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Confidential goes tunnelling

Jonathan Schofield takes twenty readers into the bowels of the earth

Written by . Published on June 16th 2008.

Confidential goes tunnelling

Dark, dank, slippery, with rat traps and old toilet bowls: our readers loved it.

Following Helen Clifton's very popular article - click here - Confidential took twenty competition winning souls burrowing in a tunnel under the Great Northern last week.

One wide staircase kinks to the left as it climbs. Illuminated only by the torchlight, it is both grand and sinister, almost dreamlike as it stretches ahead. You can't help anticipating, with a tingle, about what might lie round the corner.

The tunnel contains the Manchester and Salford Junction Canal (MSJC) and is accessible for several hundred yards. The canal opened in 1839 and linked the Rochdale Canal with the River Irwell in an attempt to undercut the high fees the Bridgewater Canal Company charged for a similar link.

You can still see the start point on the Rochdale Canal at Rain Bar, with the arm that curves round to the Bridgewater Hall. The western entrance on the Irwell is marked by the stranded lock sitting on it's own in front of the Le Meridien Victoria and Albert Hotel on Water Street at Granada.

It's tempting to think that the idea for the canal was dreamt up in the Pev or the Briton's, the old pubs close to Rain Bar. At best it's the sort of great idea you get after a gallon of ale. It never had a hope in hell. Ruinously expensive because so much of its length was in a tunnel, there was another fatal flaw. As soon as it opened, the rival canal company lowered its fees for the use of their link. Any chance of profit disappeared. It's tempting to suggest that maybe the directors of MSJC should really have thought of that.

In the 1880s the construction of Central Station (now Manchester Central, previously G-Mex) closed the eastern half of the canal. In 1889 the adjacent Great Northern Goods Warehouse opened as a transport interchange with rail, road and water transport coming together.

Even as part of an interchange, the canal failed to generate significant traffic despite the construction of lifts to bring up and take down goods. In World War II the transport function ceased as the now drained canal was split into a series of blast proof bomb shelters with air raid warden quarters, chemical toilets and so forth.

Taken all together this is a rich, rich history. And it's still all down there. Sitting forty feet beneath Manchester's streets, in the impenetrable dark, lie wharves with tie-up posts, a tow path, walls cut through bedrock and all the construction associated with the bomb shelters. More recently someone has sketched a devil and labelled it 666.

Under Manchester Central are two vast chambers with ruined lift shafts resembling subterranean watchtowers. One wide staircase kinks to the left as it climbs. Illuminated only by the torchlight, it is both grand and sinister, almost dreamlike as it stretches ahead. You can't help anticipating, with a tingle, about what might lie round the corner.

The final surprise lies at the western end of the tunnel. Here the canal floods and becomes impassable. The water is crystal clear – Manchester Evian. Granada cut off the water flow from the mucky River Irwell in the 1960s. What you see is bedrock water that's percolated back through the ground: a process, apparently, which can take 2000 years.

This is a humbling thought. Manchester was founded in 79AD by the Romans, a short distance from the MSJC. No traces of buildings have been found before this date. So forty feet down in the city centre you can gaze at a living element that predates the city and all it contains.

There's another, almost physical, aspect of the tunnels which is impressive. But you have to have guts. On a couple of occasions the tour party turned out the torches. The blackness was total.

After that it was round to the Briton's Protection for a pint courtesy of Manchester Confidential – and free psychiatric treatment with Doctor Freud on exactly what lies behind our readers obsession with tunnels.

But we'll definitely do this again - and if any readers who took their cameras would like to send in their pictures we'll put up a gallery of images below.

A massive thanks to Gary and Fergie at the Great Northern for allowing the Confidential competition winners access to what is, surely, one of the best city centre tunnels in the country.

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22 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

LeeJune 16th 2008.

Yes, please organise another one!

Drew PeacockJune 16th 2008.

I only count 14...Have you left the other 6 down there?

Ali McGowanJune 16th 2008.

I've just ordered that book by Keith. One thing that is bonkers is that we have all this underground heritage - but we are NOT showing it off! I appreciate going into dank underground spaces may bore some ppl but I find it fascinating. Imagine - if we opened up a number of these underground spaces - not just under GN warehouse, we could have a new attraction: Underground Manchester or something. [Dank Manchester doesn't sound so exciting!]... errrm anyway, just an idea but if anyone thinks we could do something about it, post here! I am being very hopeful I know, but hey, where there's muck there's brass - i.e. open all these exciting places up = few more tourists = more ££££££ :D

LesleyJune 16th 2008.

I really wanted to win but, alas, didn't. Please, please, please do another one

Robert SmithJune 16th 2008.

Hi JonathanThank you very much for giving us the opportunity to go into the tunnels. It was really fascinating and we thoroughly enjoyed it.Could you please email me with your address and I will send you the pictures that I took.Just out of interest which bar did you go to afterwards? Us stragglers lost the rest of you!

EmmaJune 16th 2008.

Thanks very much for the fab tour Jonathan, and for the drink after! Feeling very privileged to have seen some of the damp, dark bowels of Manchester!

VincaJune 16th 2008.

Oh my gosh I am so jealous, I'd love to have a nosey around what's underneath Manchester.I'll definitely be keeping my eyes peeled for any information on future expeditions.

LynnJune 16th 2008.

It was a brilliant experience, thanks Jonathan. Any chance of taking us on a tour under Victoria Station and Piccadilly aka the 1060's office block?

SteveJune 16th 2008.

Well, although it looks like it was a great occasion, i have to say from the pics that my Lynn looks gorgeous, glad you had a top tme babe xXoXx

OliJune 16th 2008.

Wow, this is absolutely fascinating... I don't suppose there's any chance of Jonathan organising another tour? I'm sure people would even be prepared to pay for the guides time.

GerwynJune 16th 2008.


Jonathan Schofield - editorJune 16th 2008.

Just to let folks know, the reponse was slightly overwhelming after the first story. Either directly on to the site or indirectly through phone calls, emails to me and other means, more than a thousand people applied for the tour. It's a big tunnel, we need to make it bigger. But we are hatching plans for a Confidential questing club of some sort to do an odd activity or two every quarter.

John LadJune 16th 2008.


KateJune 16th 2008.

Huge thanks to Manchester Confidential & Jonathan for arranging this event. It really was an amazing experience. Any chance of getting us under Victoria Station?

AlanJune 16th 2008.

Please do this again - I know plenty of people that would jump at the chance.

AnnaJune 16th 2008.

If you do another tour, please can I come as I was gutted not to get on the last one. Thanks

jo6058June 16th 2008.

I was one of the lucky few who went on this trip and it was fantastic - really interesting. It is such a shame these tunnels aren't open as a visitor attraction. Big thanks again to Jonathan - sorry I couldn't thank you in person but I was one of the ones who ended up in Bar 38 and not the Briton's Protection!

Robert SmithJune 16th 2008.

Note to self - finish reading article before asking daft questions. At least we now know why you weren't in Bar 38.

Kat GJune 16th 2008.

C'mon Jonathan, organise another tour for the unlucky ones that didn't win places :)

Jonathan Schofield - editorJune 16th 2008.

Damn I wondered what that screaming was coming up the manholes at Watson Street this weekend. Actually the others were still messing around with torches behind the group pictured.

Drew PeacockJune 16th 2008.

Would have loved to have won a place on this...I got the book from Keith Warrender "Underground Manchester" from the library at the weekend. Fascinating.

DeanJune 16th 2008.

Yes...please do this again! I would love to do it and know lots of others who would like to too.

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