Since 2019, I’ve been lucky enough to have been a contributor to Hellebore Zine. Currently in its sixth bi-annual issue, Hellebore is a collection of writings and essays devoted to British folk horror, its themes and inspirations. In 2020, I was asked to contribute to The Hellebore Guide to Occult Britain: an illustrated travel guide covering the history of magic and the occult in the UK. I researched and wrote content for the North West and North East sections of the book. Some of the ground I covered was already familiar to me, some of it not so much. Of all the legends and locations I read and wrote about however, one has stuck with me. A nagging fascination for this place has remained, intensified even, in the time between my setting down a few hundred words on it for The Hellebore Guide and now. Which is why, today, I’ve decided that it’s time for me to dig back into my research and share it with you.
It all began as simply as this: researching the North West, I came across a weird place name. Crank (formerly Grank and, in the 13th century, Gronk) is a small village in Merseyside, England, near the slightly larger village of Rainford, in the Metropolitan Borough of St Helens. Crank, it turns out, is about 15 miles (24 km) North East from my own home.
The Rainford Delph Quarry was a sandstone quarry near Crank, in use from the mid-1700s until the early 20th century. Excavated at multiple levels, mines there broke through into pre-existing caverns and tunnels in several places. This now long-abandoned network of tunnels is known locally as Crank Caverns. A wealth of folklore has grown up around the caverns, or perhaps more accurately, has emerged from within them.
So, what is strange about Crank Caverns? I’ll quote from my own short entry on them from The Hellebore Guide:
It is said that, during the Reformation, Catholics would secretly retreat into the tunnels to attend Mass. The subterranean place of worship is a recurring motif in tales of the caverns. Sometimes it is an overground, Christian church said to have been accidentally undermined and sunk, virtually intact, into the hollow below. Some explorers, however, claim to have seen ancient and thoroughly unchristian altars and statues carved into the rock.
These seventy words represent both my jumping off point, and my ultimate, word-count restricted, distillation of all that I uncovered. There was much more, but it was messy, complicated, confusing, and, as is often the case with folklore and Urban Legend, contradictory. There was no room to tell it. No time to explore any of it in depth. So, now, let’s make room, and take time. Let’s explore these weird caverns in depth. Via the remote safety of words on a screen, of course.
Into the Archives
My years of researching odd little bits of local folklore and history have taught me a few tricks to uncover less easily Googled pieces of information. One of which is this: always check with the local library. So, in January 2021, I browsed St Helens Library’s online archive, and then dropped them an email. A week or two later I received a reply:
I’ve had a look at the collection you have requested [clippings archived under the description ‘History and description of Crank Caverns from newspaper articles’], and I have found another item in the pamphlet collection named ‘Report of expedition into Crank Caverns published in St Helens Newspaper and Advertiser 22/6/1938.’ Are you interested in this one too?
I was interested.
A few days on, I received a collection of photocopied documents, one of which was an amateur expedition report dated, as the librarian had said, from 1938, having been published in the St Helens Reporter newspaper. This was a first-hand account – complete with photographs so dark and degraded through copying that they were all but black – from a group who had recently visited Crank Caverns.
We had heard a lot about Crank Caverns (writes a REPORTER representative), and one afternoon a party of five, including the staff photographer, left the office to explore the mysterious caves hewn out of the rock between Billinge and Crank. I say mysterious advisedly, for very little is known of the caverns […] At the Central Library I searched records going back several centuries, but there was no mention of the quarry or the men who worked it.
The reporter recorded that the team found the caverns overgrown and wholly abandoned when they arrived. Three prospective entrances were soon discovered to be blocked by cave-ins and debris, but eventually they dug through some looser rubble and found a small, narrow tunnel.
It was a hole no more than two feet high and almost completely hidden in bracken and undergrowth, which led to our most interesting discovery. Armed with powerful torches, and bearing the invaluable twine with us [serving as a Theseus-inspired means of retracing their journey], we crept in one at a time. After a sloping gently from the entrance for a few feet, the path seemed to end in a small deep hole in the floor.
This hole proved to lead into a tunnel below, which the men proceeded to drop down into. For more than half an hour they journeyed, photographing the maze of tunnels. Some so low they were forced to stoop or crawl, some whose high ceilings were timbered with rotting beams. Many of the entrances to further tunnels had been sealed with now immovable stone blocks, quarried therein. They saw stalactites and stalagmites, stone walls covered with a “smooth phosphorescent precipitate of calcite”, and discovered one passage which they assumed to have been natural, rather than man-made.
[T]his seemed to have been at one time the bed of a subterranean stream. The passage showed no evidence of the use of tools, and the floor consisted of smooth, hard sand.
The twine proved an effective means of navigation and, after another half hour’s journey, the men made it safely out into the open-air. “[W]ith scarred hands and arms”, but otherwise unscathed. The piece concludes:
But the workings and their use are still unsolved mysteries. If the purpose of the excavation was stone, why did not the workers cut it from the sheer wall of the quarry? What was the purpose of its winding, timbered passages?
The next piece of this photocopied jigsaw comes in the form of a kind of rebuttal to this first report. Again, in the St Helens Reporter, the piece entitled ‘Man Who Worked in Crank Caverns – He Clears up Some Mysteries’, was published two weeks after the 1938 expedition piece. The interviewee is a Mr Rigby, “an alert man of 82 years” at the time of print, having been born “next to the old chapel at Crank” in 1855. Mr Rigby started work as a mason at the age of thirteen, and the stone he worked came from Crank Caverns. Stone from the quarry was, he reported, put to a great many uses, from pavements to gravestones. As to the strange, labyrinthine passageways the previous report had thought to be anomalous:
The long winding tunnels – reminiscent of a coal mine – were cut to enable the quarrymen to reach the best stone. Near the surface only poor quality stone was to be procured, so when the workers reached the good stuff they followed it underground, thereby saving the expense and trouble caused by the removal of the top layer.
Most of the interview takes the form of the kind of ‘Reminiscences of an old Gentleman’ piece which were popular in local papers for many years Mr Rigby explaining to the modern newspapermen how different life used to be back in the Old Days. One interesting and relevant point made though, was how many abandoned, forgotten, and repurposed tunnels this old gentleman knew of in the local area.
Mr Rigby recalled many workings similar to those at Crank. In the rough land near Moss Bank, he said, there were literally acres of caverns beneath the earth’s surface, and out at Bispham there were many more. They are at present utilised as storage tanks for Pemberton Waterworks.
What is particularly interesting to me about these two reports is the fact that, even though someone with first-hand knowledge of the caverns and their purpose was still living at the time, they had already passed into the realm of legend.
To put things into perspective, it is worth pointing out that in 1938, the average UK life expectancy was 61 years. So, while Mr Rigby was certainly not the oldest British man alive at the time, he was definitely an outlier. One of very few who could remember, and recount what they knew of Crank Caverns, and of the many other lost workings which riddled the ground beneath the area. The original reporter claimed to have “searched records going back several centuries, but there was no mention of the quarry or the men who worked it”. My own research came to similar conclusions – Mr Rigby’s brief accounts of the quarry, its design, and purpose, seemingly being just about as far back as could be gone to in terms of surviving written records. But not quite.
33, not 38
Published in the St Helen’s Newspaper & Advertiser in September 1933, was a piece entitled ‘Lost in Crank Caverns – Two Hours in the “Underworld”’. This was, in fact, the extra clipping which the librarian had located for me, wrongly recorded as dating from 1938. This article, and the expedition it chronicled, therefore predated the other by five years, and seems to have served as its blueprint to some extent.
Two unnamed reporters from the Advertiser embarked on a journey, not into Crank Caverns themselves, but some adjacent (and adjoining) passages as part of a ‘Behind the Scenes’ series of reports.
The cavern we chose to explore is situated somewhere in Crank, quite apart from the popular “Crank caverns,” so well known to St Helens residents.
For the benefit of would-be explorers, our total equipment consisted of flannels, coates [sic] and shirts […] two flashlamps, and an oil lamp (all erratic), three pieces of chalk, four cigarettes, and a shaky feeling at the knees.
It was with mixed feeling. Therefore, that we lay on our stomachs, and after taking one last look at the glorious sky, wriggled forward through a slightly enlarged rabbit hole, that constituted the main entrance.
The men crawled along a stone passage filled with enough earth that they were forced to “emulate moles” and dig their way forwards. This passage sloped down, and eventually led to a drop of about 6 feet (1.8 m). This description of the entrance and the drop off seeming very similar, if not identical, to the one written of half a decade later. Here the men were able to rest on some boulders and thought to have a smoke, only to discover that they had lost their cigarettes en route. The candle was lit and placed as a beacon on one of the boulders, then the men pressed on.
[T]he passage […] now widened out to about two feet six and four feet high. One strange fact struck us at once. The air was wonderfully fresh, albeit icy cold.
About half a mile under the earth we found timber. Why it was there or who had brought it, we do not know, but it was fossilised, and obviously very ancient.
Chalking arrows as they went, the men continued on into the maze of tunnels.
Then another surprise. A sudden turn in the path we were inside a cavern, dark, majestic, and lofty. The cathedral like interior with its pillared arches of smooth faced rock reminded us forcibly of the imposing vastness of Lowe House Church. Never before had we realised fully the meaning of “as silent as the tomb”. At one end was a gallery, which bore a striking resemblance to an altar, complete with steps.
The men climbed these steps and found another passage “reduced once again to its original rabbit hole dimensions”. Onward they crawled, for over half an hour until, at last, they came to a dead end. Physically unable to turn back, the men dug with their bare hands. They made some slow progress, and then the earthen floor gave way beneath them.
Alice, of Wonderland fame, fell down a hole and saw many wonderful things. We, on the other hand, said them. We had fallen many feet, on to a bed of soft gravel and there, would you believe it, was our old friend, the lighted candle, which we had left at the first junction.
The steps which they had climbed had evidently taken the men to part of the network above the place where they had entered. Choosing a path from several now available to them, the men were delighted to discover their lost cigarettes, signalling that they were on the right track.
We pushed on. A short crawl, a quick burst, and then we saw the stars. We were out.
The piece’s conclusion gives a fascinating summary of the local lore which had led to the exploration:
We had, of course, set out with a definite object, but we might as well admit right now, we failed. We didn’t prove the old yokels’ stories about the well into which the Sinn Feigners were dropped after having burnt the haystacks in the Billinge vicinity, or the pulpit from which priests preached during the time of the Reformation, or even the legend of the vast underground lake.
We did, on the other hand, get away with our lives, and withal, just in time to quaff a well earned pint at the Black Bull.
Before I came into possession of the archive articles quoted above, I had already read several short first-hand accounts of explorations near Crank. I came across these online, when doing my initial research. One of the first, and best, online write-ups I came across came from ludchurchmyblog.wordpress.com, which states on its ‘About’ page:
Hi, Welcome to my blog site, I have been researching many places which I have found of interest and which aren’t always included in Tourist Information Centres.
In ‘Crank Caverns’ , posted in 2012, the site owner wrote an account of their own visit there. Useful, and informative as this post was, it was the comments included below it which really drew my interest.
Several of the comments stated they remembered being able to access the small, crawl-through tunnel (“the Mousie” – although exactly which entrance this nickname refers to seems a matter of some debate amongst locals) which led to the drop into the initial cavern when they were younger. People also stated that they knew of other entrances to the tunnel network, notably via the Stork Inn pub cellar, and St Marys Church in Billinge. Some of those commenting claimed to know where these entrances were, having been shown them by the landlord or priest respectively. In time, others countered that they knew the landlord and/or the priest in question, and that these entrances do not exist. It is noticeable that, as the comments get more recent, they become more and more dismissive of the idea that the tunnels have, or ever had, any real depth. What begin as pleasant, interesting, shared reminiscences, become dismissive denials within a few years.
The ludchurch post lead me to sthelens-connect.net where I found a thread on the caverns with a host of locals discussing them. One notable post from 2004, the year the thread was begun, contains the following:
when i was a kid there were two open caves that ran for over 3 miles. One “The mousies hole” came to an abrupt end and often flooded due to a stream running across it about a mile in..which at times you really needed to belly crawl to get through..The other was the “blue lagoon” which was a underground lake about 50 meters across which also was around 3 miles in..I believe the stream in the other cave ran off from this lake.I used to frequent both of those caves as a kid and was an excellent caver and took kids in there “for a price” usually a couple of woodbines..Both those caves were early sandstone slate mines and were this was closed off in 1968 due to an accident with young kids getting lost down there.
An extract from another post, this time from 2009:
I know you have all heard this before but I have been going up there since I was a kid (being from Rainford) but never ventured far in. When I was about 19 I went up there with a mate (Tom who I’ve now known for years now and he ain’t no liar) who absolutely swore down he had been to what he thought was the lake. I’m trying to get hold of him for more info.
The underground lake – or Blue Lagoon – seems to feature in many people’s childhood memories of the caverns, mostly (it seems) from the 1960s and 70s, but some claimed to have visited more recently, like one 2005 poster:
as for the under ground lake, it does exist as iv been for a swim in it a few years ago.
Several posters in the sthelens-connect.net thread promised to share maps and photographs of the lower tunnels, proving the truth of their extent beyond all doubt. Then nothing happened. Time and time again. Photos and maps were not uploaded. People who agreed to meet others in person to show them, failed to turn up. Much to the annoyance and scorn of everyone else in the thread.
What’s especially interesting about the sthelens-connect.net thread, is that it chronicles the 21st century decline of Crank Caverns. Although begun in 2004, the latest posts date from 2021, and the thread is 34 pages long. Posters comment on the fact that the caverns are being gated off, bricked up, and filled in more and more. It is mentioned that people believe parts of the caverns to have been “dynamited”, or deliberately caved in decades earlier, and some say they remember seeing earth and rubbish tipped into them by council workers during the 1980s.
Despite all of this, urban explorers and curious amateurs continued to venture into what remained of Crank Caverns, chronicling their expeditions not just in the sthelens-connect.net thread, but on forums like 28dayslater.co.uk and derelictplaces.co.uk and, of course, posting videos on YouTube.
In 2013 a person with the username chocolate2013 posted a pair of hand drawn maps on sthelens-connect.net. The maps show maybe half a dozen chambers connected by many tunnels. They also show ten passages marked with highlighter which “were once entrances/tunnels which lead further in but are now either fully or partly blocked”.
In 2019 a poster wrote:
I’m afraid Crank Caverns has become a landfill site, the lower caverns are now piled up with waste, not the dirt and rubble as we’ve seen before but what looks like shredded black plastic mixed with dirt. The old shaft that was at the bottom of the woods [another of the supposed alternative entrances] has recently been filled in! Is there nothing that can be done to stop this tipping? It’s ruining the area and the whole lot could potentially collapse! Shredded plastic? Is it legal to dump this stuff wherever?
Then, in 2020, in one of the last posts in the thread to date:
I’ve seen recent photos of the caverns on facebook, it looks like it’s collapsing badly now and doesn’t look safe. Don’t blame the guy getting it filled in. Too many idiots these days spoiling everything.
Someone asks, “What’s making is collapse?”
And the reply comes: “Brexit and Coronavirus.”
Seeds of Urban Legend
Published online in 2007 under the heading ‘Merseyside’s Underground Mysteries’ is a tale of Crank Caverns penned by one Mr Thomas Slemen (copyright Tom Slemen 2001, according to the disclaimer in its footer). It tells a tale of four children who vanished into the caverns whilst exploring. No date of this occurrence is given. According to Slemen, only one child survived and, upon their return, told a tale of “small old men with beards who killed his three friends and chased him”. During his escape, the child is said to stumbled over human bones, which we may assume are to be taken as evidence of cannibalism (if the small, bearded men are supposed to be human).
Because of previous disappearances around the caverns, the child’s testimony was apparently enough for “two heavily armed soldiers” to enter the caverns in search of the evil little old men. Inside, the soldiers are said to have found a heap of human bones and “the ruins of an ancient church of some unknown denomination. The interior of the church was lit by three large candles and grotesque gargoyles formed part of an altar”. The soldiers are said to have reported a feeling of being watched, and to have heard voices “speaking in an unknown language”. The grisly denouement reads as follows:
One report said that a child’s head was found in a cave, along with evidence of cannibalism. After a second investigation, the caves either collapsed or gunpowder was used to seal them, and so the riddle of the underground church of Billinge remains unsolved.
Tom Slemen is the author of the Haunted Liverpool series of books – currently numbering thirty four volumes, but probably thirty five or six by the time this piece is published. Hailing from Liverpool as I do, I have come across Mr Slemen’s writings many times before. Notably, I found his work particularly difficult to contend with when I was writing my own book 800 Years of Haunted Liverpool, published by History Press (UK), as part of their long-running ‘Haunted’ series of books, in 2008.
I say difficult to contend with because, to be frank, Slemen’s works represent an absolute nightmare for anyone wishing to research Liverpool lore in any meaningful way. His stories typically contain no sources or references, an emphasis on drama over detail, and are basically Campfire Tales whose origin is more often than not impossible to trace. There is northing at all wrong with a good Ghost Story or Weird Tale, but having to wade through a mass of such, which have been framed as fact, to get to real historical data is less than ideal. Slemen’s tales also quickly seep into local lore and Urban Legend. So much so that, if you find yourself in the position of trying to get some anecdotal folklore out of a group of Scousers (or, indeed Merseysiders), nine times out of ten you will end up having something from one Tom Slemen’s many, many books recounted to you instead.
A clear example of this comes in the form of Slemen’s tale of William McKenzie’s tomb. Interred in 1851, McKenzie’s grave in the churchyard at Rodney Street, Liverpool, is marked with an impressive fifteen foot (4.57 m) pyramid shaped tombstone. Slemen wrote a story many years ago about how MacKenzie was entombed upright within the pyramid, having sold his soul to the devil. The small print of this contract apparently reading that the Fiend could only collect once William was beneath the ground. This now often repeated story has very much become part of local lore. This, despite the fact that a plaque on the monument states clearly that it was erected in 1868, seventeen years after McKenzie was interred in an entirely conventional manner.
Slemen’s story of the human-flesh eating gnomes of Crank Caverns has likewise passed into local lore. The tale is referenced and recounted many times in articles, posts, and threads relating to the caverns online, but cannot be traced back any further than the 2001 copyrighted tale.
The mention of soldiers, rather than police investigating the caverns does flag one point of interest, however. According to a Crank Caverns page on Facebook:
The woods and caverns were used as a game reserve by the Earl of Derby until 1939, when they became a storage facility for ammunition for the anti-aircraft position at Crank.
More information comes from The History of Billinge (Billinge Historical Society, 2002):
During the Liverpool blitz in May 1941 an anti-aircraft battery was stationed on Billinge hill as a temporary measure to try to prevent some of the bombers reaching the city. There was a permanent battery near to Crank Caverns, along the Rainford Road, manned by regular troops, and the site is now marked by a property called ‘Gunsite Bungalow’. One man who was a young child during the war remembers that the guns themselves were removed shortly after the end of the war but that their mounts were left, providing an unusual playground for him and his friends.
So, although no date is given of when the killer-gnome hunt supposedly took place, we can assume that it was somewhere in the early 1940s. Nevertheless, absolutely no record of any such occurrence exists in St Helens Library’s archive.
Into the Well
21st century red herrings aside then, we return to the folklore written of in the 1930s:
We didn’t prove the old yokels’ stories about the well into which the Sinn Feigners were dropped after having burnt the haystacks in the Billinge vicinity, or the pulpit from which priests preached during the time of the Reformation, or even the legend of the vast underground lake.
Writing in the 1930s, we can assume that when the reporter wrote of “Sinn Feigners” he was referring to Irish Nationalists but also, almost certainly, specifically of Catholic Irish Nationalists.
Liverpool, Merseyside, and the surrounding areas saw an influx of Irish immigrants during the mid 1800s during the Great Famine; a crisis caused ostensibly by potato blight, but escalated to a catastrophe by the British government’s deliberately callous policies and actions. In Liverpool especially, but also the surrounding areas, communities became deeply divided for many years following the mass migration. To quote from P. Ingram’s Sectarianism in the North West of England (1987):
[A]nti-Catholicism was an [already] integral part of British Protestant culture […] with its roots set well before the nineteenth century. What developed [following the mass immigration resulting from the Great Famine] was a cultural partition based around religious and national identities. During this period, denominational division between Protestants and Catholics, coupled with xenophobia expressed between ‘native’ Liverpudlians and immigrant Irish, caused significant conflict, as ‘people were stigmatised for their religious beliefs within a city divided on sectarian lines.
I have not been able to find any historic record of the Billinge haystack burning, of those responsible for the alleged crime, or their fate. The well which they were supposedly cast into, however, is a feature of the local lore of the caverns.
An “artisanal well” near Crank Caverns, is mentioned in the 2012 ludchurch blog posting, and in several of the comments on the sthelens-connect.net thread. Some have suggested that this may have been a shaft (the “old shaft that was at the bottom of the woods” now filled in with shredded black plastic?) which led down into the chamber described in the 1938 report as “the bed of a subterranean stream”. When completely flooded, it is possible that water from this chamber may have been forced upward through the shaft and out of a well-head, thus fitting the definition of an “artisanal well”. It seems safe to assume that chamber in question might once have been reached via one of the passages marked as being “now either fully or partly blocked” on the 2013 hand-drawn map. Could this chamber, when only partially flooded, have also been the Underground Lake – or Blue Lagoon – which so many local explorers share childhood reminiscences of? It seems possible, though not easily provable in any conclusive way.
The Subterranean Church, complete with altar, seems real enough; apparently having been visited by the 1933 expedition. A chamber of cathedral-like proportions, it may have been natural, or at least pre-existing, but later enlarged and broken into by the miners. The “altar”, it has been suggested, may have been deliberately constructed by miners as a resting place, rather than an actual place of worship. Equally though, it is perhaps worth noting that miners have long been known to create shrines and even chapels within their places of work. An extant 2nd century CE shrine to Minerva – Goddess of war, knowledge, and craftsmanship – stands in what was once a sandstone quarry in Handbridge, Chester, some 30 miles (48 km) south east of Crank.
Talk of the caverns being used for Catholic Mass during the Reformation, and of the “Sinn Feigners” cast into them, brings us back to the tunnels said to lead to them. More crucially, it brings us to where those tunnels are supposed to originate.
The History of Billinge (Billinge Historical Society, 2002), gives us the following information on The Stork Inn’s history:
Halfway between St Helens and Wigan, the Stork Hotel was built in 1717, on the site of an older inn that was built in 1640. The crypt of the old building, which is now used as the cellars of the more modern Stork Hotel, was used to incarcerate Royalist prisoners during the Civil War.
Here then, are the origins (true or not) of the stories about tunnels – now bricked up – beneath the pub. St Mary’s in Billinge is a Roman Catholic Church, established in 1828. Local lore states that tunnels can be accessed from the church, and via a crypt in its cemetery, which wind their way to Crank Caverns. Even more conspicuous though, are tunnels rumoured to connect to the caverns from Birchley Hall, Billinge.
Birchley Hall is a Grade II listed Elizabethan house built circa 1594. During the Reformation Birchley Hall was in the county of Lancashire, which was a stronghold for Roman Catholics during their persecution at the hands of Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I. Catholics, especially priests, were driven underground, and Catholic literature was vigorously suppressed. Clandestine printing presses were set up at Birchley Hall during the early 1600s, and Catholic literature was printed there for secret distribution.
From the Wikipedia entry for Birchley Hall:
One wing of the Hall contains a chapel, which was used for secret religious services. According to “Secret Hiding Places” published in 1933, there was a trap door in the vestry floor concealed inside a confessional box. This led to the floor below and into the Hall and would have been used for priest to escape discovery. In 1920 a fall of plaster disclosed a secret door to a short tunnel in the wall leading to a look-out in the roof, from which the approach to the house could be watched. It was in poor condition at the time. Hiding places were also discovered (date unknown). In one of these chalices and vestments were found, which were subsequently kept at the local catholic church [St Marys].
Many historic houses in England, Wales, and Ireland which were under Catholic ownership during the Reformation have what are now referred to as priest holes. These were hidden spaces, often with very cunningly concealed entrances and exits, in which priests (or known active Catholics) could be concealed should the Queen’s men come calling. Here are the origins of the secret rooms hidden behind bookcases, and the eyes peeping through those of a portrait, in all good Scooby Doo mysteries. Fittingly, more often than not, the rooms from which these hidden spaces are accessed are said to be haunted. This, I have long believed, might have more to do with explaining away strange noises heard, or apparent disappearances witnessed, by untrusted visitors, rather than actual supernatural occurrences.
Though no tunnel connecting Birchley Hall to Crank Caverns has been proved to exist, still the local folklore maintains it as a fact, as well known as the Underground Lake and the Subterranean Church. And so, I believe, we might begin to draw some conclusions about the roots of the “unchristian worship” supposedly practised in the caverns. It seems possible that what we are dealing with are hyper-local folk memories of the Catholic persecution which took place in the area during the 1600s. The increasing sectarianism of the mid 1800s may have caused these old stories to resurface, and to evolve into new tales. St Marys was, after all, only a few decades old at the time of the surge of Irish Catholic immigrants into England’s North West. The record of “Sinn Feigners” supposedly thrown down a well shows us that the area around Crank was not immune to the sectarianism of the age. It was a matter of historic fact that there were hidden places and tunnels in the region were people once conducted secret rituals, unsanctioned by the Protestant Church. Everyone had also heard the stories of there being a Subterranean Church, hidden somewhere in those ancient, mysterious abandoned mines. Weren’t there even bricked up tunnels in that old pub cellar, supposed to date back centuries? The dots were all there, just waiting to be joined.
It is now April 2022, and Crank Caverns are no longer open to the public. Yes, you can walk in the surrounding woods, and you can visit the graffiti covered, litter strewn entrances. You can even, if you are so inclined, scramble your way through the Gated Mousie (if you’re lucky enough to find it without a padlock) and explore a handful of a dead-ended, mined chambers. Though this is by no means advised. Even so, the more ancient network of tunnels said to stretch on for miles are now wholly inaccessible. Already, it seems, it is almost as if they never really existed.
As we have seen from the evidence presented above, Crank Caverns had already passed into local legend by the 1930s. Their having been used by the military to store ammunition during the 1940s may well provide the reason some of the tunnels having been blocked (or ‘dynamited”) after that date. Perhaps it was as simply a means of ensuring that the ammunition stored there remained dry, even if some of the adjacent chambers flooded. Post 1970s, the local landowners and/or council seem to have increasingly taken it upon themselves to fill-in or block off as much of the network as possible. In all probability, this has simply been done to stop amateur explorers (and especially children) getting lost, trapped, or injured therein.
Tales of flesh-hungry cave dwellers, of ghosts, and black magic rituals, may also have served as a means of keeping people out of the old mines for a time. However, in the 21st century, with Urban Explorers and Ghost Hunters keen to find new locations to photograph, video, and podcast from, old-fashioned deterrents as “beware the haunted mines” are no longer effective. Instead, they draw ever more interest and attention. In that sense, it is not difficult to sympathise with the 2020 sthelens-connect.net poster who wrote “Don’t blame the guy getting it filled in. Too many idiots these days spoiling everything”.
While Crank Caverns may be nothing more than a series of dead ends today, it is worth recalling the words of old Mr Rigby, as recorded in 1938.
In the rough land near Moss Bank, he said, there were literally acres of caverns beneath the earth’s surface, and out at Bispham there were many more. They are at present utilised as storage tanks for Pemberton Waterworks.
Indeed, back in 2005, a poster on the sthelens-connect.net thread wrote:
Did you know theres an underground lake under whiston hospital [roughly 7 miles (11km) south of Crank] that stretches towards prescot?
How do I know – Well I work for what used to be BICC cables, the site was massive back then (tesco stands there now) and there were two water pumps that pumped water from this lake through bore holes for cooling around the site – what is interesting is that fish were regularaly found in the filters that had no eyes and were plain white in colour!! You can get down to it, am trying to find out how!
The truth is this: the earth beneath our modern 21st century crust of concrete and tarmac is riddled with caverns, tunnels, and passages. Their ground-level entrances blocked for decades, centuries, and longer, if they ever even existed. The origins and uses (intended or adopted, human or otherwise) of these light-less spaces below now long-forgotten, or else never known. Who can say what once dwelled down there and perhaps, like those pale, eyeless fish, still does. All of which puts me in mind of a favourite passage of mine from Bram Stoker’s 1911 novel The Lair of the White Worm:
In England there were originally vast plains where the plentiful supply of water could gather. The streams were deep and slow, and there were holes of abysmal depth, where any kind and size of antediluvian monster could find a habitat. In places, which now we can see from our windows, were mud-holes a hundred or more feet deep. Who can tell us when the age of the monsters which flourished in slime came to an end?