Monday, 5 December 2011

My Neighbourhood Dungeon

"So you leave the sanctuary of Coop Towers II and walk for a half a mile or so along the sides of the artificial waterways built by The Ancients as their transportation network. After a few minutes you descend down a staircase alongside an old aqueduct near some cottages and follow the black waterway to the dungeon entrance, a great brick wall in the side of the hill with an arched tunnel amidst it. The waterway flows out of the tunnel mouth although at barely perceptible speed. There are narrow muddy paths on either side of the waterway leading into the darkness. From deep within the bowels of the tunnel you hear drips, mysterious splashes and creaking noises. Party order?"

Coop Towers II is sited near a real-life dungeon. It's the Netherton Tunnel Branch Tunnel which runs for 2.4 miles (4km) underground to allow canal traffic to cut through the limestone hills to the east of Dudley Castle. (Underground tunnels, a castle destroyed by siege and a warren of limestone caverns - it's a real fantasyland in this part of the Black Country. Even the name Netherton and that of neighbouring Netherend sound like they've come out of someones homebrew RPG campaign).

Tunnel excavation started in 1855 and completed in 1858. It's accessible to walkers (and water traffic of course) although unlit so a torch is required. It's also absolutely as spooky as fuck.

The whole structure is arched and lined in brick although there are some modern repairs in concrete. Periodic vertical ventilation shafts cast eerie pools of dim light down upon the water's surface causing rippling reflections on the walls akin to that of sunlight on the ceiling of a swimming pool but considerably grimier and more atmospheric. This has the quality of a will-o-the-wisp illusion in that upon looking into the tunnel it appears that you can see the daylight of the other end - but it's just the sun shining down through the closest shaft. When you get to that one you'll think you can definitely see the end this time. And you'd be wrong again. Nothing like a light to tempt someone in...

Rainwater seeping down through limestone rock overhead creates the usual lime formations but rather than hanging down from the roof in the traditional manner, the water follows the arched roof downwards creating great curtains of rippled sediment on the walls, translucent white with orange streaks where it has picked up rust from decaying Victorian ironwork.

Puddles are everywhere on the towpaths but the water is usually warm having filtered down through soil and rock that maintains the sun's heat.

The bottoms of the three still-extant ventilation shafts are ringed with great cast-iron circular girders, covered in various green moulds, weed, slime and bird excrement. Up at ground level the shafts are topped with what are locally known as "pepperpots" structures akin to traditional wells but capped off with iron bars to prevent people and animals (horses roam wild locally due to a local populace that thinks it's still socially acceptable to graze horses in the front garden of a small council house) falling in.

Later urban development has had to work around these as you can see here.,-2.055173&spn=0.014392,0.042272&sll=53.800651,-4.064941&sspn=14.327693,43.286133&vpsrc=6&hnear=Tividale,+Oldbury,+Sandwell,+United+Kingdom&t=h&z=15&layer=c&cbll=52.508508,-2.055302&panoid=fIV0lGfuWCcxBRrzOwBCng&cbp=12,270,,0,0

Somewhere within the hill above the tunnel there are clearly areas of sealed off open space that collect rainwater and slowly leak into the canal tunnel below. The last time I walked this tunnel was after several days of prolonged rain and there was a steady deluge at points along the ceiling. The nature of constructing a tunnel like this meant that many shafts both vertical and horizontal were sunk in order to remove spoil during the excavation so I strongly suspect that some of these were capped at top and bottom once they had served their purpose. It would be typical of underground excavations in this part of the world for there to be no record made of where there are huge chunks of the Earth missing just a few feet below the surface.

Horizontal shafts were all closed off but their exits into the tunnel remain in the shape of features that resembled bricked-up fireplaces - once crawlspaces or possibly minecart railway tunnel runs.

So for a single, one-route under-the-hill subterranean feature we have a whole load of secret or concealed spaces with horizontal crawlspaces and vertical shafts. And that's before we realise that the water is opaque and absolutely anything could be beneath it and burrowing into the sides of the canal walls.

When you arrive blinking into sunlight at the South portal (I live near the North portal), this is what you find - a pumping house built to drain mines. Clear Dwarven or Gnomish handiwork.

The tunnel was built to bypass an even spookier canal tunnel from the previous century when traffic queues there became measured not just in hours but in days. This tunnel, the Dudley tunnel, was not only a traffic tunnel (2.9 miles long) but also a mine, tunnels being excavated to allow barges to travel straight up to the workface of a limestone mine. This is a canal run underground to collect the stone straight from deep within a drift mine. You need to steal this idea and dungeon it.

As an earlier tunnel, Dudley has no footpaths. The water laps up against the arched brickwork of the walls. In it's heyday Netherton was lit by electric light from a dynamo (no longer in use - modern barges have their own electric lights). Dudley was never lit except by a few candles where mining work was occuring. The tunnel would originally have been pitch black and is water-filled from wall to wall throughout it's length. Much of the original traffic problems were caused by it's narrowness, allowing only one barge through sections at a time. And a narrowboat has a maximum width of 7' to conform to the locks - that's how narrow we are talking.

Pre-20th century barges had no engines and were towed by shire horses (hence the name "tow-path". When tunnels like this were reached, lacking footpaths the only form of locomotion was the human leg. "Leggers" (at Dudley, professional leggers could be hired for the transit from portal to portal) would lie on planks on the barge and push against the walls with their boots, "walking" the barge along. (There is a good illustration of this in the From Hell graphic novel).

With no headroom worth speaking of and no light source other than what candles and lanterns could be brought in with the travellers, this was a physically exhausting job lying in the dark, using your leg muscles to prevent a heavy barge from striking the tunnel sides and getting slowly dripped upon and then lying in the rainwater which has picked up a trace element of carbonic acid during it's slow filtering through the limestone rock.

Dudley Tunnel branches into three lines, two of which serve limestone mines/quarries. Some of the limestone faces are underground, others resemble sinkholes whereby a huge section including the roof has been removed leaving the tunnel emerging into small areas of daylight, but daylight that is a long way overhead and inaccessible. None of the tunnel is accessible by foot unless one abseiled through one of the "sinkholes" and even then there is nowhere to land other than into the water. The open-to-the-sky sections are all heavily overgrown lending them a real Lost World feel.

You can partially ride the Dudley Tunnel from the Northern portal on an organised trip from the famous Black Country museum.

If Netherton is spooky then Dudley is even worse. The Southern portal is located at one end of a wide grassy area where two canals meet and an old disused railway is carried overhead on a great, multiple-arched brick viaduct. As you approach, the surroundings seem to close in on you in a claustrophobic fashion. It's a very noisy portal and all manner of strange splashes, echos and cracks come from inside echoing from nearly 3 miles of direct tunnel and another couple of miles of side tunnels. All the caveman "Fight or Flight" instincts come out when looking into the tunnel.

For many people in 18th and 19th century people in Britain, the canal was not merely a means of transport or work, it was a home with some families (called "bargees") living their whole lives on the water in barges that were homes, living nomadic gypsy lifestyles and rarely venturing much further inland then the towpaths. Britain's boat people if you like. In a fantasy world where underground canals serve mines it's easy to picture troglodyte races that live on canal barges and never see the sun.

I hope that gets the creative juices flowing. If it doesn't, well I dunno hand in your DM's card. :)

(Pics via Google Images as I can't find the CD with mine on at the moment).


  1. Beautiful, aren't they?

    I did the trip around Dudley a few months back and massed a decent collection of maps, photos and descriptions for a post-industrial dungeon. Shame my Iron Kingdoms game fizzled, really - there's some brilliant architecture around here for that sort of thing.

    Haven't been along Netherton yet though. Perhaps I'll give it a look in the New Year.

  2. It's very cycle-able Von as there is enough headroom, in fact foot traffic is a minority in the tunnel.

    I've had plans for a post-industrial dungeon floating around for about 10 years now! Struggling to get it down on paper though.

  3. Anyone who isn't inspired by that needs to put away their viking hat and hang up their dice bag!
    Ontario has some cool wilderness locations (and a museum that looks like Superman's fortress of solitude) but we ain't got nothing like that.