History is going underground across county

The mysterious steps down to the Cateran Hole.The mysterious steps down to the Cateran Hole.
The mysterious steps down to the Cateran Hole.
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. Many say 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 down the western flank of The Cheviot. Legend has it that it was the home of Black Adam, a notorious outlaw, who burst into a wedding at Wooperton, robbed the guests and murdered the bride. The groom gave chase to Adam’s mountain hideout. They fought and both fell to their deaths.

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The air shaft for the Hill Head Tunnel.The air shaft for the Hill Head Tunnel.
The air shaft for the Hill Head Tunnel.

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

Sadly, the legend is just that – the tunnel doesn’t go that far, 45m at most. It is not 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 designed to keep the curious away?

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

Similar legends exist about tunnels which are said to run for unfeasibly long distances between castles and other old buildings – though without any being found.

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Inside the Heiferlaw Auxiliary Unit base.Inside the Heiferlaw Auxiliary Unit base.
Inside the Heiferlaw Auxiliary Unit base.

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, engineers had to cut a tunnel through the high ground at Hill Head, near Edlingham. This brick-lined tunnel is over 300m long and contained the single-track railway that was in use until 1953. Today, the entrances are blocked, but an air shaft can be seen off the minor road between Edlingham and Bolton.

Coming forward in time, we can find underground structures from the Second World War.

As part of anti-invasion precautions, two secret organisations were established, which would operate behind enemy lines. These Auxiliary Units would be responsible for sabotage and intelligence gathering. Underground bases were built for them, which contained beds, stoves and chemical toilets. Their remains give us an insight into those times.

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The Ottercops Moss underground chamber sliding door.The Ottercops Moss underground chamber sliding door.
The Ottercops Moss underground chamber sliding door.

Within Northumberland, the sabotage branch had over 20 bases, but only about six survive, and they are in very poor condition – they are likely to collapse in the near future. The espionage branch had an underground base at Heiferlaw, North of Alnwick. This is in a much better condition, but is secured to prevent access.

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 were vulnerable to attack so 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 doors are there. The chambers are now flooded and inaccessible.

Move forward 20 years or so and the threat was of nuclear war. Civil defence became a major concern. 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 deserted, but many were left just as they were, with maps and papers, tables and chairs, all in position.

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

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Whittingham ROC post.Whittingham ROC post.
Whittingham ROC post.

This is just a quick tour through some of our underground history. There will be many more, but sadly, without care, some of these relics from our past will 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.

There is an organisation called Subterranea Britannica, which studies underground structures, found at www.subbrit.org.uk. At Wanney Books we have a number of publications which cover these subjects, see www.wildsofwanney.co.uk

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

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