What Lies Beneath: Sheffield’s Secret Tunnels
Imagine: some Games of Thrones style hall waiting to be discovered. Old paintings of the actual castle showed a drawbridge, two large vesting towers on top – it was quite the structure.
When taking a stroll around Sheffield city centre, how often do you pause to think about what could be hidden in the depths below your feet?
Now, if you’re a normal person going about daily business that answer will probably be ‘hardly ever’ – and that’s entirely understandable for the average surface dweller. However, for Dr David Clarke the subterranean mysteries buried beneath these pavements and roads hold the answers to some fascinating pieces of local history.
“My first degree was archaeology at Sheffield University,” he tells me over a coffee. “I was really interested in archaeological digging, but I have also always enjoyed hearing and collecting other people’s stories at the same time. This led me to doing a PhD in folklore, which I suppose was quite an unusual choice, but the process of interviewing people and telling stories about strange experiences and happenings goes hand-in-hand with journalism.
Today Dr Clarke works as a reader and principal lecturer in journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, has authored over 12 books on the paranormal – covering everything from ufology to contemporary legends – and since 2008 has worked at transferring the MoD’s released UFO sightings into The National Archives. Basically: if you like your stories saturated in mystery and intrigue, he’s a man you should go see.
The real reason we’ve met, however, is not to talk visitors from another planet but to discuss local legends behind a sold-out talk he’s due to give at The Central Library, ‘The Underground Tunnels of Sheffield and Their Ghosts: Folklore of Fact’. In this he will touch on the captivity of Mary Queen of Scots in Sheffield Castle during the 16th century, but perhaps more interestingly, there will be discussion around a number of secret passageways which may have been used to smuggle the imprisoned Queen between parts of the city. In fact, the wealth of secrets and history which could be awaiting discovery beneath the historic Castlegate area of the city causes the mind to boggle. He’s not the only one excited about the prospect of what could be found, and an archaeological dig – the largest, most technologically advanced to date – will be taking place this year, with the resulting discoveries potentially dictating the level of investment the area receives for its scheduled regeneration.
Time to dig a little deeper…
Where did the fascination with South Yorkshire folklore come from?
I guess what got me into the underground mysteries of Sheffield was going to Castle Market when I was a kid with my pals, where we’d go to buy superhero comics and the like. It was the place to be, really. You’d have Jarvis Cocker hanging around there a lot, but obviously I didn’t know who he was back then. My grandad was a steelworker down the road at Ponds Forge, so he knew the area and used to tell me all these stories about ghosts and local traditions. One which always intrigued me was a story about a tunnel under the castle that goes up the hill to the Manor Lodge; he’d say that when Mary, Queen of Scots, was imprisoned they used to ferry her around via these secret tunnels.
The tunnels were obviously to hide her from public view?
Yes. She was a dangerous political prisoner at the time and Sheffield was a really remote place to keep her hidden away. The Earl of Shrewsbury, who was the Lord of Sheffield Castle and Sheffield Manor, was entrusted with her imprisonment and it was of utmost importance to the Queen that she didn’t come into contact with any potential plotters against the crown.
So it wasn’t quite a full house arrest as we were led to believe?
It was definitely a high security incarceration. If it happened today there would be Humvees and guys with machine guns everywhere. But we do know that she occasionally was allowed to visit Chatsworth House, even went to Buxton to drink the spring water apparently, so there were provisions in place to move her in and out. It wasn’t all necessarily underground, either. Apparently there was a road and bridge which went out over River Sheaf flanked by gnarled trees, like a hallway. I think it’s feasible that could have served as an above-ground passage which people knew of, and over time, like Chinese whispers, the passage became known as an underground one. Have you heard of the Megatron?
Some people have lived here all their life and never heard of it, but it’s getting more coverage now. I first heard about it ten years ago. During the Industrial Revolution Sheffield turned from effectively a small hamlet into a massive manufacturing city, its population increased about tenfold, and the pressure on infrastructure caused the rivers to repeatedly flood near where Hallam Uni is today. So they built this massive underground storm drain which leads into this humongous cavern. It’s pretty incredible.
It must have been some operation to build such a structure.
It took decades, but there’s something even more interesting about it. The editor of the main Sheffield newspaper, whatever it was at the time, wrote in one of his books on Mary Queen of Scots that when they were blasting through the rock on which the castle was built, they came across a pre-existing underground tunnel that ran from the castle in the direction of the parish church. Because there were no rules or regulations in them days about finding something and checking its archaeological value, they just filled it in!
Nobody followed it to find out where it led?
No, they were getting paid to do another job so just saw it as a distraction. Since then, a number of people who worked down there have come forward saying there are other entrances and mysterious passages leading towards it. There are photos you can find online of the bricked up entrance, it’s situated beneath the old Star offices.
Which parish church did you say the discovered tunnel was heading towards?
Well, it’s now the cathedral. But that’s the interesting thing! You see, most of the stories until then had suggested tunnels leading towards the Manor Lodge, but this was the parish church where the Lords of the Manor were buried. That opens up another mystery because a few years ago they got into the crypt and several family members were missing! There’s a real possibility of another underground crypt which has the remains of the other Shrewsburys and the jailor of Mary Queen of Scots, which was also missing.
You would have thought that there’d be some new-fangled technology which could find a secret underground tomb in a jiffy.
There is some expensive technology which could be used, but it’s the will to do it. I also guess it can be seen as a bit disrespectful digging around places people might be buried.
Back to Castlegate, and the council have put aside £800,000 to regenerate the area including a fresh excavation of the space below and around Castle Market. What sort of things are they hoping to find?
It’s the historic centre of Sheffield and people can’t even agree on how far it goes back, so who knows? Some have speculated that it was where the old Saxon Earl, Waltheof, had his wooden hall built. Imagine: some Games of Thrones style hall waiting to be discovered. Old paintings of the actual castle showed a drawbridge, two large vesting towers on top – it was quite the structure. Many other castles around the country have some sort of map or plans which you could revert to, but not Sheffield, and that makes it even more interesting.
It’s mad to think you were stepping over such history when you were out shopping with your nan.
Oh, yeah. It had that distinctive smell, didn’t it? You know, bacon and egg butties at Sally’s Sandwich shop. Back in the day, if you wrote to the council and asked to have a look at the castle you could make an appointment. They take you down some stairs and show you some of the old ruins, like a pile of bricks and a hole. During the excavation they’ll be kind of removing the lid of concrete, so to speak, and taking a very good look beneath. I’d be surprised if they didn’t find something of note.
Visit friendsofsheffieldcastle.org.uk for more