Secret Tunnels of England
“Ever since the Romans established a settlement by the Thames, wells were dug, mosaic pavements were laid, burials were made, the ground was disturbed,” historian Antony Clayton writes in Subterranean City: Beneath The Streets of London.
London is a nonstop operating theatre; its endless excavations on roadsides and building sites give glimpses of the unfathomable tangle of tunnels, roots, shafts and stairwells that writhe below the surface. For centuries, the soil has been consecrated, cremated and covered with concrete. It has swallowed coffins and birthed folk heroes.
London Underground’s warren of tube tunnels offered womb-like refuge from the Blitz during the Second World War, yet it was also the backdrop for the carnage of the 7/7 suicide bombings some sixty-years later. At once, the spaces we have shovelled and scraped out for ourselves beneath the ground are comforting and oppressive, rank and arousing.
From Facts to Folklore
“I’m actually quite claustrophobic,” Antony confesses confusingly for an author obsessed with London’s “inverted city.” Through fortuitous twists and turns, a fascination that began as a trainspotter – “a lot of us were in the seventies” – has borne four books about the capital and sold-out talks at the British Library and the London Fortean Society.
Over the last few years, however, Antony has shifted his focus away from the, “facts, figures and rigorous anorak donning,” surrounding London’s thick fudge of sticky clay. For his most recent endeavour, Secret Tunnels of England: Folklore and Fact, he parted ways with the realms of reality almost altogether.
“Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but I’m more interested now in what isn’t there than what is,” he ruminates. Accordingly, Antony immersed himself in books on British history, dialects and the occult - titles include A Dyshe of Norfolk Dumplings and Ramsgate Has the World's Finest Shelters – and mined his way through subterranean-obsessed communities online.
The Lore of the Land
A giant raven, golden calves, blind fiddlers and the Devil himself haunt the wealth of material that Antony unearthed in his research. “I’d say that ninety percent of them probably don’t exist,” he divulges with a mock-seriousness. “When you read about these tunnels that are supposed to be fifteen-miles long and go under five rivers… It seems unlikely.” In his earlier books, Antony subjected folklore to, “some form of historical analysis,” in order to separate fact from fiction and debunk the myths. “I try not to be that person now,” he confesses.
Folklore has always greatly relied on a tradition of oral (mis)communication. In keeping with conventions, England’s secret tunnels largely existed exclusively via whispered yarns and word of mouth. The beauty of this folklore, riddled with lapses in memory and sopping wet with speculations, is its rubbing together of the extraordinary and the everyday.
Sex-Starved, Ale-Thirsty Monks
Appropriately for a British tradition, alehouses and houses of worship are exceptionally fertile ground for surreptitious, subterranean goings-on. “The idea that monks constructed huge tunnel networks to their nearest nunneries and pubs is…” Antony trails off. “I think it’s anti-Catholic, anti-monastic propaganda, but it all feeds into the idea of the tunnels.” Monks were exceptional engineers and evidence does exist of elaborate drains and sewer systems beneath their medieval monasteries. “It’s kind of insulting on both accounts,” Antony reasons. “First of all, pretending that they’re just sex-starved, ale-thirsty monks and secondly, that they didn’t have the intelligence to properly construct a water network underneath their monasteries.”
Mole Man of Hackney
More recently, retired engineer, William Lyttle quite literally dug his way into the canon of Britain’s folk (anti)heroes. Despite incessant complaints from neighbours, Lyttle’s oddly monastic devotion to burrowing beneath his decrepit Hackney home and out underneath the neighbourhood remained largely overlooked for forty years.
“He’s one of these obsessive characters. Everyone knows him as the Mole Man of Hackney,” Antony says. When a bus stop reportedly vanished into a gouge beneath the pavement, Hackney Council intervened and eventually evicted the Mole Man in 2006. Astonished surveyors discovered that at least thirty-three tons of debris had been excavated from a labyrinth of tunnels, some of which ran eight metres deep and twenty metres in all directions. “I used to think that was folklore,” Antony marvels, “but someone told me they really did find boats and cars and all kinds of weird things in his tunnels.”
Plunging into Secret Tunnels of England, it becomes clear that its folkloric and physical passageways are one and the same. The tunnels and tales that Antony has collated make connections within both the physical and historical landscape. Together they provide troves within which treasure and the truth can be either buried or uncovered.
“It’s bizarre,” Antony muses. “The word secret is so emotive. A lot of the time, all it means is that something has been forgotten.” Be it monks or mole men, fact or fiction, the act of storytelling and the act of digging downwards are intertwined; both are ways of remembering, revealing and entrenching meaning.
Written by Joseph Bond
Image: Len Sewell demonstrating in 1957 that a reported secret tunnel on the site of Borley Rectory - allegedly used by monks and nuns - could not have been designed for human use.