Saturday 25 August 2012

Snakes n Ladders Air Raid Shelter

 ......continued from Hidden Plymouth Living History - The 15 Minute Discovery

During the early hours of the morning following our discovery - bruised, bloodied & covered in bites from the army of ants whose nest we had clearly disturbed - a plan started coming together....

.....Project Snakes n Ladders was about to take our exploration to the next level.

Why the name Snakes n Ladders? Well the original entry into was snake-like slither into the passageways, & all of the emergency escape ladders were intact plus it would have made a great game for kids in the '40's after the shelter was made redundant. Shelters had never been given a nickname until now, & also seemed a good way to keep the exact location a secret in order to avoid any vandalism. Following on from this, a few more shelters have been documented in this way, & we have given each their own codename to protect their true identity.

The original plan was postponed after requiring a few changes & it wasn't until 6 weeks later that we finally got our second more in-depth look at this important time capsule. Invitations were sent to gather a small & dedicated team to join us on this most exciting discovery & on the day our original team of 3 was complimented by my Son, fellow Plymouth explorer & blogger Georgie Kirrin, her husband Simon, who kindly supplied much needed backup equipment (including pasties & chocolate!), & Steve Johnson AKA Cyberheritage. This was Steve's only chance of seeing the shelter that eluded him during his years of uncovering relics & we simply had to make it happen as a thankyou for all his help in our own research. Luckily, all went well with access & a simple photo message was sent to interrupt Steve's lunch. That was all the persuasion he needed to turn up 20 minutes later armed with his video camera & upon greeting him, his response was one of awe - the genius plan had worked & it was such an honour for Plymouth's legendary historian to be joining us for this amazing underground excursion!

Welcome to the underground
One of the longer sections of shelter looking toward the toilet cubicles
First left passageway led to seating area, second left to the original entrance
Further on from last photo looking at the infilled entrance

What we didn't realise is that the shelter had last been entered in 1960 & not the late 1940's, judging by graffiti we found below one of the escape hatches along with a ring-pull Coke can & a homemade torch in the form of cloth wrapped around a wooden stick. We can only imagine how exciting it must have been for kids of the era telling their friends of this top secret find & how many only dared venture a few feet into it's dark passageways. Let's not forget though, that this shelter had an original, almost sinister use. Whilst built to offer protection from the Luftwaffe bombing raids, some shelters took direct hits with many civilians killed, & the single largest loss in Plymouth was to be at the ill-fated Portland Square shelter where a memorial is sited today.

Graffiti from possibly the last person to see the shelter

Coke can found below the 1960 graffiti

Homemade torch with cloth wrapped a stick

The earliest piece of graffiti we found was 1939 & the sheer amount of drawings on the walls & artefacts to be found discarded around the passageways was quite phenomenal. Child's toy prams, enamel dishes, buttons, odd shoes, hankies, brass shovels & even a cast iron bedstead littered the floors. The graffiti was literally everywhere to be found, sadly the humidity in the shelter led to a haze like condition & condensation dripped from the walls making most hard to photograph.

1939 - The earliest piece of graffiti found on the walls

Tipperary No.1 Hannons Cottages, Henery Street

Pencil sums with condensation on the walls

Any takers on guessing this one? Mrs.....

One of two child's toy prams slowly decayed through time

Cast iron bedstead under a pile of rubble

Kia-Ora juice bottle

Brass shovel

Laceless boot - one of many found discarded but no pairs to be found

Original Air Raid Precaution posters were to be found morphed into the walls after years of condensation have taken their toll but some of the wording & pictures could still be read to our amazement. Smoking Prohibited, No Dogs Permitted, No Spitting posters, Public Shelter Rules along with tips for long stays in shelters are some of the photos featured below.

Original WWII ARP posters found on a wall facing one of the original blocked entrances

Smoking Strictly Prohibited & Dogs Not Permitted ARP poster

WWII health & safety tips poster

Clean your teeth

ARP poster

Tips to keep warm during shelter visits
After over 5 hours documenting as much as we could, the shelter was resealed but one couldn't get away from the thought that much more was to be found amongst the dank tunnels beneath Plymouth. The sheer size was evident with six original entrances, ten escape hatches complete with original ladders & 10 twin toilet cubicles found amongst a few hundred feet of passageways. Around 1200 civilians would have sheltered here during the air raids, not a nice thought, with so many families cramped together in fear of the ferocious bombing that just about decimated Plymouth's buildings.

One of the original emergency escape ladders at the end of  one passage

Bricked up original entrance, behind which would have been a stairwell 

Corner section with toilet cubicles in the distance

Infill below one of the escape hatches

There we have it, Plymouth's biggest public air raid shelter to be uncovered in years & we can confirm that this is not under threat of demolition for the foreseeable future. At this point we think a few of you may be asking just how we did it - well you will have to ask our offspring in a few years time to get the full story!

Tuesday 21 August 2012

Hidden Plymouth Living History - The 15 Minute Discovery

Site Visited - July & August 2009

Okay, in the last post we featured the Air Raid Precautions in place around Plymouth & what follows is my account of what has to be one of the highlights of my research. From the archives, here is a prelude to one the best discoveries in recent years & Hidden Plymouth's own version of Snakes n Ladders....roll the dice!

Now this particular air raid shelter had eluded us for some time, primarily because of it's location within the City & the difficulty in accessing it's passageways. After numerous visits walking above mapping where I thought the passageways where, lady luck one day decided to shine & I found what I thought to be a way in......but it was going to be the most daring & difficult site visited on a personal level (at that time). After lengthy discussions with one of the South West's leading historians Cyberheritage & taking advice from his own wealth of experience, it was decided that further investigation was clearly needed, to ascertain just how big it was.

After a long day trying to locate other shelters, myself along with Si & Andy headed for one last bit of research, & to look at what I thought could be one of the old escape hatches. Lady luck certainly was on our side & hope of finding a way in soon turned into somewhat disbelief at first, that there we were, sat looking into a rubble filled hatch with just the top rails of the original ladder - only problem was, we weren't prepared for a full explore & we certainly couldn't all go in at once!

Looking back at where we had just left 2009 behind for a brief few minutes

The adrenalin hit when we lifted the hatch for the first time was coupled with great surprise & within 15 minutes of our first glimpse, found ourselves walking the passageways of Plymouth's biggest public air raid shelter to be discovered in recent years, twice the size of the previously documented Devonport Park shelters put together. Si was in first & after a quick scoot around came running back excitedly, trying to stem his echoey voice from within the passageways when saying "It's massive!". I told Andy to get down below for a quick look whilst I stayed above for safety issues....wouldn't want a wandering badger to fall down the hatch now would we!

My headtorch barely lights this WWII time capsule, untouched for years

Whilst laid above the hatch, I could hear the distant rumble of voices from somewhere far into the shelters passageways & then a screech of brakes alerted me to the presence of a strange looking chap who proceeded to circle me for the duration of my stay up top - until finally it was my turn to descend into the time capsule. For a few brief moments on reaching the end of the passageways, I lost my bearings as one section interlinked with another that led to another 'dead end' - a bricked up old entrance, infilled behind with tonnes of rubble blocking the stairwells. This place was awesome!

Bricked up passageway - one of the original access points to the shelter

After shooting a few frames of the shelter (apologies for the quality of photos in advance, they were taken on a digital compact before I got back into my photography...oh & the adrenalin was pumping!), I knew my fifteen minutes was up & left knowing that were was much more time needed to document original WWII posters, grafitti & artefacts that were in abundance. We felt so privileged to be the first to see this in over 50 years, graffiti confirming that the last person to probably be in the shelter was in 1960. All the shelters were infilled after the war, so we can only assume that this different hatch was once the point where explorers like us were curious & decided to walk the tunnels, or it was merely a council worker who uncovered the hatch during Plymouth's rebuilding.

A plan was needed, but it wasn't going to be easy & the hatch was resealed for another day....that day would come six long weeks later.....

WWII graffiti - Emperor Ming in Plymouth?

Child's toy pram - vintage artefacts hidden under Plymouth

......To be continued.

Sunday 19 August 2012

Plymouth's WWII Air Raid Precautions

Hundreds of Air Raid Shelters were built in & around Plymouth during WWII, with few remaining to this day still buried & awaiting their fate one day. Only recently, another two school shelters have been lost with the demolition of North Prospect School as part of the area's regeneration. Little, if any, was heard about it in the local media which begs a question as to whether anybody 'official' is really interested in documenting, or indeed saving, these once important structures before they are lost forever.

Demolition of one of the Devonport Park ARP Shelters back in 2009

Mounds in Devonport Park - the only indication of one of Plymouth's forgotten  time capsules

When I moved to Plymouth, I already knew there were secret military tunnels in Devonport from following Sub Brit for a few years but nothing prepared me for finding out how many underground shelters were still thought to be in existence. Back in 2006, I had visited the converted Cann Tunnel Deep Shelter that was primarily for workers of Devonport Dockyard, but began making enquiries as to if any were open to the public......after many phone calls, research & asking around, you guessed it - NONE!

Not open to the public - What tourists to Plymouth Hoe don't get to see!

We have been lucky to document some of the shelters which are now lost forever & in the last six years at least another 8 public underground & school shelters have been lost to development. When is somebody finally going to step up to the plate in preserving at least one of these important time capsules without the fear of restraints of health & safety getting in the way.....or the poor excuse that nobody would be interested in visiting a shelter.....we know different along with over a 1,000 members on our Facebook page.


Along with specially built underground shelters, many more brick shelters were built above ground. These could be found in the middle of streets, back alleyways & people's gardens, alongside the more personal family Anderson shelters. Few of the public brick shelters remain around Plymouth & it is anyone's guess as to how many Anderson shelters are still in-situ but with the public's help, we will do our best to document as many as possible before they are lost to the ravages of time.

Anderson Shelter in back garden at Alcester Street, Stoke

Specially built underground ARP Shelters were once in abundance around the City & could be found in school playgrounds, parks & some streets. In Plymouth there were two main types of underground shelter - the smooth concreted arch type & the pre-cast concrete section type. Girders in the pre-cast shelters were a later addition after the original sections were found to be fairly weak in protection.

Arched type ARP Shelter

Pre-cast type ARP Shelter

Underground seemed to offer the best protection from the Luftwaffe & locations such as railway tunnels, fort tunnels & even the passageway beneath Stonehouse Street provided temporary shelter from the bombing raids.

Tunnels situated under Woodland Fort were used as shelter from Luftwaffe bombing raids
Firewatchers made use of some of the City building rooftops to scan the landscape for flames, whilst Air Raid Warden's manned their Posts that took care of Sector's across Plymouth. Some of the Posts that were built specifically for the purpose still stand today with few people aware of their original use. we will feature not only the buildings that stand, but also research & share the full history behind each Post & we hope to track down original photos of the Warden's that served in Plymouth.

Inside an extant ARP Warden Post 

Over the coming months, we will feature our findings from the past six years with more than twenty air raid shelters documented & more to come in the future. Each time we ascend into the dark passageways of a  shelter, the excitement of what we may find fills the humid air....this is living history....Hidden Plymouth style!

Down we go....
Rubble below infilled escape hatch

For inclusion in the forthcoming book series we would like to hear from you & your family stories of the ARP Wardens & Air Raid Shelter experiences.

Please get in touch via

Tuesday 7 August 2012

Tunnel X - Recce 1

This is one of the projects that has always been on the backburner but finally, we sought & located one of the Plymouth Urban Myth Tunnels, aptly named by Cyberheritage & featured back in 2007 on his website. An anonymous person located & documented this mysterious tunnel, that has us all baffled as to it's original purpose. Could it be linked to a fort? Who knows, as a collapse at the end blocks one's path from what lay behind but one thing's for sure - a lot more research is clearly what the doctor ordered.

Sadly we only managed one picture before entering due to a full memory card from the days research in & around Plymouth & after 9 hours we were left feeling a little tired, so I didn't really get to spend as much time as I wanted in there. Since starting our own research, we have often been told of 'Plymouth's lost tunnels' that are to be found here, there & everywhere.....yes, we all know there is a tunnel to Drake's Island.....don't we?

This is one of four locations across the city that have ongoing research & in respect of the landowners, we have been asked not to reveal their true identity for many worthwhile reasons. What we do find, rest assured, these will be documented before they are either resealed or lost to development.

Since exploring this we have come up with a few theories, or should that read fairies.....but that's all they are.....theories!

Not located on any map, even as a ruin from a former house - certainly there were no properties documented here leaves only a handful of options, all of which lead toward military heritage from years gone by. This wasn't going to be just another air raid shelter, & although quite featureless in some sense of the word, the mystery behind it's actual use fuels the excitement. Sods law it could even turn out to be a drainage adit but even so, we have to find the answers....could be in for a long haul!

Tunnel X - The Journey Begins

Monday 6 August 2012

Plymouth's Tunnel Myths

Okay, where do we start....

"There's a tunnel that leads from Drake's Island to The Hoe"

"There's tunnels under The Hoe"

"There's a top secret tunnel network under Mount Wise"

"I have a bunker in my garden"

"My old school had air raid shelters under the playground"

"All the forts in Plymouth are connected by underground passageways"

Aaah, there you are - no longer a myth!

Since beginning my quest in 2006 to find Plymouth's hidden heritage, I came across many a Janner with stories of lost tunnels with some of the quotes from above. Each city, town or village has them & people are fascinated by them, the mysterious dark, & for some, scary thoughts of forgotten tunnels, lost air raid shelters & underground passageways that have been unexplored for years.

Welcome to the 'Urban Myth'.

Of the quotes above, some are true others have yet to be proven & only yesterday did I have another myth thrown at me about a tunnel leading to Drake's Island from Plympton St Maurice - by far the best tunnel myth heard this year. Thankfully around 95% of the myths actually lead to something & all credit goes to the people who help us with our research, especially the elder generations who have directed us to some great locations.

Tunnel myths expelled - top secret WWII HQ 

A portion of the myths though, have yet to see the light of day or proven their worth, & as a never say never person, I for one would to love to uncover that long lost tunnel to Drake's - wouldn't we all!

It has to rank high up as the most renowned myth, alongside the one that tells us of Plymouth's Napoleonic Forts all being connected by underground passageways with none ever found.......until 2007!

If you are an avid follower of Cyberheritage  you may read his article about the person  who came across this pretty amazing find. Aptly named Plymouth Urban Myth Tunnel, Mr X the discoverer, found something that has experts baffled. What he recorded visually & practically, gives weight to the myth that there may be lost passageways linking the forts.Or could it simply have been for another purpose?

Coming next on the blog - Tunnel X -Our own research

Sunday 5 August 2012

The Forgotten Land of Plymouth's Civil War

A lovely sunny Saturday morning....perfect start to a day of a field research in & around Plymouth with a number of sites visited. Two sites have been on the backburner for so long, & it was finally the day to begin another phase of research beginning with a truly forgotten piece of land that was once of great importance during the Civil War.

It's something I need to research a lot more as my main interest is WWII remains but I believe this to possibly be Lipson Fort. With commanding views over Efford, Mannadon & beyond it provided an ideal location for a defensive position. It was also once a Victorian garden & allotments but has been left to merge back with nature for the past few years. Now the forthcoming photos may not be as appealing as tunnels & shelters but nonetheless, this is to stress that our work is diverse in it's research & findings.

We found this pretty hard work actually in such heat wading through thick thorns, brambles & nettles, coming away with more than a few cuts & scrapes. The site is just so full of nature, alive with allsorts of wildlife including a fair few sloworms. Due to the site being up for sale for development, we will be presenting our findings to the relevant agencies for them to follow up on documenting it's history & environment before the landscape changes forever.

As with any piece of land that is deemed derelict signs of fly-tipping was evident & heavy in some of the lower areas. Thankfully we wear good safety boots as there are is one overgrown piece littered with literally hundreds of broken bottles, obscured by heavy vegetation.

More to follow from this in the near future once we get time to do further research.!