Exeter’s underground passages were initially built to provide the Cathedral with water and were subsequently expanded. The first water supply dates back as early as the twelfth century but the early pipes were laid in back-filled trenches. In order to make leak detection and repairs easier, later pipes built in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were positioned in finely worked cut-and-cover underground conduits.
As the network grew, the supply was also used for St Nicholas Priory and public water fountains. The passages have been open to the public since the 1930s, but they stayed open specially for members of Sub Brit for an after-hours visit on the Friday evening. We visited in small groups of around fifteen which meant we could hear the guide’s commentary more easily.
After waiting in a small gallery with a display of photographs and artefacts relevant to the passages, we were shown a short film. We were then ready to embark upon our 30-minute tour of three of the passages. Having donned blue hard hats, we were led along Castle passage by our tour guide. Like all the passages we saw, Castle passage had been constructed from blocks of lava rock quarried from the nearby village of Silverton. The passage was about 5’ 2” in height throughout most of its length and it was also about the width of one person.
At the end of Castle passage, we arrived at what was described as the Civil War guard’s station, which was characterised by a small ledge. The passage itself continued in the form of a very small conduit which would never have been navigable by human beings. This, of course, didn’t stop some members crawling along it to meet up with the main party later.
At the guard’s station, we turned right along City passage until we reached a brick wall at the end, which we were informed was under the John Lewis department store in the street above. Having reached this dead end, we walked back along City passage until we arrived at the junction with Cathedral passage. Here we turned left and we walked along Cathedral passage for a short distance before turning back and eventually joining City passage again. At this point, we filed back to the entrance. Some of the groups were then treated to an ‘off piste’ excursion along an unlit portion of Cathedral passage which involved more crawling around modern-day Acrow supports.
The conduits are in the care of Exeter City Council and they are to be commended for opening them as a tourist attraction.