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Underground Aeronauts

There are two small parks not far from here. One is neat and clearly holds the shape of its Edwardian origins, down to the small bay in which an ornamental cannon was once mounted. There’s a perfectly square boating lake (lacking boats this century), some ornamental flower beds, and a little playground which could well be the most modern part.

A busy road forms a boundary line, and there starts the other park. This one is wild, unplanned, open spaces, unexpected corners. Never fully in view. You could get lost and I imagine people have, though it seems to be nothing more than fields and trees. Here, there’s houses and flats and shouting late at night.

But it’s only two parks above ground.

If you could find a way into the underneath world – and I’m not saying that you can, because I don’t want you to die on my account – you could see that. There might – and I’m not confirming anything – be a whole other world down there.

The story is, it’s where they used to store barrage balloons. One doesn’t ride around in a barrage balloon, but this isn’t real, so in my mind, it’s the kind of balloon that you can travel to Paris in. Except, underground. In the subterranean park. How much space do you need to store a balloon like that? It seems like there’s a lot of room down there she says, based on nothing whatsoever. I think they were – are – inflated, perhaps even floating gently in huge ink dark spaces. Underground ballooning.

I might have done the neat park a disservice. It’s a beautiful place and you can hear owls there at night. Yes, the boating lake has no boats, and it’s a perfect square, but how deep does it go down? Every side is sentried with warning signs; it’s deeper than you think. How deep, exactly? How far down? Once I made a map of it, and drew undines at the edge, singing sirens in the municipal depths. Yesterday morning, there were swimmers where I placed water spirits, determinedly blanking the DANGER NO SWIMMING DEEP WATER signs, and the geese.

There’s no obvious water on the other side of the road. Never means it’s not there though.

According to legends, people often got into the Underneath. There were secret hatches, passages, unexpected caves in the bushes, ways In and Down. Lit by thin falling sunbeams from far off inspection hatches, it was party time down there after dark, despite the fact that one of the most popular routes in consisted of a climb down a disturbingly long steel ladder, descending a shaft into the earth, looking for balloonland. Candles propped in wine bottles, everything running from 9V battery packs, and smeared with that grime of dampness that fills such spaces.

Apparently. I wouldn’t know.

No, really, really. I wouldn’t. I’ve never been there. I’ve spent many hours in the two parks, but never in the one park, the one down there. I know the ways in, or I know where they might be, but they’ve been cemented and welded over many many times now, perhaps finally. Or maybe not. I don’t care. I love the idea of underground balloons, and I’m happier with the dream than the reality.

Also, why would anyone store balloons in a huge underground facility? Perhaps it’s not that huge. Don’t care. The legend is better.

This is where the ghost zeppellins float dreamily on in the dark, lit by candlestars. Ferrying the council undines back and forth under the road. Of course, to one side there’s a tower where you can ride the Paternoster (another story) and over there is the aerodrome hidden by a ring of factories (another story). The sun rises dead on a line with this place, straight down into the district named for an Egyptian city, just over from where they used to take us to see the Egyptian sarcophagus (another story).

They built a huge university building right next to the neat park this year. And then they pulled it down again. It was sinking into the earth, vanishing into the underneath.

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Built Things Uncategorized

Rain

This city has a sky like no other.

People keep telling me this (I knew already, but I am very biased). They often tell me when they visit for the first time. “Big sky”, people say. They are quite right, and it is the sky that I remember most clearly from childhood. Two very particular visual memories in particular seem to dominate. A plain whitewash sky, a cloud layer so smooth that it seems like paper. Bright, and lacking any colour at all. Saturday sky, teatime sky.

And the other one, the dirty orange one. The same smooth surface but now lit up by cheap sodium streetlamps, each one with light that managed to be simultaneously warm and cold. Welcoming, and yet utterly comfortless. Perhaps I am old enough to remember the light of steel furnaces adding to the burnt tone of the clouds. I’m honestly not sure, but it would fit.

Out here, where this is, the moors and peaks form a jagged circle enclosing the lights. Thin ridges of colour stretch out desperately grabbing other towns across the night. That fact, always within reach; you can freeze, die of exposure out there on the hills, within sight of the town hall lights. Driving back at night, the orange glare was very, very reassuring, reflecting off the cooling towers and bridges. Brutalism as a fortress against everything that winter and politics aimed at us.

Always the clouds though, in memory! Why don’t I remember sunny blue skies? There must have been some, but the happiest pictures are of white skies and shining dark stonework running with water, glazed and mossy. This town is built around rain, and sometimes we get that balance wrong and the rivers come out to claim it back. I remember the last great flood, seeing the road tear open in front of me with the pressure of water below.

Listed as (c) David Dixon, labelled for reuse on Google. Not taken by me!

We used to build tunnels here. It’s in our instincts to do so. And it is the structure of the city that generates that, because there’s no great ancient mystical genetic bloodline here, just lots of people coming for work or art or because the climbing is good, or their old home is destroyed and burning. So they come into the rain, but generation on generation built tunnels and went underground. Mineshafts and secret escape routes in folklore, and sometimes folklore escapes into reality when they turn up a archway in the foundations of a new building.

The tunnels are always there, except they officially aren’t, which is a bit of a laugh because you can see them if you know where to look. Gargantuan Victorian drainage systems run in chambers underneath the city, and the entrances are right there, if you know what fence to look over, which culvert to follow, though if you do, you might well die. The air down there can be foul, and don’t forget about those irritable rivers that can change in an instant and sweep everything away again.

And that’s an official one, but there are legends too. Linking cellars and running to the old castle, for ridiculous distances. Everyone seems to know a story, though they are wearily explained as old sewers or bits of mining left over. But if you ask, people will tell you about the dark chamber with the archway that ran on under the city streets, and the ghost stories attached to it. You can ask me if you like, I was shown a hidden tunnel entrance deep below the city about twenty five years ago, and I’m sad to say I never explored further (I needed the job that I would have lost by doing so).

We built a huge network of tunnels in the late 60s and early 70s. They linked the shops; you could enter and leave through basements. The only one I’ve seen like it was in Kyoto, part of the station complex there in fact, but this was very different to the bright and regulated centre there. This one was all about hiding from the rain.

That’s where you went, avoiding the traffic and the damp. Concrete running wet and smeared with millions of dark wet footprints. In the centre, a huge dome open to the sky, to let everyone hurry under back into the tunnels, kiosks built into the walls, bright lights against dark patterns. Ask anyone of a certain age and listen to them talk about it like a long lost home, even though it smelled a bit and you could get murdered at night. Humans are strange like that.

When they built it, they cut through old tunnel routes. The people in the travel agents said that something walked through at night sometimes, following the path.

They filled the tunnels in. They blocked them up and if you wanted to stay out of the rain, you had to go to the mall out of town. Anyone you talk to about this will tell you that nothing was ever the same again. I hate useless nostalgia and the championing of the past just because it’s the past, but for once, this is true. The underground time was full of dreams and phantoms; there was a drive to make everything clean and understandable, to rationalise. It didn’t work, but the ghost stories died down. Perhaps that was the point.

Except people still tell you about things glimpsed underground. A forum post about looking over a security fence and seeing a thing like an underground station exposed by building work. Mentjon of rail lines running underneath a demolition site. A mysterious vault deep beneath the library building, itself covered in arcane symbols. Rumours of deep shelters and unknown systems.

We’re still tunnelling, into myth and stories. Loving the sound of the rain, and keeping dry.