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Urban Tunnels

By Nick Harding.


The Catacombs of Rome.


When the Nazis were ballistically spanking the crap out of London instead of running away to some mountain retreat a defiant Churchill, the War Cabinet and the Joint Chiefs of Staff headed underground. In 1938, on Churchill’s insistence, 3 acres of underground complex with the ability to house over 500 people had been created between King Charles Street and Parliament Square. Though someone, in a display of bureaucratic brilliance forgot to install a decent thunder box, which created its own stink within the hallowed halls of Westminster. From 65A, his war room, Churchill made several wartime speeches and numerous complaints about the facilities. “Give me the tools and I will finish the job.”   

The precedent was set and from that complex numerous tunnels now provide easy access to an unknown number of other Government buildings in a honeycomb of passages beneath the capital. Only a privileged few know exactly their full extent.

The Post Office (Pre Maureen Lipman BT etc) constructed an extensive tunnel system, 16 feet in diameter to provide a bombproof telephone link during the Cold War.  Out of a building near Waterloo Station one tunnel heads to Trafalgar Square and another to Faraday House in the City with a connection from Shoreditch to Shepherds Bush and another to the Kingsway telephone exchange a 100 feet below High Holborn. The Post Office also built tunnels to transport and lose letters in. 

Rumours persist of tunnels under 10 Downing Street enabling the PM and the cabinet to repair to the nearest pub or political fall out shelter. Buckingham Palace is also rumoured to have a tunnel so that the Royal Family in a state of emergency (aren’t they always) can get to Charing Cross for a train instead of thumbing for a lift on the Mall.

The Paris Catacombs

Where do Parisian revolutionaries and members of the French Resistance hide? Under the streets in the famous Catacombs of course. The entrance to these grim subterranean passages, can be found on the eastern side of the Avenue du Géneral Leclerc with a sign that declares ‘Here begins the empire of the dead’. They are approximately two kilometres in length although tales are told of them going further and deeper, as the actress said to l’archdeacon, alors!

What makes these tunnels more bowel squeezing is that a vast number of the City’s previous inhabitants are buried there, or rather unceremoniously stacked up in the walls. In 1785(Dix-sept-quatre-vingt-cinq, Je pense) the dead were literally piling up in the cemeteries so the authorities with their usual universal aplomb decided to dig up the dearly departed and rack ‘em up in the tunnels. The job took a year and a half. Contrary to popular belief the Catacombs are not the dead centre of Paris (bad joke but left in for reference purposes) 

The Count of Artois, later Charles X, thought it would be a blistering wheeze to have lavish parties for his brandy soaked aristo chums in the tunnels.  

The Catacombs have even inspired Blair Witch style videos but with less snot along with urban legends that tell of a society of underclass who live down there in illegal garlic sniffing dens.

Quick fact: Catacomb from the Greek kata, blended with the Latin word accubitorium both meaning tomb remixed with another Greek word kumbe, a hollow.


Our old conspiracy theorists and Dan Brown favourites the Knights Templar spent years digging under this city. What were they after? Apparently the treasure (a few rusty spoons and pyramid souvenirs from Cairo) from the Temple of Solomon. When the Romans were in their ‘not weleasing Woderick’ period – many residents could escape in times of siege or get up to ‘underground’ activities in a network of passages and tunnels. In recent years archaeological expeditions have spent numerous hours trying to get lost in them but have ended up narrowly avoiding international incidents by stumbling into the Muslim quarter and only being alerted to their mistake by the swearing and the banging of broom handles on the ground above them.

A lot of work was done by the Palestine Exploration Fund in the 19th century where numerous explorers spent time trying to work out where everything went. Jerusalem, built on limestone, is in fact honeycombed with natural caves, cisterns called ‘Beers’, (but sadly not full of the stuff) - some dating to 1500 years BC, subterranean passages, pools, aqueducts and quarries.

One of the best examples is the Siloam or Hezekiah’s Tunnel, mentioned in the Bible, which is a tight passage that connects the ‘Spring of Gihon’ to the ‘Pool of Siloam’. It was re-found and explored in 1838 by two Americans on their hands and knees dressed only in wide pairs of Arab drawers, that’s the clothing not an item of furniture. They measured the tunnel to 1750 ft in length. 


Putting aside the possibility that Washington DC was designed by Freemasons (it was in fact a Frenchman named L’Enfant. Ironic n’est ce pas? Freedom baguettes anyone?) around an enormous celestial calendar there are rumours that tunnels permeate the city particularly in the light of recent events like September the 11th and certain overblown salute ridden movies like Independence Day.

Tunnels exist beneath the Whitehouse to allow the Prez (That’s Bush not Elvis) to leave the building the moment anything remotely dodgy hoves into view (national disasters mostly) so he can head off to some remote mountain underground retreat to choke himself on pretzels. There are also fall out shelters and bunkers beneath the Pentagon along with a myriad of tunnels and underground passages that connect, it is said, to all the major government buildings in the city.

Recently the FBI and the National Security Agency were thoroughly embarrassed when it was revealed that there was a tunnel, used for espionage, beneath the city’s Russian embassy. A multi million-dollar secret had been blown open by the FBI turncoat Robert Hanssen.       

Not far from Washington is the ‘secret’ underground base called Mount Weather where the major arms of the government can plot the takeover of the world without interference from conspiracy nuts.   


Scotland’s capital, Auld Reekie has a series of secret tunnels that lead down from the castle to the Royal Mile and on to Holyrood. These tunnels had been lost – (“ ‘What again dear?’ ‘Aye, I must’ve left ‘em on the bus’…”) until they were rediscovered a few hundred years ago whereupon a fellow who troubled the bagpipes was sent down to find out where they went. As those on the surface listened, the sounds of his skirling suddenly stopped and in the best clichéd tradition he was never seen again.    

In a dank and forgotten realm, thousands of people once lived in the grim warren of forgotten subterranean vaults under the city’s Old Town and South Bridge area. Here they spent their entire lives eating rats and drinking piss (now the average Saturday night out all over Britain). It was also the hangout (in a manner of speaking) of ladies of the night, illegal distillers, body snatchers Burke and Hare, who got bored digging things up so started snatching the living, as well as the forgotten citizens who never once saw the sunlight. A whole way of life went on beneath the oblivious feet of the ‘heather-mixtured-ladies-who-lunched’ way above.

Dolphin huggers who haunt ‘Psychic Fairs’ sporting tons of make up and super-Bling claim the vaults are haunted. Well they would wouldn’t they? 


Desperate to get some cash for bootlegged liquor Al Capone, when he wasn’t bashing heads in with baseball bats and dodging the Taxman headed over the border into Canada and up into the prairies of Saskatchewan to avoid prohibition. His destination? The rough sounding shoot-em –up-yeehaw-style town of Moosejaw or as it as it was soon to be known, Little Chicago, which gives you a hint as to the kind of characters that used to waltz around up there.

Old Scarface made use of the tunnels under the streets as the ideal location to hide his home brew. Chinese immigrants who lived and worked out of sight of the long but cold arm of law i.e. the Mounties, beneath the streets of the town had dug out these secret passages in the late 1800’s. Constructed under the business district the tunnels allowed free movement between the shops and stores, kitchens and sweatshops. They ran from the railway station – there was a direct rail link to the Windy City – to downtown Moosejaw. Around the station numerous breweries sprung up and the place was soon a thriving hot spot of gamblers, gangsters, bootleggers and other gentlemen of equally low moral fibre.

Most of the tunnels are now blocked or lost but like a lot of places there’s a thriving tourist trade and where once one could purchase a smashing bourbon nouveau from a foul mouthed cut-throat brandishing a rusty blade one can now buy souvenirs like Al Capone key rings or a refreshing cup of tea. 


Rome like Paris has its Catacombs, in this case those of St Agnes, patron saint of virgins as well as the underground cemetery of St Sebastian near the Via Appia where old St Pete and St Paul are buried. When the early Christians were being thumped about in the late 3rd century they hid underground in their own burial places. The church later turned them into a lucrative way of making a bit of cash on the side, as they became places of pilgrimage.

There are also a great number of underground passages; tunnels and rooms left over from ancient Rome. Not far from the Colosseum, there is the basilica of San Clemente with its underground levels. There are also Nero's famous Domus Aurea (Golden House) with its huge underground rooms still covered with ornate paintings (nothing saucy apparently) and the two-levelled Mamertine prison. 

There are also the numerous passageways beneath the Vatican one of which leads to the Castel Sant Angelo and one under St Peter’s Basilica and many others that go to who knows where. These have recently resurfaced (as it were) in Dan Brown’s magnificently daft yarn Angels and Demons. 

In 2002 American security experts found a suspicious hole in a service tunnel beneath their embassy (sounds familiar) and blamed it on Islamic extremists engaged in some plot to blow the place up. On a raid on the suspects flat the Italian and US Intel bods found a map of tunnels beneath the city.   

Quick fact: It is claimed that there are hundreds of miles of passages, tunnels and catacombs beneath Rome. Some say three hundred and fifty while others claim nearly eight hundred!


120ft beneath the mad-for-it streets a tunnel called ‘Telephone Exchange’ runs 300 yards up St Peter's Square to the Manchester City centre’s Piccadilly Plaza Hotel along with nuclear bunkers and a network of tunnels that spread out under the city. The tunnels have been off the Official Secrets Act since the 70s but most people don’t know about them. Polish immigrants, unable to speak English (but probably Russian) and therefore unable to blab about what they were doing in the pub after a day’s tunnelling, were used to build them in the 1950s during the big ‘Reds under the beds’ paranoia of the Cold War.

In the event of the city being reduced to a crisp by the pesky Rooskies, the tunnels would have be used to maintain links with other cities across the UK. BT owns them now and wants to rent them out. There is talk that they should be opened to the public who can spend an hour or two taking in the heady atmosphere of a bit of cold war asbestos rich ‘archaeology’.

This article (an edited version) originally appeared in ICE magazine, a lad’s mag of dubious repute. Earlier this year it folded still owing me money so I have no qualms about re-printing it here. Ed.