[dropcap]T[/dropcap]here comes a time for most households when they outgrow their homes. Some solve the problem by moving to larger premises. Others choose to add an extension. For me, moving was out of the question. My wife and I loved the house we lived in; we had been there for fifteen years. It might be old, with high ceilings, and thick walls, but despite the draughts from the windows, the open coal fires gave the place a warmth; a cosy, friendly feel.
Our three children were born there. As they grew up we watched them expanding from their own bedrooms, to demand first a nursery, then a playroom, later a music room. Now teenagers, they wanted their own self-contained space, where they could entertain their friends without the encumbrance of parents. So it was that the attic was converted, and became known as ‘The Penthouse’. The only problem was, prior to the change, I had been using it as my own private study, so solving one problem had created another.
The garden was small, in keeping with many town houses built in the same era. However, like many Victorian villas, there was a cellar, which with a little work could become my ‘Den’. The access from the house was down a steep flight of narrow stairs, but as the land at the rear sloped away, it was possible to provide an additional entrance from the garden. The low ceiling, just five feet six inches high — were the Victorians a race of midgets? — meant the floor would have to be excavated. There was also some damp, which needed attention. A builder-friend called the process of waterproofing ‘tanking’. This would come later, left to the expert, but first all that was required was a Kango hammer, a wheel barrow, shovel, and an abundance of labour. Finances being tight — they always are with a large family — I decided to do the labouring myself. After all, it should not be too difficult digging out a couple of feet of soil.
The soil soon became bed rock. Fortunately this was not solid granite, but a soft flaky shale, which was relatively easy to break up. However, my back and arms soon ached. My hands became blistered, then callused, as I worked. It took nearly three weeks of my spare time to dig the cellar out. Only a few inches more, to allow for a concrete floor and I would be done. The builder could complete the work and my Den would be a reality.
I was late one Saturday afternoon. The light outside was fading fast, but with the help of an improvised electric light I resolved to finish. I should have known I had struck something different when the Kango changed its tone. Instead of a low steady thump, it started to make a loud whining sound as it hammered. Still, no time to be cautious; I wanted my dinner.
I nearly lost the jack-hammer completely as suddenly the tip went right through the slab, down a hole, followed by a large quantity of rubble, and almost myself, except I had the presence of mind to jump back quickly.
It must have been a full minute before the dust cleared. Peering into the excavation, my face immediately felt an updraft of cold air. That was not all. I put my hand over my mouth, and pinched my nostrils. The smell was unmistakable; almost unbeatable. Closer inspection confirmed that I had broken into the old sewer.
Was it still in use? I was not certain. It seemed perfectly dry. I knew that the toilets now discharged into modern plastic pipes which ran underground, to the side of the house. Maybe some gullies still discharged surface water, and it had not rained for weeks? Rather than risk a potential flood, before recapping the hole I decided it best to clear out the rock that had fallen in.
Tying a handkerchief across my nostrils , I eased myself down. There was ample room to climb down the four feet. Small iron rungs had been set in the side for that very purpose. It must have been used during the ordinal tunnelling of the sewer, to provide ventilation and a means of disposing of the spoil. It took me less than half and hour to clear the channel. With the rock-fall removed I took time to examine what can only be described as a work of art. The base was a U-shaped ceramic channel, to take the flow. The sides, and roof, which came over to form a perfect circle, were lined with engineering bricks, all carefully pointed. It must have taken some craftsman days to complete, and to think, ordinarily nobody would see the product of his devotion. The circumference was just large enough to comfortably take a man, crawling low on his hands and knees, or more simply lying on his back and pushing himself along with his feet.
I climbed back out, and found a suitable piece of shuttering to cover the hole. Just as I was about to do so I heard a sound. I listened again. Yes, it was definitely emanated from the sewer. It came once more. Although only just audible it was like a sucking of air; a sort of muffled roar even.
Now any rational man would have put it down to a vivid imagination, for it is not an everyday occurrence to hear anything other than running water in a sewer. If the noise was man-made, surely it would have been sensible to summon help, and leave the investigation to those who know what they are doing in such places? Not wishing to call on the rescue services, to find I was wrong, I threw caution to the wind. After all I was only going to crawl in a few feet, just to make sure that I was not mistaken. So grabbing a hand torch, I ventured forth, inching my way in the direction of the noise.
I suppose I would have turned back after covering a couple of body-lengths, but I did not. I most certainly should have turned back. Not because I repeatedly heard the cry. The noise did not come again; not then anyway. Rather, after the first fifteen or twenty feet, the passage suddenly opened out. I could now stand, be it in a crouched-over position, but I could stand. Now I could move easily. Perhaps that is why I did not return there and then? The smell was still present, but there was no sign of sewage. However, a little further on there, what I was seeing captivated me. This might seem unbelievable, but the walls of the tunnel, although lined with brick, were finely decorated in paintings, much like cave drawings of primitive man. Indeed, the pictures could have been etched by some such person, for they depicted animals being hunted with spears, and bows and arrows. Except, I was not aware that Neanderthals were still around in the mid-nineteenth century. If any were, I hardly expected them to be dwelling in Bristol’s sewers.
Would you have gone back? I am sure you would. My wife often accuses me of having an impetuous nature. She was right. I pressed on. Following the curve of the tunnel, which gradually, imperceptibly became larger, I now found I could stand upright with no difficulty. Soon the roof was towering feet above me.
The cave paintings occupied only a small section of the walls. Here the brickwork was gone. I was looking at the rough rock, left as the passage had been driven, the marks of pick and chisel clearly to be seen.
I became aware my boots were sloshing through water. I looked down, fearing that I had at last found the main sewer. But no. Although I did not stoop to cup a sample with my hand, it appeared to me to be unpolluted water, and it ran in a small rivulet along the tunnel. I followed the meandering trickle.
I came upon the fog suddenly. It was a surprised I can tell you. Better described as a thick mist, it hung low just below waist height, which meant the beam of my light still picked out the way ahead. Was the mist an accumulation of gases? No sooner had my brain registered the thought than I felt giddy. My head started to real. I staggered. I would have fallen over, except I was fortunate to be positioned near the side, and was able to rest myself there. I had read about the dangers of toxic fumes in sewers and mines. I decided, as soon as my head cleared, I would go back.
I opened my eyes when I again heard a sound. Far off… A clatter… An object falling… Has something been dropped? If so; by what or whom? Then I thought I saw a glimpse of light. Just a glimpse… I moved tentatively towards it.
“Hello!” I shouted. “Is anybody there?”
The reply came; the returning echo of my own voice. Best go back and get assistance.
The mist was not where I had expected to find it. There was no mist at all. Instead, there was another surprise awaited me. The tunnel branched into two. My brain offered a simple explanation. Not fully recovered from my dizzy spell I had failed to notice the junction.
Which one to take? A rivulet of water came from both. That was no indication. I had to resort to my unfailing sense of direction. I would go left. Or should I go right? Left or right? Right or left? Right? No! Left? Oh, damn it! In such circumstance I would tossed a coin, except my trouser pockets were empty.
Never being one of indecision I impetuously took the right fork. Perhaps the other tunnel was the way out? My choice certainly was not. Soon I came to what is best describe as a large hall. The ceiling lofted high above me. A strange incandescent glow illuminated the vault, light green coming from lichen which grew on the walls. Without giving the phenomena consideration, I pressed on.
There were not paintings this time. Instead I encountered sculptures; carvings of huge animals, mythical beasts, none of this world. What manner of place had I stumbled into?
At the end of the chamber was a solid rock wall. One beautiful carving was there to greet me Of all the strange creatures this was the one which bore resemblance to a creature of my own word. It was very large, three, no four times my height, sitting on it rear haunches, but unmistakable. Felis concolor, the “cat of one colour”, the mountain lion.
I had no other recourse, but to turn back. I wished I had been wearing my watch. How long had I been down here?
Back at the junction, I nearly slipped. My torch went into the air, and in the enclosed space landed on the floor with a loud clatter. I was lucky it did not go out. Trapped down here was bad enough. Without a light it would be unthinkable.
I picked up my torch.
Then I heard someone calling. “Hello! Is anybody there?”
Yes; that was a human voice, clear if distant. Deliverance was at hand. That was definitely the way out. I hurried, almost ran in my haste.
I stopped with a sudden start were the tunnel divided. Without thinking I chose the left passage this time, and rushed on.
The hall, with its vaulting dome was as I had left it. The magnificent statues of beasts lined up on each side as I now slowly walked to the top end of the chamber. The solid wall of rock again was there to meet me. The lion also was there to greet me. I stood and stared at the animal. Somehow it seemed different from my earlier visit. I stood in front of the petrified creature. Something about it has changed. What was it? I scratched by head, trying to think. Shining my torch, first at the large clawed feet, I slowly panned the beam upwards. When I came to the head, I realised. Its mouth was now wide open. I could clearly see its teeth.
The sound when it came was unmistakable. Loud, terrifying, the whole place shook to the rush of air, which became a resonating feline roar.