Comparing 19th-century maps with contemporary ones, we found the outfall of the culvert along the northern shore of the Trent River. We let ourselves down the bank and into the river, and stepped into the twelve-foot-wide, eight-foot high brick tunnel.
The sunlight disappeared almost instantly as we waded in. The water was waist deep; it was cold and dirty, and I was very glad to be wearing chest-high waders. Chris and John were only wearing hip waders and they tried to keep to the curving, shallower sides of the channel. I stayed in the center where the water was higher, but the flat bottom gave a better footing. I jumped and almost fell when I felt something moving touch my leg. Chris saw me. “Fish,” he said. “They’ve been bumping into my legs. Is that what you felt?”
A stone plaque above the intricate brickwork of the outfall had told us it had been built in 1884, and gave us Nottingham’s Latin motto—“Vivit Post Funera Virtus,” or “Virtue Outlives Death.” The tunnel had been built with care and pride, and a measure of that is the fact that the grade is still even, with no sinkage or buckling of the floor. As the tunnel slowly sloped upward, the water became shallower, until it was just an ankle-high fast-moving stream coursing down the center of the tunnel. Occasionally, we passed openings to smaller brick tunnels. From its inception, the culvert had been intended to carry storm water—but as with almost all older storm water drains, it would also carry any overflow from the sewage system. The lower half of the tunnel openings we passed were blocked with a dam. As long as the sewage didn’t rise above the dam it stayed out of the culvert, but if it rose too high then the excess would flow over the barrier and into this tunnel.
After about a half-mile of walking, the tunnel turned perfectly round, a brick tube maybe twelve feet in diameter, which would slowly shrink as we went further upstream. Dark, glassy bricks lined the bottom third of the tunnel to resist the punishing flow of water. Higher up, the bricks were lighter in color and looked much more like standard building bricks. All of the brickwork was still immaculate, despite being over a century old. The vitreous bricks underfoot were wet and incredibly slippery, and I fell once with a noise that echoed through the tunnel.