The Underground Passages are access tunnels to Exeter’s medieval water supply system. These were large arched stone conduits, through which water was carried in lead pipes from springs to the north east of the city. They have been altered and extended many times over the centuries, but it is extremely rare to find such a well-preserved system.
There is good archaeological evidence that the passages are 12th century or earlier, but not early enough to be Roman. The first record is of a grant in 1226 of a third of the Cathedral’s supply to St Nicholas’ Priory. Later in the 13th century the supply was extended to a private house in Friernhay Street and a municipal conduit. The upper end of the pipeline was also extended from St Sidwell’s Well to Headwell before 1300. Then Cathedral records show large expenditure on the construction of a new aqueduct in 1347-49.
The town supply was built in 1420-29, with further work in 1492-97 to extend it down High Street to the Great Conduit at the crossing of High-Fore-North-South streets. The Passages are open to the public, and on the guided tours you can clearly see the Heavitree Stone used to line the passage.
In 1642-55, the passages were blocked as part of the city defence during the Civil War. They were subsequently repaired. Part of the Cathedral conduit across High Street was rebuilt as a brick passage in 1776. Most of the passages were deepened in the 19th century. Much of the section of the Cathedral conduit underlying what is now Princesshay was removed in 1950 after being damaged in the Blitz.
- Exeter City Historic Environment Record – http://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=1816694&resourceID=1054
- Historic England Scheduled Monument – https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1003851
- Historic England Pastscape – https://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=448379
- Archaeology Data Service archaeological evaluation – http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/library/browse/issue.xhtml?recordId=1117148&recordType=GreyLitSeries
- Mark Stoyle (2014) “Water in the City: The Aqueducts and Underground Passages of Exeter”
- John Allan (1999) “Exeter’s Underground Passages”
- Demolition Exeter blog – http://demolition-exeter.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-great-conduit-high-street.html
- Exeter Memories – http://www.exetermemories.co.uk/em/undergroundp.php
- Jason Summers “Exeter’s Underground Passages: A Hidden World of Medieval Engineering” blog – https://archaeology-travel.com/england/underground-passages-in-exeter/
- Ray Girvan “Lyon’s Holt well revealed” blog – http://jsbookreader.blogspot.com/2015/05/lyons-holt-well-revealed.html