Best of British: Subterranean attractions

BY Fiona Hicks

1st Jan 2015 Travel

Best of British: Subterranean attractions

From secret walking routes to not-so-smelly sewers (yes, really!), there’s plenty to see if you go underground

Monsal Trail

Peak District

This diverse route spans eight and a half miles in the Peak District. Suitable for walking, cycling and horseback, it follows the lines of the former Manchester, Buxton, Matlock and Midlands Junction railway. As you’d expect from a railroad, the route delves underground through several stretches of tunnels, the longest of which is more than 500 yards long. 

Whether on two feet or two wheels (or indeed, four horsey legs), there’s something exhilarating about meandering through the atmospheric, traffic-free passages. Four of the seven are lit, but visitors are advised to take a torch during late afternoons and evenings. For those with time to linger, there are also boards explaining the unique history of the route.


Tar Tunnel


Tar Tunnel Shropshire
Image via Shropshire Star 

Ironbridge is certain to inspire an interest in the Industrial Revolution, even for those who can’t tell a steam train from a tube line. The Tar Tunnel is one of the gems of this World Heritage Site. It was here that miners struck gold—or bitumen, to be precise—while attempting to build a transport network through the gorge in the late 18th century.

“It’s certainly a curiosity,” says director of marketing Paul Gossage. “It’s not like potholing or anything that unpleasant—you just have to stoop down a little bit, walk along the brick-lined tunnel, and you can still see the tar oozing down the sides.” 

Visits take no more than 20 minutes, but time yours for late morning and you can pop to nearby Blists Hill Victorian Town for lunch.


Real Mary King's Close


Hidden under Edinburgh’s Old Town is a warren of streets and subterranean spaces. Once open to the skies, Mary King’s Close (named after an eminent 17th-century businesswoman) was consigned to the darkness when the construction of the Royal Exchange began in 1753. The close may be covered, but it’s brimming with tales of murder, plagues and ghostly happenings. 

“There’s nowhere else quite like The Real Mary King’s Close”, says general manager Craig Miller. “We offer an insight into Edinburgh’s history, telling stories of real people.”

In-costume attendants bring these 400-year-old narratives to life, along with the interactive gallery room. If you’re visiting with a group, it’s worth booking “The Dark Truth” tour, which runs late at night and provides a captivating experience of the more sinister side of Edinburgh’s past.


Brighton Sewers


Brighton sewers
Image via Mike Deere

Yes, these are working sewers, but the majority of the attraction lies in the Victorian structures that are clean enough to walk through—rather than wade—for fascinating and revealing tours. 

Donning hard hats and protective latex gloves, visitors learn all about the construction of the 30-mile-long sewers. The mortar in the labyrinth of tunnels was made from sand from Brighton Beach, and if you look closely enough you can see shells encrusted in the walls. Today’s sewers are made from concrete, and it’s also illuminating to discover what happens when we flush the wrong things down the loo.

There is, of course, a slight odour—but, says Southern Water, “It’s not overpowering. Many visitors say the smell isn’t as bad as they expected.” 


Hell Fire Caves


Hell Fire Caves
Image via Alamy

The mock-gothic entrance of these caves sets the tone for the bold, mysterious and strangely opulent space that follows. It’s the former haunt of the notorious Hell Fire Club, where Sir Francis Dashwood and his cohorts held lascivious, bi-monthly meetings in the mid-18th century. 

“It takes roughly half an hour to go all the way down to the bottom of the cave,” says Mary Hilder, the estate secretary for the Dashwood family (who still runs the caves today). “At the bottom there’s the River Styx, and you can also look into the inner temple down there. It’s both bizarre and fascinating.” 

For those who prefer less-ghostly settings, there are above-ground tea rooms that serve home-made cakes.


Tunnels Beaches


Tunnels Beaches Devon
Image via Neville Stanikk

Underground passageways leading to the sea? It sounds unlikely, but that’s exactly what you’ll find in Ilfracombe. Tunnels Beaches is home to some of the country’s most well-preserved bathing pools. Dating
from the early 19th century, these are where men and women would immerse themselves in order to relax and convalesce. 

The surrounding caves were used by smugglers until the 1820s, when hundreds of Welsh miners toiled for two years to create 175 yards of tunnels, allowing for much easier access to the cove. Information boards line the way, which means that after educating yourself on Victorian etiquette, you can reward yourself with a dip in the tidal pool. 

Says local Dotty Sibbald, “Lots of people buy season tickets to swim.”


Williamson's Tunnels


Williamson's Tunnels Liverpool
Image via Liverpool Echo

These were commissioned by the wealthy and purportedly eccentric businessman Joseph Williamson in 1810. The purpose of the tunnels is widely disputed. Some say Williamson feared the end of the word was nigh, so was building a refuge. He himself claimed it was an act of philanthropy, in which workers “all received a weekly wage and were thus enable to enjoy the blessing of charity without the attendant curse of stifled self-respect.” 

The extensive excavation work is “all done by hand, so we only use spades, buckets and wheel-barrows”, explains volunteer coordinator Sian Roberts. As well as tours, there are regular events.

Feature image via Mike Deere