“The light at the end of the tunnel is not an illusion. The tunnel is.”

Liverpool Life On Sunday lunchtime I finally got around to visiting Williamson's Tunnels, one of Liverpool’s great follies, for the first time. The tunnels, an underground network which stretches beneath large sections of Liverpool’s suburbs were constructed for no readily apparent reason. Actually, the reasons could have been related to 19th century philanthropist, Joseph Williamson, wanting to help the people of Liverpool back on their feet after the Napoleonic War by providing work and an on the job training scheme for people wanting to learn such crafts as stone masonry and brick laying.

But beyond that, they're a mystery. Some say they Williamson was predicting an apocalypse or wanted an network which could be used to traverse the city in private or inclement weather. Parts definitely shift between particular addresses, from churches to pubs, but its all a mess, incomplete and without a clear architectural philosophy. Whatever happened, it's another kink in Liverpool's chain; what city wouldn't be improved by an apparently pointless network of tunnels for people to scratch their heads over.

The interior looks like some lost Egyptian tombs, albeit constructed using technology advanced of that time. It’s how you’d expect the original Victorian underground railways looked, with the same interior archways and porous properties in the brickwork. It’s certainly atmospheric and you can imagine the workforce, hundreds of men working collectively in the endeavour even if the purpose of their work wasn’t clear. They were probably just happy for a wage and a way to feed their families.

As a project without a goal, there was a completion date and when Williamson died in 1840 work simply ceased and the tunnels were actually forgotten, a Liverpool legend. The construction was secret enough even during its manufacture that when George Stevenson was laying out his railway, at a certain point his craftsmen cut so far into the ground they broke through into the tunnels and as they looked down and saw Williamson’s workers scattering, presumably dirty and running out the light, they were superstitious enough to think they were interfering with hell itself.

The tour lasts about three quarters of an hour though it only takes in a very small percentage of the system, which having been rediscovered in the past decade have yet to be completely mapped out. The guide we had was one of site's current apprentices, an engineer tasked with clearing the tunnels of the debris and detritus which have dropped gather throughout in the intervening centuries. There are display tables filled with glass bottles and china and even a toy car and the tunnels are strewn with the impressions the outside world made on this interior.

As the tunnels became part of history, new houses and streets were built above and the residents of the shops and houses, discovering a void beneath their home, simply began to deposit their rubbish and waste down there. In constructing the foundations of a house, builders tipped concrete into the hope, not realising its extent – though two trucks full are usually required, seven trucks were required to do the job. But eventually, what caused the survey which found the tunnels was the smell. Decades upon decades of household waste had begun to pong and the locals had called the council to complain about it.

The Williamson Tunnels are the kind of curiosity of which a city should be proud and actually the endeavour of making the area accessible is perhaps as much of a folly as its original construction, man and woman hours spent just discovering exactly what this man was up to, down there in the dark. It's a privilege to see the work in progress even if the tour feels remarkably short. Perhaps, as more sections are opened up in future years, we'll be able to see the extent of Williamson's vision, rather than having to imagine it from the map we're shown and the tour guide's descriptions.

As with all of these types of tourist attraction, your enjoyment is largely based on who you’re on the tour with and we agreed that there were a couple too many on our trip, that it just demanded a more intimate atmosphere. What spoiled it for me though were the mass of photographers with their massive camera lenses, filling the space with lights from a flash at every opportunity, distracting us from the stories of the tour guide and well everything else basically. The burly man who followed me around had the kind of snapper which played a tune each time it was turned on and threw laser beams across the subject as he took each photo (presumably for focal length or some such), hardly considering whether we were also be looking at the thing. Not once did it seem as though they were hearing what the tour guide was saying, which means when they finally get to see their pictures they’ll lack the context which gives them a point.

I pity the friends who'll have to sit through that slide show. "This is the tunnel... and this is another part of the tunnel...."

Oh well. At least I got to wear a hard hat.

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