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A Face Like Glass

Sunless Worlds

There is always something mysterious and fascinating about caves, tunnels and secretive underground places. I love the idea that there could be unsuspected worlds lurking beneath one's feet.

Here are some of my favourite underground places.

Chislehurst Caves

These old mining tunnels are quite eerie now, but during World War 2 they would have been surprisingly crowded. London was being bombed, and thousands fled to the caves to use them as an air raid shelter. At one point there was a city of a 15,000 people living in Chislehurst caves, complete with their own school, chapel and hospital. Everybody had their own 'pitch' which cost a penny per night, and there were 'cave captains' to keep order. One little girl was even born in the caves during an air raid, and given the middle name “Cavena”.

Waitomo Caves

In these New Zealand limestone caves we went “black water rafting”, which involved floating down underground rivers in wet-suits and pit helmets, with rubber tyres round our middles. Sometimes it also involved squeezing through narrow gaps, admiring caves full of stalactites, jumping off waterfalls, or turning off our torches so that we could stare up at galaxies of glow worms amid the blackness.

Bodleian Tunnels

The Bodleian Library in Oxford has a vast collection of books, too many to hold in its main buildings. For this reason, it has underground tunnels that splay out from the library like the tentacles of an octopus. I have never seen the tunnels, but when I am walking nearby I like to imagine millions of aged books waiting in silent rows far beneath my feet.

The Grottoes of the Quinta de la Regaleira

This mysterious Portuguese palace was built over a hundred years ago by a millionaire who was fascinated by magic and alchemy. If you look closely at the palace decorations, they are full of symbols and images connected with the occult, like a sort of secret code. The gardens are full of hidden clues as well. Beneath them lie a network of tunnels and grottoes, some of them containing limpid pools, or guarded by ominous-looking reptile-gargoyles. There is also the 'initiation well', a huge rounded shaft with its own spiral staircase, which descends a hundred feet into the earth.

Củ Chi Tunnels

This huge network of tunnels was used as a base for Vietnamese guerilla fighters in the 1960s, allowing them to vanish and reappear unexpectedly as they chose, and travel long distances without being spotted. They were difficult places to live – cramped, unhealthy and sometimes infested with scorpions and poison centipedes. Some of the tunnels have now been widened so that fat tourists can walk down them, but even those passages feel alarmingly narrow.

Seattle Underground

Back in the 1890s, the leaders of Seattle decided that parts of the city were too low. Whole squares had an annoying habit of being flooded with seawater. More embarrassing still, at high tide the toilets tended to, er, flow the wrong way. Since parts of the city needed to be rebuilt anyway after a big fire, it was decided to raise the streets so that they were much higher. The problem was, there were already some buildings standing, and the owners didn't particularly want to tear them down.

In the end, the streets were raised, but the houses weren't. People who came out of buildings onto the side-walks at the original ground level, then had to climb up ladders to get to the streets. When people noticed that having sheer drops either side of the streets was a bit dangerous, the gaps were paved over at street level. From that point, the side-walks and lower parts of the buildings were hidden underground.

After a while this hidden part of the city acquired a dubious reputation, as a haven for criminals, speakeasies, gambling houses and opium dens. Nowadays nobody lives there, but you can still take tours down to where the underground storeys remain, largely intact.