Exeter’s Underground Passageways, England

Exeter's underground tunnels

Exeter's underground tunnels, by Malcolm Etherington. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

Dating from the 14th century, Exeter’s medieval underground passages were built to house the lead pipes that brought fresh water from natural springs in fields outside the city wall into the city centre. The passages lie between 4 and 6 metres underground stretching 425 metres across the city centre. Amazingly 80% of the tunnel network survives and much of it can be explored with a travel guide. The pipes often sprang leaks and repairs could only be carried out by digging down. The solution was a vaulted network lined with stone which was big enough for workers to climb underground to carry out repairs. The first passage was built between 1346 and 1349 to serve the city’s cathedral. The water pipes ended at a fountain in Cathedral Close that supplied clean water to Exeter’s clergy.

Exeter was becoming quite wealthy and the cathedral was built in response to Salisbury Cathedral. The stonemasons who had been working on the cathedral were set the task of constructing the underground passages. The supply of clean water was inadequate for the city population and this resulted in the construction of a second tunnel between 1492 and 1497 – known as The City Passage. As the woollen trade developed, a number of wealthy merchants decided they wanted their own water supply. There were always political divisions between the city and the cathedral, and the merchants wanted to ensure they had a separate supply they could rely on. Only the wealthiest residents could afford to have the water piped directly to their homes.

For everyone else, water was dispensed through an ornate public fountain, called The Great Conduit, at the junction of South Street and the High Street. Sadly the fountain itself was demolished in the 18th Century. In the 1640s a section of The City Passage was blocked off during the English Civil War to prevent the tunnel being used as an entry point into the city. The lead pipes were removed for casting into bullets and the passage filled with rubble. However, the passage was repaired and the water supply restored after the war ended.

Historians of medicine will be interested in the fact that further changes were made following an outbreak of cholera in 1832 when a more healthy water supply was developed – fed from a treatment works at Pynes Hill. The Board of Health commissioned the engineer James Golsworthy to make some changes to the passages. He replaced the lead pipes with cast iron ones and lowered the floor level to improve the water flow. This meant that the pipes sprang leaks less often because the floor was more level. The passages continued to supply water to the city until 1857 when one of the wells was damaged by the building of a new railway cutting. By 1901 the passages had been virtually forgotten. During the Second World War part of the tunnel network was used as a shelter from German bombing raids – a place of safety for 300 city residents.

Guided tours have taken place since 1933. Originally there was no lighting and the tours were no more than a scramble through conduits that stretch out below the streets. The visitor experience has improved since then and a new interpretation centre, opened in 2007, tells the story of the passages, their innovative use of water and explores medieval life in the city. To book your tour contact 01392 665 887

Further information

Underground Passages Leaflet [pdf, 3.4Mb]

Ilkley, West Yorkshire

Ilkley’s only claim to scientific note (but it is a notable claim) is that Charles Darwin stayed here in 1859 at the time On the Origin of Species was first published.

Wells House front 1

Figure 1. Wells House. The building is approached via Brodrick Drive off Wells Road. The single story building on the right originally housed the treatment rooms.

Darwin came to Ilkley on the 4th October 1859 to undergo hydropathy (“the water-cure”) at the prestigious Wells House Hydropathic Establishment which had opened three years earlier. Ilkley’s reputation as a hydropathic centre was established by Dr William MacLeod at the Ben Rhydding Hydro, which opened in 1844. The Ben Rhydding establishment fell into disuse after the Second World War and was demolished in the 1950’s. Wells House, however, survives as a building, although it is now given over to luxury apartments. Access to the interior is solely the prerogative of the residents, but the handsome exterior can be viewed at close quarters when its overall design by Yorkshire’s foremost architect of the day, Cuthbert Brodrick, can be readily appreciated. Wells House can be found, fittingly, at the top of Wells Road (LS29 9SP) From there the energetic visitor can walk up to the old bath-house, White Wells, on Ilkley Moor.

White Wells in winter frost

Figure 2. White Wells in winter frost. Wells House stands below, now surrounded by mature trees - and houses.

White Wells was constructed in the first half of the seventeenth century close to a spring issuing from the hillside. Ilkley owes its development to this so-called ‘spaw’, and it has since become something of an icon for the town and its residents. Although the water issuing from the drinking fountain had no dissolved minerals, it gained a reputation for purity and softness that allowed it to ‘reach the utmost and finest limits of the circulation’. The plunge-bath depended for its efficacy on the coldness of the water which was consistently around 4°C, summer and winter. After ten minutes immersion and a brisk rub-down by the bath-attendant, the bather experienced a feeling of health-giving warmth accompanied, no doubt, by a sense of relief at surviving the icy shock to the system. However, Darwin and the other guests at Wells House are unlikely to have availed themselves of these rustic amenities. Wells House was equipped with a splendid suite of treatment rooms and baths (situated at basement level beneath the eastern terrace of the hotel), under the supervision of the resident physician, Dr Edmund Smith, a man who, according to Darwin; ‘cared very much for the fee and very little for the patient’. For much of his stay Darwin was in reality an out-patient, living in rented accommodation adjacent to the hotel.

Wells Terrace (now Hillside Court)

Figure 3. Wells Terrace (now Hillside Court). The building originally comprised three houses, two west-facing at the front and a third, north-facing, house (North View) that was occupied by Darwin and his family.

Darwin was joined by Emma and the children on the 17th October and the family took up residence in one of the three houses that made up Wells Terrace. The building, which was constructed in 1857, also survives as apartments and can be found at the junction of Crossbeck Road and Wells Road (LS29 9TF). For many local residents the association with Darwin is secondary to their own ‘origins’, the building having been used for many years as Ilkley’s Maternity Hospital – ‘St. Winifred’s’. The broadcaster and writer, Alan Titchmarsh, was born here in 1949, although the Blue Plaque on the building recalls the Darwin connection and not the birth-place of this latter-day celebrity. Darwin and Emma occupied the north-facing house on Crossbeck Road; perhaps its northerly aspect made it particularly dismal. Certainly their daughter Henrietta described their stay in Ilkley as; ‘a time of frozen misery’, but this comment might not be solely attributable to the prevailing climatic conditions. The family left Ilkley on November 24th , the day of the official publication of the Origin. Darwin returned to Wells House, finally leaving for London on December 7th, a stay of just under nine weeks.

Darwin memorial

Figure 4. The bas-relief memorial to Darwin at the foot of Darwin Gardens / Millenium Green

Across Wells Road from Wells Terrace is Ilkley’s most tangible acknowledgement of the Darwin connection – ‘Darwin Gardens’. The ‘Gardens’ are something of a misnomer in that they comprise an open area of grass enclosed by shrubs and trees, and were created in 2000 as the town’s Millennium Project. However, visitors with accompanying children will find the paved maze an enjoyable distraction from tracing the great man’s footsteps. There is a car-park at the top of Wells Road immediately below Darwin Gardens (turn right after the cattle-grid) which would serve as a useful starting point for an exploration of Darwin’s Ilkley.