By now, the tunnel we had come through had varied from all the way from 20th-century concrete with rusted steel girders supporting brick-arch roofs to sections that seemed drawn from the Neolithic era, with rough blocks forming the side walls and huge rectangular slabs of quarried stone stretching ten feet across from wall to wall to form the top of the culvert. We knew we were under Centenary Square at the heart of Bradford, however, when we came out into a magnificent chamber of stone-work arches. It looked like the crypt of a remarkably beautiful cathedral, though in fact the Bradford Cathedral was still a short distance ahead. Instead, we were almost directly under Bradford’s ornate Victorian-era City Hall. In addition the beautiful construction of this underground room—one of the first sections to be covered in the late 19th century—another landmark that showed our location was the confluence of our tunnel with another that contained an almost equally powerful flow of water. This was the Bowling Beck, the Bradford Beck’s largest tributary.
The combined flow of water, we quickly realized, was powerful enough that it could actually move us slowly along even when we stood still, with both boots planted; there was not enough traction on the slippery floor to resist the push of the current. This made our wading more difficult, and when we reached a wider section we decided to rest along the raised stone path at the side. Small, fibrous tree roots had infiltrated through the rotten mortar between stones, and stalactite formations showed the age of the tunnel. We were approximately next Bradford Cathedral, the oldest building in Bradford. This meant that we were also at Bradford’s origin, as the “broad ford” that gave both the city and the river their names is generally agreed to have been just at the spot where the Beck passes the Cathedral. Somewhere very close to where we sat was the ancient site of the crossing, the original center of Bradford.
Parts of the Cathedral date back to the 15th century, when it was still the Parish Church of St. Peter, and the 15th century church replaced another from the 14th century or before. Fragments of Saxon crosses have been found on the same site, meaning that some sort of settlement had existed here since at least the 10th century, and probably much earlier than that.
I looked at the water flowing over my boots. For more than a millennium, people had been right here with this same flow of water, dipping their feet in it, drinking from it, fouling it with waste, wading through it, fishing in it, washing in it.
In the light of my headlamp, it still sparkled.