THE CENTRE of Scotland’s capital city is built on many layers and levels, all of different ages, interlocking and enveloping one another; a veritable warren of subterranean secrets.
Think of South Bridge and the Niddry Street vaults, the New Town’s Scotland Street railway tunnel or even Mary King’s Close. What you see at ground level in Edinburgh is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s much more to this ancient city than meets the eye.
Nowhere does this ring more true than the area around the former Waverley Station goods yard. You might not expect to find much of interest below what is now a bland, utilitarian car park adjacent to a railway station.
But you’d be totally wrong.
Last week, myself and Scotsman video editor Tony McGuire were invited down to Waverley by Network Rail to visit something quite extraordinary: a network of ‘forgotten’ vaults located just metres beneath the station. Armed with flashlights and clad in standard issue hard hats, hi-viz vests, and steel toe cap boots (which I must confess were at least two sizes too large), we felt like a pair of professionals, preparing to ‘spelunk’ in some lost cenotes on the Yucatan Peninsula. The illusion died down somewhat as we made our way via New Street to a steel door at the back of the underground car park at Waverley Court - but not for long.
What struck me most as the door opened was the sheer scale of the place.
There is so much history and intrigue; it was fascinating to see first-hand one of the forgotten spaces beneath the station.Sarah Duignan, Communications Manager at Network Rail
We entered into what can only be described as a vast cavern of brick arches and arcades, which, in terms of appearance, is similar to the South Bridge vaults, albeit significantly larger. A central corridor runs right to the end of the complex, with a dozen or so large vaulted chambers opening up on either side. We entered several of these sinister-looking rooms and the vibe was nothing less than bone-chilling; the kind of place where the likes of John Carpenter and Wes Craven would have had a field day. If anyone out there is thinking of making a horror film and is in need of a suitably spooky location, my advice is get in touch with Network Rail.
At its greatest extent, the space measures roughly 90 yards long and 70 yards wide, and, prior to the construction of Edinburgh Council’s Waverley Court, it was once at least double that size. One of the Network Rail personnell we spoke to reckons they might even extend as far as the station’s vehicle entrance ramps, but how to access this section is unclear.
Sarah Duignan, Communications Manager for Network Rail, who, like us, was visiting the vaults for the first time, found the experience fascinating: “Over the years I’ve heard many stories about what lies beneath Edinburgh Waverley station.
“There is so much history and intrigue; it was fascinating to see first-hand one of the forgotten spaces beneath the station.”
Officials from Network Rail tell us that the space was originally used for storage of goods in connection with the fruit and vegetable markets, and that, at one time, this place would have been teeming with market traders and horses and carts. Ghost signage from some of these traders could still be made out on some of the doors.
A little research reveals that the vaults were built during a £1.5 million redevelopment and expansion of Waverley Station by the North British Railway Company in the mid-1890s. Scores of old buildings and a cooperage were demolished and the site excavated as engineers raised Waverley Station seveal metres higher than it had been previously. Much of the station effectively sits above these vaults.
The vaults were originally accessible from New Street, and if you go down there today you can still see one of the remaining entrance arches, albeit blocked up with expanding concrete. A trawl through The Scotsman archives offers up scant mention of the vaults, though a number of advertisements from the 1920s show that the public were able to rent some of the many rooms for storage use.
What is quite evident today, however, is that the vaults haven’t been used by anyone for a considerable amount of time and Network Rail say nobody has visited in at least 12 years. Many of the rooms we saw were laden with all manner of ancient junk. Some contained a range of rusting household appliances, such as cookers and washing machines, which looked as if they hadn’t seen the light of day since the Winter of Discontent. An upturned car (possibly a Hillman Imp, although it was quite hard to tell due to the lack of light) was also an odd sight.
There was even more to see at the rear of the complex. Two or three of the rooms contained a sea of discarded granite setts, leftovers from a pre-tarmac age. There were also a large amount of elaborately decorated iron fittings, dumped here following refurbishments of Waverley Station which took place in the seventies.
What struck me most as we exited was the realisation that I’ve been walking through this fine city for over 30 years and had zero idea that this incredible place existed. Much like the tens of thousands of commuters who pass overhead on a daily basis.
I wonder how many more subterranean secrets Auld Reekie has to offer?