Clare Dudman is the author of four novels published by Penguin, Sceptre and Seren; and several short stories published by Tor, Serpent’s Tail, Oneworld and Chester University Press. In 2016 her first book of non-fiction, ‘Real Chester,’ was published by Seren, and is a detailed exploration of all the streets within the city walls of Chester. Her work has won three awards: a Writers’ Award from the Arts Council of England, the Sheriff of Cheshire’s Award for Literature and the Kathleen Fidler Award. She has lived in Chester for more than thirty years with her family.
Cities around the world sometimes have another, subterranean, side. I’m not talking about the odd cellar or crypt – we’re all familiar with those in Chester. I’m talking about something longer and more tunnel-like. For Rome, there are the ancient sewer and catacombs; Paris has an amalgamation of shelters, catacombs and le metro; at Liverpool there’s the Williams tunnels. Chester’s are more intangible. They consist, in the main, of memories and rumours – with the odd bit of urban exploring on YouTube thrown in.
The first record of any tunnels I came across during my research in the Country Records Office was near the cathedral. Near to where the new choir school is now, used to be the site of the Abbey’s infirmary, where elderly and sick monks were cared for in their own cloisters. When it was demolished for new houses to be built in 1626 (13 and 14 Abbey Square) tunnels were found beneath. These were thought to be the remains of the Roman sewers, reused by the monks as cellars.
13/14 Abbey Square
The Romans left quite a few underground remains: there’s the hypocaust under ‘Spud-U-Like’, the legionary strong room alongside Hamilton Place, and various remnants hidden away in the cellars of houses and shops. These tended not to go very far – unlike the tunnels they made to bring in water from springs in Boughton. One of these springs was close to where the Dee Valley Water Company pumps in water from the river now – a good mile away from the centre of the fort. Several pieces of this impressive feat of Roman plumbing have been unearthed over the years – pipes and tiles proudly stamped as the work of Chester’s Twentieth Legion.
Water Tower at Boughton – close to possible location of Roman Springs
After the Romans came the Anglo Saxons, the Vikings and then, eventually, the Normans. At this time, Chester was regarded as a frontier town, and William the Conqueror’s men had to be coerced into coming here. This was the Wild West of the eleventh century – Normans versus the Welsh instead of Cowboys versus Indians. It was the Normans that built Chester Castle, first in wood and then, by the thirteenth century, in stone. The designer of this stone castle, and several other castles along the north Wales coast, was Richard l’Enginour, Edward I’s Master Mason. Richard is reputed to have lived in a fortified hall (later called Pares Hall) on the corner of Duke Street and Lower Bridge Street (a site now occupied by the old Grosvenor Motors Garage). From this place half way up the hill Richard could nervously eye up the village now called Handbridge (but the Welsh called Treboeth or burning town because one of my ancestors’ favourite things to do of a Saturday night was to burn the place down) just across the river.
Trouble could come at any time – and often did – and so Richard is thought to have incorporated a tunnel leading from his house to the Castle which could be used by his household as an escape route if things were looking dicey. I’m hoping that when the garage is demolished, the remnants of these tunnels may be discovered underneath, but I expect I’ll be disappointed.
Grosvenor Garage Lower Brook Street. Site of Pares Hall.
Eventually, the Welsh, the Vikings and even the Norman Earls calmed down and itinerant men of God were allowed to set up communities on the west side of the city. These were the Friars – the black, the grey and the white according to the colour of their cassocks – and they immediately set about making a contribution to the underground network of the city in the form of pipes and tunnels
Apart from being ‘good at engineering’ these Plantagenet Friars were not particularly pious. They murdered. They had running feuds with their rivals at the Abbey. They rampaged through the city and left members of the public in fear of their lives. In fact you might say they were worse than the pyromaniac Welsh. I can only imagine that their tunnels were a means of escape or some other dubious purpose when things were getting a little too hot.
Evidence for these tunnels was found many years later when the picturesque and rickety ‘Old Lamb’s Row’, at the top of the west side of Lower Bridge Street, collapsed in a cloud of dust and rubble in in 1821 Incredibly, no one was much hurt, but when the site was excavated for a warehouse and a pub as part of a new Lamb’s Row, a double tunnel was found leading to the building’s new cellar. It was a well-engineered structure bearing all the hallmarks of the Friars. Further parts of this tunnel were found under Pepper Street (at an undisclosed location).
What eventually happened to this tunnel is not disclosed, but this cellar was presumably in the same place as a bar that became known as ‘The Dive’ (because of the low threshold rather than a term of abuse) in the twentieth century, and I can’t help noting it must have been close to the subterranean toilets in the middle of Grosvenor Street – before it and the new Lamb’s Row were demolished for road widening. Perhaps the two were connected.
Approximate Location of Old Lambs Row, Lower Bridge Street
Apart from this, the friars and the monks, in their more peaceful times, also piped in water to their Friaries and the Abbey – again from the springs at Boughton. You can still see the site of one of these springs – a piece of unworked ground greener and wetter than the rest – in a field behind the Mercure Abbot’s Well Hotel (the name is a bit of a giveaway) along Christleton Road in Boughton.
There are other tunnels taking rivers and streams underground. You can sometimes hear them. For instance, near to the end of Brook Lane there is a certain manhole cover in the middle of the pavement, under which, I believe, is an underground cascade connecting Flookersbrook in Hoole to Bache Brook in Upton and on then to Finchett’s Gutter at Sealand and the Dee. This I suspect was built when the springs feeding Dickson’s Nurseries were managed into culverts to drain building land for the houses along Brook Lane in the 1930s. All I need is a few Pooh Sticks to prove it.
Flookers Brook, Hoole
Finchett’s Gutter meeting Dee, Sealand
Sometimes the courses of these underground waterways are betrayed by strange black poles with weather vanes at the end (along the end of Gloucester Street and Cornwall Street in Newton for instance, and there’s an especially tall listed one where Filkin’s Lane meets Chapel Lane in Boughton). In this case, the tunnels aren’t merely carrying away water, but are Victorian sewers carrying the city’s waste to Sealand.
Listed Sewage Pipe, Filkin’s Lane, Boughton.
I have saved the most impressive bit of Underground Chester to last. These are the bunkers below the 1930s Western Command building (now belonging to Chester University) and something you can see for yourself on YouTube, where intrepid ‘urban explorers’ have found a way in with torches and cameras. The upper part of the complex is like Chester’s answer to the acropolis in Athens – lit up on a summer evening the upper part is just as imposing – but beneath the ground it’s all Wartime Austerity Chic. Parts of the corridors have collapsed and are therefore dangerous (and of course no one at amble would condone exploring such a thing), but I’d love to be able to take a look for myself. These are real tunnels you can stand in, and they come from a time when Chester was the command centre of one of Great Britain’s largest defence zones.
It is rumoured there were important meetings here involving Winston Churchill, Charles deGaulle and Dwight Eisenhower. Maybe the freedom of the Western World could have been decided here. Or maybe not. But it’s good to dream. There are entrances near the river and were, at one time, inside the Western Command building itself. Sadly, all that anyone can tell you now though is that one of the tunnels runs parallel to garage number seven by the side of the car park, and the whole complex is in danger from being worn away by the river. In which case one of the best bits of the Chester underground will be revealed at the surface – and all that we’ll have left of any tunnels is some grainy online footage.
Churchill Building AKA Western Command, Queen’s Park