Huddled in the darkness inside a dilapidated chamber, a group of urban explorers listened carefully. Moments earlier, they had heard a peculiar noise echoing through the gloom. “Why’s that sound keep happening?” one of them had asked. Torches in hand, they waited. They listened – then they heard it – and then they ran.
Once the site of a Roman fortress, the city of Manchester in northern England has a history spanning 2,000 years. In medieval times, it had become a township enthralled to a manor. But during the industrial revolution, its population exploded thanks to its textile factories. Consequently, Manchester was the world’s first industrialized city. So it is a place with history. And spooky subterranean secrets too.
In August 2018 an urban explorer called Night Scape traveled to Manchester to try and uncover some of those secrets. Also known as Harry Gallagher, Night Scape is a daredevil from Barkingside in East London. He made his name on social media by scaling tall buildings and cranes, including towering skyscrapers in London’s financial center. Ostensibly, he seems fearless, but something about Manchester’s “underground city” took him to the edge.
“We have met up with someone from Manchester, who has informed us about an underground city,” Night Scape said in a video published on his YouTube channel on August 31, 2018. “It’s completely abandoned. We’re gonna make our way and we’re gonna go and explore this underground abandoned city underneath Manchester… I’m not gonna lie, it’s gonna be spooky…”
The entrance to the “city” was an inconspicuous manhole in downtown Manchester. Its cover was easily removed with a crowbar. Standing around the open hole, contemplating their descent, Night Scape and his crew appeared to be nervous. “Lads, oh my God,” said Night Scape. And then, gathering themselves, they climbed down a ladder. One by one, they arrived in a chamber. Then they put the cover back in place.
“I’m pretty sure these tunnels were used back in the Victorian days for trade and all that kind of stuff,” said Night Scape. “Apparently the council claims that they don’t actually exist and that none of them are there anymore, but we know that to be false. I’m gonna explore this madness and then bring you guys along with me…”
Climbing down a flight of stone steps, Night Scape and his crew arrived in a brick-built structure with vents and cables slung along the upper walls. Passing through a door, they entered what appeared to be a sprawling, labyrinthine complex filled with tunnels and alleyways. “To arch number 5,” said a sign on the wall.
Continuing their descent, the crew arrived in a crumbling public toilet lined with broken urinals. Moving on, the next flight of stairs took them deeper into the subterranean maze. “Guys, one thing we do need to make sure is that we remember the way back,” said Night Scape. “It just keeps going. It literally just keeps going man… Bro, it just keeps going… We’re getting deeper and deeper into this.”
In fact, Night Scape and his team had entered a place called Victoria Arches. Built into an embankment on the River Irwell in 1838, the arches housed a variety of industrial and commercial ventures. Public access was via wooden staircases on Victoria Street.
The arches also served as a landing stage for river steamers, and local business used their warren of tunnels to transport goods in and out. Industrial traffic on the river intensified with the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal in 1896 – a major infrastructure project that transformed the city into an important terrestrial seaport. By the 1930s, however, the tunnels were no longer in use.
Then, during the Second World War, blast walls were added to the disused arches, transforming them into air-raid shelters. In the event of a German bombing raid, there was enough space in the subterranean network to shelter 1,619 people. After the war, however, the arches were sealed up and abandoned once more.
But Victoria Arches are only part of the “city” under Manchester. In the 1950s, city planners constructed an underground switch telephone exchange called the Guardian network. The exchange spanned several miles of tunnels and was designed to keep the city connected to the rest of the U.K. in the event of a Soviet strike. Essentially, the Guardian network was a Cold War-era nuclear bunker.
The network housed living quarters and a fresh water supply. It was permanently staffed by 50 engineers and sealed with a 35-ton blast door. In 1968 Britain’s Postmaster General John Stonehouse toured the exchange. Afterwards, he called it “the best-kept secret in Manchester.” Today the tunnels are no longer lived in, but they do contain cables.
In 1974 the city started work on a $205 million underground rail network called the Picc-Vic project. According to local newspaper The Manchester Evening News, the futuristic project would have transformed the urban environment. “Experts say it would have been the centerpiece of a ‘brave new world’ of helipads, tunnels and moving pavements in 1970s Manchester,” it wrote in April 2018.
The network, which was planned for 20 years, would have spanned four main routes, with downtown trains running every 150 seconds. Two 18-feet-wide tunnels and several moving walkways were included the plans, but the project was shelved in 1977. Today, the eerie remnants of an incomplete station lie beneath a branch of Topshop.
Intriguingly, one of Manchester’s subterranean tunnels is said to contain a wealth of buried treasure. According to local lore, a passage running between the cathedral and Hulme Hall contains a trove of precious artifacts that once belonged to the noblewoman Lady Prestwich. She informed her son, Sir Thomas Prestwich, Lord of Hulme about the cache but then lost her voice and died before she could reveal the exact details of its whereabouts.
Meanwhile, there are many other notable tunnels beneath Manchester, including one, according to YouTube user Nick K, which houses a secret bar. Others were apparently built in the 16th century as escape routes for persecuted Catholics. Yet others contain underground rivers. However, Night Scape and his crew did not make it that far. Because… they heard a noise.
“Let’s do a little experiment yeah,” said Night Scape, gathering his crew inside a foul-smelling chamber. “I’m gonna put my camera down like this, and we’re just gonna let’s just be silent.” The crew stand for a minute, waiting. And then it came – a distant screech that set their nerves on edge. “That was a serious scream,” said one of the crew. “It sound like a demon, it sound like a demon,” said Night Scape.
Once more, they put down their equipment, stood still and waited. Again came the sound. And this time the crew began running for the exit. “Let’s get out of here mate that was that was too much,” said Night Scape. “When you’re in here you can literally feel it like that’s how loud it is.” Subsequently, one by one, the crew clambered to the surface.
“The thing is, I’m not scared of haunted houses,” said Night Scape, explaining himself. The thing is, we all have an edge. Some people meet their edge at the top of a tall building. Night Scape met his edge in a tunnel under Manchester. We all have an edge. We all meet our edge. It’s simply a question of when – and where.