Tuesday, 5 January 2010

going underground

adventure, wrote alexandra louise eugenie marie david-neel (24oct 1868-8sept 1969), a habitual peregrinist and determined free spirit who performed for many years with a travelling opera company as 'mademoiselle myrial' before trekking through the tibetan highlands and living as a hermit for 2 years in the himalayas, is my only reason for living

the sorry disappointment of manchester’s ‘big’ new years eve merely succeeded in cementing my seasonal ennui with a sulk of schoolgirl proportions, so as the world outside seemed to pull itself together and embrace 2010, i simply cocooned myself deeper into old habits wishing, not for the first time since that unexpected release from my 70 year hermitude, that i was back in the rather more exciting past where i belong.

clearly what was needed was a little adventure, bluestocking style, to lift the spirits.

but where to find it? in my day adventure was to be found way across the globe in far flung and ‘exotic’ lands under fiendishly adverse conditions, but as you might recall dear journal, my project since arriving unexpectedly into this decidedly peculiar new century, has been to adapt this tradition into an exploration of the quotidian world around me, to find, as those angels of anarchy so sublimely suggested, the extraordinary in the everyday.

as every flaneur knows, all you need is the imagination to see it, and in manchester something never fails to pop up and rekindle ones jaded affection and inspiration right in the nick of time. adventure it seems can simply drop into your lap - or inbox…

so it was that the 2nd January saw me sloshing my way towards the victoria station map, wrapped up warm, sensibly shod and armed with a sturdy torch as tantalisingly instructed in my invitation to attend an underground expedition. an expedition into the dark, swirling underbelly of the city, courtesy of new manchester walks, one of the plethora of guided walk companies that have recently sprung up all over the city. flaneuring it seems is now quite a la mode!

and despite the inclement weather – damp and drizzly prior to the current ‘big freeze’ of 2010 – there were at least 35 people loitering with intent to ‘urban ex-lite’, excited by the rare opportunity to discover some of the hidden spaces lying beneath our feet, a world of abandoned air raid shelters, cold war nuclear bunkers, unrealised tube systems, forgotten coal mines and renegade priests hidey holes. manchester is a warren of unexplored tunnels, each with a fascinating story to tell and it transpires, given the popularity of this walk and the enthusiastic clamour to attend the periodic talks by underground expert keith warrender, an army of frustrated devotees eager to read more and witness it for themselves.

so we set off, a crocodile of strangers united by a palpable whiff of childlike excitement bordering on giddiness, whipped up expertly by our affable guide, mr glinert of manchester compendium fame.

mr glinert drops arcane facts and tantalizing nuggets aplenty as he leads us pied piper-like from location to location and on to our subterranean goal and this, combined with his years as a london tour guide, creates a peculiar phenomenon, replacing the city we take for granted in our everyday experience of it, with an excursion, an away-day. suddenly we are transformed into tourists of our own city, regarding it as wide eyed and curiously as we might a trip to the roman catacombs or a london underground tube tour, reminding us that the city is a limitless treasure, an endless repository interwoven with thrilling yarns, narratives of lives past and present, great and small; a vernacular bayeux tapestry into which we constantly weave our own stories as we go about our daily existence.

there’s every chance that this will become a regular tour, perhaps with more access to the city beneath our feet gradually becoming available. so i won’t say too much. most of the walk was overground, as entry to many of manchester's tantalizing secret spaces or forgotten places remain prohibited, such as the US commissioned atomic bunkers or the regional government hq visited and slept in by winston churchill.

the access we did get was both reward and enticement for more of the same: the images so familiar from warrender’s books and 'reality hack', the recent urbis exhibition, only the tip of the iceberg to the actuality of clattering down the cold metal rungs of the spiral staircase leading at last into the cavernous gloom of the manchester and salford junction canal.

there, beneath the great northern warehouse, abandoned in 1938 and converted into use as an air raid shelter during ww2, is an engineering feat par excellence, an underground cathedral or manmade blue john mine, complete with impressive stalactites, soaring height competing with lurking, ever present claustrophobia. here, and along its crumbling tunnels and uneven footholds, our torches and lanterns barely illuminate the inky blackness making each twist and turn a lone voyage of discovery despite one’s shadowy companions. it is an exhilarating, all too brief glimpse into a collision of narratives, one of victorian inventiveness, endeavour and splendour; another of a shanty town, a squalid place of resilience, fear and cooped up boredom, the rows of makeshift toilet blocks, wardens lookouts and prohibitive instructions still clinging to damp walls telling an evocative story that could easily transplant to any time and many situations.

what was obvious from the numbers that happily attended a not well advertised event on a dreary day in january and the tangible satisfaction of the group even as we were led from one inaccessible tunnel to another was that there is an appetite for the city beyond what is habitually offered to us, that we crave more from the powers that be than endless shopping facilities, glitzy hotels and windswept glass fronted business graveyards. that the story of architecture and the urban environment is more than grand palaces, wide boulevards and lofty skyscrapers and that what lies beneath us is a revealing, thrilling and often poignant parallel history.

at a fiver a time, commercial guided walks aren’t something i’d usually recommend, preferring to encourage the re/discovery of the city for oneself or by finding a group of like minded loiterers to play with, but given that these delicious and intriguing tales of the city are usually inaccessible i highly recommend you get your torch and sturdy boots ready and make your way to the victoria station map just as soon as a next tour is announced

…..and do watch out for a sprightly 148 year old lurking about at the back.

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