I’m wearing a safety helmet and my eyes are gradually adapting to the low lighting within the first of the dank-smelling tunnels. Smooth limestone arches over the scaffold walkway we’re standing on.
Williamson became known as the Mole of Edge Hill (the area under which the tunnels were constructed) but his subterranean burrows, which run for several miles, were actually built from the bottom upwards, by covering in an old quarry over a period of 30 years.
“He was a secretive, eccentric man and we think he destroyed his papers before he died,” says Lesley of the man who made his fortune as a tobacco and snuff merchant. Williamson’s profession fuelled rumours the tunnels were constructed for storing contraband, but these are discounted because Williamson was a famously religious and moral individual.
“Some people think he was going to flee down here when Armageddon came but that’s just speculative,” says my guide as we clomp our way along the wooden boards, causing an echoing din.
We move forward, through a shoulder-width triangular stone passage, known as the pyramid tunnel, in which a rectangular lamp hangs. In the vaulted brick chamber beyond, Lesley points towards a column of reddish rubble packed around a builder’s tie, which was inserted into the ground during the construction of student housing. Volunteers jokingly refer to the pillar of stones as ‘the kebab’. It gives an idea of the volume of soil, stone and rubbish they’ve excavated to make the tunnels visitable. More than 1,200 tons have been removed over the past 20 years and the work continues.
Williamson was also a landlord and it seems likely that one of the reasons he had the tunnels built was to create land that could be used for houses and gardens. In the late 19th century local residents and businesses began using the tunnels to dispose of waste. Discarded jam jars, crockery and early pop bottles have subsequently been excavated and the finds are now on display within the tunnels.
“I think his main motive was to give work to soldiers returning from the Napoleonic Wars,” says Barbara, one of the volunteers at the Williamson Tunnels Heritage Centre. Williamson is widely regarded as a philanthropist and by providing work he gave demobilised men an alternative to unemployment at a time when state benefits didn’t exist.
“There’s no drawings, no plans, nothing,” says Richard MacDonald, a Blue Badge Guide and local historian, who recently discovered the only letter known to be penned by Williamson. “It’s the enigma about the man that makes him interesting.”
“I don’t think we’ll ever fully understand what he was thinking. If we ever do find a piece of paper that tells us why he built them, then for me it would ruin it slightly,” he says.