Murky History Beneath Edinburgh

On the rare occasions I get invited into a radio studio to do an interview, I’m never at my most comfortable.

For a start, I’m not very good talking about myself and I’m so wholly focused on not making a mistake that I inevitably make a mistake.

This week, to mark the launch of my Days Out Underground book, I’ve been on BBC Radio Newcastle and BBC Radio Scotland to talk about subterranean attractions the listeners could go to.

The interview for Scotland was very 21st Century – the producer was in Edinburgh, the sound engineer in Aberdeen, the interviewer in Dundee and I was in Sheffield.

It all came together well, but there’s something quite odd about sitting alone in a small room carrying out an interview with somebody you’ve never met. You expect there to be a bit of a warm up and a countdown to the interview starting, but you’re slotted in at the allocated time and are one of many people making up the day’s programme.

If the listeners took one thing away from the interview, though, it’s that there are some surprisingly cool things to do beneath the surface of the Earth in Scotland.

One of the coolest is a visit to the Blair Street Vaults below the city of Edinburgh.

This needs booking in advance through Mercat Tours and after meeting on the Royal Mile the guide – dressed in period costume – will take you to the mysterious spaces that were found within one of the city’s bridges relatively recently.

When Edinburgh’s South Bridge was built in 1788, it was designed to take the unpleasantness of Cowgate out of the equation for the posher folk heading out of the town towards the university area.

This impressive 19 arch structure was originally home to dozens of traders selling their wares to the well-to-do passers-by. The high quality of the footfall meant these retail spaces were amongst the most costly in Europe, but all did not remain well.

Sadly, the designers forgot to include waterproofing in the design – a bit of an oversight when you consider the city’s weather.

The arches and the spaces below them soon started to become damp and even fill with flood water, meaning many businesses had no choice but to move out.

With the dark, damp places empty, they took on an altogether seedier nature in the 19th Century.

Some of the spaces beneath the city were used as illegal whisky distilleries, while the famous ‘bodysnatchers’ dug bodies and transported them through these secret passages on the way to the research labs at the university.

It may be that some of the places on your tour housed dead bodies that were stored there are sunrise and kept hidden until nightfall meant they could be on the move once more.

Head out on the tour to discover an underground world beneath Scotland’s capital city that was hidden for decades and provides a window on the past.

Signed copies of my coverDays Out Underground book are available from my website

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World Book Day Reflections


I always love World Book Day.

This one I loved more than usual.

There’s something joyous about walking to school and spotting kids in different outfits, trying to work out what they’ve come as.

Exceptional costumes need not break the bank and it’s great to see how inventive parents can be to turn their kids into Danny Champion of the World or Pippy Longstocking.

This is usually accompanied in school by a day of activities devoted to reading, sharing stories and promoting the love of books at home.

For much of the day I was invited into my local school to see what was going off – the proceedings started with a simply glorious assembly which saw teams of teachers racing to scoff all the food eaten by the hungry caterpillar, to the delight of cheering kids.

I was also judging a competition that encouraged children to write captions and draw illustrations for a spooky story.

It was all good stuff, inspiring kids to write and keep their love of stories close to their heart.

World Book Day 2019 meant a new book published for myself, and it’s the one I’m most proud of.

Days Out Underground is now in the shops and available at the usual online sites such as Amazon.

I have an option to buy the book on my website it you’d like the book signing.

Publication day is always a strange thing to experience. Writers invest so much time in their book, researching and writing, rewriting and editing, proofreading and revising.

It’s a bit of a cliché to say that a writer’s books are like their children, but I totally understand the sentiment behind such a saying.

I spent a full year travelling around the United Kingdom to visit the best underground attractions for a quirky new book showing the adventurous the subterranean treats our country has to offer, followed by many months of writing and revising.

When the manuscript is sent off, it’s over to the designers, editors and printers to do their stuff in a process that can take the best part of a year.

And when the book arrives at the door, a fully printed version of these ideas I had many months before, there is a rush of different emotions.

I’m obviously delighted to have the finished copy in my hands, but there’s also a slight distance from the product because it was written over 12 months ago. It’s a bit like welcoming an old friend into your house – you know them inside out and can’t wait to show them off to your friends, but it’s going to take a bit of time and a glass of wine before you fully familiarise yourself again.

Another key emotion on publishing day is disbelief.

This day – March 7th 2019 – has been engrained on my mind for the past 12 months, knowing that this would be the date when my first UK-wide travel guide would be released.

Yesterday was March 6th and it wasn’t in the shops. Today is March 7th and it is.

Overnight, this thing that I’ve been working on for two years has suddenly been switched on, it’s available to anybody who wants it.

It’s a weird experience, but one that I’m glad came on World Book Day, a cracking period of time when the whole nation seems to be celebrating the telling of stories and sharing the best of their tales.

Enjoy reading your books and if you happen to order Days Out Underground I hope you have a wonderful time exploring the subterranean history of our nation.

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The Rare Witch Project

Strange discoveries involving witchcraft and superstition have been made, deep inside a cave on the rural border between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.

In the underground spaces at Creswell Crags, walls covered in markings were spotted by experts late last year and identified as witch marks made as far back as the 1600s.

After academics were called in to confirm the authenticity of the markings, those working at Creswell Crags started to realise the significance of what had been revealed.

The biggest collection of confirmed witch marks in the UK had previously been 57 – the new discovery at Creswell Crags has uncovered over 1000 of them and instantly made the protected site one of the hottest tourist attractions of the year.

The Crags is best known for its ice age history – remains of creatures such as sabre-toothed tigers and bears had been found in the caves, along with the internationally significant cave art which is the most northerly example of ice age cave markings in Europe.

But the spooky new witch marks have added a new dimension to a visit at Creswell Crags – and they have attracted attention from media around the globe since the announcement was made earlier this month.

Creswell Crags is one of the top underground attractions in the United Kingdom and one of the most enjoyable visits I made when writing my Days Out Underground book – published by Bloomsbury on March 7.

Check out the Creswell Crags website for details of when to visit and have a tour of the witch marks – all those wishing to see them will need to be booked in to one of the guided tours that are proving incredibly popular.

As part of its’ mission to look after the ice age and witchcraft heritage found within the caves, staff at Creswell Crags – a Site of Special Scientific Interest – made the decision to only take visitors on guided tours so to minimise the impact and not have a constant stream of folk travelling through the site.

When not accessed by a guide, the caves are locked and off-limits, ensuring a sustainable future for the remarkable discovery.

The witch marks at Creswell were visible for many years, but nobody knew they were linked to superstitious activity down the centuries.

There are far too many markings – and they are made over too long a time period – for it to be just a handful of families, so speculation has started as to how so many were engraved on the walls.

The local population in these parts was very small so it’s possible that this was a place of pilgrimage for those troubled by unexplained phenomenon happening in the world.

Creswell Crags is one of 50 subterranean adventures in my new book, Days Out Underground. Signed copies are available from my website today.

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You Need Some Bounce!

ZipWorldCaverns (21)Deep beneath a Welsh mountain, in cavernous spaces where workers once mined slate, there is a world of extreme adventure awaiting fun-seeking couples and families.

Whether you fancy a gravity-defying hour bouncing beneath the Welsh landscape or an action-packed afternoon climbing and flying down zip lines, a visit to Zip World in Snowdonia is literally one you won’t forget.

The mountains just north of Blaenau Ffestiniog once supplied slate tiles that kept the rain out of buildings around the world.

And they provided a living for many local families; there were tough times when the mines closed and communities were forced to readjust.

Today, the mine occupied by Zip World brings in adrenaline-hunting tourists and is bringing a long-abandoned piece of Welsh heritage back into use.

The bouncing and the climbing and the zip-lining is just one of 50 subterranean adventures I dived into for my book, Underground Days Out.

There’s a handful of them in North Wales, so a visit to Zip World can be combined with other fun and informative activities below the surface.

In previous blogs, I’ve highlighted the thrills to be found by descending into Speedwell Cavern and Treak Cliff Cavern in the Peak District, as well as the Secret Cold War Bunker in Essex – these are all other chapters in the book. Did I mention I’d written a book and that it’s out now?!

But the Zip World experience takes things to another level for those who enjoy binge on their fun in large doses.

The Bounce Below ticket is a passport to a sublime landscape, lit in atmospheric purple and blue, that has large, springy surfaces on three different levels.

All are connected by a series of slides and steps that mean you can explore and bounce to your heart’s content – and despite many of the sessions being full, there is still plenty of space to explore so you never really feel you’re in a crowded area.

To describe the bouncing as being like a trampoline would be wrong – this is not trampolining; they have a completely different feel to them, making the bouncing more like walking on the moon that most people are used to.

And if the weightless feeling gets a bit too much for you, there is a space to sit out until you’re able to get involved again.

I went with two kids and I certainly needed a rest half way through – it was exhausting, but a lot of fun. The youngsters could have done it all day, of course.

When you clip in to the safety wire for your climbing activity, you really are about to embark on three-hour fun mission.

This is a fairly challenging course, pushing many amateurs to their limits and providing a heap of exhilaration at the same time.

The most exciting part are the zip lines – and there are many of them.

At first, stepping off into the darkness with a huge distance below you to the bottom of the cavern is frightening, but it soon becomes a delight.

An optional section at the end could see you climbing up the mountain wall to a super steep zip line. To get there, the hardiest will manage the monkey bars that stretch over a deep cavern.

There’s an easier way round for those not willing to give it a go – I took this simpler way and was shown up by my kids again, something I became fairly used to when journeying around Britain underground.


Days Out Underground:50 Subterranean Adventures Beneath Britain is published by Bloomsbury and is available now. Signed copies are available via my website

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Two Tribes – Going Underground

Anybody living through the 1980s will vouch for what a scary time it was.

The Cold War constantly raised the threat of nuclear Armageddon as Russia and the USA faced off, in a real-life and potentially deadlier version of Rocky IV.

While western cinema audiences were rooting for Balboa to overcome the beast from the east, political leaders had contingency plans for dealing with the four-minute warning.

They’d head underground.

My new book, Days Out Underground, is available to buy now and features 50 subterranean adventures beneath the surface of Britain.

I’ve written a couple of other blogs detailing some of the things there are to do deep beneath the Earth, and this week it’s all about how you can take the route that Margaret Thatcher would have taken if it had all kicked off in the 1980s.

In the heart of Essex, you’ll see one of the most ironic road signs in the world. It’s a big, brown tourist sign pointing you towards the “Secret Nuclear Bunker.”

Not very secret now, the underground facility at Kelvedon Hatch contains three subterranean storeys beneath an innocent enough looking hill.

From the surface, all you can see is a bungalow that would be at home on any suburban estate so any spying satellites would not suspect a thing.

Hidden within the house, though, is a lengthy tunnel which slowly slopes into the hillside. At the end of this there are a huge set of thick blast doors, and beyond this a safe haven where officials would have been able to survive for up to three months.

It’s an eerie, captivating place to visit and the self-guided audio tour keeps you well informed about what the many rooms were used for and how life underground would have been for those selected to be in here.

Nobody on the outside knew it was here at the time, of course. The only reason to suspect anything is the location of a mast on the hillside; when it was being built, even the drivers delivering materials had to leave their load a mile from the site and have it transferred to the building by those who had signed the Official Secrets Act.

And if the worst had come to the worst, this hide-out in Essex was to be the home of the UK government. From here they would try their level best to keep some kind of order in the land above their heads.

Radio announcements could be made from here and contact could be maintained with the network of bunkers elsewhere in the country. Air filters, pumps and energy generators were in place to ensure life could continue underground.

Eventually, though, the makeshift government would have to leave and discover what kind of a state the country had been left in.

In doesn’t bear thinking about what those coming out of Kelvedon Hatch would have discovered had the Cold War turned hot.

But visiting this – one of the 50 underground days out in my new book – is helpful to open a window on what life was like before Gorbachev and Reagan met and the thaw began.


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Going Underground! Treak Cliff Cavern

Although you might think the best sights to see in the Peak District are the hills, waterfalls and villages that dot many a landscape, the real gems are found beneath the surface – quite literally!


Castleton is a small village close to Kinder Scout and Mam Tor. It’s beyond Hope, as the local joke goes (Hope being the village next door where a large chimney at the cement works dominates the horizon).

This small village, which punches above its’ weight when it comes to services like pubs and shops because of the influx of country-loving daytrippers, is pretty much the point where Dark Peak meets White Peak.

To the north, the peaty moorlands and wild tors made of gritstone are found, while the more rolling dales cover the white limestone to the south.

It’s the porous limestone, slowly worn away by streams over thousands of years, that is the creator of wonders in these parts, carving out underground caverns and exposing incredibly features that have been hidden until relatively recently.

Nestled in a hillside above Castleton, you reach Treak Cliff Cavern by travelling on what used to the be the main road from here to Manchester.

A massive landslip in the 1970s rendered the route impassable and journeys across the Pennines now leave via the incredibly beautiful Winnats Pass.

After walking up the steep path to the entrance, there’s usually enough time to enjoy the fossil shop and nip to the loo before the underground tour begins and the hard hats are handed out.

Treak Cliff Cavern is a joy to visit, and it’s not too far from the focus of last week’s blog about Speedwell Cavern.

Part mining operation, part cavernous wonder, Treak Cliff Cavern has so many features to write home about it’s impossible to do it justice without visiting.

You’ll see veins of Blue John – the previous stone that only found in these parts and was used extensively in the 18th and 19th Centuries to create the lamps and decorations of the region’s stately homes.

Some Blue John is still mined and a range of jewellery can be bought in shops throughout Castleton.

A little further into the cavern, you’ll stop to take a look at an amazing wall of fossils.

Sea creatures that lived in these parts 350 million years ago when it was a tropical ocean can now be seen in the limestone on the side of the Treak Cliff walls – and it’s an awesome sight.

Down the tour goes, into caverns created by underground streams, now revealing a treasure trove of crystal formations, stalactites and stalagmites.

Treak Cliff Cavern is open all year round, and if you head out there at Christmas you’ll be able to sing carols beneath the surface of the Earth.

It’s one of 50 Underground Adventures in my new book, with nearby attractions including Speedwell Cavern and Peak Cavern – more affectionately known as The Devil’s Arse.

Days Out Underground: 50 Subterranean Adventures Beneath Britain is published by Bloomsbury and available to buy here.


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Going Underground!

img_3796Standing on top of Mam Tor, gazing out over the Hope Valley towards Castleton, you can’t help but be blown away by the beauty of the Peak District.

To the left is Kinder Scout – site of the famous mass trespass of the 1930s when ramblers dug in over access issues – and to the right the rolling hills of the ‘white peak’ trundle on south.

The Peak District was the first area in the UK to be designated as a National Park back in 1951 and there’s no wonder people rushed to protect this place, which attracts thousands of annual visits from folk in the big cities of Manchester and Sheffield.

This pioneering National Park is not only a beauty on the surface; there are some tremendous sights to be hold as you dive beneath the surface of this magnificent national treasure.

While I was researching my new book, Underground Days Out: 50 Subterranean Adventures Beneath Britain, it became clear that the Peak District had more than a fair share of attraction below the surface.

In this series of subterranean blogs, I’m going to share with you the subterranean wonders of the Peak District and, one by one, explore the Premier League attractions you can explore on a spare weekend.

We’ll start with an unusual visitor attraction that has fascinated generations of tourists, with Steve McQueen and the cast of Coronation Street among them.

Speedwell Cavern is situated in a glorious spot. It’s at the foot of Winnats Pass, surrounded by incredible limestone scenery and within walking distance of Mam Tor and Peveril Castle.

Back in the 18th Century, the local economy around these parts was thriving thanks to some profitable lead mines. A local prospector saw the chance of making a fortune beneath the hills of Castleton and paid miners to start exploring for lucrative veins of lead.

They found nothing, the enterprise went bust and lead mining never took off at Speedwell, but money started to be made for a completely different reason.

An innovative subterranean water canal was built way below the Pennines to transport miners below the surface.

Even when miners were still looking for lead, some visitors were enjoying boat tours in what was a totally unique experience for them.

The trip took them to a majestic cavern, shaped by underground waterflows over millions of years and now a place where the wealthy could stand in awe of nature.

The little building that stands on the surface is no indication of the grandeur you find in the cavern beneath the hill.

When you descend the stairs lined with fairy lights and clamber into the little boat, you are genuinely embarking on an experience that can’t be found elsewhere.

But keep in mind that it’s not for the faint hearted! You’ll be travelling along very tight spaces, with metres of rock above your head and no way to turn around until the tour is finished.

I’ve known people who have bottled it halfway along because of the claustrophobic conditions down there and wanted to turn around.

But for most, the trip is one that will be remembered for ever. And adventurous kids will be beside themselves with their boat ride beneath the Peak District hills.

Days Out Underground: 50 Subterranean Adventures Beneath Britain is published by Bloomsbury and available to buy here.


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