In the brave new world of multidisciplinary research, unlikely collaborations are increasingly giving rise to amazing results. Now, Oxford’s Academic IT Services has teamed up with academics and postgraduate students from the English Faculty to create Great Writers Inspire – a wonderful, free online resource for teachers and learners everywhere.The underworld can fascinate, repel, and inspire authors in equal measure. London Under (2011, Chatto & Windus), for instance, latest hit for industrious historian Peter Ackroyd, dissects Londoners’ love-hate relationship with the maze of tunnels and streams, rooms and passages beneath the capital. It was closely followed last year by a history of the London Tube – Underground Overground (2012, Profile) – and now the National Archives is publicising its unique set of 1940s maps, showing every Underground line in detail; maps which, although available to engineers, were previously deemed too confusing for public consumption.

Oxford too is honeycombed by subterranean pipes, wires, channels, vaults and chambers; the repaving of Cornmarket a few years back was constantly interrupted by the discovery of unsuspected cavities, and in 2012 the rail tunnel at the top of Woodstock Road made local headlines when the railway company, wishing to upgrade the line, threatened to disturb a colony of bats.

The University’s major contribution to Oxford’s hidden story must be the bookstore beneath Radcliffe Square, the centenary of whose opening fell on 27 November of last year. This basement repository has, perhaps unsurprisingly, offered novelists an invitingly intimidating setting for crime stories, ranging from Robert Robertson’s juvenile Landscape with Dead Dons (1956) to Hazel Holt’s The Cruellest Month (1991) — in which the victim is killed by means of heavy books on rickety shelving. In his tongue-in-cheek thriller Operation Pax (1957), Christ Church don J.I.M. Stewart (writing as Michael Innes) suggested that a trapdoor, known as “the Mendip cleft”, leading to the bookstore was common knowledge among undergraduates and later alleged that when the Bodley’s Librarian read this claim he leapt from his bed to check that no such illicit point of entry existed.

Today, as redevelopment of the New Bodley proceeds, the library's famous underground book conveyor is silent. You may, however, detect the sound of academic disputation over 2011’s opening of the underground Gladstone Link. Named in honour of the Oxford-educated politician who sketched a design for space-saving rolling bookcases while visiting the Bodleian in 1888, the Link occupies the area formerly used to move books between Bodley’s reading rooms. Accessible from both Camera and Old Bodleian, the Link is furnished both with conventional – fully wired — reading desks and easy chairs. Dr Sarah Thomas, the current Bodley’s Librarian, explained to the Friends of the Bodleian in June that the Link was proving popular with readers, who appreciate the novelty of the environment and the ability to take items from one reading room to another.

Not everyone agrees. Correspondence in the Oxford Magazine criticised the book-numbering system, sign-posting and confusing layout. Comfortable chairs are very well, but critics allege that lack of visible supervision may allow food and drink to be smuggled in. The scent of hamburger has, apparently, already been detected. Bodley’s staff rebuts such criticism; perhaps in time the free and easy underground atmosphere of the Gladstone Link may appear no more threatening than the electric lighting which, in 1886, Bodley’s librarian robustly declared “should be permanently vetoed”.

After this whiff of acrimony from beneath Radcliffe Square, a sweeter smell emerges from an unlikely source: Oxford’s sewerage system, whose history hasn’t always been particularly fragrant. A mid-Victorian engineer’s report found open drains into the Thames and Cherwell “highly offensive”, urging that new sewers be built. Twenty years later the great engineer Bazalgette, tempted from London by £105, again recommended an overhaul of the city’s sewerage. For decades nothing was done, and even a 1952 report still stigmatised Oxford’s sewerage as “probably the most backward in the country”.

Oxford’s rivers and streams had, of course, always offered sanitation on the cheap; wooden huts built out from the bank with holes in the floor were a common sight. Among such watercourses the Trill Mill Stream, largely culverted by the 19th century and famously navigated by the undergraduates T. E. Lawrence and Hubert Matthews, enjoyed a most insalubrious reputation: aristocratic Christ Church and the slum dwellers of St. Ebbe’s were equally condemned for polluting it, earning it the ironic nickname Pactolus – the stream in which Midas bathed.

Today, visitors are officially banned from the Trill Mill Stream, but fascination with the underworld can defeat officialdom. In February this year one urban explorer posted his account of an unimpeded stroll through a “nice underground stream in Oxford”, claiming access was simple thanks to a broken lock at the entrance. Sadly, Thames Water says there are no plans to offer Oxonians an official tour of the sewers. But today’s sewage system provides at least some good news: when widespread drought struck last year, the Environment Agency announced that the Cherwell would keep flowing thanks entirely to “man-made” water from treatment plants. Anyone who punted up the Cher during the summer may wish to thank those responsible.

Chris Sladen’s Oxfordshire Colony (2011, www.authorHouse.com) is now available as an e-book

The Trill Mill Stream
The Trill Mill Stream emerges in Christ Church Meadow (Manic Street Preacher/flickr)

locked entrance

The locked entrance to the subterranean Trill Mill Stream, navigated by T E Lawrence when he was an undergraduate (Tortipede/flickr)

Gladstone Link

The Gladstone Link connects the Radcliffe Camera with the Old Bodleian Library via a tunnel formerly used for book deliveries (Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)

Shelf space

Shelf space for an additional 270,000 items of material, doubles the open shelf provision in the Bodleian Library (Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)