Some of the attractions in my Days Out Underground book are in out-of-the-way places, but not so the feature of Chapter 1 – this one is right in the middle of a big town. Stockport, near Manchester, has a secret beneath its streets. As shoppers pass by on the surface, a whole different world exists beneath the surface. And it’s a secret that saved thousands of lives.
Just how far these tunnels extend into the Stockport sandstone is impossible to determine from standing outside on the street. The frontage of these historically important shelters has the modern appearance you would expect of a museum, with nearby shops and taxi ranks giving the site a very urban feel. The hillside rises steeply behind the door to the shelters. A walkway winds upwards, buildings stand high above it and a bridge passes overhead. From here, the dug-out shelters pierce the hillside and form a grid system of subterranean passages and corners beneath the centre of Stockport.
Before starting the tour of the shelters, you’re given an audio guide. It doesn’t look like the most hi-tech piece of kit, but it works remarkably well. Guiding yourself through the network of tunnels, you will see several Air Raid Precaution Shelter signs. You simply have to hold your audio guide up to these circular yellow markers to trigger spoken information about the section you are in. After hearing the initial material, there’ll be an option to select further information, allowing you to go into much more depth along the tour. All the audio points are worth listening to, and there’s a lot to be gained from taking the time to indulge in the extras.
The red stone is incredibly atmospheric. Once you’re inside these long tunnels it gets easier to imagine what they would have been like, filled with people. Different passages and small rooms heading off the main route were given specific purposes to maintain a sense of normality in these hidden halls. Perhaps most important of all were the rooms given over to tools. The digging and shovelling devices kept in here were to help people in the event of the tunnels collapsing, either from a natural accident or as the result of a bomb blast. The hope was that those stuck in here could dig their own way out to safety. Other parts of this underground labyrinth were reserved for nursing mothers. Elsewhere, a large tunnel was designated as a medical area, complete with protected walls and concrete floors that were easier to clean. Ladies and gent’s toilets were provided, but as you might imagine they were not very glamorous.
Days Out Underground includes a chapter on the Stockport Air Raid Shelters – and 49 other top things to do beneath the surface of Britain. It’s published by Bloomsbury and is for sale in all good book shops, as well as online on Amazon. If you’d like a signed copy, please visit my website.