Perhaps the most unusual and macabre landmark in Exeter. The medieval passages are located underneath Exeter High Street and hold a rich, fascinating history that must be seen and heard. Dating from the 14th century, these passages are a unique ancient monument: no similar system of passages are open for public exploration in Great Britain.
Between four and six metres below the surface, and stretching 425 metres across the city centre, this network of medieval underground passages was built so both the cathedral clergy and wider population could access clean drinking water from natural springs in the neighbouring parish of St Sidwell’s, just outside the city walls. Lead pipes were built leading into the city which sometimes sprang leaks. Repairs to buried pipes could only be carried out by digging them up as we do today.
To avoid this disruption the passages were vaulted and it’s down some of these vaulted passageways that visitors are now able to access.
When a cholera plague hit the city in the 1800s, it was decided that the water system needed a full overhaul and a number of new water sources were created. Exeter slowly weaned itself off the natural well. In 1901, the passages were finally closed down completely and they were quickly forgotten.
Initially open for guided tours since 1933, locals and the wider public have long held a fascination with these underground tunnels. Throughout our history they have been included in stories of wars and sieges, the plague and other notable times of pestilence. For years the passages were largely forgotten about until World War Two, where they are said to have provided safety and shelter for around three hundred Exonians during the Luftwaffe’s bombing raids.
The passages are dark, narrow and low. Visitors must wear hard hats, and can experience interactive and educational exhibits in the Underground Passages Heritage Centre. All visitors watch a short video presentation before their guided tour. The visit experience is fast paced and includes intriguing and harrowing stories of the passages connections with the ‘Witches of Exeter,’ the Great Plague, and The Blitz.
The tunnels are suitably lit, adding to the atmosphere of being underground. This atmosphere is great for visitors to take photographs during their tour.
One of the most extraordinary artefacts associated with the underground passages is a late 16th century statue of Queen Elizabeth I, which holds pride of place in the Underground Passages’s Heritage Centre.
Special events are hosted throughout the year; for example, at Halloween visitors are provided with an experience of gory stories, blacked-out passages to walk through, and chilling recounts of Exeter’s true and gruesome past. There are even stories about sightings of a ghost who is supposed to cycle the passages by night!
Scheduled tours of the underground passages are subject to change so it’s always advisable to contact the visitors centre before planning a visit.