The Dark Arches of Leeds
1. One of the tunnels carrying the River Aire in Leeds’ Dark Arches
Today, the entrance to Leeds’ central railway station is a rather banal building dating from the late 1960s. This replaced another station, dating from 1864 to 1866, which, in turn, was a ‘new’ station superseding a jumble of earlier buildings dating from the 1840s. The enormous scale of the railway station today is best appreciated from below, in its aptly-named ‘Dark Arches’ – a line of immense red-brick groined vaults covering an access tunnel built beneath the station in the mid-1860s and still forming most of its substructure today (2). When it was built, this subterranean world was one of the largest man-made underground spaces in Britain, created by the engineers T. E Harrison and Robert Hodgson and using over 18 million bricks. The space is dominated by the River Aire – Leeds’ principal waterway – which crosses the west end of the Dark Arches in four immense tunnels spanned by a cast-iron bridge (1 & 3). Here, the tunnels carry the fast-moving river underneath the station where it then joins the Leeds-Liverpool Canal at Granary Wharf. Turbulent and unruly, its sounds and smells animate the atmospheric gloom of the tunnels.
2. The Dark Arches from Neville Street to Granary Wharf
3. Walkway in one of the tunnels carrying the River Aire
Lining the last tunnel is a narrow walkway, a tantalising aid for would-be explorers but sealed off by a gate and coils of threatening barbed wire (3). Other brick openings suggest more secret worlds hidden in the darkness beyond, their unknown extent emphasised by gigantic brick arches glimpsed among the shadows and receding into pitch black (4). While gleaming, transparent glass office blocks rise up from Leeds’s nineteenth-century heart, the Dark Arches remind us of the city’s foundation – namely, its murky, industrial past. Indeed, in one of the arches are reproductions of Victorian photographs of the area, stained black with soot and smoke and redolent with a sense of stygian gloom.
4. Receding brick arches in the shadows
5. A place of safety for some…
The Dark Arches used to contain a run-down shopping centre, designed to cleanse this space of its dark associations in the early 1990s, but one that failed to entice enough people to shop, eat and enjoy themselves underground. As with many leftover Victorian subterranean spaces, the symbolic power and industrial origins of the Dark Arches remain stubbornly resistant to gentrification. Today, some of the arches facing Granary Wharf have been converted into restaurants, while the majority are now filled with parked cars – a common, acceptable use of underground space that is probably due to us feeling that our cars (if not ourselves) are safer in these sealed-off worlds (5). In between the cars, a few people use the arches as a convenient thoroughfare; others, for more nefarious activities. As early as 1892, Leeds’s chief of police was citing the Dark Arches as a centre of idling, prostitution and mugging; while in 2007, the British Transport Police uncovered a cannabis factory hidden in its recesses. It’s this twin sense of safety and danger that continues to haunt all underground spaces, particularly Victorian ones, and which prevents them from ever being fully controlled by the powers in the world above.