Going Underground- Anonymous Flâneur
Have you ever walked over a manhole cover or past a decaying door in a busy street and stopped to wonder what might be on the other side? For anyone with a sense of adventure a whole world of opportunity could lie in store.
I caught the bug on my year abroad in Paris. Beneath the city streets lie nearly 300km of secret tunnel network that runs underneath every single arrondissement of the city. Although unauthorised access is illegal and most of the entrances are sealed, for those in the know there are portals dotted around the city that give unreserved access to every corner of the catacombs, whether through a certain manhole or an entrance in the wall of a train tunnel.
Far beneath the picture postcard boulevards and away from the tourist lens there exists a clandestine community who devote a huge amount of time to maintaining and even rebuilding the catacombs, carving out niches for themselves with highly sculpted furniture and rock features such as gargoyles. During our time in Paris we found breath-taking examples of the magnitude of this cultural heritage, such as an underground art gallery – only accessible after crawling down a chute through a tiny hole in the side of a tunnel wall – which boasted immense and intricate murals on the rock face itself. The real beauty in this art was that the creators knew they would only be sharing their work with those who really made the effort to find it.
After months of exploring the catacombs and having successfully thrown a theatrical dinner party on the platform of an abandoned underground railway station in southern Paris, we started looking for similar locations back at home and realised that if you take the time to look then the opportunity for adventure is endless.
The foundations of Bristol may not be as extensive as Paris, but can be easily accessible, whether exploring the forgotten Clifton Rocks Railway, dug into the Avon Gorge underneath the suspension bridge and disused since its last mission as a WWII BBC secret transmission base, or the old freestone mines that provided much of the stone for the buildings that give Bristol and Bath their unique façade, complete with intact 19th Century cranes, stone trucks and most impressively, an underground chamber the size of a cathedral hall (no exaggeration).
We recently raised our game with an underground party in the disused Avon Gorge railway: accessed through a tiny derelict doorway in the rock face and buried deep inside the cliff we were hidden from prying eyes and made a historic part of the city our own for a night.
Abandoned buildings, underground tunnels and forgotten places exist everywhere: they are open to anyone with an aversion to the often mundane and recurring nature of any university social sphere and with an appreciation for discovering their city’s real hidden gems.