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Exeter’s Underground Passages

One of the more unusual attractions I came across was Exeter’s Underground Passages. They were built from about 1450 onward to bring clean drinking water from natural springs outside the walled city, through lead pipes into the heart of the city. The pipes sometimes leaked and repairs to buried pipes could only be carried out by digging them up, just as we do today. To avoid this disruption the stone masons working on the cathedral were directed to dig some deep trenches, line them with stone, and build vaulted roofs over the top. These “cut and cover” trenches were then back-filled, and when the inevitable leaks occurred the plumbers were sent down the passages to find and fix them without disrupting daily life above ground.

A blurry shot of one of Exeter’s underground passages.

There are a daily guided tours around the passages, but each tour has very limited numbers of people on it, as the passageways are so narrow and cramped. All tours for the Sunday were fully booked by the time I found the nondescript entrance to the passageways (next to Next and opposite John Lewis), but I was able to book a slot on the first tour on Monday morning, leaving me plenty of time to catch my lunch-time train home.

We all had to wear hard hats, and I could really see why. The tunnels were very narrow and low. Most of the time I couldn’t stand up fully (and I’m only 5’2″) and I kept banging my head. Some of the people on the tour were 6′ or more, and they looked very uncomfortable at times – especially on the way out where a section of the tunnel was less than a metre high. That was quite a challenge! I found it all absolutely fascinating and well worth a visit.