What's under your feet?

Legend would have us believe that beneath the cobbled streets of Northampton town centre lies a labyrinth of tunnels, haunted crypts and historic escape routes.

Rumours abound that before the passageways were blocked up it was possible to cross from one side of the town to the other through the subterranean network.

But this hidden underground world is now confined to chinese whispers with the county and borough councils insisting they are no longer accessible. The last known examination of the chambers under the Market Square by local authority engineers was in 1990 when they were accompanied by a Chronicle & Echo reporter.

Yet the intriguing romanticism of this historic underworld still fascinates people today, with almost every Northampton resident throwing in their two penny's worth on the subject.

But is there really a whole other mysterious world beneath our feet or is it simply a disjointed collection of cellars, crypts and ancient waterways?

Thomas a Becket's Escape?

The infamous escape of Thomas a Becket from Northampton Castle is a well documented part of 12th century history but how the persecuted Archbishop of Canterbury managed to flee from the fortress remains a mystery.

One myth is that he fled from the clutches of Henry II through a tunnel that linked the castle to All Saints Church in Mercers Row.

And this is not the only rumour about clergy and monks using the alleged tunnel network as escape routes. During the turbulent Middle Ages there were many clashes between the church and monarchy and theories suggest that clergy hide or escaped through the underground passages.

According to local historian Gerald Smith six religious houses surrounded the focal point of All Saints Church and it is feasible that six major routes emanated 'like a star' from this epicentre.

But in reality there is only evidence of self-contained 12th and 13th century vaulted crypts such as the one under All Saints Church which is now used as boiler room.

Brian Giggins of Towcester and District Local History Society is quick to debunks the myths.

"People say there was a tunnel going to the castle. The ditches surrounding the castle were 25 ft deep. It would have been a long way to dig down to get into them. And what did they do with the soil? You couldn't build a tunnel that big in secret. There is plenty of mythology behind it."

On the site now occupied by McDonald's in The Drapery, during the demolition of a house in 1860 a large vault with springing buttresses and a gargoyle at the apex was uncovered.

Dr Thomas Welsh, lecturer in environmental science at the University of Northampton, said this may have been the site of St Martin's Chapel. Vaults were also found in the 19th century on the west side of College Street which was the site of the College of All Saints, a residence for priests.

Meanwhile under the Northampton and County Club in George Row there still exists an impressive length of interconnected vaults and cellars.

Club secretary Claire Wilson believes the underground site dates back to the 14th century.

She said: "It was most likely connected with the church across the road. There must have been some passages that went through. One of the stories I heard was that it was a place where pilgrims came and they slept here."

Looking around the different corridors and rooms below street level, (which are sometimes opened up to the public via blue badge tour guides) it is apparent by the remaining sinks, shafts and hooks, that this cool space was used as a kitchen and food store rooms, and any connection to All Saints has been long since blocked up, if it ever existed.

Wartime retreat?

Playing in a maze of tunnels that stretched for miles under the Market Square and beyond, were often the tall tales told by older relatives who grew up during World War Two.

John Kightley, founder trustee of Holy Sepulchre Restoration Trust, remembers the stories enthusiastically created by his aunt.

He said: "She used to work on the telephone exchange at James Brothers in Commercial Street. She told me she used to walk miles under Bridge Street to find managers to come and answer the phone. They used to keep hams and cheeses down there. Apparently they went on for miles."

There are also rumours about a tunnel running from Holy Sepulchre along Sheep Street to the old Conservative Club in Gold Street.

Speaking in 1991 Hardingstone resident Stan Monk said he spent his teenage years chasing girls in tunnels under the Market Square.

At the time the then 66-year-old old said: "We used to go down there regularly nearly every night, looking for girls and daring each other to go down the dark routes. There was definitely a tunnel which led to the Holy Sepulchre Church. And I'm sure it also went to the old monastery near Grafton Street."

This is supported by the collapse of the road in Church Lane 15 years ago when Mr Kightley was church warden.

Around this time Mr Kightley experienced the 'tunnels' first hand by venturing into an underground chamber through Mercers Row in 1991.

In the murky depths of the town he witnesses several passageways, three leading to the north and three to the south.

He said: "It was typically damp and wet and a little bit exciting. We were told they were not actually tunnels but storage areas."

Mr Giggins supports the view that the underground lair around the Market Square is nothing more than extensive cellars used by pubs and shops for storage and sometimes connected to one another.

During the 18th century many of the cellars under buildings round the Market Square and in adjacent streets were linked up for easier access.

These often projected about three metres under the pavement and therefore might have given the impression of being a network of tunnels.

Mr Giggins explained: "Northampton is riddled with cellars. When people see them they think 'tunnel' but it is actually a cellar. The Drapery has cellars from one side of the street to the other.

"During the war time people used them for air raid shelters.

"You do hear a lot of stories about houses during the 18th century having secret tunnels coming from them. But they were actually drains leading from the kitchen area that were fairly big. They would go for 10 metres and then disappear into nothing."

Nuns on the run?

Nuns on the run during the Battle of Northampton escaped Delapre Abbey via a secret tunnel if the folklore is to be believed.

During the Wars of the Roses in 1460 fighting raged on the ground of Delapre and it is thought that the sisters' escape route ran via All Hallows Church (now known as St Johns) at the bottom of Bridge Street.

But Mr Giggins readily dismisses the story as unfeasible: "A tunnel to Delapre to would have to go under the River Nene!" he contorted.

In fact one of the things actually running to the direction of the river was water conduits. These were known as the Great Conduit and the Little Conduit.

According to Dr Welsh the water supply ran from Nine Springs in the grounds of the general hospital slightly south of St Giles Street. The conduits running northwards related to monastic communities.

Those for Greyfriars and Whitefriars came from across the east end of the Racecourse from springs in Bradlaugh Fields. It appears that one of the monastic channels were used after the Dissolution of the Monasteries to supplement the town's domestic water supply.