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Myths, Conspiracies and Secrets

Friday August 23, 2013 — 5 Comments

Mysterious tunnels and secret passages are all part of English and European Folklore. The Cornish Fogou – pronounced foo-goo – are thought to be Pict in origin. (A civilisation that pre-dated the Roman occupation around the 10th century.) In essence one thing these passages and tunnels had in common was a need to provide safety, security, and shelter in secret.

Some tunnels near large houses during the eighteenth century were in fact passages to the fridge – where else would you put an ice house in a time that pre-dated electricity? Simple and innocent explanation. But there are far more sinister tunnels dating from periods of civil unrest and WWII and in preparation for the outfall of the cold war.

London is awash with ghost tunnels – no – not filled with spiritual apparitions, but old tube stations now closed but whose stations and tunnels can be seen from the tubes as you pass by. These silent dark stations are frozen in time, while current stations are refurbished and provide an eclectic mix of art, design and function, these remain with their dirty ceramic tiles, old signage, a modern archaeology ride through underground history. You can see them at King’s Cross on the Metropolitan line. On the Northern Line you can see the Bull and Bush station, between Hampstead and Golders Green, even though it was completed it was never opened, and there are many more examples.

General Eisenhower’s headquarters were housed at Goodge Street station, an underground bunker that was safe and secure against bombing. Sadly most of the WWII shelters that were prepared for government departments in the event of an invasion are used for document storage. But during the Cuban missile crisis, these tunnels were fully manned for a fortnight. Staff could have lived down there for months.

You can see the UK Cabinet War Rooms, now a tourist attraction costing about £17.00. It’s a huge underground complex under the Treasury building in Whitehall, it is reported that there were over 200 rooms, so only a fraction are open to the public. It isn’t only central government that had these underground emergency rooms. A small local government office, located near a strategic Royal Airforce Base, has such a room. I spent the best part of a day underground in these offices with a management team. I found the experience somewhat claustrophobic and that was with all the doors open. On the boards around the room were the remains of a planning exercise that rehearsed the appropriate actions in the event of some catastrophe happening at the air base. Fire, Police and Ambulance crews had all played a part, together with Ministry of Defence teams. It was scary stuff, and conducted in the post cold war era. Our enemies never seem far away these days, and we don’t even know who they are, or what they want.

Britain is not alone in having these underground shelters, in 2006 a New York cold war bomb shelter was discovered inside Brooklyn Bridge, under the Lower Manhattan entrance ramp. The room was stockpiled with decades-old military provisions. City officials kept the location secret, and most pedestrians pass by, oblivious to the history under their feet.

Under Columbia University’s Morningside Heights campus there are a series of interconnected tunnels between various campus buildings, thought to date from a time when an insane asylum was on the site. The scientists met during the initial project stages of the Manhattan Project. An appropriate location? Maybe.

So from ancient folklore to modern secrets, tunnels and passageways still form part of security and shelter against our enemies. While there is still a need to keeping those tunnels in use secret, everyone hopes they will never be necessary.

Do you have any favourite secret tunnels? If so, do share picture and comments.

The "Bucket Fountain" Liverpool

The “Bucket Fountain” Liverpool

I was in my home town of Liverpool at the weekend, and my favourite sculpture is not working – again.  The Bucket Fountain (or to use its given name – The Piazza Fountain) was a gift to the city in 1967.  It is a work by the Welsh sculptor Richard Huws and there is an inscription that tells you about its history.

“The old Piazza was severely bombed in the air raids of 1941 and finally demolished between 1948 and 1950.  In 1967, to mark the completion of the new piazza this plaque was kindly presented by Cammell Laird and Co, builders of the fountain.”  (Cammell Laird’s are known for building large ships rather than small buckets.)

What I like about this fountain is the way the smaller bucket tips a measure of water in to the medium buckets, and in turn, they fill up the larger buckets until a gush of water tips all the water into the pond below.

It’s a bit like a secret.  At first, a small amount of information escapes into a discrete group of confidantes.  At some point, the secret will leak until nearly all of the information is in the pond for everyone to see.  But up at the top, where the secret was initially viewed to be safe there will be a residue of information, still private, still secure.

The Williamson tunnels (once a Liverpool secret) are now open to the public.  They are extraordinary because no one knows now, why they were built.  Did anyone know at the time? Was this a scheme to keep people in jobs, a private job creation scheme, two hundred and fifty years ago?

Please don’t think of small crawling spaces – this was not the “Great Escape”, don’t think of crouching miners’ tunnels with pit props and water running down the sides, you have to think big – really big like the Vienna sewer system in “The Third Man.”  They are a beautiful brick lined labyrinth of tunnels.

Could they be called a Folly?  It makes as much sense as a small castle comprising a single tower.

Perhaps Williamson wanted to visit his mistress unseen from the street, but of course, to stop at his mistresses’ house would have given the game away and so the tunnels continued. Perhaps he hated walking round the city in the rain and decided that an underground system was a more civilised way of doing business.  Maybe he was inspired by smuggling caves in Cornwall and felt that a port like Liverpool could have some potential for piracy and smuggling.

If you wanted to build something extraordinary, would it be a labyrinth of tunnels?  Would you be able keep the purpose secret?  What did he tell the workforce and why can’t we find any record of what they were used for?