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You are in: Devon > History > Local history > Exeter's monument to water

One of Exeter's underground passages

A section of The City Passage

Exeter's monument to water

Beneath Exeter's busy city centre lies a network of medieval passages built to house the pipes that brought clean water to the city. This unique undertaking has survived the centuries in remarkably good shape.

Imagine as you are walking the streets of Exeter what lies beneath your feet.

Between four and six metres underground is an extraordinary network of vaulted passages unique in Britain - an historic remnant dating from the early 14th Century.

Their purpose was simple: to house the pipes that brought clean drinking water to the people of Exeter from natural springs on the outskirts of the city.

Exeter's Underground Passages stretch for 425 metres across the city centre. Amazingly 80 per cent of the medieval tunnel network survives and much of it can be explored by the public with the help of expert guides.

Part of the vaulted passage network

Part of the vaulted passage network

Previously water had been supplied to the city through lead pipes buried in trenches.

These pipes often sprang leaks and repairs could only be carried out by digging them up - just as we do today.

The solution was a vaulted tunnel network lined with stone - big enough for workers to climb underground to carry out repairs.

"The passages are unique to Exeter and are a scheduled monument," said Dave Adcock, who manages the historic site for Exeter City Council.

"It just shows how ingenious medieval engineers were to come up with this unique way of easing disruption to the water supply."

Exeter was a great ecclesiastical centre and the earliest passage was built between 1346 and 1349 to serve the city's cathedral. 

The water pipes ended at a fountain in Cathedral Close that supplied clean water to Exeter's clergy.

Some medieval graffiti

Some medieval graffiti

"At the time the city was becoming quite a wealthy place," explained Dave Adcock.

"Exeter was trying to set itself apart from other cities and the cathedral was built in response to Salisbury Cathedral.

"The first section, known as The Cathedral Passage, was built about the same time as the West Front of the cathedral was being finished.

"So the stonemasons who had been working on the cathedral were set the task of constructing the underground passages."

The supply of clean water was never enough for the whole population and this resulted in the construction of a second tunnel between 1492 and 1497 - known as The City Passage.

"As the woollen trade developed there were a number of wealthy merchants who became the city forefathers and they decided they wanted their own water supply as well.

"There were always political divisions between the city and the cathedral, and I guess they wanted to ensure they had their own separate supply they could rely on."

Only the wealthiest residents could afford to have the water piped directly to their homes.

A model of The Great Conduit

A model of The Great Conduit

For everyone else, it was dispensed through an ornate public fountain, called The Great Conduit, at the junction of South Street and the High Street. Sadly the fountain itself was demolished in the 18th Century.

Despite wars and political upheaval, the passages have survived the centuries largely intact.

In the 1640s a section of The City Passage was blocked off during the English Civil War to prevent the tunnel being used as an entry point into the city. The lead pipes were removed for casting into bullets and the passage filled with rubble.

However, the passage was repaired and the water supply restored after the war ended.

Further changes were made following an outbreak of cholera in 1832 when a more healthy water supply was developed - fed from a treatment works at Pynes Hill.

Tour guide Nina Corey explained: "Just after the cholera outbreak, the Board of Health decided that something had to be done about the water supply and the connection was made between dirty water and cholera.

"They commissioned the engineer James Golsworthy to make some changes to the passages. He replaced the lead pipes with cast iron ones and lowered the floor level to improve the water flow.

"It also meant that the pipes sprang leaks less often because the floor was more level."

The passages continued to supply water to the city until 1857 when one of the wells was damaged by the building of a new railway cutting. By 1901 the passages had been virtually forgotten.

Interestingly 500 years after they were first built, the passages were put to a completely different, but equally vital use during World War II. Part of the tunnel network served as a shelter from German bombing raids  - a place of safety for 300 city residents.

Guided tours have taken place since 1933. Originally there was no lighting and the tours were no more than a scramble through conduits that stretch out below the streets.

The visitor experience has improved since then and a new interpretation centre, opened in 2007, tells the story of the passages, their innovative use of water and explores medieval life in the city.

last updated: 30/04/2008 at 16:51
created: 30/04/2008

You are in: Devon > History > Local history > Exeter's monument to water

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