Birmingham’s sandstone bedrock is too fragile to support extensive tunnelling – it is one reason the city doesn’t have an underground transport system. Nonetheless, we have carved beneath the city an invisible network of service tunnels, subways, crypts, catacombs, bomb shelters, cellars, mine shafts, railway lines and roads.
It exists almost entirely for our convenience: to speed up our journey across the city, to create short cuts or simply afford us more storage space. Its utilitarian existence belies the allure in has on us.
Post-war Birmingham revised its transport strategy towards a single-minded reverence of the car. The need for speed – even if that was just a few minutes less per journey – informed how the city was shaped. The effect for pedestrians was to be channeled underground at road intersections into mosaic-lined tunnels. We adapted quickly, perhaps we even got a taste for it. The appearance of shopping precincts in these spaces normalised our subterranean leisure time.
These subways were only to last two generations: lassoing the city with a ring road proved to be economically disastrous. The subways were filled in, pedestrians emerging blinking in the light. Today, the odd handrail at knee-height betrays their presence, with some citizens even regarding them nostalgically. Motorists still complete their ring road journeys partly submerged beneath the city.
New Street Station’s public labyrinth aside, Birmingham has several hidden private lines and fragments of tunnels and track. A parcel line still connects New Street to the Mailbox, dating back to its days as a sorting office. Preserved sections of old track also lie beneath Snow Hill and the NIA.
Curiously, knowledge of some of these museum pieces is being eroded. As an ardent researcher of these spaces, I often encounter official unawareness, conflicting information or outright impossible suggestions that feel like the retelling of legends.
A few years ago, in search of a delivery tunnel that once served the former Lewis’s on Corporation Street, I was shown a preserved section of railway tunnel lying somewhere beneath Old Square. This damp, rusting expanse was accessed by unlocking a metal door marked Store Room 2: this remnant was being preserved for utility alone. We eventually uncovered the service tunnel, once the key holders were identified.
It proved to be rather ordinary but utterly mysterious for its near-inaccessible nature and unguessed-at existence. At the time, it was storing Priory Square’s Christmas trees, giving the space a mythical, Narnia-like quality. I asked security staff here about another nearby tunnel, perhaps they knew it? A Victorian, tile-lined tunnel connecting Steelhouse Lane’s Police Station holding cells with the Victoria Law Courts.
My claims were dismissed as mere legend - they would know if such a tunnel existed nearby. But such local knowledge is only true for surface dwellers: a few days later I was walking through the tunnel with an enterprising Police Sergeant.
I have long been intrigued by a lost space beneath the NIA, now the Barclaycard Arena. It is said to contain a length of railway track, possibly even a platform, sealed off during construction. Several sources mention this track, though not whether its preservation was for heritage or simply that it was absorbed by the construction.
Whichever is true, the building manager has no knowledge of its existence – its movement into legend seemingly occurring in just a generation.
Another long term fascination for me is the afterlife of cinema buildings. When they cease trading, cinemas’ windowless rooms and raked floors make them awkward spaces to adapt. Some are recycled, repurposed or otherwise absorbed back into the fabric of the city but many simply lie vacant.
Such a space is the Odeon Queensway cinema, lurking damp, dark and peeling beneath Horse Fair and unused since 1989. The empty auditorium has an atmosphere to rival the creepiest horror film: the seats have long been removed, everything is covered in a layer of mould and the five large red ODEON sign are stacked untidily at the the back.
I accessed another forgotten city centre cinema during my research: the ABC on New Street near Ethel Street, last open in 1983. The basement level in the current building still has the original cloakrooms and fire exits, appropriated as storage space by the adjacent boutiques, who have obviously found a way in.
The building’s upper storey, accessed by a terrifying vertical metal ladder, houses the disused auditorium, snaking with air conditioning ducts from the restaurant below. Empty Merlot bottles and candles reveal the activities of previous urban explorers.
Researching and documenting the city’s underground spaces can have a cumulative yield: while researching one subject, people tell me about others rumours they have heard. The subject of subterranean spaces lends itself to fable, exaggeration, conflation of accounts and outright denial.
Some tunnel-lore is fascinatingly close to classic haunting stories – uncanny and unlikely accounts that we are somehow compelled to believe. But all the accounts are worth pursuing in order to extend the map of underground heritage. A powerful torch can be enough to end claims of the pub cellar that extends all the way to the Town Hall. Recently a story reached me from Stratford House of two extensive tunnels leaving their cellar at right angles, each sealed off after a short distance.
Stratford House is a 17th century farmhouse, built in what was then open countryside but which is now swallowed up by Highgate. It is hard to guess the purpose of the two tunnels and indeed what they would lead to in rural Highgate. They could just be a larder – which is still interesting!
The Anchor Exchange is surely the city’s best-known secret tunnel. This is network of cavernous shafts dug below the city centre to allow telecommunications after what must have then seemed like an inevitable nuclear attack from a Cold War era Soviet Union. Where once ran telephone lines, there are now fibre-optic cables carrying the city’s broadband. If nuclear warfare ever levels the city, we will still be able to Tweet about it.
Obviously, this isn’t how BT advertise the installation. In fact, they are still coy about discussing the tunnels at all, or their various points of access and ventilation at surface level. In 2013, I noticed a sign in a gated yard in the shadow of the imposing BT Tower: ‘Project Fox agents: report to 07778 _____’. This compound was openly named Anchor Yard and there seemed to be a lift shaft at the rear.
Perhaps this was an opportunity to discover more? I called the number. Even playing my Local Historian card yielded no further information whatsoever. Some Googling later, Fox was revealed to be FOCS – Fibre Optic Current Sensor and the ‘agents’ engineers. It occurred to me that with training I could eventually access the tunnels by training as a BT Openworld technician. Decades on, BT’s secretiveness still represents bombing anxiety and possible security breaches. See the recent Ocean’s Eleven style Hatton Garden heist for a taste of what happens when the underworld is left unchecked.
Other subterrestrial spaces have their own unique reasons for existing and all combine tell the greater story of the city. Warstone Lane cemetery in the Jewellery Quarter features the city’s only catacomb. It is an imposing circular arena with stacked arcades of crypts, built as a space-saving measure in a rapidly growing city.
The bulging landscapes at St Philip’s and the lost graveyard of St Bartholomew on Park Street tell the same story of an increasing population with limited expansion space. A small space beneath St Martin’s is stacked high with bones and skulls.
We associate mine shafts more with the Black Country than Birmingham, but it turns out the University of Birmingham once had its own mine. It is situated below the sports fields off Bristol Road and must have been a handy income-generating asset. The shaft is still used by the fire service in disaster scenario training.
We should also consider the fate of the river Rea. Most cities proudly boast a dynamic watercourse but ours has been rendered obsolete since the days of the watermill. This ailing trickle has now largely been banished to the underworld. Its associated tributaries only occasionally see daylight, channeled into drains and culverts. The names of these brooks are mysteries to most people.
My take is that all these places are worth knowing about, have stories worth telling and are all worth visiting where possible. How we feel about our surroundings defines our identity as people and as a city. As such, they are important aspects of our heritage, just as valuable as the public squares, opulent civic buildings and well turned-out suburbs of the city.
Ben Waddington is a local historian and the director of Still Walking – Birmingham’s festival of exploratory walking events: www.stillwalking.org
Article originally published by Birmingham Post on 28 May 2015 as part of the 'Birmingham's Hidden Spaces: Unlocked 2015' supplement.