A couple of weeks ago, a woman living in one of the streets running off Copperas Hill heard a bit of a rumble during the ad break for Coronation Street. She opened her back door to find her garden had disappeared.
There, where her just-mown lawn had been, was a deep, dark hole with, just visible in the gloom, the arched hump of a brick vaulted tunnel, like the submerged back of an enormous whale, desperately trying to break the surface.
Historians are, ahem, looking into it, but it’s safe to say she’d unwittingly unlocked another chapter in our fascinating underground history.
What is it about this city and the stuff that lies beneath? From the dungeons of the Castle, to the sweaty cellars of the Cavern, we’re constantly being drawn down, deep into the earth.
And we’re happy to take our visitors down with us.
To the first time visitor it must feel as if the earth is disappearing (or, at the very least, your network connection). You’re not entering a city at all. You’re entering the kingdom of the underworld. You fumble for your ticket, just to make sure: you have booked a day return, haven’t you?
Peer skywards from the canyons of the Lime Street cuttings and you’ll see the rocks honeycombed with half-forgotten, troglodyte recesses, the hanging gardens of Buddleia and, somewhere, way, way above, a city perched above the sandstone monoliths. Who needs Avatar, when you’ve got an entrance like this?
The Lime Street cuttings are, of course, the perfect introduction to a city that’s never really been sure whether to build up, or build down. A city where, for most of its 800 year history, a lot of the really interesting stuff has been happening under our feet.
Dr David Hodgson is a senior lecturer in Geology at the University of Liverpool. As he explains, cities are shaped by the rocks they rise from. “The landscape is controlled by the bedrock,” he says, “and Liverpool’s was formed around 200 to 250 million years ago from huge sand dunes, and deposits from rivers. Sandstone’s easy to work, which is partly why there’s so many tunnels beneath the city,” he says.
Conversely, Hodgson says, Manhattan’s two clusters of skyscrapers aren’t just there because the planning department thought they’d look great all bunched-up in postcard-friendly fashion.
“Manhattan’s skyline is the way it is because the bedrock could only support tall buildings in those two spots,” he says. “Similarly, Liverpool’s underground dwellings and tunnels were made possible because of the easily worked rocks.”
Geology aside, what about biology? Does all this burrowing mean that much of our DNA, too, belongs where the sun don’t shine?
“It’s an interesting thought,” says local historian and Pevsner Guide author, Joseph Sharples. “I’ve always considered Liverpool to be an outward looking city of wide horizons, but yes, there’s an awful lot of our history that takes place under the ground.”
And it’s not all good. By the middle of the 19th century, a fifth of our ancestors lived in overcrowded and filthy cellars. No light. No water. No sanitation. Whole families huddled together in one room. Most developing cities had cellars. But Liverpool, developing faster than most, had a larger percentage of its population living, literally, out of sight.
Forget Tom Slemen. As Sharples says: “The cellar dwellings were classic horror stories of Liverpool. Cheap housing was let by the floor, and poorest families had to make do with these cramped underground conditions.”
It was these unsanitary conditions that lead to our appointment of fabled Dr Duncan, Britain’s first medical health officer. He had his work cut out. His description of the cellars is no estate-agent’s pitch:
“The cellars are ten or twelve feet square; frequently having only the bare earth for a floor, and sometimes less than six feet in height. There is frequently no window, so light and air can gain access to the cellars only by the door, the top of which is often not higher than the level of the street. . . There is sometimes a back cellar, used as a sleeping apartment, having no direct communication with the external atmosphere, and deriving its scanty supply of light and air solely from the first apartment.”
According to the Liverpool History Society, one cellar remains. It’s along Pembroke Place, and is now – perhaps appropriately – part of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.
“The cellars were a reflection of the high land values in the city,” Sharples says. “Developers built high and dense to maximise their profit, with little consideration for occupiers’ quality of life.”
Hmmm. And they say history never repeats?
The feverish land grab which led to Liverpool’s infamous court dwellings actually began much earlier, and higher up town, around the quarries of Edge Hill.
Dave Bridson is the curator at the Williamson Tunnels. SevenStreets visits on the day that the Chilean miners are being winched to the desert floor. Bridson – complete with hard hat and reflective jacket – is scraping away at the bedrock, thirty feet below the Tunnels’ visitor centre. And he’s determined to dig ever deeper…
“We’ve finally found proof that the lost triple-decker is underneath where I’m standing…” he echoes, excitedly.
Animated and enthusiastic, Bridson explains that the cavern we’re standing in, with its seeping sandstone walls, echoing brick vaults and subterranean pools, is just the tip of the Williamson iceberg.
“Underneath our feet,” Bridson points down below the soupy gravel we’re standing in, “is another complete tunnel system, which would mean that, from street level, Williamson’s tunnels reach down to at least fifty feet.”
Bridson’s particularly thrilled because the fabled triple-decker (three tunnel systems sitting directly on top of each other) was first recorded by mining engineers in the 1880’s, widening Stephenson’s old tunnel from Edge Hill to Lime Street. Since then, it’s passed into subterranean city myth until, 130 years later, the unmistakable arched vaulting of the submerged tunnel – beneath our ochre-splattered shoes – has finally been unearthed.
“We discovered it by accident,” Bridson explains. “There was some subsistence in the yard, and we found a new tunnel, with a vaulted floor leading off at right angles to the top of the triple decker…”
Bridson talks of ‘miles more tunnels’ waiting to be discovered, silently fanning out from Edge Hill, like some unseen cancer, eating its way through the city’s underbelly.
He shows us an encrusted pair of rusty metal pillars, no wider than six centimetres, reaching upwards in empty space, from tunnel floor to ceiling. It’s a structural support that, in any normal city, would have found solid – and safe – purchase into the bedrock. “This was all that was holding up a block of council flats directly above us, until they were knocked down. God knows how they didn’t fall down sooner…” Bridson says.
Still, makes you think. Vanishing gardens are one thing, but how many other buildings are rising up above our hollowed-out innards?
Bridson believes that Williamson’s tunnels weren’t actually built underground. “They were constructed on the floor of a deep, open cast quarry, stacked on top of each other, to raise the quarry bed to be level with the houses that ran along its top edge,” he tells us.
They were built, rather prosaically, so that Williamson’s elegant new houses could have vegetable gardens – as was the fashion – attached, rather than the much less convenient option of having them countersunk fifty feet below the back door. Kind of puts paid to the ‘Mole of Edge Hill’ sobriquet.
The tunnels’ double and triple layering was nothing new. Down along the docks, according to Sharples, we’d already learned how to build multi storeys in the Liverpool fashion – downwards.
“Architects drawings make clear that the warehouses had two subterranean layers,” Sharples says. “We were a city of trade warehouses by the middle of the 19th century, storing everything from spirits to imported fruit. The exact conditions that made the cellars so inhospitable made our trade warehouses ideal,” he says, “they were airless, dry and cool.”
For a trading city, they were the perfect storage solution. Dark, hidden, safe. Buried treasure stores, jealously guarding the produce which, in turn, helped build the city above it.
And, like any good trading city, we had the transport infrastructure to match. Like worker bees constantly attending to the cells of their hive, these trains navigated their way through to the payload, to kept the colony healthily growing.
“There are three main tunnels which still lie abandoned under the city,” Sharples says, “and they’re older than any in London or New York. But unless you know where to look, you’d never know they were there.” One of which, the Crown Street Tunnel of 1829 (main pic), was the termination point for the world’s first passenger railway station. Above ground, the only clue it was ever here is a slight incline on the grassy knoll at the top of Brownlow Hill.
Unceremoniously, the entrance to another tunnel – the Victoria/Waterloo – was blocked up when Toys’R’Us was built.
“There’s a lot of unused space down there,” Sharples smiles, “and it’s just ripe for being recommissioned, especially as land is still at such a premium above the ground, just as it was in the 19th century.”
Intriguingly, it’s an issue that’s recently been mulled over by those with the ability to actually do something about it.
Professor Andre Brown, head of Liverpool University’s School of Architecture, tells SevenStreets of a recent project he set his students, addressing just that issue. What do we do with all that unused space? All that world-first engineering? You can see some of the ideas, right.
“We chose the project because the Tunnels’ entry sites and surroundings need developing,” Professor Brown told us. “The tunnels are an underused unique resource, though its a pity that excavation has to progress so slowly.”
“The land Liverpool rises from really has shaped our city, and how we live in it,” he says. “The sandstone ridge on which the University sits, and where I’m speaking to you now, generated the need for deep railway cuttings, and all those underground workings that become the gateway to the city.”
Professor Brown shows SevenStreets blueprints of the students’ wild imaginings. We like what we see. Whole communities living in underground dwellings, with the restless city toiling above.
And then, with a shiver, we realise.
Haven’t we been here before?
Of course, we’ve only just scratched the surface. There’s far, far more to our underground history than this. And over the next month or so, we’ll be unearthing our favourite underground stories and spots.
That’s the trouble with projects like this. Once you start digging, it’s awfully difficult to know when to stop…