The Peterborough Tunnels

A weird old story I came across in my bookmarks this morning tells a tale of tunnels under the town of Peterborough, England.

[Image: Gates in Holywell, Peterborough; photo by Rowland Hobson, courtesy of Peterborough Today].

The local newspaper, Peterborough Today, refers to a woman described simply as "a grandmother" who claims "that she crawled through a tunnel under Peterborough Cathedral as a schoolgirl." That experience—organized as a school trip, of all things—was "terrifying"; in fact, it was "so scary that it gave her nightmares for weeks afterwards."
About 25 of us went down into the tunnel, one at a time; none of the teachers came in. It was pitch black, had a stone floor and was about two feet high and three feet wide. We crawled along on our hands on knees. The girl in front of me stopped and started screaming, she was so scared. The tunnel started in the Cathedral and ended there too; we were down there for what seemed like ages. When I eventually got home I was in tears. Afterwards I had horrible nightmares for weeks about being buried alive underneath the Cathedral.
What's fascinating about the story, though, is the fact that not everyone even agrees that these tunnels exist. A "city historian" quoted in the same article says that, while "there are small tunnels under the Cathedral," they are most likely not tunnels at all, but simply "the ruins of foundations from earlier churches on the site, dating from Saxon times." The girls would thus have been crawling around amongst the foundations of ruined churches, lost buildings that long predated the cathedral above them.

But local legends insist that the tunnels—or, perhaps, just one very large tunnel—might, in fact, be real. To this end, an amateur archaeologist named Jay Beecher, who works in a local bank by day, has "been intrigued by the legend of the tunnel ever since he was a young boy when he was regaled with tales that had been passed down the generations of a mysterious passageway under the city." This "mysterious passageway under the city" would be nearly 800 years old, by his reckoning, and more than a mile in length. "Medieval monks may have used the tunnel as a safe route to visit a sacred spring at Holywell to bathe in its healing waters," we read.

Although Beecher has found indications of the tunnel on city maps, not everyone is convinced, claiming the whole thing is just "folklore." But it is oddly ubiquitous folklore. One former resident of town who contacted the newspaper "claimed that a series of tunnels ran between Peterborough and Thorney via a secret underground chapel." Another "said that he recalled seeing part of a tunnel in the cellar at a home in Norfolk Street, Peterborough," as if the tunnel flashes in and out of existence around town, from basement to basement, church cellar to pub storage room, more a portal or instance gate than an actual part of the built environment. And then, of course, there is the surreal childhood memory—or nightmare—recounted by the "grandmother" quoted above who once crawled beneath the town church with 25 of her schoolmates, worried that they'd all be buried alive in the center of town (surely the narrative premise of a childhood anxiety dream if there ever was one).

No word yet if Beecher has found his archaeological evidence, but the fact that this particular spatial feature makes an appearance in the dreams, memories, or confused geographic fantasies of the people who live there—as if their town can only be complete given this subterranean underside, a buried twin lost beneath churches—is in and of itself remarkable.

(If this interests you—or even if it doesn't—take a quick look at BLDGBLOG's tour through the tunnels and sand mines of Nottingham, or stop by this older post on the "undiscovered bedrooms of Manhattan").

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's one I've not heard about before, Geoff! 'Secret tunnels' are really common in Britain, but I'd estimate that 95% of them are not real.

That tale is interesting because it's first person - almost all the stories I hear happened to 'a friend of my dad' or 'a chap I used to work with'. The innate desire of man to have mystery in our lives, I think...

Keep looking!

David, Nottingham Caves Survey

July 16, 2013 6:56 AM  
Anonymous Alan Edwards said...

I have been doing a lot of research lately regarding the ruined monasteries found all over the UK, and many have stories of "secret tunnels". These can usually be attributed to the amazingly advanced water systems they had bringing water, sometimes from far away, and distributing it around many buildings for drinking, cooking and cleaning. They also used it to wash away waste as well as power mills and forges. Not so romantic as secret pathways to the pub or nunnery, but pretty high tech for the "dark ages"

July 19, 2013 6:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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July 23, 2013 3:29 PM  
Blogger Nicolas Dorval-Bory said...

I agree with David here, I think they might be mostly legends.

In my hometown in southern France, there was an extremely similar story, about a middle-age emergy tunnel between the walled city (Bretenoux) and the Lord's castle (Castelnau), on the hill. According to the legend, the tunnel was so high and wide that a knight could run a horse through it. It was also supposed to have an secret entrance midway in a small chapel (in Prudhomat).
As a young boy we explored the area and tried to gather evidences, all of this leading nowhere.
Now, if these are really legends, I am quite curious about the origins of these spread out stories. Was it a XIIth century propaganda or disinformation aiming to curb possible attacks? Interesting topic anyway!

July 27, 2013 5:22 AM  
Blogger Chris Gannon said...

I had a friend once who moved into a basement. The whole layout was very strange with a full height perimeter cavity that wrapped around two of the four sides. You could enter this cavity through a door and my friend swore that around the corner, at the end of the cavity there was a staircase that led deep underground. She thought that maybe it was part of the underground rail road, or maybe linked up to the underground tunnels that are fabled to exist under the city of Austin Texas. She was too frightened to enter.

I was extremely curious when I heard of this and headed directly over only to find a mirror at the far end of the cavity, tilted against the wall, reflecting back the same cavity I was currently in. No staircase, no tunnel, no underground chasm, no goonies, nothing but a stupid mirror.

August 06, 2013 1:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi... We used to go down to the tunnels in Thorpe hall field and walk through them as a chain, crouched down singing Nelly the Elephant to stop us getting scared! They were lined with a sandy stone and the floor was sandy muddy. Hope that helps.

June 08, 2014 3:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also remember the tunnels in the field behind Thorpe Hall, we used to run through them in the 80's. They seemed to (as I recall) head in the direction of the cathedral one way and the Longthorpe Holy Well in the other direction but were blocked off with in the grounds of Thorpe Hall, they were as described above. We still walk our dogs round there, these days they seem to have been secured with modern man hole covers in a brick / cement casing but they are defiantly there.

August 04, 2015 12:26 PM  
Anonymous Stuart Orme said...

Just come across this on a search in something else, and thought I'd better respond as I'm probably the "local historian" quoted in the original article regarding the alleged Peterborough tunnels, which seems to crop up in the local paper virtually every other year.

I think there are legends about historic tunnels under virtually every old town or city in the UK that I've ever lived in or visited, usually dating back to the medieval period and between one or more signficant buildings such as great religious houses. Whilst there are some that do have foundation (pardon the pun) such as the caves of Nottingham or the medieval water tunnels under Exeter, these are very much the exception - the majority are people's remembrances of cellars, later service tunnels and simple urban legends. Geology, archaeology and practicality tend to get in the way of most stories sadly.

Regarding the Peterborough tunnels, there are legends of tunnels stretching from Peterborough Cathedral (formerly the abbey) out to Thorney Abbey or Crowland Abbey. These can easily be disproved, not only because of the distances involved (between 9 and 12 miles), at the time they were alleged to have been built both these abbeys were islands. The tunnels would have therefore been an engineering impossibility.

The most persistent story, and the one alluded to in the article, concerns an alleged tunnel built from Monk's cave at Longthorpe to Peterborough Cathedral, a distance of around 2 miles. The medieval tunnel is certainly a myth, built up from a number of underground elements which people have supposed are joined up. There are underground tunnels and areas under the Cathedral precincts which are quite extensive, many uncovered in the 19th century through building work, but these are crypts and cellars from the 10th century monastic church (destroyed 1116 and rebuilt as the current Church in 1118) and later monastic buildings. It is easy to see how a group of people could mistake these for tunnels, but they do not extend beyond the precincts - archaeology in the Town square beyond in 2009 proved this by going down to bedrock. There are a few short tunnels under Thorpe park, near the supposed exit at Monk's Cave, but these were part of drains and sewers for Thorpe Hall, and also in some case access to springs for a nearby 19tn century medicinal distillery. The alleged exit at Monk's Cave is sadly a later fiction, the whole cave being constructed in the 18th century as a folly for the entertainment of the gentry at Thorpe Hall, in which grounds it fell. An actor would even be paid to be a hermit there on occasion for grand parties! This cave was utilized as part of the later aforementioned distillery and deepened, adding to its tunnel like appearance.

As can be seen here, practical and historical information can sometimes be forgotten, and supposition and urban legend takes hold - and it can sometimes be very difficult to shake off!

Stuart Orme, Peterborough Museum

September 23, 2015 5:36 PM  

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