Approaching the back of the chamber the gang found that the stream issued from a low culvert. The pathway had originally terminated at a small quay alongside which lay coffin-like barges in which recumbent adventurers were, in times gone by, pulled one at a time under the rocky vault and into the chamber beyond. Luckily, nineteenth century etiquette could not allow such demeaning transport for a visiting monarch and a relief tunnel had been dynamited through to the next stage of the tour. It is a low passage, for Queen Victoria was short.
The second chamber was even larger than the first, fewer stalactites, but their path, stepped in places, carved out from the natural rock wall, clambered over a tumbling mass of hardened mineral sediment that cascaded down to the stream in terraces filled with crescent moons of still, black water before veering to cross, high above the stream on an iron footbridge supported on slim, fluted, floriform columns. Passing a side gallery they could make out a derelict narrow gauge railway track to nowhere and a derailed, rusted and battered wagon. Beyond this their path descended through a straight, well-constructed tunnel with a brick floor, rust-red plumbing ran along the foot of the passage wall, old iron pipes, repainted many times, new aluminium pipes silver-gleaming in the light of their headlamps. The companions could hear rushing water ahead and at the bottom of the decline the track ended at a handrail; they were overlooking a wide, fast running underground river; the tourist trail ended here. However, the pipes turned to disappear into holes drilled through the rock wall and next to them was an old, weathered wooden door, blue-grey paint flaking, something indecipherable and worn stencilled in no-longer white letters. There was a latch, but no lock.
Pausing only for a moment to quell their doubts the little group of nervous adventurers entered what was apparently a service tunnel. The pipes, now running along wall and ceiling, were joined by many others. Thick and thin, new and old, the pipes congregated, merged and parted, wove around each other. There were valves and junctions, U-bends and Z-bends, a labyrinthine tangle dreamed up by a plumber spaced out on something stronger than catnip. Heavy-duty cables sheathed in lead festooned the walls, fed steel boxes that buzzed and tiny coloured lamps that flickered. A socket, corroded by the damp, beside one such box, was joined by an outdated, frayed a twisted flex to a faintly glowing glass orb which seemed to hang in the air by its own will power. It sang – a wordless and disquieting song. They did not investigate, wanted to move on and as they progressed further a large riveted iron tank with a brass tap that dripped, almost filled the chamber.
“We’ll have to remove our rucksacks in order to squeeze past,” observed Phoebles.
Even holding their packs the going was tight for some of the stouter members of the group, heads got bumped, and clothing snagged. The tunnel was not straight – it snaked inexplicably; plant life thrived on the dank walls and the odours of rot and decay hung around every unscrubbed nook and neglected cranny.
“Great God! This is an awful place…” quoted Ginsbergbear.
“We are very near the end, but have not and will not lose our good cheer,” responded Ferdy.
“I think the end may be in sight,” chipped in Boz.