York underground: the secret passageways and tunnels hidden beneath the city's surface

First founded by the Romans as "Eboracum" in 71 AD, York is a city with several layers of history - quite literally.

Commonhall Lane, a Medieval passage that runs beneath York Guildhall. Photo: York Archaeological Trust
Commonhall Lane, a Medieval passage that runs beneath York Guildhall. Photo: York Archaeological Trust

The ancient city has been home to Romans, Vikings, Normans and Monks, leaving behind a rich treasure trove of history for today's archaeologists to uncover.

And while millions of visitors flock to York each year to see landmarks like the Bar Walls and The Minster, there's a world of history below ground that most tourists don’t get to see.

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From Roman roads to escape route for nuns, there's a whole network of tunnels and passageways beneath the city's surface that show how much the city has changed since its ancient beginnings.

The Bar Convent Chapel, York, where extra exits and an escape tunnel were installed during an era of Catholic persecution. Photo: Gary Longbottom

Commonhall Lane beneath the Guildhall

The most well-preserved of all York's underground passageways, Commonhall Lane, sits beneath York Guildhall. It's a medieval passageway that runs on the line of an old Roman road which ran from the legionary fortress across the river Ouse. It remained a significant public right of way up until 1884 when it was sealed off after the city’s main Post Office was built. The tunnel is still there, but is no longer open to the public except for specialist tours.

Roman sewers in Church Street

In 1972, a contractor building on York's Church Street got more than they bargained for when they happened upon a network of tunnels below ground. Excavations revealed that the tunnels formed part of an extensive Roman sewage network, believed to have been built thousands of years ago to drain water from bathhouses above ground. In the tunnels, archaeologists discovered gaming counters, beads and coins all dating from the age of Roman rule in York.

Archaeologists digging at York Minster, where a Roman road was discovered in 2012. Photo: Gerard Binks

A Roman road under the Treasurer's House

The Church Street sewers aren't the only hidden Roman networks in York. Beneath the city lies a whole series of Roman roads built over and forgotten after the ancient empire fell. What is now one of the most well-known of these roads was discovered accidentally by a young plumber, Harry Martindale, who was completing work on some pipes in the basement of the Treasurer's House in 1953.

As the famous ghost story goes, the apprentice plumber had been working for several hours when he heard some strange music, followed by apparitions of Roman soldiers appearing out of one wall and marching straight through the other. Martindale reported that the soldiers were cut off at the knee, and sure enough, when the cellar was later excavated archaeologists discovered a Roman road around 18 inches beneath the ground. Ghost enthusiasts are able to access the cellar through the Treasurer's House if they're hoping for a repeat experience.

An escape tunnel leading out of the Bar Convent

The entrance to the Roman sewer found on York's Church Street. Photo: York Archaeological Trust

When the Bar Convent's chapel first opened 250 years ago in 1769, Catholics didn't have full freedom of worship in England and anti-Catholic sentiment was rife. Fearing government raids and not knowing whether full freedom of worship would ever become a reality, the Bar Convent chapel was built with eight exits to allow the congregation to disappear quickly in the event of a raid during mass.

In addition to this, a tunnel was also built as an escape route for the priest, allowing him to get away underneath the house and garden and exit onto the street. The tunnel supposedly was never used for this purpose, and during the 19th century alterations to the chapel led to its existence being forgotten. The tunnel was discovered in the 20th century by electricians who discovered what appeared to be a priests hole under the floor. Visitors to the chapel can see this, but the tunnel has been blocked off due to it being unsafe.

Passageways and roads beneath York Minster

Since York Minster has been around since roughly 627 AD, it's a goldmine for archaeologists. In 2012, a section of a Roman road was discovered beneath the undercroft, believed to be an old backstreet that ran behind the Roman Basilica - where the current Minster sits. It appears have been used for several centuries with patches and repairs visible along it.

An archaeologist exploring the Roman Sewer beneath Church Street. Photo: York Archaeological Trust

It's also rumoured that there were once tunnels leading from beneath the minster to various locations nearby, with businesses like the Dean Court Hotel reporting a "moat area" beneath street level at their premises which can be walked along before ending abruptly at a brick wall. This is, however, as yet unconfirmed by archaeologists, who rarely get the chance to conduct excavations in the cathedral.

The Treasurer's House, York, where a young apprentice plumber's ghost story helped to uncover a buried Roman road. Photo: James Hardisty