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What Lies Beneath: Exploring Sheffield’s Megatron

Joseph Food explores Sheffield’s legendary underground cavern system, the ‘Megatron’.

Like many others, my early experiences of the fabled network of subterranean waterways known as the Megatron came via snippets of online trivia, local rumour and the odd urbex blog. This interest was piqued further when Salt Productions released a beautifully crafted video in 2015, ‘Beneath our Streets’, showing wakeboarders zipping around the Victorian-era culverts, grinding over makeshift ramps and drifting through stunning brick-tiled arches. Many knew of the legend, but few had ventured down there, which naturally put it right up there on my Sheffield bucket list.

Entering Sheffield’s cold and wet but eerily peaceful Megatron system.

Imagine the delight, then, when an email from Sheffield Adventure Film Festival (ShAFF) dropped into my inbox, inviting local press on a unique urban caving trip into the heart of the vast 18th century storm drain. After being led through the bowels of the system by caving instructors, we would view some exclusive short films from the festival and even enjoy some live music in undoubtedly the strangest gig of the year thus far.

‘Yes. God yes.’ I think was my typed response verbatim.

One entrance is near the city centre’s Matilda Street and requires a lot of crouched “mind yer head” activity.

A few days later and decked out in caving suits, wellies and hard hats our entourage entered via the recently developed Porter Brook pocket park, walking crouched for a good ten minutes before reaching another entrance by the train station. Here the underground tunnels began to fork off and separate as we reached a large chamber where a couple of the rivers (I can’t remember which) converged. To say it had been a relatively dry couple of days, it was surprising to see how quickly the water moved and how deep it could go – as I cruelly discovered by stepping into a flooded trench and finding myself chest-deep in the drink. The importance of bringing walking sticks along for balance and feeling for any sudden drops became clear as I shuffled my now sodden frame along the dark tunnels.

It’s important to mind your step: the ground is very uneven and you could easily disappear into a pothole.

“Did it smell?” I’ve been asked. No, not really. It was actually quite peaceful down there – which probably says more about the state of my psyche than the comfort of dark underground riverways – but there was something undeniably soothing about standing a few metres beneath a bustling city centre and hearing only running water. The large archaic brick constructions we walked through clashed with the odd piece of modern detritus ferried in by the floodwaters: plastic shopping bags, beer bottles, wrappers, deflated footballs – signs of human activity above that looked hugely out of place in such uninhabitable surrounds.

The Megatron: peaceful, messy, but not particularly smelly.

We later congregated in the middle of one particularly large culvert while singer-songwriter Rhiannan Scutt, once part of popular South Yorkshire group Rita Payne, tested out the echoing acoustics by treating us to a couple of songs. Strange, but nice; though I think the Leadmill needn’t be too concerned about venue competition. Afterwards we turned our attentions to a pop-up screen and watched a selection of adrenaline-pumping short films before Simon Ogden, chair of Sheffield Waterways Group, spoke to us about the city’s history with its rivers, covering everything from the filth-ridden streams of yesteryear to the restored wildlife-supporting habitats of today. There’s even a proposal, ‘Putting the Sheaf Back in Sheffield’, which has been put forward to reopen a section of the River Sheaf to create an inner-city park called Sheaf Field as part of the Castlegate redevelopment programme.

Strangest gig for a while.

Upon reaching the cavernous, cathedral-style Megatron – named due to its science fiction-esque appearance – we hit “peak Sheffield” and heard lyrics read from the Pulp song ‘Wickerman’, inspired by the time Jarvis Cocker spent an afternoon cruising the River Don on a dinghy. True story.

Just behind the station, before you reach the traffic island, a river runs through a concrete channel.
I took you there once; I think it was after the Leadmill.

It was a fitting end to a day spent exploring Sheffield’s heritage while also probing its future potential. With the effort to clean the city’s waterways achieving positive results – wild salmon have recently been spotted in the Don for the first time in 200 years – and its once industrial, concrete-laden city centre undergoing significant cultural regeneration, the re-opening up of our forgotten rivers could have a key role to play in providing new open spaces for us all to enjoy. Watch this space.

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