Underground Northumberland

There is something about caves and other underground places which fascinate and intrigue us. Our folklore is full of stories of strange caves and tunnels, sometimes with bizarre legends attached.

Many places have their legends that King Arthur and his knights lie asleep in caves, waiting to emerge when England’s need is deepest. Here in Northumberland we have our fair share of similar folk stories.

There is a cave on the side of the Hen Hole, the ravine which cuts down the western flank of The Cheviot. Legend has it that it was the home of Black Adam, a notorious outlaw, who bursting into a wedding celebration at Wooperton, robbed the guests and murdered the bride. The groom, who had been away seeking the priest, returned and gave chase back to Adam’s mountain hideout. They fought and both fell to their deaths in the ravine below the cave.

Associated with Black Adam’s cave is the mysterious Cateran Hole. Lying in the midst of the moors to the north of Eglingham, the ‘hole’ is entered by a series of manmade steps cut into the sandstone which forms the bedrock of the moorland. These steps lead down to a tunnel under the hillside. Legend has it that it connects with Black Adam’s cave. Explorers in this tunnel have heard the sound of elves and horsemen.

Sadly, the legend is just that – the tunnel doesn’t go that far, 45 metres at the most. It is not in reality a tunnel, but a fault in the rock that has a roof. The steps remain a mystery however – who cut them, when and why? One clue is perhaps in the name ‘Cateran’, which means thief in the border dialect. Was it a place to hide ill-gotten gains? And were the stories of elves all designed to keep the curious away?

The ‘hole’ is well worth a visit, though it is not too easy to find. Its map reference is NU102237. There is a small stone which marks the path at NU101236.

Similar legends exist about tunnels which are said to run for unfeasibly long distances between various castles and other old buildings – though without any being found. But if we cannot find any of these tunnels of legend, we can find ones from our more recent history. In the 19th century, when the Alnwick to Cornhill railway was built, the engineers had to cut a tunnel through the high ground at Hill Head near Edlingham. This brick-lined tunnel is over 300 metres long and it contained the single-track railway line that was in use until 1953. Today, the tunnel entrances are blocked off. One of the air shafts can be seen just off the minor road between Edlingham and Bolton.

Coming forward in time a little bit more, we can find underground structures from the Second World War. As part of the anti-invasion precautions, two secret organisations were established which would operate behind enemy lines. Known as the Auxiliary Units, they would be responsible for sabotage and for intelligence gathering. Underground bases were built for them, which contained beds, stoves and chemical toilets, which would allow the occupants to survive for an expended time. Their remains give us an insight into those desperate times. Within Northumberland, the sabotage branch had over 20 of these underground bases, but only about six are still surviving, and these are all in very poor condition – they are likely to collapse in the near future. The espionage branch had an underground base at Heiferlaw, to the north of Alnwick. This has survived in a much better condition than the other bases, but is secured to prevent access.

During the same period, in the hills near Elsdon, a radar station known as RAF Ottercops Moss was built to provide early warning of air raids on the Tyne. The large towers which supported the aerials for this vital station were extremely vulnerable to air attack, so in order to improve the station’s resilience, two underground chambers were built which housed stand-by equipment. Today these are sealed, but their massive concrete sliding access doors are still there. The chambers are now flooded and inaccessible.

Move forward another twenty years or so, and the threat was now of nuclear war. Civil defence became a major concern, which included how to monitor the effects of any nuclear attack. Underground posts were built across the country. Manned by the Royal Observer Corps, they were tasked with monitoring the after effects of a nuclear strike, including radiation fallout. Today they are all deserted, but bizarrely, many were left just as they were, with maps and papers, tables and chairs, all in position.

The over-ground elements of the posts can be seen in many places – the entrance shaft and the ventilation stack. They have often been confused as reservoirs, and have been so marked on Ordnance Survey maps – as is the case with the post at Whittingham. Sitting beside a public footpath, the surface elements can easily be visited (NU074115).

This is just a quick tour through some of our underground history. There will be many more that people will know about, but sadly, without care, some of these relics from our past will surely deteriorate and disappear for good. Time is not on our side, but perhaps one day we might be able to visit a preserved ROC post or Auxiliary Unit base, or the Hill Head tunnel might be reopened as part of a cycleway.

For those who might have an interest in such things, there is an organisation called Subterranea Britannica which studies underground structures. Its website is www.subbrit.org.uk.

As a final note of caution, underground spaces can be dangerous. Proper precautions should be taken before entering, and, of course, getting the land owners permission is vital.