One magazine’s Steve Fothergill goes deep into Exeter’s hidden past at the Underground Passages.

Exeter is very much an ever changing city. The completion of the Princesshay development several years ago, the recent opening of the Queen Street restaurant quarter and the soon to be started St Sidwells Point leisure complex planned for the sight of the current bus station mean that the face of Exeter is undergoing rapid change.

Now don’t get me wrong – I think the work that has been carried out and is due to start soon has helped make Exeter the vibrant, buzzing place that it is for both residents and tourists alike and keeps the city moving forwards. What it does mean, however, is that those ancient reminders of our past become even more important to look after and hold onto.

If the sad loss of the Royal Clarence teaches us anything, it is that we deeply treasure our ancient buildings and the link they provide us to our past. Luckily we are blessed with a few fantastic examples across the city. From the Cathedral to the Mint, or the Roman walls and Exeter Castle, there are reminders of the ancient past of Exeter proudly standing amongst the newly built creations. But there is one which is far less obvious but equally as impressive.
Running under the high street and branching off in several directions, Exeter’s Underground Passages offer a fascinating glimpse of hidden medieval history right in the centre of the city.

Step into the modern entrance at Paris Street and within minutes you are transported through time, walking down passages constructed almost seven hundred years ago. Before the tour begins you’re given the opportunity to watch a video which explains the history behind the tunnels. Originally built to carry water into the city, they have been updated, refined, changed and in many cases, closed off over the last few centuries. What remains today is a testament to the skills of the builders who diverted fresh water from outside the city; along its narrow chambers into the city centre so that water could be accessed by those living there.

Once the video is finished it’s time for the tour to start – but not before you put on that all important hard hat! Right from the moment you make your way into the first tunnel it feels as if you have entered, if not another world or time, something very different from our day to day surroundings.

The vaulted ceilings and narrow, rough-hewn passages feel ancient and timeless in a way that comes from the fact that aside from some narrow led lighting strips to help you avoid hitting your head, which I did often – I mentioned that the hard hat was important – the passages are exactly as they were when they were last used.

Our tour guide, Steve, explained about the various tunnels we walked through, showing us the changes that took place over the centuries and how this was intertwined with the changes in the world above, such as the guard step where during the English Civil War a soldier was on watch during the siege of Exeter to prevent Royallist soldiers from using the tunnels to sneak into the city.

Once the tour is finished there is an opportunity to explore the various exhibits and interactive pieces on display in the visitor room, giving a further understanding of the tunnels and Exeter’s history as well as how they worked.

The Underground Passages are open throughout winter, making a tour under the city a great rainy day activity. Admission is just £6 per adult and tours run from October to May on Tuesday to Friday: 10:30am to 4:30pm (last tour 3.30pm), Saturday: 9:30am to 5:30pm (last tour 4.30pm) and Sunday: 11:30am to 4pm (last tour 3pm).

For more information and to book your tour, visit:

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