Beneath our busy streets lies a fascinating and hidden world of tunnels and hidden rooms. Neil Hudson takes a rare tour below Leeds’s most famous hotel.
Three of us enter the lift and begin our descent – and as we do, the sounds of the city drain away.
As the doors slide open again at our destination, the street noises have been completely replaced by silence.
Here, in the bowels of the Queens Hotel, two storeys underground,is a hidden world.
Colossal structures lie here unseen, supporting the hotel and the adjoining Leeds City Railway Station above.
Myself, a photographer and our guide, deputy maintenance manager Michael Cox, step out into this dark world where the air is thick and still.
Michael, 64, has worked here for 40 years and he knows every inch of the meandering brick-lined corridors which connect the various subterranean rooms.
He leads us into one of the cavernous stone-vaulted chambers, whose ceiling arches up majestically before disappearing into the gloom.
Across the floor lies an assortment of out-of-favour hotel furniture: chairs, sofas, stools, tables and, intriguingly, three dust-laden ornate glass chandeliers hanging motionless on a metal frame propped up against one of the walls, looking like they belong in another world entirely.
“They were taken down when we redecorated one of the rooms upstairs,” explains Michael. “We re-hung the rest in the bar but these were left over, so they came down here.”
It’s just one of the numerous oddities in this dormant underworld. In the old boiler room stands an old brick flue, big enough for a man to stand in, supported on massive steel struts.
Then there are the limescale stalactites which spill down almost every wall; in one room they cover a metal water tank like delicate candlewax fingers.
There’s an eerie calm to this place and it’s hard to believe that, just metres above, is a bustling city, its people going about their business oblivious to the existence of the cave-like area below, where the archways look as though they could last forever.
But there are more things to discover in these depths.
We had heard rumours that the Queens Hotel contains a room with a door which opens directly onto the River Aire – and Michael proves to us that the rumours are true true.
After leaving the old boiler room with its chandeliers and old furniture and ascending a near-vertical metal staircase, we are led into a small antechamber with a padlocked metal door.
The door is unlocked and suddenly we are looking at the river flowing under the hotel.
It travels between rows of colossal concrete columns, upon which are balanced huge concrete lintels.
The banks of the river here are lifeless. There are no plants, the soil is barren, but on one of the concrete platforms sits a twisted tree limb, twice the size of a person and black with silt, no-doubt washed up here during some flood.
The water is visible for about a hundred yards before its course turns sharply and it disappears through a series of unlit archways, back into the darkness.
Michael says: “You can see where they diverted the river, it bends and goes under the hotel and through to the Dark Arches. They once shot some scenes for A Touch of Frost down here, they had a body hanging from one of the beams.”
Our tour continues and Michael takes us to be the largest room we have yet seen. It is so vast and dark that our torches do not even begin to penetrate the vastness and we cannot see much more than a few feet into the gloom.
Once we reach the far wall we see an open door leading to yet another domed tunnel, this time constructed entirely of red brick and with a ceiling not more than ten feet high. It is completely without light and along its walls are a series of rusted metal cable hooks, looking like the ribs of some dead animal.
Michael warns us not to venture too far into the tunnel because the floor, which turns from cement white to a muddy black, is unsafe, and so we abandon it back to the darkness.
Another underground room contains a large tiled area about 20ft by 10ft, with a knee-high wall at either end. Beyond it is a door which, when opened, allows a strong and constant through-draught. It turns out to be an early form of air-conditioning.
Michael says: “They used to fill this tiled part with ice and, as the wind blew through it, it would cool the air, which would then be pumped into the hotel.”
Our tour comes to an end in the Queens Hotel underground car park, from where we can see the Neville Street underpass. It is one of the few times we are able to get our bearings in what is a strange and fascinating tour.