'IT’S A SUB-ZERO Hellmouth; just shy of a thousand feet up, nearly five miles long; dripping slime, with vertical torrents sluicing down through four hundred and eighty feet of millstone grit from the sleet-lashed moors above. It took eight years to punch this hole under the Pennines—twice the time it took to finish Standedge, Dove’s Hole, Totley or Cowburn: three years just to sink five construction shafts. Twelve working faces. A thousand navvies using gunpowder, spades, pickaxes and their bare hands—crammed into squalid barracks on the moor tops. Two hundred and thirty maimed; over forty crushed, suffocated or blown to rags; twenty-seven taken by cholera, dysentery or typhus.
‘The Sheffield, Barnsley Metropolitan and Manchester Railway Company considered its completion in 1887, “a most profitable enterprise.”
‘Right, let’s check your gear.’
Glen always insisted each group—wincing, when some preferred the self-styled term ‘Away Team’—was restricted to five; wore chest-high waders, tough waterproofs, good insulation; carried thermos flasks; used the head torches, hard hats and the Hi-Viz vests he issued; signed waivers—and paid in cash.
Pluto styled itself as offering ‘family-friendly’ adventures—with the exclusion of under-fourteens. Glen and his partner Willow left crunching through asbestos to capture jolting video footage of glazed brickwork and rust-caked pipes to the YouTube feeders: they had no plans to risk death, injury or prosecution by ticking off mothballed secret Cold War stuff, or aspiring to ‘bag’ the dizzy—and now lethally secure—depths underneath London’s High Holborn Street, or Manchester’s vast Guardian telecoms complex; Corsham or Rudloe Manor’s secret stash of bunkered, mouldering bicycles.
It was simpler to obtain permission to access disused railway tunnels, derelict MOD sites scheduled for demolition or—particularly lucrative—ransacked, abandoned asylums.
But this trip was ‘off the books’. This one was word-of-mouth only. This one was dangerous.
Three parallel tunnels had been hacked out deep under the moors at Killhope Sike when the coal trade flourished; crammed cities demanded fresh produce; foundries, steel plants and roll mills gobbled up limestone; Wakes’ Week workers packed trains to the seaside. Now two were sealed—their moor top vents capped; plugged with rubble; tracks pulled up by the mid-sixties: even the luxuriant, swaggering castellation originally crowning the arches had been torn down.
Only the centre tunnel remained in use on this exposed section of the cross-Pennine link—the old track beds on either side were a scrubby mess of beech saplings, willow herb, buddleia, dumped rubble, sodden mattresses and bleached garden trampolines.
Between the clack-clack and very occasional whoosh of Manchester-bound trains, there was only the bleak hiss of wind through bracken.
Willow would drive the Pluto minibus to the tunnel exit, park up on a nearby lane and have the merch, complimentary beverages, biscuits, space blankets, and jetwash ready.
Glen finished the safety briefing with two final emphatic instructions—touch nothing and keep moving. Halogen lamps and torches checked, he explained access involved options: ‘We can go in through an under tunnel—the sump culvert through a four-section manhole cover using this.’ He held up his custom-forged combined cold chisel, pick, alum key and crowbar—a sawn-off, steel-spliced, adapted back hoe. If the cover is seized with debris, rust and goo—I’ll dig it free and rinse the edges, but that’ll take time—it’s nasty down there; sound Victorian brickwork, but stooped, wet going for a good fifteen minutes.’
‘The other option is a bad lads’ classic: up-and-over. We use a double-sided A frame ladder to get over the tin sheeting and barbed wire—you can see there’s a five-foot gap just below the apex of the portal. I’ve pre-stashed the ladder—and we’ll use these too—’
He produced a dayglo plastic bag from behind a clump of nettles and pulled out two large copra doormats, punched and roped together, then hinged at the top with a section of plastic guttering.
‘Easy. Same set-up at the opposite portal. You help each other up and over; switch your head torches on first, the light from the gap lasts only a few feet. What’ll it be?’
The group—one or two were rather bulky to the point of near-spherical—opted for the ladders, and Glen blurred his relief; it would have been a tight squeeze and if the tunnel’s access hatch was jammed, they would have turned back to climb over the entrance sheeting, totally pre-slimed and dispirited.
With an obligatory ‘Let’s do this!’ the party helped each other over the rickety sheeting, flattening the loops of barbed wire. As they waited in the ferny murk of the entrance, acutely aware of constant splashing and a reverberating, wind-whipped, low boom coming from the blackness behind them, Glen pushed the mat and ladders back over for later recovery, using a rope trailed over the top. Switching head torches and smartphone cameras they advanced into the tunnel with Glen leading—instantly conscious of a slight, delicate pressure on their inner ears; the smells of sopping brickwork and a century of soot.
A hundred miles down line, Phil watched a greasy pigeon figure-of-eight around his feet, beak jabbing at the Newcastle Central platform cement. It looked remarkably healthy—petrol-sheened and fat: doubtless thriving on discarded ciabatta and panini crusts. He felt and almost-pang for a time when there were kiosks selling dribbly bacon sandwiches, sausage rolls, mugs of hot tea—food we can understand.
The 8.28 to Liverpool Lime Street had become the late-running 9.05 owing to ‘Operating Difficulties’; its four-deep lines of passengers fizzing with frustration. Now, after thirty years making the return train trip to visit his sister in North Wales, Phil knew what came next: despite the guttural thrumming from a nearby locomotive blotting out most of the next tinny announcement—he made out: Liverpool, change and twelve: late-running services invariably entailed a platform switch.
He shouldered his bag, and headed briskly for the station’s most exposed platform where the frigid south-easterly wind straight off the Tyne sought you out within seconds; pulling on his gloves, tightening his scarf, ready for the horizontal sleet.
There was something hunched and furtive about his train as it stole out of the station an hour later, its shivering passengers still zipped and buttoned in their coats, after a laconic apology, the guard added that carriage heating had failed; the ‘unserviceable’ refreshments trolley had been jettisoned at Chester-Le-Street—and both Standard Class toilets were blocked, flooded and haztaped off.
It’s like herding bloody cats! Glen paused, turned, and swept his torch left-to-right behind him; he knew from the angled beams nodding up and down the arched brickwork—slimed neon orange by minerals leaching through the bedrock at the tunnel’s deepest point–-two of the party had stopped to examine something just below the wall’s curve.
This happened: punters craved trophies—blackened cable brackets, distance or gradient signage, fishplates, coach bolts, ceramic telegraph insulators—despite having tacitly agreed not to loot or vandalize.
Junk assumed ritual potency down here.
He splashed back—the trackbed ballast had turned to thinly-crusted glutinous mud—expecting to see them hacksawing at something—and prepared to gently, tactfully, assert that time was too pressing for souvenirs: they were due through to the Lancashire portal in under an hour, and he still had to show them winter stalactites and the horribly spectacular hundred foot-high trash pyramid—forty years of county-wide fly-tipping directly down a moorside ventilator shaft—and one of the last to be rubble backfilled and sealed with cement, after the accumulated, dumped, contents of another shaft at Doom Beck, above Huddersfield, famously ignited in 1974.
Flames fed by compacted tyres, plastic, rancid chip fat and timber offcuts blasted two hundred feet skywards, belching toxic black smoke and pulsing evilly at night, until finally extinguished. The newspapers called it The Calder Valley Volcano. Locals, who knew the place seethed with rats, said you could hear thousands squealing as they vaporized.
Two peeps on Glen’s whistle signalled ‘form up on me’ and then all six were at the tunnel wall; coning it in the shared beams from their head torches.
Kerry, a Section Development Manager from Mirfield, was the first to ask, ‘What are they?’
The afternoon light slouched across the tumble of blackened field walls, falling almost vertically from sheer-sided grey fells; impossibly perched houses—the colour of burnt biscuits—seemed almost to topple into each other. The only jab of colour came from their pale, lemon-cream squares of thick masonry pointing.
There were scrapyards; the usual town limit’s smudge of industrial units, timber yards, drive-thru burger outlets, lock-ups and megastores—all seemed utterly deserted. Phil felt a thrill of desperate companionship when his train passed a paddock, thick with redshank and nettles, occupied by a solitary piebald horse.
High above, remote, cheerless farms fringed the edge of the moor tops, silhouetted against an unflinching cloud base.
Almost half way. He dozed: the cold had begun to bite into his feet and calves.
The train slowed; the carriage striplights flickered: instantly passengers glanced at each other; hurriedly returning to their books and magazines, or looking out bleakly at the gorse-lined cutting sides.
The engine note thrummed, then spluttered. There was a ping and a crackle from the intercom and, then, quite distinctly: Aw, fook!
Four hundred feet under Learchild Fell, Glen clunked his torch against his hard hat—the beam was showing an odd tint of blue. There was a foot-wide crack in the slimy brickwork—extending upwards into the curve of the arch—and recent, too, with black water slopping out over a heap of rotted bricks on the track bed. There was another course of intact brickwork inside—as there should be—but every single dripping brick on this was crudely, crazily incised with crosses, patterned dots and circles.
He hadn’t spent twelve years sloshing about in murk—tunnels, cellars, shelters, crypts and catacombs—without anticipating utterly bizarre stuff.
He answered Kerry’s question directly—struggling to suppress his astonishment.
‘Not here! Surely not on Victorian industrial brickwork? I’ll see if I can pronounce it correctly—these are apotropaic ritual protection marks—votive graffiti.’
‘Like... voodoo?’ offered Len, a young Project Manager from Mytholmroyd.
Glen sensed the group’s clenched anticipation: at fifty quid a pop, including mulled wine and nibbles—this was it: showtime!
He slopped fizzy water over the brickwork’s whorls, spirals, cruciforms, gouged, patterned dots, hand outlines, incised Marian marks and Persian roses: they glistened and dripped. None overlapped: all had been made with carefully-spaced respect. He pulled four ultra-bright chemsticks out of his backpack, shook each one and shoved them upright in the tunnel silt.
The group instinctively formed a circle round the yellow-white glow.
‘We are hyper-literate,’ he began.
‘We swim in an endless stimulus of e-soup: TV and screen feeds—pixels, sofa-cinema blockbusters; mega-corporation saturation levels of advertising, media frenzies, info-bombing, dollar-driven social media—all merging Day and Night: seasons are only delineated by marketing sequences and consumer spurts. It’s a multiverse with a zillion flavours of ice-cream—and we want them all, and more.
‘When everything we can possibly want or imagine is only three clicks away, how can we possibly imagine life over a thousand years ago when a Saxon farmer’s entire world was bounded by his furlong of mud, scraped with a wooden plough? For him, it is either winter or summer—and winters can only be endured.
‘Darkness begins beyond the radius of his fire; the surrounding forests seethe with wolves and implacable gods. Then a New God offers illimitable light—its imported, ingenious liturgical calendar brings hope: Advent celebrates Christ arriving to ensure the bright sun and life—all life—will return—bringing spring beyond the frost and snow.
‘Shrovetide, Lent and Easter supplant pagan customs—but keep their essences intact: churches are greened to anticipate perpetual regeneration—mass illiteracy ensures paintings, statues, ritual, incantation all dazzle.
‘Summer begins on 9th May—a season resplendent with fertility. Then Rogationtide, Ascension Day and Whitsun, Lammas—when God nurtures the harvest. This was a war-loving society; fetishizing the warrior-caste—and Christianity offers total, winter-killing power.
‘In time, the actual fabric of churches are seen as drenched in this liminal otherness—and we know that by the Middle Ages, the stones, floor-flags, walls, pillars and timbers are being incised with ritual protection marks to repel evil: spirals, rosettes, handspans, crosses—squares carved like nets to trap witches—even holes bored into surfaces to scoop out stone flakes, then drunk in protective tinctures or smeared on animals.’
‘Wait—they drank the church?’ Rob—a Marketing Manager from Didsbury—was incredulous.
‘Oh yes—it’s a simple, intuitive extension of Communion.’
The group eagerly photobombed the split brickwork and the intricate scratch marks—then Glen gently reminded them it was time to move on. They turned to head for the final curve—but not until he paused, alone, as the others splashed and squelched ahead, to thoughtfully trace out marks with his bare fingers, and removed his gloves.
The marks were chiselled, finely-scored, even embellished with serrated scoops, typically used for rendering stone blocks. As he traced out whorls and crosses with his fingertips, flinching at the iciness of the water and sediment forming a fluid sheet over the brickwork, he made out ragged lettering—partly obscured by rotted mortar:
Le greim docht Dia agus iad ina gcodladh
As he pulled his gloves back on, he felt the accustomed vibration of a train approaching from the south portal in the adjacent tunnel—but it seemed to be slowing.
He supposed it halted by a signal relay, and, after locking a distance fix into his phone, he turned to hurry after the others.
June 15th 1884: Inundation and Collapse at Killhope Tunnel Works, West Yorkshire.
Death by Drowning Crushing and Suffocation of Forty Men and Boys.
Inquest Presided Over by West Riding Coroner Sir Watkins-Ernaux. Proceedings at the Royal Sceptre Hotel, Halifax, July 12th.
The deep bore tunnel under construction at Killhope is now three miles, two furlongs and seventeen chains extant, with seven shafts descending from the moors above. The works are managed by Messrs Houghton and Wynne on behalf of the Sheffield, Barnsley, Metropolitan and Manchester Railway Company.
Evidence Submitted by Survivor Liam Donahue, Pump Number Three Engine man.
On the morning of the 15th I was winched down the engine shaft and proceeded to the three mile mark where I heard the shot-firer, Declan Gallagher, complain to Gangmaster Brannan that black water had been ‘all about the men’s knees’ for three days, though the pumps were holding. The men were breaking picks on the stone along that section: it was where the millstone grit met shale, and the permeable strata was saturated. Six charges were packed into the face at around 8 o’clock and the firing alarm given. A tubman nearby, Rian Henaghan, said, ‘If those fuses are lit we shall be swept away and drownt!’ Mr Brannan reprimanded him, saying,’ Da--- you! Every inch gained is profit for the company and that means chinks in the packets you send home for your wives and wains.’
The fuses were lit and there followed a great blast—but the water seemed no worse at that point. We set about the rocks for two hours, and suddenly the water exploded onto us with terrible force—snatching away two of the boys screaming—then lost in the blackness. I saw seven more swept by as I struggled to keep my face above the torrent—all face down and horribly torn—I could not even surmise that they had been men.
Six of us joined hands and forced our way along to reach the higher gradient near the adit by the hoist, but found it blocked with timbers, filth, rubble, wrecked machinery and bodies—save one poor struggling pony, its belly gashed open.
We gained a ledge in a side gallery begun as a works access to the adjacent tunnel—had it been already brick-lined, we should have slipped down into the flood tumbling about us. Here, eventually, seventeen of us huddled together without any means of escape, light or food, the air growing foul, for three bitter days and two nights, the water about our waists. In the first hours, some wept, others prayed. One, a Welshman, Tom Owen, tore out his hair, sobbing that he should never again see his children. Among our number was a huge man with a giant’s heart—Fionn McDaid—and he took me in his arms and laid me across his lap to keep me out of the mud. The bad air, pressing heavily on us, caused a stupor. When I awoke, my dear friend was dead. The water below our refuge was sulfuric so that we dare not drink it.
Without respite—or hope—men died, often quietly, some cursing, but we could not move them for a great terror persisted that there might be another rockfall.
I clung to corpses either side of me and I prayed too that the bad air or the cold or hunger would take me too.
I knew efforts would be made to search for us as the flood level fell, but did not know then that the force had wrecked pumps and water had swamped even the cutting at the entrance.
I saw a light reflected on the dark water and thought myself somehow at last among the stars—it was a rescue party roped to Cian Feerick who swam and waded to me, calling out ‘Who is here? What is your number?’
Too weak to call back I felt him wipe my face, clearing my eyelids with his thumbs, and he gently pushed bodies into the water to count, all of them light as bark—and by his lamp I saw their eyes were all open.
I was the only one left alive—sixteen men perished in that awful place. Men with families: there will be terrible sorrow and empty bellies from Mayo to Wexford.
But, oh, the dreadful journey back! I had no sensation in my legs, and had to be dragged or lifted over tumbled, slimy debris. Then a cry went up, ‘For God’s sake—another collapse, boys—run!’ They shouldered me and tore out of the north portal, a great cloud of dust and dirt about us, stone chips flying into our backs.
I sobbed to see daylight, and saw a great crowd lining the cutting side and tops. They were there to see the poor bodies brought out—grim and dangerous work which proceeded for six days.
It was then that I found I was the only survivor, and that the sixteen suffocated or drowned in the refuge were under such terrible, heavy debris that recovering them was deemed too dangerous—and that great expense would now be necessary to adjust the tunnel to the East.
The life I have left—as you gentlemen must surely know—will be spent sleeping and waking with the sight of those poor men and boys, cruelly mangled and drowned. I have read accounts which say some bodies recovered looked as though they were but sleeping. This may comfort some—but not me—for of those I saw—some with their very faces pressed into mine—all their eyes were open.
The Company have remunerated surgeons and underwritten interment where possible.
The side gallery under Learchild Fell, which was found to be filled with immovable tons of fallen boulders and sediment, was sealed. Work has resumed.
Gangmasters reported the navigators—illiterates much given to fearfulness and superstition—have cut their own memorial incisions into the brick face and are wary of its vicinity.
It is to be further sealed with another brick layer by local contractors Allen’s of Halifax. Any further inscriptions are to be discouraged on pain of dismissal.
Colonel George Sutton has raised a public subscription at the Black Lion Hotel, Pickering, amounting to £547 12s to be donated to the widows and orphans of the deceased and to be sent to the families of men incapacitated by the mishap.
This transcript in all its fine copperplate, with attendant surveys, casualty lists, cross-sectional diagrams, schematics, testimonies, attestations, sketches of local strata; calculations, autopsies determining the causes of death: ‘fright’, ‘stifling’, ‘mud ingestion’, ‘drowning’, ‘pressure blast’—ledgers, receipts and correspondence, would burn to ash along with three hundred years of West Yorkshire archives when lone raider Heinkel DO/I + 78 of 4 Gruppe, 6 Staffel, dropped three 100kg bombs on Halifax one November night in 1940—killing seven civilians in a residential street—and obliterating the County Records Office.
After rattling for a further mile beyond the solitary horse in its scraggy pasture, Phil’s train slid into the final tunnel before Stalybridge and Manchester, and passengers—having boomed gratuitous intimacies on their phones for the past two hours—huffed and tutted as signals blinked out.
He was rather glad of the peace, and with the carriage light too sickly to read by, he considered his reflection in the window, now a black mirror—he was greying fast; troubled by a thickening chin, and had never liked his nose.
The engine note began to falter again: stuttering; dwindling to a hiss—then silence, before the brakes clamped on.
The train, with its crew and two hundred and seven passengers, came to a gentle halt three miles into Killhope Sike tunnel; four hundred feet under Learchild Fell, on the edge of the North Pennines.
Then the lights went out.
Darkness for many is a sodium haze; a glutinous murk; a mere leeching of colour—this was like extinction.
For seconds panic shockwaved through the carriages until, singly, then in hundreds, phonetorches clicked on; faces were underlit, neon white.
There was a hum from the tannoy, then—with all pretence of corporate, gushy, synthetic formality forgotten— ‘There’s definitely summat wrong wi’ this train. Battery’s knackered.’
Straining collectively to hear over the splutter and crackle, passengers were told that the train was now sided in the tunnel—without motive power, light or heating. The driver and guard would walk along the trackside to the signal box at Deepvale, collect a chargepack; returning within an hour to jump-start the battery.
Phil caught his only glimpse of the tunnel wall as the crew, having pulled on orange jump suits and Hi-Viz jackets, slouched miserably past the window, their powerful torches sweeping over green stone blocks and brickwork, blackened ballast, curving tracks and water pouring down—in trickles, drips, sheets, cascades, rivulets, streams—all feeding a thin, soaking mist. It drummed on the carriage roof and splattered onto the windows.
Within minutes, ice-rime began to bloom on the inside of the glass.
A hen party began a sing-song: they managed to murder That’s Amore and the chorus to Always Look on the Bright Side of Life—before cursing the cold as it bit through thin denim.
This would mean a hotel overnight in Manchester, and a ruined trip.
He pulled on gloves, tightened his scarf, jammed his hands under his armpits, and lapsed into a too-familiar resigned stupor.
Sixty-five feet away, through triple-brickwork and interbedded, massed black shale, the Pluto party had finished their awed circuit of the last capped ventilation shaft—with its torrent of fly-tipped trash: a putrid, vertical glacier of mashed plastic, old tyres, refrigerators and washing machines. Then they headed for the distant star of the south portal, where Willow had parked the mini-bus on an adjacent farm track, switched on the heater and readied flasks of hot chocolate. Glen knew he would have to text Network Rail, once he had a viable signal, and alert them to the brickfall.
From the group’s excited chatter and animated bunching as they emerged into the cutting, after clambering over the tin sheeting, he knew it had been a great trip, ensuring positive feedback on social media.
As he retrieved the stepladder, Glen instinctively glanced back; not in case he had left anyone, but because he heard a curious sound in the dark arc behind him; faint but persistent: clink: like the sound of steel biting into stone.
He shrugged—for tunnels are strange echo chambers—and re-joined the clients, already popping larky group selfies.
The second jolt from the chargepack—met with resounding cheers and applause from the shivering passengers—re-started the engine. Light and heating were restored; the soaked crew climbed back aboard, and the 8.28, now three hours behind schedule, resumed its broken journey south.
A sickly, aquatic daylight filtered through the windows’ plastering of mud and slime as they exited Killhope Sike tunnel. Phil stuffed his magazines into his shoulder bag, then checked his return tickets to separate the one he’d need to exit the platform from those he’d use to secure a refund for a trashed onwards journey: his last possible connection would be halfway to Chester by now.
Passengers on Manchester Victoria’s Platform 3 looked on in wonder, instinctively shuffling back from the edge, as the 8.38—evidence of its ‘technical difficulties’ sluiced along the train’s entire length; obliterating windows, and gaudy company paintwork in great, slicks and dripping gobbets of mud—drew up alongside them.
The doors slid open, sending black icicles skittering onto the concrete, and disgorging dazed, cramped and weary passengers.
Phil passed the driver, gratefully drinking a Styrofoam cup of coffee handed to him by his relief.
‘Christ, Gary, you look like you’ve tekken’ this unit through Hell!’
‘Dunno. But we chuffin’ well came via Hell. Me boots are fucked.’
Concerned only with grabbing a room in the city centre, a hot shower, then burger and chips, Phil hurried through the electronic gates, shoving his ticket through sourly and emerging into the main concourse with its tiers of sparkly franchised cafes, eateries, mini-supermarkets and newsagents.
He zig-zagged through the crowds out onto the ramp leading down to the cab rank and saw that his shoes were caked in mud, and one lace had come astray.
Cursing—not altogether quietly—he knelt down to fasten it, and felt the most intense surge of sadness—heart-cracking, illimitable, sense-stripping desolation—break over him.
Indistinct at first, half-dissolved into the bleached stones; terracotta, grand municipal brickwork—the florid tributes to merchant princes, coal and cotton kings and even the boxy, soulless, upthrusting multi-storey car parks, call centres and apartment blocks—he rose shakily and saw them: filthy, stunted; in corduroy britches, with knotted arms; picks, crowbars, shovels, shouldered or rested on—countless men and boys in row upon row: for this was another one of their million cuttings.
And all their eyes were open, as they turned their mud-streaked faces upwards to the pale winter sun.
Le greim docht Dia agus iad ina gcodladh—God held them while they were sleeping.