A Walk under the pavement of Abingdon's Stert Street

During August last year a message reached me via email. Would I like to walk (did they mean crawl?) along a wet, dark and damp tunnel, carrying the River Stert, beneath some of Abingdon's most important buildings and the pavement of Stert Street? Now why would I want to do that, I asked myself. Would not staying at home reading the Archaeological Times be a more sensible for an 81 year-old whose limbs are starting to creak? But I thought it through and remembered you're only old once, so give it a go.

My instructions were to report to the Crown and Thistle pub in Bridge Street wearing a high-viz jacket over my painting clothes and a decent pair of wellies. Then followed a terrifying health and safety briefing. I reckoned it best not to listen, but I could not prevent hearing the words rats, injury, drowning (surely not) and foul air. But I decided to be brave and felt more confident once I could persuade my hard hat to stay on my head. I was then directed to the smallest manhole I have ever seen where a ladder was waiting for me and my archaeologist companions to descend.

I first had to hand down my bag with flash-gun and cameras to those who had gone ahead and with heart in mouth and suppressing the thought A Giant Leap for Mankind I placed my wellies in the stream flowing below; I had survived the first 60 seconds. What next?

I knew my companions were there to find further clues to the history of the culverted stream by examining the walls, base and the many drains entering from each side. So what was this layman going to do apart from getting in the way? Equipped with two semi-professional cameras and a powerful flash gun, I wanted to return with some useful photographs and I also very much wanted to know if there was still evidence of the bridges that enabled medieval residents to cross the open stream. We split two ways - two went south towards the Thames and I and archaeologist Roger Ainslie proceeded north. Oh, I thought, it's all lit up, that's great, but following a few stumbling steps we found ourselves in the blackest of darkness pierced only by my feeble torch.

As soon as I started walking I got into trouble. The roof was low, forcing me to bend down, thus all I could see was the visor of my hard-hat and the water. Panic? But too soon to turn back. Additionally I started stumbling quite badly as the water, though shallow, was flowing over a jumble of ankle-breaking rock slabs of all shapes and sizes randomly placed. Fiercely suppressing thoughts of returning to the real world I supported myself by holding onto the mossy wall to keep my balance. But soon the roof was higher and I could stand upright but maintaining balance was still difficult - I feared dropping the camera and flash into the water. Meanwhile Roger was calmly making written observations and I was left to myself to decide what to photograph, so I chose to record the base ("shelf") of the three-metre wide tunnel, the varied construction of the roof and the various side-entry points for water. I drunkenly walked a distance of 73 metres until I encountered a severe drop in roof height and could go no further although Roger went on, he managed to get through the low tunnel under St Nicolas church and a little way up Stert Street while I, less than bravely, started on a lonely staggering walk back to my favourite manhole. I had photographed Roger at work, the culvert's shelf and several of the strange inlets on the west side. That was enough for posterity, surely.

The return journey found this elderly man getting rather tired. At last I glimpsed daylight, pulled myself up the ladder and pushed hard to get through the manhole, but finding I could not reach escape velocity, two muscular workman who happened to be near extended welcoming arms to extract me; I was glad to be in the sunshine once again and staggered home (nearby) for a coffee or two and a bath.

The experts have now provided their illuminating technical report, which I shall value, for the Stert Stream, has always been of great interest to me.

I had been accompanied into this journey into the unknown by Sally and Roger Ainslie and buildings historian David Clark. Their reports and sketch plans will, I know, provide a lasting and most useful contribution to our knowledge of one of Abingdon's most precious artefacts. It was an unforgettable experience and a great opportunity for this amateur photographer.

Michael Harrison