The city of Gloucester has had a long and bloody history. It played the role of a pivotal stronghold during the English civil war, survived countless sieges and the horror of the Black Plague. It is a modern city now, but it is built on the bones of constructions going back as far as the Roman Empire. As such, the city is littered with historical relics, from the almighty cathedral to the ruins of a Norman castle underneath the current prison.
I always found the most haunting, and interesting, part of the city to be its warren of underground tunnels. As they city built up over the years, it gradually built itself over the old city underneath – not demolishing its ruins like other places might do, but actually building on top of them. As such, there are countless tunnels which still run under the current streets, some dating back to the times of the Romans. Some of the older buildings of the city still contain entrances to this subterranean level, a mixture of pubs, shops and hotels all having access to this underground domain – yet almost all choose to keep those cellar doors locked and the darkness out.
You can actually book tours to visit parts of it. I actually took one once. At the time I would have recommended it in a heartbeat, but these days I shudder to think of what stalks those long forgotten halls.
This was around nine years ago, and I worked as a sales assistant in a sports shop in the centre. The building itself was old, its foundations dating back to the years of the plague. From the shop floor you would never have guessed, but when you descended into the cellar, which acted as our stockroom, the age was apparent. I won’t lie, it was a pretty creepy place to be. It had all of the prerequisites of a cheap horror film; dampened walls, a distinct lack of lighting, and a pungent smell of old air. At the back of the room was a door, which, although bolted, was never actually locked. There were many a night when we would dare each other to walk as far as our nerves could take us without a light before running back for the door, and even more times when we had jokingly shut the door on the unsuspecting bag of nerves inside.
There was always a threat which did the rounds, which involved shutting said bag of nerves inside and locking the door until the next day. We always joked about it, but it seemed so outstandingly cruel that none of us could bring ourselves to do it to the other. This changed after a new assistant manager joined. To say she was a bitch would be an understatement, and she quickly caught wind of this threat which we gave to each other. All of us disliked her, but she mainly seemed to reflect that dislike onto me – focusing any backlash my way. I was designated all of the late-shifts, was regularly called to one side for anything that went wrong, and any little thing that seemed to be bothering her that day tended to head my way. Her misery soon washed over me as well, and I began to despise working there.
One late-shift, there had been a discrepancy with the till so she had to stay behind and sort out the coinage while I toiled away in the cellar replenishing our stock. I was surprised to see her appear at the bottom of the stairs, and her devilish grin should have warned me as to what was about to happen. She brought up the cellar door, explaining that she had heard all about the underground tunnels, and this was the first place she had worked that included an access to them. I told her I knew little about them, and didn’t want to know much else, but she refused to take no for an answer. Reluctantly, I opened the door and let the musty air in. She brought a torch from the office and pointed inside. We both went in.
She made a point of walking behind me, although she was the one holding the torch. She pressed me on further until we had got as far as any as I or the other staff had dared venture. The corridor continued, the damp stone walls still continuing far beyond the beam of light. She let out a sneering laugh, and it was that moment that I caught what was happening. Before I could turn to run after her, she sprinted back down the tunnel. I tried my best to catch up with her, but her head-start made her nigh-on impossible to catch. The door slammed shut and I heard the heavy bolt slide across. I pounded my fist against the door and yelled at the top of my lungs, but down in the tunnels every noise you made was swallowed by either the walls or the endless darkness.
It was pitch black, but I was lucky enough to have at least kept my phone on me. My battery was at fifty percent, it should have been all I needed. I did not count on being down there all night. It was half an hour when I decided that she really wasn’t coming back for me, so in my mind I formulated a plan. I knew that the tunnels could connect various buildings across the city, and if I could make it to a pub, or even a private residence that still held an entrance, I could batter the door and make an unholy racket until they let me in. It seemed better than sitting in the dark until morning. In hindsight that may have been the better idea.
The tunnels themselves are mostly unmapped – with routes being closed either by obstructions or danger of roof collapses. The routes used for tours were well used and supported, leaving the majority of the rest in a permanent and undisturbed darkness. I had no idea where I was going, and being swamped in subterranean darkness tended to stunt ones sense of direction, but I stumbled onwards regardless. The light of my phone was bright, and quickly illuminated any loose rubble or low beams, and my journey began relatively well.
The long singular corridor soon began to branch off into several routes and sometimes even old vaulted rooms. There was nothing exciting down here, only barren décor as anything else had rotted away by now. Occasionally I would find something modern, such as a glow-stick or tea-lights, and I can only assume that these had been left by urban explorers – people much braver than myself.
I soon discovered nests of rats, living amongst the old gutter systems and scurrying through aged holes in the walls. They scattered at my sight, hiding back within the walls or simply disappearing into another room or corridor. I had no problem with them, my main fear was the cave spiders I had heard much about. I had always had terrible arachnophobia, and even the idea of such a creature down here caused me to constantly check the ceilings and pat myself down.
It was then that I realised something was wrong. I was determined to keep to the corridors in order to get to another property as soon as possible, but a chance glance into a side room sent fearful nausea through me. In the light of my phone, something reflected, white and bright. I took a second glance and it confirmed what I feared. In the corner of a low-vaulted room were bones. Not just a few, but a decent pile, purposely gathered into a messy heap. I froze in my tracks and strained my ears. Only the distant squeaking of the rats could be heard. Curiosity overcame me, and I went in for a closer look.
The bones looked to be a mixture of cat and dog, with various skulls staring out at me with their hollow sockets. They had all been gnawed clean, and at my first guess I imagined rats, but a closer inspection yielded something worse. There were clear teeth marks, much larger than a rat, down the sides of rib and thigh bones, as if something had viciously bit into it as it stripped the animal of flesh. The air became very still, and I quickly found myself cowering in a corner.
The squeaking of the rats became louder, echoing down the corridor outside the room. I turned my light towards them as they scurried past. There were hundreds of them, frantically stampeding down the corridor, attempting to run from something. That something did not take long to reveal itself.
After the wave of rats had subsided, silence followed. At least it felt like silence in comparison. I listened for several minutes, frozen in fear – my light shaking in my hands. At first I heard nothing, but soon I heard a soft brushing sound. It was slight, but it was there. It was a slow and methodical sound, with no apparent footsteps to accompany it. It crept closer, and I was still hunched in my corner, fear overflowing.
It seemed like a lifetime, but slowly the noise revealed itself. I say it, as I cannot describe it as human. It trod silently, its large feet walking heel to toe as it stalked the labyrinth of tunnels, and slightly taller than myself. I soon realised that the soft brushing noise was the creatures overtly lengthened fingers. The creature moved them ahead of itself, rubbing them along the corridor from ceiling to floor in a well practiced manner. It turned its misshapen head towards the room I was in. I sucked in a deep breath and prepared for the death that inevitably waited for me.
But it did not. Even though my light shone brightly at it, directly catching its monstrous features in the beam, it did not see me. It was then that I realised the creature was devoid of any eyes. Looking back, it makes complete sense for something that dwells in utter darkness to have no use for such things, but at the time only complete terror filled me.
The creature slowly stepped on, walking past the room and quietly disappearing once more. I sucked down breaths and took stock of the situation. There was no way I could go back – I hadn’t left any markers and the maze of corridors would have only caused me to lose my way again. All I could do was continue forward. When that dreadful noise was completely out of earshot, I entered the corridor once again.
I knew that I must have followed that beast for quite sometime, as the corridor did not deviate or split. Eventually it did branch off, and I made a decision for my route. I followed an ancient Roman route, as it was the straightest and least cluttered one. The battery on my phone was running low by this point, but adrenaline spurred me onwards.
From further back down my own tunnel I heard a hideous screech. I ducked down, fear overcoming me momentarily. A few minutes later the rats began to appear. They streamed past me, carpeting the floor and my feet alike. I shook a few of them loose until I realised that I should be concerned with what followed the rats rather than the rodents themselves.
I stumbled along, kicking and crushing rats no matter how carefully I stepped. Each squeal echoed within the corridor, and I winced at the volume of each one. The dreadful screech sounded again, this time much closer. I glanced behind me, but could not see that creature in the gloom. My battery flashed. Five percent left. I hurried forward, racing the rats to wherever the corridor took us.
My heart sank when I saw the corridor ahead. The ceiling had collapsed on itself, causing the ancient ceiling to sink down and block the corridor. I stopped and watched helplessly at the rubble, knowing that there was no way back from here.
I glanced back and saw it. It lingered on the edge of my phone light – barely visible in the low light, but I saw those long tendril-like fingers creeping along the walls. I looked back at the rats and saw that they were getting through somewhere. I knelt in for a closer look and noticed that some of the soil which had leaked through the hole in the ceiling provided something for them to burrow through. I held my phone in my teeth and began to dig, not daring to look behind me.
The battery warning went off, vibrating my skull. I frantically dug forward, hoping the squeals of the rats would cover my fearful burrowing and panicked breathing. I risked a glance back, the creature was almost on top of me. I don’t know if it started to pick out my desperate noises from the scurrying rodents, but it emitted a low and threatening growl. Its mouth peeled back to reveal rows of grim and rotted teeth. That was the last I saw.
My battery died, plunging me into total darkness. I scraped and grasped at the soil, clawing it out towards me. I didn’t know how big the hole was, but I was determined to make myself fit. I threw myself forward and pushed myself through.
It was tight, but I didn’t care. The soil fell down as I wriggled through, threatening to choke me as I burrowed forward, but I pushed on. Up ahead I could see light. It was distant, but it was there. That wretched screech sounded again, and I knew I had been found. No sooner as I had heard that ghastly sound, long and thin fingers wrapped around my right foot. It was strong, surprisingly so, but I fought with all my might.
Its fingers held a barbed quality, and vicious spikes tore through my trousers and into my leg. I cried out and wrenched my leg free with an almighty tug. I tumbled out of the other side of the breach and dragged myself forward. I don’t know if that thing was attempting to make it through or not, but I pulled myself to my feet and moved as fast as my legs could take me. I reached the door and hammered on it, bellowing at the top of my voice. Behind me something scrabbled at the dirt.
The door opened and light flooded in. I held a hand up to shield my eyes but fell forward into the arms of a bemused member of bar staff. I had emerged in the cellar of one of the oldest pubs in the city. I ranted and raved about the creature that had just chased me, but when the young man shone a light down the tunnel the beast was gone, the tunnel simply ending where the collapse had happened.
He turfed me out into the night, thinking of me being some drunken fool. I had never been so glad to see those glum and dismal streets in my life. I stumbled home, laughing at the stars to my good fortune. I never thought I would see the topside of the city again.
I returned to work several days later but found that the assistant manager had disappeared. Apparently the employees had come in the next day to find the lights on in the basement and the cellar door unlocked. The only thing missing was the torch from the office.
So, by all means, take the tour of the tunnels of Old Gloucester, it’s a fascinating place – just make sure you stick to the known routes.