Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Manchester beneath our feet

In a previous post I've blogged about my inexplicable affection for railways, especially abandoned ones. It may then come as no surprise that I feel the same way about hidden networks of tunnels. I think part of it is a boyish excitement at seeing discrete mathematics realized concretely - the same reason the Beck map of the London Underground is so iconic. The angular, artificial dreamworld constructions of maps and networks forcing their way into a reality which seems determined to be fuzzy in so many other respects.

When I was a child, my Dad used to take me to Manchester's Museum of Science and Industry. There were all sorts of awesome things on display there: a little train which would tootle a few hundred yards before coming back (and which now occasionally wakes me up at weekends with its tooting!), an "experimental" area with all sorts of cute demonstrations of the power of physics, and an early computer which allowed you to take a virtual tour of the solar system while playing Holst's Planets. (This last is sadly now gone.) But possibly my favourite part was the Underground Manchester gallery. Here it was explained how the sewer systems of the city had developed over the two thousand years of Manchester's settlement, from the Romans to the present day. In the middle was a section of Victorian sewer you could walk through, built with genuine sewer bricks and featuring an inconspicuous model rat halfway down. My excitement at this was not diminished when I revisited it last year.

Then, in my quest to discover the optimal walking route from Castlefield to the University, what did I discover?

A black door. Surrounded by an (ineffectual) metal fence - but also the kind of British box hedge that screams "Nothing interesting going on here". Set into a concrete stairwell, and leading to... well, who knows? Underground, is all that matters.

So this got me interested in figuring out what was really there beneath our feet. Not in a conspiracy-theoretic way; that's not what floats my boat. But a city as big as Manchester must have some skeletons in the closet, right? Or at least a secret closet in which it could in principle store skeletons. Preferably an underground closet.

The internet is one's friend in these matters, and I soon found out about various things. The creepily-named "Arndale void" - apparently built as the first stage of a proposed tunnel leading from Piccadilly to Victoria station. The abandoned Manchester and Salford Junction Canal, with its tunnel from the Bridgewater Hall to the River Irwell near the Granada Studios, used as a public air raid shelter during the Second World War. And, most scarily of all, the Guardian Underground Telephone Exchange.

Now, if you'd told me that there exists a secret network of tunnels stretching from Ardwick to Salford, built to withstand a nuclear blast, I probably wouldn't have believed you. That sort of underground insanity challenges even my overactive subterranean imagination. But it does seem to exist: a recent exhibition, infra_MANC, co-run by fellow Manchester lecturer Martin Dodge and based on local government documentation, presented some of the results. The catalogue is still obtainable via the Modernist Society, and so I ordered a copy. It's well worth a look - it contains maps, photos, and all kinds of discussion. But if tantalizing speculation is more your thing, take a look at the pages here and here. A recent fire in the tunnel reportedly caused 130,000 homes to be without phone connections.

I'm going to order this book, and also go on this tour with some friends. Hopefully I'll be blogging more about this stuff in the near future!