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13 November 2014

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You are in: Suffolk > Places > Places features > A turbo-ferret under Ipswich

Stoke Hall Vaults danger sign

A turbo-ferret under Ipswich

Sometimes we could be standing on top of history without realising it. One man who seeks out tunnels and secret bunkers in Suffolk is Lee 'Ziggy' Norton who's a member of Subterranea Britannica and he's taken BBC Suffolk around some vaults.

Ziggy met us at St Mary-at-Stoke church to take us to the Stoke Hall Vaults which are under a small business nearby, although, to protect the owner's privacy, we can't tell you exactly where they are!

"I've been active in searching and researching all the tunnels in Ipswich," said Ziggy.  "Out of all the tunnels I've been in, this one is the most amazing and probably the hub of lots of tunnels I've been in."

Stoke Hall was a large mansion house built by the wine merchant Thomas Cartwright in 1744/45. It was demolished in 1915. Stoke Hall Vaults are underneath what were the stables for the Hall, but which are now used as business premises.

The air-raid shelter level

Air-raid shelter

The vaults started life as wine cellars, but theyve also been used as air-raid shelters.

Ziggy, who describes himself as a 'turbo-ferret', is also involved with the Clifford Road Air Raid Shelter Museum in east Ipswich. The Clifford Road Tunnels held 200 people during air-raids, and Stoke Hall Vaults would have held a similar number.

A voyage below

We entered the Vaults via a fairly nondescript set of concrete steps and a modern wooden door into the air-raid shelter level. The walls have been plastered over so that they're smooth and there's still a poster up listing the names and addresses of the doctors who were on-call during the Secong World War.

Behind an iron gate in an end-room are hundreds of circular tubes which would have been used to store wine bottles. A few bottles are still scattered throughout the vaults.

Close to the main entrance to the vaults we're confronted by a danger sign and a spiral stone stairwell which leads to the lower level. It's in a state of disrepair.

The vaults are, by and large, empty spaces, but they have features indicating what they were once used for. There are mysteries such as a large block of sarson stone which is lodged in a wall. It's similar to the blocks of stone at Ipswich's skatepark. There's also a tree root which is petrified to the extent that it feels like stone.

At the end of one of the vaults, a hole has been knocked through the brick wall and we climb through and enter a 10 foot square room with a well in the middle: "This place used to have access to a well system in the 1700s, which Ipswich didn't," said Ziggy.

Ziggy Norton by the Stoke Hall Vaults well

On the rim of the well

"So the vaults were part of a way of directing the water around Ipswich, but this is a part of the history that we're a little bit 'shallow' about, but we are getting there. We're not sure how deep the well is.

"This well looks like someone's filled it in, covered it and turned it into a floor. Someone's then come back and uncovered it."

Masks on

Heading back up the stone spiral staircase we then go along the middle level of vaults again and up a wartime iron ladder which leads to the upper level: "We think the vaults were bricked-up in half," said Ziggy.

"Apparently one of the owners of a nearby house found a hole in his basement and found a tunnel which he went down - and he came out here. If anyone lives on Burrell Road and they can see weird bricked-up entrances ... it would be nice to see this place properly investigated!"

Nick Catford is from Subterranea Britannica, which was formed in 1974 to research and explore man-made underground spaces including air-raid shelters, canal or railway tunnels or nuclear bunkers: "There's a lot of evidence of the various uses to be found down here. What I like about it is the various uses through the ages.

"We would often go a lot deeper than this, such as being winched down a mine-shaft three thousand feet, so this is fairly tame, but it doesn't mean it's not interesting. It's still an exhilarating experience to go into these places for the first time in ages.

"We're not a preservation body, we simply want to record them. If they do get demolished, so long as they're recorded then that is our role."

The future's dark

The Stoke Hall Vaults were put up for sale in early 2009, so the future of the building is uncertain.

Ziggy Norton

Ziggy above ground

"This place has been here for about 300 years, had a variety of uses and survived all of them. The Ministry slapped concrete all over the place during the war, which has probably helped preserve them.

"We know quite a bit about it, but there are still so many questions. We've got lots of people in the area who're interested. One lady has a very interesting floor to her cellar so we might go and have a look at that to see if a tunnel goes under her house.

"We need to get it all done before the place gets sealed-off."

last updated: 05/05/2009 at 17:03
created: 05/05/2009

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