Norwich’s network of underground passageways is the stuff of legends. Many of them may be the work of over-active imaginations but others undoubtedly do exist as relics of the city’s medieval glory days when a little subterranean expediency came in handy in times of religious persecution or civil war. Of course, even those that exist solely in folk memory still make for a good story.
The city’s bedrock is pitted with less glamorous tunnels too. Chalk and flint mining was a Norwich tradition for centuries and both materials were necessary for building the extensive city’s walls and numerous churches of what was England’s second largest city in the medieval period. As a result, certain areas of the city have long been synonymous with subsidence problems. A reminder of this came to the fore in 1988 when a double-decker bus was unexpectedly swallowed-up by the earth on Earlham Road close to the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St John the Baptist. Thankfully no-one was hurt. This bizarre event made for some entertaining postcards and even gave the opportunity for the chocolate manufacturer Cadbury’s to promote one of its products using a photograph of the unfortunate bus alongside the slogan, ‘Nothing fills a hole like a Double Decker’.
Walking recently in a formerly unexplored corner of a familiar haunt at the city outskirts I stumbled upon an entrance to this chalky underworld. Long sealed-up with steel to deter would-be intruders, this one had been recently prised open – by shadowy urban explorers, no doubt, keen on charting this unmapped terrain. Resistance was futile – there was no way to turn down such a serendipitous opportunity.
Just a few metres beyond the entrance the absolute darkness is intimidating – the light of torches too feeble to identify much more than where the tunnel floor is and highlight spray-painted ciphers marking dead ends and potential exit routes. The photos taken here with flash were made by simply pointing and hoping for the best: a strange turn of events in which the results reveal detail unseen by dim yellow torchlight at the time of their taking.
A troglodyte world such as this is a starkly alien environment that can bring out the most atavistic of fears. Past underground visits have been to well-lit caverns filled with phantasmagorical stalactites and stalagmites, or tropical caves in south-east Asia populated by strange blind fish and albino insects — beautiful unthreatening spaces. My only previous mine experience was a terrible, yet fascinating, place on the other side of the world: a Bolivian silver mine at over 4,000 metres altitude at Cerro Rico (‘rich hill’) near Potosí, where visitors are expected to bring along gifts of Coca-Cola, bags of coca leaves and sticks of dynamite – the necessities of a Bolivian mining life. The miners in turn offer their own gifts to El Tío (‘The Uncle’), the spirit of the underworld – a pact with the Devil that permits them to scratch a dangerous living from the earth for their short tough lives. Since this visit I have always afforded miners the greatest respect.
It might seem odd that a short excursion beneath the ground just a mile or so from home can feel almost as alien an experience as a visit to a Bolivian silver mine – even without a cheek-wad of coca leaves and the necessity of appeasing ‘The Uncle’. There again, the juxtaposition of a jarring new experience in a wholly familiar setting is always going to be disturbing.