Star rating – 8/10
If you think you know Manchester pretty well, then think again, for deep below the city’s streets is a fascinating network of underground tunnels withholding many secrets. And you can experience just some of them yourself by going on a walk around Underground Manchester, courtesy of New Manchester Walks (http://www.newmanchesterwalks.com/), as I did this weekend. When your joining instructions are to wear stout footwear, and to bring a torch, you know there is something a bit different in store.
Our very knowledgeable and interesting guide Steve told the group about a, now decommissioned, top secret Government installation below the city, which was previously built as a sort of nuclear bunker for the great and the good. The trouble was that at only 60 feet below ground level, the labyrinth simply was not deep enough to do the job. And its walls were lined with asbestos, so not the perfect hiding place after all. You can still see the entrance building, now bricked up and surrounded by razor wire, just behind St. Peter’s Square. When there was a fire down there in 2003, which knocked out the city centre’s phone lines for a few days, the fire brigade dug down through the road to put it out, rather than enter these toxic tunnels.
But the real gem on this 2 hour walking tour are the tunnels below the former Central Station, which were carved out of Manchester’s red sandstone rock, and which started out as a route into the vast warehouses for the goods brought by canal into the thriving industrial city. They then served as an air raid shelter for the general public, not lucky or important to have access to a private bunker, during World War II. You can still see the remnants of the toilets, tea stall, and even a crèche that was down there.
It is a great way to learn about the history of a place to actually see it firsthand. As you stand in the almost total darkness down there, you can imagine the air raid sirens going off and the people scuttling down the long, steep stairways into the safety of these tunnels below. And I like to imagine the women taking it in turns to mind each other’s children, while the others put on their lippy, painted stocking lines down the backs of their legs, and emerged from the deep to enjoy a night on the town.
There were strict rules in the shelters to prevent drinking, gambling and any unseemly behaviour whilst down there. I imagine the good folk of Manchester pretty much ignored all of those and did exactly as they liked, despite the best efforts of the wardens. After all - this is the party city. And there is some graffiti down there from 1983, when the tunnels were again used for gambling, this time by an illicit poker school whose members apparently spent many a night down there while the police turned a blind eye. Now that is what I call real dedication to a leisure pursuit.
This walk is a real revelation, and it is certainly a pretty amazing experience to stand below Deansgate and hear absolutely nothing - except the drip, drip of water and the sighs of a little girl’s ghost (allegedly).