What Lies Below: A Look at Secret Subterranean Manchester

By Spencer Hart on at

Last week we looked at what lies below our nation’s capital, this week it’s time to peel away Manchester’s tarmac and explore the labyrinthine tunnels, underground architecture and caverns that reside up north.

The Tube That Never Was

[Image Credit: Wikipedia]

Back in the heady days of the 1970s, plans were drawn up for an underground railway beneath Manchester; the proposed journey would run between mainline stations Piccadilly and Victoria, with several stops in between. The 'Picc-Vic' line had a budget of £9,271,300 (approximately £98 million in today's money) and work began in 1974 with excavation work underneath the Manchester Arndale. Unfortunately in 1977 the scheme was abandoned due to its excessive cost and unforeseen subterranean obstacles (more on that later). The excavated station remains under the Arndale Centre and has become known as the Arndale Void; it’s nine metres below Topshop.


[Image Credit: Khoros Architecture]

One suggested reason for the Picc-Vic line being scrapped is that the line ran too close to the Guardian Telephone Exchange in Chinatown. The exchange was built in 1954 together with the Anchor Exchange in Birmingham and the Kingsway Exchange in London. These underground bunkers housed ‘hardened communications’, providing secure connections in the event of a nuclear war. The tunnel is 34 metres below surface-level and the main tunnel is 300 metres long with two-kilometre extensions to Salford and Ardwick. The exchange was designed to survive an atomic bomb blast capable of flattening the city, and contained a six-week food supply, generator and fuel tanks. It originally cost £4 million to build and was funded by the UK's NATO partners, namely the US.

[Image Credit: Manchester History]

The main entrance to the Guardian Exchange can be found on George Street, between Princess Street and Dickinson Street. The tunnels are now home to more pedestrian BT cables, which caught fire in March 2004 and caused widespread disruption across Manchester.

Shops, Shops, Shops!

[Image Credit: 28 Days Later]

One of the most fascinating underground structures in Manchester is the Victoria Arches. These arches were built into the embankment of the River Irwell in the 1830s. A number of businesses occupied the riverside complex, including wine merchants, silk-dyers, printers and cabinet-makers. The shops were accessible from street level via external wooden staircases, with at least one arched tunnel used as a launch point for steam-ferry cruises, which took passengers around Salford Docks and the Manchester Ship Canal (despite the rising pollution levels).

[Image Credit: Derelict Places]

The businesses were closed in the 1930s and the shops converted to air-raid shelters during World War II. The storefronts were bricked up to add gas- and blast-protection; these improvised shelters could hold 1,619 people and have remained relatively untouched since the end of the war, with 1940s crisp packets and posters still on the floor.

[Image Credit: The Potteries]

Adding to the list of Manchester’s subterranean shops, Lewis’s (now a Primark store) was known for having extravagant basement attractions. On one particular occasion, during the shop’s Venice display, the basement was flooded to create an underground boating lake – complete with gondolas that customers could ride.

Rivers and Canals

[Image Credit: Manchester Evening News]

When’s the last time you went to the cinema? Did you know that you could have been watching Avengers: Assemble above a subterranean canal? Well if you regularly visit the AMC Great Northern cinema, the chances are extremely high. The Manchester and Salford Junction Canal Tunnel was constructed in 1839 and joins the Irwell River with the Rochdale Canal. Previously traders were required to cart their goods between the two waterways, but the canal tunnel created a direct link, and it now resides unused a few metres beneath unwitting cinema-goers.

[Image Credit: Subbrit]

Also sitting above the Manchester and Salford Junction Canal Tunnel is the Great Northern Goods Warehouse, a modern leisure-complex. The warehouse was originally developed as a railway goods warehouse, with a dedicated system which hauled cargo up from the canal dock below. The canals were repurposed into a tourist attraction, with various tours and ghost-walks through the abandoned tunnels, but these have been indefinitely postponed by the health and safety police.

[Image Credit: Rag Picking History]

Also flowing silently beneath Manchester’s streets is the River Irk, which begins in the Northern Suburbs of Manchester and flows into the River Irwell in the city centre. This culvert has a number of fascinating features contained within its high brick walls, namely an ancient cattle bridge, pictured above, which has stubbornly stood the test of time, as well as a corpse chute, used for dropping dead cows into the river.

Rich Families

[Image Credit: TV Ark]

Near the BBC’s old Oxford Road HQ lies an underground swimming pool once run by the wealthy Gaskell family. The pool opened in 1930 and provided swimming lessons in ‘warmth, comfort and privacy’ with ‘special attention paid to nervous swimmers’.

Urban Legends

Just like any ancient city, legends persist around secret tunnels which have now been lost or covered up.

[Image Credit: Wikipedia]

One such legend surrounds a mysterious subterranean path that runs from Salford’s Ordsall Hall to the Manchester Cathedral. There has been plenty of excavation around the hall but no tunnel has ever been found.

[Image Credit: Wikipedia]

Another conspiracy theory concerning subterranean Manchester regards the 2004 fire in the Guardian Exchange; was it simply a fire caused by faulty lighting, or was it a planned information communication black-out by the Government?