The tunnels "to both the Watergate & the Castle" are a recurring theme in Chester, but there is no actual evidence for most of them. In Roman Chester there was a main sewage and waste-water disposal system via rock-cut culverts set below the main streets and no doubt connected to both communal and private latrines, such as those for the centurions at Abbey Green. Ranulph Higden, a monk at the abbey of St Werburgh in Chester (later the Cathedral) wrote a description of Chester in his mid fourteenth century Polychronicon. He described underground passages, huge stones inscribed with the names of ancient men, and vaulted dining rooms:
- There be waies heere under the ground vaulted marvelously with stone worke, chambers having arched roofes over had, huge stones engraven with the names of ancient men. Heere also are sometimes digged up peeces of money coined by Julius Caesar and other famous persons, and stamped with their inscriptions
Gerald of Wales refers to:
- "Urbs Legionum base authentica, ac per Romanos muris coctilibus circumdata, ubi multa aclhuc pristine nobilitatis apparent vestigia ; palatia scilicet immensa, turris gigantea, thermae insignes, templerum reliquiae, et loca theatralia, egregiis muris partim extan tibus pene clausa, et tarn intra quam extra murorum ambitum, sedificia subterranea, aquarum ductus, hypogffiique meatus." (A genuine city of the Legions, surrounded by walls of brick (or tiles), in which many remains of its pristine grandeur are still apparent, namely, immense palaces, a gigantic tower, beautiful baths, remains of temples, and sites of theatres, almost entirely enclosed by excellent walls, in part remaining; also, both within and outside the circumference of the walls, subterranean constructions, water-courses, vaults with passages.)
Another website about Chester records:
- "WATERGATE STREET, BISHOP LLOYD'S PALACE, c. 1880. This two gabled building, not looking much like a palace here, was built early in the 17th century, supposedly for Bishop George Lloyd, formerly Bishop of Sodor and Man, and Bishop of Chester from 1604, whose date of death, 1615, is on one of the panels, as are various biblical subjects. Inside is a 'secret' doorway, said at one time to lead by an underground passage to the Cathedral. (If all the secret passages which were said to lead to the Cathedral actually existed, the town would have a veritable catacombe under its streets. I remember as a schoolboy being told with great authority that a house in St. John's Street had such a passage and another was said to lead from the old brewery in Lower Bridge Street. In neither place could I find trace of them)."
Nearby Wrexham also had persistent legends about extensive tunnels under the town center. These were treated with a certain degree of disbelief until quite recently (2019) when some tunnels were in fact "discovered". It is not clear whether these had any purpose other than as drains and sewers. So this article looks at the tunnel legends and the actual evidence which exists.
One source for the tunnel stories may be the undercrofts below many city center buildings. Some of these were apparently forgotten about over the years and redescovered later, such as that under the Cowper house in Bridge Street. Other versions of the legends may be based upon buried Roman remains such as the Hypocaust of the Roman baths. This can still be seen today at 37-41 Bridge Street.
The Known Tunnels
Despite the huge number of stories about tunnels under Chester very few have been actually identified.
A network of tunnels and rooms were created beneath the Western Command HQ on the south bank of the River Dee to provide a bomb-proof emergency centre in the Second World War. Blasted through the sandstone bedrock by Royal Engineers, mostly Welsh ex-miners, the extensive subterranean complex comprises four tunnels and 19 rooms. In addition to the known tunnels there are rumoured to be tunnels under the River Dee. There is no actual evidence that these exist. The only known tunneling under the Dee at Chester was a failed attempt to improve the city water supply between 1849 and 1851 by digging under the River Dee to springs near Barrel Well Hill: however there was apparently a tunnel under the Dee further downstream at Neston where two coalmines joined up.
The tunnels have been investigated by "urban explorers" and are described online.
There is one confirmed tunnel at Chester Castle which led from the Military Gaol between the Military Museum and Castle Street to the courts. This has been blocked-off. There are many rumours of further passages having one end at the castle but none have been confirmed. Some are said to be the work of "Richard the Engineer" who was one of Edward I's castle builders in North Wales and built a house for himself in Lower Bridge Street. Another existing "tunnel" is the sally port steps which lead through the Castle walls to an exit which can be seen today in the river-facing wall of the castle. These are possibly intended for provisions to be brought-up from the River Dee.
The Queen Commercial Hotel (now the "Town Crier") was originally linked to the Queen Hotel proper by an underground passageway beneath City Road. This is now bricked-up apart from a few feet at one end. This would enable "Commercial Travellers" staying at the less expensive hotel to reach the Queen Hotel without being seen. Both hotels were the work of Thomas Mainwaring Penson who would also design the Grosvenor Hotel. There is a related story that a further passage led from the Queen Hotel to Chester Station, although there is no firm evidence for this it was apparently used to transfer luggage between the station and the hotel. A similar tunnel may have existed from the station to the post office building opposite so as to enable mail to be moved back and forth.
The opening of a tunnel can be seen in the outer face of the City Walls near the Queens School. Appropriately it is near a section of the walls named "Truant's Hole". This may have been associated with the heating syetem of the Infirmary but access is difficult, but the name Truant's Hole dates back to 1539-40. Another "Truant's Hole" is recorded in the Corporation papers as being located on the corner of the walls below the Wishing Steps (where there is an iron pipe on the outer face of the wall). This was evidently a sewer.
There is a very obvious "tunnel" which emerges from beneath the city walls at the so-called Roman Quay, although inspection reveals it to be under two feet high and not much wider. It is not known how far it goes. The most likely purpose is some form of drain given that it is too small to enter with ease. However when viewed during a race meet it might well grow to mythical proportions.
Chester's ancient boundaries are defined to north of the River Dee by the stream which is in part known as "Flookersbrook" and empties into the River Dee after a long and winding journey around the city. Two bodies of water which were connected by this brook were Bache Pool and St Annes Lakes. St Annes Lakes were located roughly where the enclosed wooded areas near the northern end of Hoole railway bridge now lie. Bache Pool was the site of the watermill which Richard of Avranches donated to the Abbey in or shortly before 1151. The pool existed since prehistoric times, but the millpond was allowed to silt after 1845 and finally filled-in around 1883. Flookersbrook runs in an underground culvert between Hoole Road and the roundabout at the end of the Deva Link road.
Apart from the known bomb-proof shelter under Western Command and a few short passages which existed at City Road and the courts, it seems that investigation so far has turned up hard evidence for little more than drains.
There are several tunnels where there is mention in guidebooks and historical records but no actual "hard" evidence, or at best only some weak physical evidence. As noted above these tales go back to medieval times and the later re-telling of them tends to cluster around two particular stories, tunnels from the Cathedral and tunnels under Bridge Street. Another feature of many stories is an association with alcohol, where tunnels are said to be associated with breweries, inns and/or smugglers. Some of these might be explained by undercrofts (such as those in pub cellars) being mistaken for the start of tunnels.
There are stories of a "sally port" running under the City Walls near the Roman Gardens. This is supposed to start on the former site of the Lion Brewery. Curiously there is what appears to be a blocked-up passageway in the walls at ground level in the gardens. Whether this is an actual entrance or merely has the appearance of one is not known. The other curious facts associated with this location are that the Lavaux Map appears to show an opening in the walls which does not correspond with the current opening leading to the Roman Gardens from Park Street and some versions of the legend associated with the Peppergate mention a "postern" nearby.
One of the most persistent legends is that of one or more tunnels leading to and from the Cathedral. The Virtual Stroll website provides the following description of one discovery of the tunnel:
- "..a light was procured and we went in at least 70 yards in the bowels of the earth, taking a direction apparently south-east. It extended further but we did not advance. Others, more daring, proceeded afterwards a greater distance. It was a regular footway. It is now covered with earth but the entrance to it is marked by a small archway and is about ten feet below the surface. it is to be lamented that this passage was not further explored under authority".
This mysterious passageway was appently discovered when the Abbey infirmary was demolished for new houses to be built in 1626 at 13 and 14 Abbey Square and is mentioned in Hanshall's Stranger in Chester (1816) and in W T Watkin's "Roman Cheshire" (1886), in which some later explorations of the relic are described where it was said to be circular and at least ten feet in height. There are many other stories of tunnels leading to the Cathedral, often over very unlikely distances, but this appears the best documented. A related legend is that of the cathedral "Treasure House", a typical version being that the entrance to this was concealed during the Civil War and then its location forgotten. There is some documentary evidence that a treasure house existed at one time (see: Virtual Stroll) but the continuing existence of a hidden stash of great wealth appears to fall into the category of "hopeful myth".
There are occasional stories of a tunnel between the Cathedral and the former Music Hall. There is a connection of sorts. The parish church of St Oswald once occupied the south transept of Chester Cathedral. What was later the Music Hall was built in about 1300 for Simon de Albo, the abbot of St Werburgh's, Chester. It was used for a period as the church of the parish of St Oswald (who were kicked out of the Cathedral), then closed as a church and conveyed to the Mayor and Assembly of Chester in 1488. In 1545 an upper floor was inserted and it was used as the Commonhall and Wool Hall. The building was used for staging plays from around 1750, then further converted as the New Theatre in 1773 and the Theatre Royal in 1777–78. James Harrison modified it again into a hall for concerts and entertainments in 1854–55, when it was known as the Music Hall.
Bridge Street was the site of the legionary baths of Roman Chester and the hypocaust can still be seen in the cellars of the former "Spud-U-Like". This used an immense quantity of water and therefore possibly had a significant drain leading to the river. This drain, if it existed, may be the origin of several legends concerning tunnels under the streets of Chester. When Old Lamb Row collapsed in 1821 a tunnel was said to have been discovered. The 2000 book "More memories of Chester" refers to a tunnel, possibly in existence in 1959, leading from The Falcon (then a haberdashery shop) to the River Dee which had been blocked-up. As the Falcon is the surviving half of a still more spectacular 13th Century town house which originally extended further down Lower Bridge Street, it is possible that a passageway existed but only went as far as the adjoining cellar.
A photograph from the 1960's shows an opening into a void beneath St Olave. This is located in some fairly impressive-looking masonry which was exposed during the redevelopment of an adjacent site, once a brewery known as "Rotten Row". The depth of St Olave Street, which has existed since at least the sixteenth century, would suggest that if this part of a much longer tunnel then there should also be an opening on the north side. There is a blocked-up arched opening on the north side but it does not line up with opening visible in the south side, being somewhat higher and further towards the front of the building Batenham writes:
- "Immediately adjoining is a very singular ancient building now occupied as a brewery the date of which is likewise uncertain. From the prodigious thickness of its walls and its huge beams and supporters it appears that the builder whoever he was intended it as a perpetual monument to his fame nor is there any reason to doubt its security. In the interior are several entrances to vaulted passages now blocked up but what communication they ever had is not known. In addition to this it may be stated there is a very popular opinion which we can neither confirm nor disprove that subterranean communications have been made between the Castle and various public buildings in the city though what their purpose was or why discontinued is wholly unknown. The many remains of arches still to be seen both here and in the cellars of certain houses in the principal streets are however strongly corroborative of the belief."
The building in question was initially the home of "Richard the Engineer" ("Richard L'Ingenour") the royal master mason of Edward I. Hemingway writes:
- "Opposite to Boarding-school-yard there is an antique structure now used by Messrs Newell and Gaman as an extensive brewery; the date of its erection is unknown, as well as the purpose to which it was formerly appropriated, but it may certainly be placed as early as the fifteenth century, and the row adjoining bears evident marks of remote architecture. In the interior are several entrances to vaulted passages, now blocked up, but what communication they ever had is uncertain. A very popular opinion has long prevailed that there anciently existed subterranean passages between the castle and various public buildings in the city, though for what purpose or why or when discontinued is wholly unknown. This idea received the authority of the author of the Polychronicon who says: "In this cyte been ways under erthe with vowtes and stone werke wonderly wrought; three chambred werkes". In remarking upon this passage Mr Pennant observes that of these not a trace nor even the least memory is left notwithstanding the most diligent search and inquiries have been made. None says he have ever been discovered by the frequent sinking of cellars for new buildings on the site of the old tradition has delivered no such accounts to us nor is their exit to be traced beneath the walls in any part of their circumference. It should be recollected however that Mr Pennant wrote upwards of fifty years ago and that since his time a greater number of reliques of antiquity has been discovered than before his time. I am not prepared to speak decidedly on the question but confess I am less sceptical on the affirmative part of it than formerly. There is some difficulty in accounting for the blocking up of passages and arches several yards below the surface of the ground without admitting the existence of continuous ways for some purpose or other and if we cannot ascertain their direct object yet the palpable fact is not to be denied or evaded. But what has most tended to incline me to a persuasion of the existence of these hollow ways were the appearances of a subterranean passage discovered on sinking the cellars for the buildings now standing on the site of the old Lamb row. Here was found a distinctly marked road about five feet wide and more than five yards deep from the level running the whole length of the building in an oblique direction and without termination at either end. The road seemed to proceed in a direct line from the site of the old Friary situate between Commonhall street and White Friars taking a slanting direction across the latter and pointing obliquely across Bridge street. At the time of sending this sheet to press the author is engaged in prosecuting a closer research into this subject the result of which will be given when he comes to notice our antiquities."
So whether Richard the Engineer had his own private escape route to Chester Castle or not, remains a mystery. However, there are quite detailed suggestions about tunnels in lower Bridge Street from separate sources and there is that mysterious looking opening in the supporting platform of St Olave.
A local legend exists that there was once an underground passage leading from Upton Hall (since demolished) and that it was blocked up in the middle part of the nineteenth century by the then occupant, Thomas Ithell (who did exist). This passage was supposed to connect the Hall with Chester Cathedral. This is one of many tales of underground tunnels leading to Chester Cathedral, some of which may be due to the fragments of Roman and Medieval sewers found in Chester : but there is no hard evidence for the existence of a tunnel from Upton which would be a distance of well over a mile.
Many people have recounted stories of hearing of other tunnels but in all cases there is little or no physical or even documentary evidence. These include:
- Cathedral to St Johns or the Amphitheatre, including under Eastgate Street. There are several variations on this with many stories of tunnels under Eastgate Street. It is perhaps noteworthy that this is in the direction that the supposed tunnel from the Cathedral was said to head. A common story (always second-hand) is that it was possible for a charge of one old penny to enter a tunnel under a shop in Eastgate Sreet (somewhere at or near number 25) and emerge elsewhere;
- Under Watergate Street from the Custom House cellar to Holy Trinity (which later became the Guildhall) - said to be blocked off at least at the "Custom House" end. Another common story in Chester is that there was a tunnel from the cellar beneath Bishop Lloyd's House to the Cathedral.
- Fountains Roundabout to Brook Street. This is interesting if only because the plot boundaries along the route seem to show the line of what may have been a stream heading down towards Newtown, once a notoriously waterlogged area. Perhaps there is a culverted-in stream under the proposed route;
- Crown Court to the Abode Hotel (former Police HQ) - interestingly there are also stories of a tunnel frpm the former Militia Buildings to the former graveyard of St Bridget;
- Newgate Street (the former Fleshmongers Lane) to the Cathedral. This is often mentioned in the same breath as tunnels under the Grosvenor Hotel, which, like the "Queen" hotels with a known tunnel in City Road was also designed by Penson;
- Stanley Palace to the Cathedral: with the entrance being either "in the back of a cupboard" or under a hatch just inside the main door;
- Hermitage to St Johns: associated with the myth that the "hermit" was Harold II and used the tunnel to hear mass in secret. There are old illustations of Chester which show what might be mistaken for a "tunnel" in the form of "Jacobs Well" (now moved to Grosvenor Park) - especially that of George Angelo Bell (a sewer engineer) and these may have contributed to elements of a myth;
- Chester Castle Gaol to the River Dee: said to be used when sending prisoners for transportation - see Pemberton's Parlour for more on transportees. There are also "stories" of "a way down to the river" which was used to supply the kitchens next to the Agricola tower. Some or all of these stories may have been inspired by the sally-port steps (see above).
A few of these do seem to have at least some believable basis, and additional photographic and/or other evidence is welcome. However, for the present the existence of the tunnels which Pennant, Hanshall, Hemingway, Batenham and others discussed with evident belief must be considered as "not proven".