Mark Davis illuminates the darkness with his underground photography

by Mark Davis

“It is always much more satisfying to get the perfect photograph in the can, in its pure form”

Decent wellies will always be my top tip for exploring the subterranean world, followed swiftly by recommending a couple of top quality torches that stand up better to a task than a limp ex girlfriend.

I love my photography, but always as a photographer you have a clear disadvantage over the artist who paints, in that, what you see is what you get with no artistic licence to remove or add objects, people and scenery. For sure there is a wealth of editing programs that will allow you to manipulate and alter the most mediocre image into a work of art.

However it is always much more satisfying to get the perfect photograph in the can, in its pure form. As always, to me the camera will always be an extension of my eye, simply a tool that enables me to capture the world as I see it and with that there will always be a certain leverage to being quite artistic in terms of composition. With going underground you truly can be an artist, sure the material you are working with is static but with the clever use of lighting and above all patience you can create the most interesting of all (for me) photography.

“If the place you have gone to is flooded pack your phone in a waterproof bag”

Give me a tunnel and I get lost in time. Back lighting front lighting, side lighting, cheap lights, expensive lights, use them all. Play with the light, turn the rat infested place that most people would regard as a shit hole and hell on earth into a wonderland of creativity that takes the breath away. Use long exposures of around 30 seconds, chance your luck as you wade through the dark waters where at any moment a pot hole underneath can have you and your expensive camera sliding out of control to possible injury and expensive loss. As my old dad would say, “nothing of any value is got easy”; and never more so than with underground photography. Always make sure you have warm clothing and if the place you have gone to is flooded pack your phone in a waterproof bag.

All the photography you see in this feature show places that when actually there look nothing like the images. If you were to let your mind work overtime you might even begin to think that the dark, dank and positively creepy surroundings might hold long forgotten secrets. In the old Thackley tunnel near Idle in Bradford for example, which is particularly atmospheric, I wasn’t surprised after researching the history to find a particularly gruesome incident that had occurred in the late 19th century. A transcript of the first part of the initial contemporary newspaper report follows.

Distinguished Scholar’s Tragic End


A shocking discovery was made in the Thackley Old Tunnel on the Midland Railway about twelve o’clock on Tuesday by a foreman platelayer named James Russell, living at 9, Sun Place, Woodbottom, Baildon.

Russell, it appears was walking through the tunnel, and when about 300 yards from the  Shipley end he came across a body lying between the wall and the rail on the up line and clear of the metals. The body was in such a position that a passing train would not touch it.

The matter was reported to the Shipley rail way authorities, and the body was taken to the Shipley mortuary.

The deceased was in clerical attire and in his pockets which gave the name of the Rev. Doctor H. de B. Gibbins. His linen was similarly marked, and in his possession was the half of a return ticket for Colwyn Bay.

In his pocket was about £3 in money and near by where the body was found was a pair of gold glasses, and a letter evidently from a little girl, which had been written to him. The body was badly mutilated.

The deceased was wearing a gold watch and chain and the watch was going when found. Inside the watch was the following inscription.

“Presented to J.H. Bell, Esq., M.D.,by the woolsorters of Bradford and district, as a token of services rendered in the woolsorters’ disease, Bradford 9th April, 1881.”

Further inquiries showed that the deceased’s head was badly injured and one leg was nearly severed. The deceased obtained a first class ticket at Shipley on Tuesday to Apperley Bridge between eight and nine o’clock. This is the approximate time stated by the railway officials, but there must be some mistake, as he did not leave his father’s house at Thackley until twenty minutes past nine.

From the fact that a pair of eye glasses and a letter were found close to the body, it is conjectured that the deceased was reading in the train, when in some way, which it will be for the Coroner’s jury to determine, he fell out of the carriage. A train had evidently passed over his body, one leg and part of his head being practically severed. The injuries were of such a terrible nature as to leave no room for doubt that death would be practically instantaneous. A
distressing feature of the fatality is the fact that deceased was over in this country from Canada on a visit to the father, who is a member of the firm of Gibbins, Healey and Co., merchants, Forster Square. Mr Gibbins, senr., resides at Thackley.

At the coroner’s enquiry, the jury gave the following verdict. The Jury retired, and on their return, Mr F Lister (foreman) stated that they were agreed that the deceased met his death in Thackley Tunnel on Tuesday morning, having travelled by the 9.59 train from Shipley. They were however, of the opinion that there was insufficient evidence to show what was actually the cause of death.

The Coroner: “To put it bluntly, what was it that actually killed the gentleman?”

A Juror: “We take it for granted that the train ran over him.”

The verdict entered was that the deceased was “run over by the 9.59 train from Shipley to Apperley Bridge, by which he was travelling as a passenger, but there was not sufficient evidence to show how he came to be on the line.”