The Features Editors get down and dirty!
For the first installment of our regular ‘grand day out’ feature, Charley and I put on our hardhats and plunged deep below our city’s centre to investigate one of Exeter’s oft-forgotten attractions…the underground passages!
To start off, here’s a bit of history for all you cultural folk! Dating as far back as the 14th century, the passages were set up to bring clean Cholera-less drinking water from natural springs outside the walled city, through lead pipes into its heart.
With the pipes springing leaks and often needing repair, work could initially only be done by digging the pipes up, just like today. The solution was to build a network of underground vaults allowing the plumbers and artisans to carry out work without causing disruption to the city above.
The passages continued supplying water to the city until 1857 when one of the wells was damaged by the new railway line and by 1901 the passages had virtually been forgotten.
Interestingly 500 years after they were first built, the passages sprang back into use as a safe haven, sheltering some 300 residents during the bombing raids of WW2.
Not really sure what we were getting ourselves into, Charley and I paid our £4.50 concessional student fee and followed our charismatic, ghost loving guide Suze into the murky depths of Exeter’s history!
Despite being less than 6ft, I found myself nearing all fours at certain points on the tour, while squeezing into some VERY tight spaces! Suze reassured us that the walls would hold, not so convincing when you could feel the vibrations of moving traffic and trampling shoppers on the streets above.
Lasting about an hour, the tour took us from underneath Next down the main high street, to the Cathedral and back, unfortunately for us special permission was needed to see more!
After returning to the surface, the visitor centre is well worth a walk around! There are a number of ‘hands on’ exhibits where you can push knobs, tug levers and delve deeper inside the history behind these strange corridors. There’s also a gift shop where you can waste that student loan on pens, pencils and bouncy balls! All in all, a thoroughly worthwhile excursion!
Some interesting facts we learnt on the tour:
1) Between the 14th and 16th Centuries, monks and nuns headed into the tunnels to, as Suze put it “show their affection to one another”…in other words…shag! With no lighting, low ceilings and a mud covered floor…not the classiest of locations for your next sexual endeavour!
2) Over 100 years ago a worker fell 10m down a manhole while brushing the streets above; he lay there for days in agony before succumbing to his injuries. Archaeologists working in the tunnels late at night have reported seeing the ghost of the man riding his Penny Farthing through the darkness…spooky!
3) This type of medieval cave system is unique to Exeter and is the only place in the world where the population density of rats outweighs that of humans…tasty!
For those of you who love getting dirty exploring tight spaces…which we all do! Call 01392 665887 to book your place or instead head to the visitor centre adjacent to Next on Paris Street.