Inside the sandstone caves of Stockport with Urban Search and Rescue
A modern built urban environment can make it difficult to picture the lay of the land, of how a town was formed, or why its location was vital to its survival. Stockport thrived because of the standstone cliffs it was formed around and there’s plenty of evidence of this all around you to this day.
At one particular location on the edge of town there’s a sandstone cliff face and if you’d peered through the trees here until very recently you’d have also noticed there was once a door.
That was until now - the doorway has been sealed up and what lies behind it is documented here for the very last time. This is Dodge Hill.
For thousands of years Stockport has made use of the soft rock faces by inhabiting caves and tunnels. The sandstone here has been deposited over millions of years and is the legacy of ancient riverbeds and desert plains.
But there’s a more recent history to discover than that because behind the door at Dodge Hill is a tunnel system dating from World War II.
Stockport lay on one of two main assault routes into Manchester so was at constant risk and this particular location is one of five war shelters in the area that were formed as part of nationally coordinated scheme of Air Raid Precautions.
There’s rumoured to be a sixth shelter although no one has ever located this and none of the sites are physically connected.
The shelters have been regularly accessed over the years, after the war these visits have mostly been by members of the public whose curious nature got the better of them. To keep the public out of danger the council have instructed these particular shelters be sealed and prior to doing so we took a trip inside with Urban Search and Rescue, and with Stockport’s authority on tunnels and shelters, Phil Catling from Hatworks.
Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) are part of Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service and they come prepared on their visit with Echo, the fire service labrador and his handler Mike Dewar.
Echo, equipped in his protective boots and bells, is sent into the shelters to run the full length prior to the rest of the team entering. Today his purpose is locate any one who might be in the shelters already, either in trouble themselves or who could pose a danger to others.
Within ten minutes Echo has covered every part of the shelter system, during which time we learned of his heroics whilst on duty. Echo has been part of USAR for around five years now and was trained intensively for two years, during which time he’s travelled as part of UK International Search and Rescue to Pakistan, India and Haiti.
After spending 10 days in Haiti, carrying out over 40 searches, saving a young girl buried beneath a school, and surviving himself through heat exhaustion and 24 hours on a drip, Echo was named Animal of the Year.
Day to day the USAR team specialise in working in confined spaces, at safe heights and can work with technology to move and stabilise heavy masses. The team respond to any major unstable or collapsed structure as part of a national response but they also operate collaboratively with 12 other teams to form the UK International Search and Rescue.
Many of the members of USAR have been out on overseas deployments as part of the international team they form and are expected when they do so to be at their location within 24 hours, and to be totally self sufficient for up to 10 days if required.
Inside the tunnels there’s enough room to comfortably stand, the passages are around seven feet in height and width.
Dodge Hill is the smallest of the deep level shelters in the area with a capacity for around 2,000 people and it sits directly above the Tivot Dale Rail tunnel.
The majority of the tunnels are lined with three tier bunk beds, some of which are galvanized and still look in good condition whereas a handful of others which pre-date the galvanization technology now sit rusting severely. The bunks are connected one to the other, head to toe, for entire lengths of the passageways and are nailed and cemented into the ground.
Where a toilet block approaches the double lined passages become less dense and make way to just one row of bunks, making beds by the bucket toilets a desirable, spacious location to spend the night.
Throughout the shelter there are inconsistencies in the sandstone, the tool marks are clearly visible all over the shelters and there are naturally occuring areas of compression or water faults. The sandstone easily crumbles to the touch and where there are areas that water seeps through the soft ground beneath is worn down and forms small holes.
Some areas of the tunnels are quite black and though this is not entirely explained it’s probable these are the stains from old smoking areas.
Though it’s all very basic in here you can see the remnants of electrical wiring where lighting was installed. A couple of the toilet blocks remain intact and are still fitted with the chemical toilets.
Here and there throughout the system you can spot evidence of wardens posts, tool stores and wooden benches and with a little imagination can picture this an almost civil place to rest.
In order to defend themselves against the fear of gas attack, certain points approaching the entrances were fitted with gas curtains. As can be seen when looking at the non-galvanized bunk beds, wars were often fought using a previous war’s technology and these weighted curtains would have provided little more than reassurance. The curtains don’t survive but the frames upon which they were hung can still be found.
Some simple technologies are as effective now as they’ve always been. The nature of the structure means that the shelters form a natural air conditioning unit. Raised entrances suck in the cool, fresh air down into the main shelter area whilst the warm air that rises back upwards and outwards keeps a constant flow and temperature throughout the site. As such the air quality in here is remarkably good.
In total the combined shelters of Stockport could hold around 9,300 people.
Initially there was much indecision over the creation of these deep shelters, politically and fiscally the existence of such a large network sparked debate. It was argued that “no power on earth can save us from attack from the air” so the shelters would serve little use and instead we should concentrate our efforts on peace making. There were several meetings over the course of a few years that ended in approval, then again denial, and so it continued until it was realised that the old terraces of the area could not support their own Anderson shelters.
The sandstone is very soft and easy to carve into so the tunnels were completed remarkably quickly, in around four months, by a team of men using pneumatic drills.
There’s evidence all around of the visitors to the shelters since the war ended especially of the great force exerted in trying to gain access.
There are pneumatic drill attempts to access bricked off areas - the notion that a wall indicates some great secret store room or pathway to somewhere unknown when in fact these walls lead to nowhere at all. Someone has even taken it upon themselves to totally demolish one of the brick toilet blocks (pictured above).
Discarded tealights, plastic sheets, glowsticks, trails of red, white and blue threads, all of these are reminders of the homeless who’ve slept in here, explorers who’ve mapped their way around, and others who have been in the shelters to drink, graffiti and generally leave their mark.
Dodge Hill has been sealed off previously, several times, but a flooded drain above ground resulted in the hole through which we entered today.
After our visit a team of contractors sealed over this last remaining point of access.
You can visit Stockport Air Raid Shelters to experience for yourself similar conditions and learn more about their history.
Andrew Brooks is a photographer, a digital artist and a film maker living in Manchester, his previous works include the Secret Cities exhibitions with Curated Place Please visit his site to see these images and more, in high resolution and in all their glory - exactly as they should be viewed.
Andrew and I visited the site with Urban Search and Rescue and, of course, Echo!