[1] I was particularly interested in disused and off-limits subterranean sites, such as abandoned tube stations and government bunkers. This was not simply an armchair interest; I wanted to go into these tunnels, to photograph them. It was critical to my project to find access details, what urban explorers call ‘portals’: the thresholds where tunnel systems connected to the surface and where one could, in theory, wriggle into the underground like Alice down the rabbit hole.

Halfway through my PhD, after exploring many such tunnels, I was told by a reliable source that the Royal Holloway campus in Egham, which was once a women’s college (then Bedford College), was connected to the Holloway Asylum in Virginia Water by a tunnel. Given both sites were constructed within two years of each other by the Victorian multi-millionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist Thomas Holloway (1800–1883), this seemed somewhat plausible. But for what reason, I inquired of my source, would a college be connected to an asylum? The answer I was given played on nineteenth-century sensibilities: some at the time believed that women had less stamina for study and anticipated many might ‘go mad’ at college. In the interest of keeping these problematic scenarios under wraps, these women would be escorted through the tunnels to the asylum for ‘rehabilitation’.

A few weeks after hearing this story, I assembled some colleagues and we went rooting around the Royal Holloway Founder’s Building late one night. Behind the Crosslands pub, we found descending steps that led to a locked door, covered by a wooden enclosure with health and safety signs pegged to the exterior. My heart began to race. On the side of the enclosure, a small wooden panel had been kicked out. I stuck my head inside and although I could not see much, I could smell damp, packed earth – the familiar smell of underground Britain that I had come to know so well. I backed my head out and took stock of the situation. In all likelihood, if I removed most of my layers of clothing, including my belt, I thought I might just be able to squeeze through the broken panel. With a bit more luck, I could then open the locked door from inside the tunnel and let the group in. I proceeded to strip down.

It took some effort to get my chest and hips through the panel, but with some creative wriggling, eventually balancing my upper body on my hands inside the tunnel, I managed to pop through with a horrible shredding sound as my jeans ripped at the crotch. It was of no consequence however ‒ I was in. Checking the door, the latch did indeed turn and I opened it to find my colleagues covering their mouths to stop from laughing and giving away our location to patrolling security – I was covered in dirt and soot and the right leg of my trousers, from crotch to knee, was hanging by a flap like the backside of unbuttoned pyjamas in an old western.

With trepidation, we ventured into the tunnel. It was incredible. Parts of it were so hot we were sweating. Some side tunnels contained metal control panels with large glowing buttons that invited pressing (we resisted). Other parts stank of decay, dead animals, sticky polyvinyl chloride cable coating, and rust. We squatted through the tunnels for many hours, trying different offshoots by army-crawling under cable trays, finding corners where bunches of multi-coloured fibre-optic and telecommunications cables shot off under the grass to unknown destinations somewhere on campus. Finally, we emerged into a room filled with large boiler tanks and at the back found a green-lit emergency exit. We opened the door and walked out into the cold night air. After a moment of orientation, we realised we were next to the international student centre, not 300 metres from where we had gone underground. We were disappointed of course that we had not found the coveted tunnels to the Holloway Asylum, but also elated that we had made a fascinating subterranean ‘discovery’ nonetheless.

The next day, nursing bruised hips, I devised a plan. We had enjoyed the exploration of the tunnel but figured that if we had known that the tunnels only stretched a few hundred metres under campus, we may not have made the effort to find them. And so, the following night, we returned to the wooden structure behind Crosslands. Stripping down again, I squeezed myself halfway through, legs protruding in the night air, and had my friend take a photo. We then drove to Virginia Water, snuck into the grounds of the old hospital (now an expensive gated residential community) and popped open a sewer manhole. Again, I had my friend photograph me emerging from the tunnel. We then went home and spliced these photos into a slideshow, along with the ones from inside the tunnel, and circulated it on a Royal Holloway student forum board, claiming to have found the Victorian tunnel system for the ‘mad’ women of Royal Holloway.

To this day, I still get emails from confused students who went looking for the Victorian tunnels to the old asylum and instead found themselves sweating in a boiler room. I always explain to them, at risk of cliché, that our human desires to explore subterranean space are less about the spaces themselves and more about the journey to find them. I tell them they did not fail to find what they were looking for: the moment they set out in the dead of night to squeeze through that tiny wooden panel, ripping their jeans and unlocking the door for their friends, they found what they had set out to find – the reality behind a subterranean myth. What could be more exciting than decoding space for ourselves, no guides or interpreters in sight?

I have no doubt that Antony would disapprove of our little prank. The reason for this is simple: the English love a good myth and will do almost anything to perpetuate it. As a result, books, websites and archives are full of anachronistic, apocryphal and gratuitous stories about subterranean systems all over the country. Sieving fact from fiction is scrupulous and exasperating work. In a famous example, which Antony receives incessant requests about (I myself called him to inquire) many have suggested there is a parade of Victorian shops under Oxford Street in London. These shops were mentioned in a 1991 Channel 4 documentary hosted by the arch-prankster and Situationist Malcolm McLaren. Given what we know about McLaren, it is likely the man perpetuated the myth of the subterranean shopping centre simply to send us all on a wild goose chase, one that would continue even after his death. Obviously for a researcher things like this can be frustrating to untangle. However, Secret Tunnels of England is more than a catalogue of the real, it is also about the power of the imagination and about how we are doggedly drawn to sub-urban myth and folklore.

The imagination blooms when considering underground spaces for three reasons, I think. First, the underground has long featured in mono-and polytheistic religions as a place not just of burial, but of renewal and traversal.[2] Consider the plight of Persephone, doomed to dwell with Hades for partaking of a pomegranate, or Dante’s Inferno, perhaps the most well-known Christian depiction of the underworld. Second, underground spaces are spaces unseen, spaces off the map. How much longer this remains the case, given new technologies like Ground Penetrating Radar and 3D imaging, may be debatable. However, for the time being, subterranean space, sometimes right under our feet, remains a place to be imagined. Third, and perhaps most important, given the age of pervasive surveillance we live in, underground spaces (aside from metro systems) are largely unmonitored spaces. Once inside them, the mind and body work through unfettered feelings of freedom that, unsurprisingly, spark the imagination.

People like to envisage that everything is somehow interconnected underground, that, like a film representation, one can easily pass from sewer to utility tunnel to ancient cistern to crypt. In other places in the world, like Paris, this is often actually the case, the soft Lutetian Limestone and gypsum being relatively easy to excavate. Here in Britain however, underground systems are much more fragmented and isolated. Part of our need to create myths about interconnections comes from this desire to think of the underground world as one vast interlocked labyrinth. Some people take that desire more seriously than others and actually begin digging their own tunnels, cultivating their own myths through connections. One such person was William Lyttle, the ‘Mole Man of Hackney’ who passed away in 2010. Lyttle began to dig a cellar under his house on Mortimer Road over 40 years ago, which was eventually 8 metres deep, and 20 metres wide. As Iain Sinclair writes,

Lyttle couldn’t go down any deeper than his basement, so he branched off in every direction. He had a relish for en suite fittings: toilets hidden in cheese cupboards, rat holes equipped with broken basins and light switches cut in half. He imagined his hidden kingdom as an underground Piranesi prison for lodgers. [3]

Clayton also pays his respects to the mad excavator, who burrowed himself into London folklore in short order by being issued a £100,000 bill from the council for filling in his tunnel system. In trying to articulate his motivations, Sinclair extends the net:

The compulsion to dive beneath the carpet of river terrace deposits, Hackney gravel, shale and mudstone, down through old workings, the slag and clinker of demolished terraces and lost theatres, is demonstrated by every stratum of society, from City Hall and the major developers, offshore speculators hidden behind front companies and proxies, to unsponsored art collectives and ‘place-hacking’ crews posing for high-resolution selfies in Secret State bunkers and sewage outfalls. Underworld is the coming battleground. The epidermis of the city is so heavily policed, so fretted with random chatter, so evidently corrupted by a political assault on locality, that humans unable or unwilling to engage in a war they can’t win respond by venturing into forbidden depths. [4]

What is it about human nature that compels us to dig then? Is it an ancient defence mechanism that kicks in when we feel threatened at street level (Sinclair’s epidermis?) Is it about those overlapping desires outlined above to touch myth and to let the body and imagination run free, to shed what Blake called our ‘mind-forged manacles’? [5] I recently met a Dutch artist called Leanne Wijnsma who has been digging tunnels, sans permission, in parks, gardens and courtyards. Leanne describes her inclination toward excavation in an interview for Pop Up City as a reaction to modern society, a need to escape the freedom of choice:

Escape is a response to this world in which everything seems possible, in which we are always connected, always available. The digging is a basic act to escape and to disconnect. The act itself is an important experience, digging the soil to find fundament and autonomy. Escape is an urge to do something really banal yet essential. The tunnel doesn’t lead to freedom. You’ll see that the tunnel ends just a few metres from where it starts. The choice to dig, however, becomes the freedom itself. [6]

In the most poignant quote in the interview, Leanne tells us that ‘I love the structure of the city and its endless possibilities, just after a while I start wondering: who are we, who am I? And then I want to dig.’ Perhaps in this statement we find the kernel of those three motivations outlined above, for in venturing into the underground, in trying to understand and come to grips with our needs and desires to dig and to bury, we learn something about ourselves. For, just as in my quest into the tunnels underneath my university campus, the action of going underground, either physically or metaphorically, triggers acts of self-reflection through encounters with other people, other times and other places.[7] In seeking to encounter spaces that are buried like time capsules, off the map in some way, we confront a part of our own nature that is intrinsically fascinated and mystified by subterranean realms of death and escape.

There are many places in Secret Tunnels of England we have actually explored. We accessed Burlington, the ‘secret city’ under Corsham in Wiltshire in 2010 and drove electric buggies around the place. In 2012, we gained access to the Kingsway Telephone Exchange under Chancery Lane in London, another cold-war relic first revealed by one of our heroes, the journalist and proto urban explorer Duncan Campbell. Other places we knew existed and have never breached, such as the network of tunnels stretching underneath Whitehall. Underground and across the street from Craig’s Court, we held our ears to a breezeblock wall and, lacking the resolve to tunnel through it, walked away. Many of these locations we discovered by gleaning information from Antony’s book Subterranean City: Beneath the Streets of London. It is with great pleasure then that after years of sub-surface exploration I am able to preface Antony’s new book, which guides us from fact to folklore and back again. It is an imperative journey to make and one that is obviously an important constituent of the English character – everyone on this island loves a good tunnel story, as indicated by the myriad wonderful tales contained between these covers.

In closing, I suppose I should apologize to all of those who I misled into thinking the Virginia Water asylum tunnels existed – I hope to not have sent too many of you on a fruitless quest. However, I would also suggest that the most interesting part of exploring tunnels is often that you do not find what you were looking for. I would hope that new generations of explorers not only rediscover actual tunnel systems that are abandoned or off-limits, as we have, but that they also work to reinforce the innumerable folklores and mythologies of subterranea, for these too are an important part of our culture. Our desires to tell these stories, in the end, say as much about us as our desires to delve into the underground.

[1] Antony Clayton Subterranean City, Beneath the Streets of London (London: Historical Publications, 2000; 2nd ed. 2010)

[2] See David Pike Subterranean Cities: the World beneath Paris and London, 1800-1945 (Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 2005) and R. H. Williams Notes on the Underground: an essay on technology, society and the imagination (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 1990).

[3] Iain Sinclair ‘Into the Underworld’ London Review of Books 22 January 2015 pp.7-12.

[4] Ibid.

[5] William Blake Songs of Innocence and Experience (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990) pp.38-39.

[6] Orla Tiffney, ‘Hand-Digging Tunnels In The City: The Cure To Mental Stress (interview with Leanne Wijnsma)’ Pop Up City 16 April 2015 http://popupcity.net/hand-digging-tunnels-in-the-city-the-cure-to-mental-stress/

[7] Steven Feld and Keith H. Basso Senses of Place (Santa Fe, New Mexico: School of American Research Press, 1996).