Midway through a laboratory session one cold and drizzly Tuesday (I was purifying Yeast DNA as I recall) I received a text from Siân asking if she could borrow kit for a very special trip in the evening; a trip down Megatron. Understandably outraged at my lack of invitation I quickly asked if I could tag along and Siân, in her infinite kindness, said yes.
I was informed that our small group of ‘UrbExers’ (if we must use the technical term) was Siân, Helen, Christine and myself. We walked down from the SUSS hut to meet Christine, who was still in her lab. She told us that her results were failing repeatedly and that we should go on without her. Continuing on, we soon arrived at the train station and got out the directions to the entrance as dictated to us by a fellow caver (who shall remain anonymous), after wandering around a bit – with Siân jumping at every policeman that walked past us – we were soon hopping the fence into a dreary-looking brownfield site.
I realised that the people waiting at the nearby bus stop were watching us, so we dashed into the nearby drain tunnel to get changed into our ‘less-socially-but-more-caving-appropriate’ attire. We had an inkling that the way to Megatron was downstream but we headed upstream regardless, I donned the GoPro (kindly lent to me by Brendan) and took a few photos of the, quite frankly, obscenely abundant spiders on the roof and passage walls (these were to send to Will for professional analysis – I was correct in my assumption that they were of the species ‘Metellina merianae’.)
We made it about 100m up the passage before we hit a hurdle; we had been avoiding the deep channel that ran through the middle of the passage because the flow was very fast , the strength of the flow was confirmed when I banged my head on the ceiling, knocking the camera off my head and into the torrential drain beside me. I wasn’t immediately aware of what had happened but a concise and serious “shit.” from Helen just behind me told me all I needed to know. After half an hour of frantic searching, raking my arm shoulder-deep in drain water while Siân held my legs and dunking my helmet in to see better my hand finally clasped something camera-shaped. I triumphantly held it aloft, calling out to the girls who were busy searching further downstream, “Yes! I’ve found the bugger!” They gladly returned and we resumed the stooped trudge up the drain, passing manholes through which we caught snapshots of conversation from the surface-folk.
Fairly soon we left the other side of the tunnel and were in open streamway alongside some student accommodation. We turned our lights off to avoid being seen. Up and down the walls of the stream there were vaguely philosophical graffitied slogans – part of the ‘Hungry Horace’ series of graffiti pieces. It wasn’t long before we hit an impassable weir and were forced to turn back.
Early one evening Horace was crying and drinking in a shed. It was darker within than outside until a lime green mutant tricked her way inside, much to my eventual decay and her self indulgent chagrin; and so a soiled river did flow until meeting Enid, overlooking a swamp.
Enid had been the wish of a shooting star and was armed with the most beautiful song; as summer gave way to an Autumnal haze she cradled Bella in her palm, and soon they became inseparable – Enid revealed the alchemy of her grace, teaching Horace love, hope and the preparation of basic foodstuffs as Bella balanced on the edge of every ledge, fixing all the broken with her secret magic potion until a fisherman bequeathed the three friends a boat, in which they followed a sun across an ocean.
– Hungry Horace
We retraced our steps, made it out of the entrance and began following the downstream flow carefully, so as not to alert the three police vehicles parked directly above the downstream tunnel. Once inside I marvelled at the sheer number and variety of spiders dotting the entire wall and ceiling space of the tunnel – while Siân recoiled at them. We followed the shallow but strong flow through the left tunnel, on the instruction of a fellow member of the society. Soon we came to a complex junction with strong currents and multiple outflows and inflows, sticking to the instructions we hugged the left wall and carried on. I noted the bizarre positioning of a ‘Mind your Head’ sign; presumably for drain workers, the sign was on display on an archway far higher than any normal human, one can only assume Sheffield County Council employs the Harlem Globetrotters to maintain their drains.
The next passage of the tunnel was some 5m lower than the junction and so there was a prolonged slope connecting the two – this bumped up the water flow quite a lot and my trousers, thus far protected from the foul water, were soon soaked. I was not looking forward to the walk back up the slope.
The passage now consisted of three parallel tunnels connected by arches. To avoid going in deep water we switched between the tunnels as we went along. Whilst paying close attention to where I was putting my feet I stumbled across a dodgy-looking disc labelled ‘Teen Thailand 5’ in felt-tip pen, unsurprisingly I did not take it home as a souvenir – the sequels are never as good as the original. All along the passage there was an omnipresent odour of death, occasionally the smell of decaying animal (I hope…) would become too strong and sometimes it would mercifully subside, but it was always there… This was a stench I dared not seek the source of.
“What would you do if we found a dead body?” the ever-cheerful Siân piped up – she also must have caught a whiff of death.
“I don’t know,” I responded “hopefully that problem won’t arise, but I guess I’d report it or something…” This short conversation put us both on edge for the rest of the trip – dark Victorian drains have the drawback of being creepy as hell.
Ahead, there was slight shimmer of light indicating the end of the tunnel. Our pace quickened when we caught sight of this next goal. The floor changed from rocks and rubble to smooth and slimy brick, causing many slips and slides. We reached the end of the tunnel and found ourselves in an open area, apparently beside Ponds Forge. The water appeared to be impassable, I tried one way but ended up waist deep in the foulest water I’ve ever been waist deep in – and I’ve been waist deep in stagnant leech-filled water in Matienzo. We crossed to the opposite wall and found it to be a much more amicable crossing, however Siân likened it to a game in the TV show ‘The Cube’ where you must remember where the person ahead put their feet or you will end up in the water. On the wall adjacent to our crossing point there was metre-high graffiti begging the question “Is the river really beautiful or is it just the gradient of the land?”, refusing to ponder on this pseudo-poignant philoso-babble for more than a second I waded across the open river and into the mouth of the next tunnel.
The sheer volume of detritus around the floor and walls of this new section of drain was overwhelming; far beyond the amount required to construct a Womble Cathedral. Broken bricks, mortar, wood, asbestos, plumbing sections, toilet seats and for some reason three television antennae bolted to the passage walls (I can’t imagine that the reception is very good down there…) There was also a banner advertising a sale on at a shop that it would be safe to assume has long been out of business.
Following this tunnel in a similar way to the previous one; switching in between ‘lanes’ to avoid going too deep in the scummy water, we wandered for 20 minutes before we arrived at what was to be our final destination… The Megatron.
It may be cliché to say this, but photos really don’t do this ‘drain’ justice. ‘Over-engineering’ may just be a word to us (yes ‘a’ word, grammar pedants, compound words count as one) but to whichever stovepipe-hatted and starch-collared Victorian Madman that dreamt up this monstrous underground behemoth, ‘over-engineering’ was a way of life. Roughly the same size as a large Cathedral, there is enough room to drive two double-decker buses beside each other through the stream. We paused to marvel at the spectacle before us, then headed to the edges where the water was shallower.
Daubed on the wall beside us in Metre-high letters were the words ‘Elmo! 2012’ next to what appeared at a distance to be a bundle of rags and rubbish deposited in the otherwise crisp and flat water. As I approached the apparently shapeless mass Siân’s words reverberated around my mind: “What would you do if you found a dead body…” I peered close at the bundle and recoiled in horror as I was sure I could make out the pale nape of a neck, a nest of shaggy dark hair and a long bony foot. I turned around to face Siân, a look of gaunt panic apparent on my face, beckoning her over I whispered that I had found a dead body, indicating the pile beside me.
She moved over to me and gazed down at the ‘corpse’, the look of slight disbelief she had initially shown disappeared as she reeled back in terror, we both retreated. Helen asked what was going on and we explained very sincerely that we were sure we had found a body and that we were ‘nope-ing’ the hell out of there. Helen, ever the skeptic, looked at us with condescension and strode over to the stiff. She examined him from every conceivable angle while Siân and I looked on cautiously. With a final nudge of the body with her welly Helen looked back at us, “I don’t know what this thing is but I’m pretty sure it’s not a body” she concluded. Unconvinced, Siân and I tentatively creeped over to have another look. In this newer, more rational frame of mind I was fairly sure it was not a body, but my pulse was still racing. Wanting to move on more than anything, we carried on past the ‘object’ as though it was not there.
There was light about 250m ahead but the roof stepped down to a much lower level as the water deepened. Siân waded on as far as she dared but reached a sudden drop and decided this was as far as we were going to make it. After a brief photoshoot in the Megatron tunnel, we set off back out.
As per usual, the journey out was uneventful and took very little time compared to the venture in. Still on edge from the residual adrenaline in my system after convincing myself I had encountered a carcass, I jumped a mile in the air when a train came over the top of the tunnel, it seems that the drain was constructed directly beneath the tracks in the station, meaning every time a train passes there is an earth-shattering roar that echoes throughout the chamber.
We soon made it out – and ducked quickly into the upstream tunnel to get changed before stealthily climbing the fence (Siân attracting the attention of several double-decker buses filled with people in the process). We wandered to a nearby stop to get a bus, soaking wet and covered in spiders and sewer shite.
Trip date: 25-11-14