Discover Exeter’s secret underground tunnels

Exeter’s Underground Passages, built in the Middle Ages, make for a great winter walk, especially when the weather outside is not at its best.

If you don’t feel like facing the wintery weather on an outdoor walk, then how about swapping woolly hats for hard hats on this underground alternative? A hidden network of medieval tunnels runs directly below Exeter’s city centre and can be safely explored on a guided tour.

The passages are a seriously ingenious feat of Middle-Ages engineering. Built to house the pipes that brought clean water into the city from natural springs on the outskirts, they also allowed workers easy access in order to carry out the repairs that were often required.

The first tunnel was constructed in the 14th century and provided water to Exeter Cathedral. Over a hundred years later, a second supplied the city’s growing population and ended in an ornate public fountain – when King Henry VI visited the city in 1451, this was said to have flowed with wine!

The passages were in constant use until the end of the Victorian era, when new reservoirs rendered them redundant. In the Second World War, however, they served as impromptu air-raid shelters during the devastating Exeter Blitz of 1942.

Today, expert guides lead visitors through the labyrinth of damp, underground lanes on 25-minute walking tours. It’s less of a walk and more of a shuffle, really – the brick-lined burrows are no more than a shoulder’s width wide and the low-vaulted ceilings may give taller tunnellers neck ache.

Squeezing your way along the well-lit channels it’s hard to imagine working in these cramped conditions, but the medieval plumbers who used them also had to contend with poisonous fumes and rats.

Every so often, the rumbling sound of traffic just a few metres above your head is a reminder that you’re right under the heart of the city’s shopping centre. Pop out of one of the ancient access points that connect the passages to the surface and you’ll find yourself next to… er… Next.

While this certainly isn’t a ‘blow away the cobwebs’ kind of walk – and it’s clearly not for the claustrophobic – it does offer a unique insight into a secret, subterranean world.