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Review of "Williamson Tunnels"
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As a former Liverpool resident, my beloved had heard about the rather strange tale of the Williamson Tunnels which are burrowed under a piece of Edge Hill. Unfortunately this was an occasion where the myth oversold the reality, and although we had an interesting look around the tunnels it was not as “must-see” as I had imagined.
A humble entrance - A nice cup of tea and a plate of toastWe walked the couple of miles out of the city centre to get to the entrance of the tunnels; we had enjoyed something of “an evening” the night before and the fresh air and exercise was exactly what we needed. Fortunately the first splats of the rain storm broke just as we turned the corner to the entrance. Tours are held on a regular basis and we had 20 minutes to wait before the next tour. This gave us time to have a cup of tea and a piece of toast in the volunteer led “restaurant” (if that’s not too grand a word for somewhere with a kettle, a toaster, a fridge with a few soft drinks and cakes inside it and some second hand furniture). The room was a perfectly pleasant way to wile away a few minutes, and the food was much cheaper than many breakfast establishments.
By the time of the tour, there were eight of us in various states of dampness following the storm. The volunteer guide did warn us that we might get dripped on because of the rain although it usually took a few hours for the water to seep through unless the rain was particularly heavy. As it happened the tour was pretty dry.
Mr WilliamsonJoseph Williamson 1769-1840, was something of a difficult character. It seemed he came from humble beginnings in Barnsley and worked hard through the ranks ending up as a favourite employee of a wealthy Liverpool tobacco merchant. Williamson married the daughter of the merchant although there was no love in the relationship (he went hunting on the day of his wedding leaving his bride behind) and soon took control of his wife’s inheritance and the business. Oh for those pre-equality days.
There are a number of theories behind the tunnels; it would seem the most likely is that the digging served a dual purpose – he owned the land on top of the tunnels and originally built some houses on top and used his tunnelling excavations to pull out sand stone for building materials and to create arches to level the land. Williamson was also keenly aware of his difficult childhood and seemed keen to keep men returning from the Napoleonic Wars in gainful and useful employment.Over the years, what started as a good idea went a little weird as tunnel after tunnel were built in a random pattern, and Williamson stayed in a house of such strange design it wasn’t possible to actually live there full time (I seem to recall there was no kitchen). As he got old Williamson got even stranger and liked nothing better than spending the day tunnelling with his charges. Williamson died in his early 70’s still a very wealthy man (worth a few million in today’s values).
There is a famous tale that Williamson once invited his society buddies around for a meal and served them very humble food. Many of those attending left in a huff, and Williamson was then able to serve the real meal, explaining that he only wanted to dine with friends. Weird or eminently clever; I’ll leave it for you to decide but I know where my money is going.
The TourThe tour today consists of wandering through a series of tunnels while a volunteer explains the story of their construction and to show you a few interesting bits. Almost immediately you enter the tunnels, you realise how close below the surface they are, as the underneath of an existing bathroom floor tile can be spotted. There are various channels from the houses above dug down into the tunnels, and after the tunnelling stopped they soon became used as a place to dump human sewerage and waste.
After the area started smelling like a cesspit, the local council did some work to remove the worst of the waste. Today a small number of the tunnels are easily navigated (you don’t need special shoes, and a hard hat is provided for a couple of the remotely low roofs you pass through). All in all this is a sedate tour although some of the ground is a little uneven and with steps and the like. Much of the walking is done on scaffolding poles and wooden walkways.We were expecting quite a lot of old stuff stored in the tunnels (the myth we had built up in our head), but the reality was that just a few bits of broken china, pop bottles and the like had been picked up during the excavation of the tunnels. The tunnels were largely empty, and shored up by bricks in places and with the hack marks on the sandstone visible in others.
Our guide was very helpful although we were left wondering a bit about the motives of Mr Williamson (the problem being that no one knows for sure what his motive for building the tunnels were) but I think the guide could have been a little clearer with their delivery. What seems to be the attraction was Williamson himself and when that story is a little vague then the purpose becomes a little lost.The end of the tour culminates in a bit of an open space where bands have played gigs and wedding bashes have been arranged. Some Housing Association properties are built right next to this area, so I bet the residents just love the noise. Again the explanation about the purpose of the space was a little bit vague. To cap the tour off there was some mysterious tale about rival groups excavating different bits of the remaining un-cleaned out tunnels and once again I was a bit confused about who might be tunnelling, why there were some kind of rivals and what ultimate purpose was being served.
The tour itself was £4.50 to go around and I ended up feeling pleased that we had made the effort to go and take a look at the tunnels as we had long promised ourselves that we would do. The tour itself felt a little Heath Robinson which was perhaps appropriate given the subject matter at hand, but it also left me a little concerned for the state of Call-Me Dave’s Big Society. Call me a state centralist if you like, but I’d rather have paid a bit more and got something more of an authoritative tour rather than one that left me feeling a bit confused about what was going on,While I am grateful to have had a wander around the tunnels I did feel that they had been a little oversold and I probably wouldn’t look to rush back even if they have opened a shed load more of the tunnels in future years.
Product Information : Williamson Tunnels
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Listed on Ciao since: 22/09/2015