Subterranea Britannica group enters the Kőbánya cellar system, 35 kilometres of underground quarry. Photo: Peter Burgess
I was once an active member of Subterranea Britannica, usually abbreviated to “Sub Brit”. Its quirky interest in man-made and man-used subterranean space appealed to me, and my own interests in old mine and quarry workings fitted in well. After I allowed my full membership to lapse some 20 years ago, and simply became the exchange member for my club, I maintained many friendships and never entirely lost touch with the group. I followed their exploits and interests through the excellent publication “Subterranea”. Early in 2018 I was approached by the Sub Brit chairman Martin Dixon about the upcoming Study Weekend to be held in Budapest in May. With my two sons living in the city, it would clearly be much easier for him to organise the event utilising their bilingual skills. The additional benefit at the weekend of having a couple of translators interested in subterranean things was an obvious added bonus!
The lads were more than happy to get involved, after all, it would provide free access to some fascinating sites not normally accessible, and they would be fed and watered for nothing for two days, a definite bonus for students. Martin warned them that they would be spending two days with 40 people “as old as your dad”, as if that was going to be a problem!
Some of the sites visited were tourist attractions normally open to the public, and others required special permission to arrange a visit and to provide a guide. The timetable for the weekend was only finalised in the last few days as confirmation for a major visit to the Kőbánya stone quarry on Sunday only came through at the last minute.
Although there were a good number of places to visit, there was always enough time to get from location to location, without much risk of running late and upsetting the numerous guides and hosts that had agreed to meet us. Saturday was entirely composed of publicly accessible locations, and all the moving from place to place was by public transport – metro, trams, and buses.
With Sub Brit’s remit to visit and study any man-made or man-used underground space, the scope for suitable locations is pretty wide in any major city. Consequently, following a short visit to a church built into a cave in a cliff face at Sziklatemplom, in which a church service started while we were there, a ride on the driverless M4 metro line took us to the grandest of the three main line railway termini of Budapest, Keleti pályaudvar, from which a walk took us to Kerepesi cemetery. Well, it is man-used underground space of a sort, if a little macabre.
More information on Sziklatemplom.
The Kerepesi cemetery is perhaps, in a tenuous way, Hungary’s equivalent of Westminster Abbey, where the nation’s famous people are interred and memorialised. Coincidentally, the day we visited was also a special day on which a number of the mausoleums were opened up for visitors to enter and appreciate. The grandeur of some of the tombs was awe-inspiring, with wonderful use of marbles, and mosaic decorations to admire.
Budapest is home to continental Europe’s oldest underground railway, which although included in a World Heritage site is still part of the normal public transport network, and is designated the M1 route. A short ride on the line was therefore in order, as well as a visit to the small museum where some of the original M1 stock has been preserved. These cars were still in use in the 1970s.
The last site to be visited on Saturday was Sziklakórház Atombunker Múzeum, or the “Hospital in the Rock”. This originated as a set of natural cavities in the limestone, which were adapted as rock-cut cellars under the old city, and later joined together into a safe space in the 1930s in preparation for the anticipated hostilities. It was equipped as a hospital to cope with the casualties of air-raids, and was used in 1944 when the Allied forces bombed the city, and again in 1945 when the Soviet Red Army encircled German forces in the Siege of Budapest which lasted 100 days. The bunker again saw active use in 1956 during the Hungarian civilian uprising, with both Soviet and revolutionary casualties being treated. The last repurposing of the bunker was as a Cold War civil defence shelter which only ceased in 2004. The tunnels reopened as a museum in 2008.
The museum has also set up an exhibition on the dreadful effects of nuclear weapons, with a number of objects recovered from Hiroshima. Some of the more gruesome photos are only viewable through peepholes at adult eye-level.
Public tours of the bunker are possible on most days of the year, with tours led at different times by guides speaking either English or Hungarian. A visit is highly recommended.
Sunday was entirely devoted to sites specially opened for the group. For more than twenty years, I have been aware that the Kőbánya district that I passed through to and from the city airport was built over an underground stone quarry. Kőbánya translates exactly as “stone quarry”. The complex is owned by the Kőbánya local authority, which provides guides, and our visit was with the special permission of mayor Róbert Kovács. The local authority conducts tours of the site by special arrangement throughout the year, and the quarry is also home to cave diving activities, and civic events such as running competitions.
The site has a long and varied history of stone extraction, and subsequent re-use. It provided building materials for many of the historic buildings and architectural features of Budapest, and elsewhere. The quarry worked an Eocene limestone of a pale cream colour. Quarrying ceased after an unfortunate fatal accident in 1890 and the galleries then took on new uses. First, local wine growers used them as wine cellars. The area was once rural and covered in vineyards. When the city grew and the area above the quarry was developed, Antal Dreher the famous Austrian brewer set up a lager brewery at the caves where the constant cold temperature proved to be ideal for processing and storing malt. More recently, there was also a period of mushroom growing using large trays, but this has now ceased. One part of the quarry contained a liqueur distillery, but our guide did not know which particular product was made there.
Remains in the malt processing area of Antal Dreher’s brewery, Kőbánya cellar system. Photo: Peter Burgess
Large underground spaces in Europe were often adapted for wartime uses, and this site was no exception. It was converted into an underground factory during the Second World War for the assembly of Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter plane components, which was vacated when the Red Army advanced into Hungary, and the galleries were then available as shelters for civilians when Allied bombing commenced, and when the Red Army subsequently swept through.
I believe we walked through 1.5 km of the 35 km of galleries that are known to exist. A significant area of the lower part of the quarry is now flooded and provides a good training area for cave diving.
The afternoon was spent in the semi-industrial district of Csepel. First, we were taken to a pleasant residential area to the south of the district, where a Second World War shelter had been converted into a Cold War period shelter, which had been restored in 2016 on the 60th anniversary of the Hungarian uprising. Csepel was the district where the 1956 revolutionaries held their last stand, before the Soviet forces succeeded in crushing the rebellion. In the United Kingdom, much of what was reported took second stage to news of the Suez Crisis which was happening at the same time.
The shelter, in Tamariska Park, was constructed using precast elliptical concrete sections, and the sandy ground in which they were positioned was moved using water jets. How they removed the resulting slurry was not explained. The original 1940s shelter was lined with bricks, and only one small section is accessible. The rest was converted in the 1950s and is accessible, or has been sealed off with a steel door as it has collapsed. Displays in the shelter focus on the 1956 uprising with photos and explanations of how the conflict developed and how it was put down.
Our next site was a short coach ride away, and is located under a school in the south-west part of Csepel. This was built in 1960 as a local government emergency control centre, during the Cold War. All other districts of Budapest have got rid of their bunkers, except Csepel, where it has been preserved just as it was when it was closed, and is now available as an educational resource explaining the fears of Western attack, and the civil defence counter-measures that were put in place in Hungary. The original plant is still in place, and most of the original fixtures and fittings. One of the guides took great pleasure in showing us a small metal box which on opening revealed a tiny coffee “espresso” pot and burner, for preparing the coffee ration for anyone holed up in the shelter! The entire bunker is a museum of genuine period items and mainly the result of the dedication and hard work of one man, 82 years old József Babán. József was later revealed by his assistant to have been a member of the Hungarian Winter Olympics ice-hockey team in 1964, the games being held in Innsbruck. A rousing “three cheers” for our hosts concluded our tour of the bunker, and we moved on to our last site of the weekend.
Also in Csepel, our last site was a Second World War air raid shelter right in the heart of the older industrial section, surrounded by semi-derelict factories and small business units. Unlike their subterranean equivalents in Britain, the seventeen shelters in the industrial heart of Csepel were located on the surface, and were in effect huge cast blocks of concrete with rooms within for sheltering workers. We visited two of the sixteen surviving structures. The first, shelter 2, has been set up as a small private museum by our guide, Levente Somogyi. Levi spoke good English and was very knowledgeable. He is keen to capture the memories of surviving men and women who sheltered in the bunkers in 1945. To achieve this, he has posted notices around the district, and has so far been in touch with a dozen or so elderly people, and produced video recordings of their recollections.
Following our visit to the museum shelter, we were allowed to see one extra site close by. This was a much larger shelter originally run on the same principle for nearby factory workers, but now empty of all period features and used as a music and entertainment venue. We were allowed to climb the stairs within the shelter, but each room was locked, one with something noisy going on within! The first thing I noticed on entering the bunker was the smell of something “herbal”. We didn’t ask.
A buffet dinner at the Hotel Budapest completed a very pleasant and informative weekend. Congratulations to those who organised the weekend, Martin and Linda Dixon, and Tony Radstone, and to those who provided assistance.
Subterranea Britannica is a large group established in 1974, which brings together a wide range of interests, and promotes the study of places which might otherwise not receive the attentions of cavers, mine-historians, archaeologists or social historians. Membership is open to anyone, and members get access to an online forum, receive three copies of the journal “Subterranea” each year, and are encouraged to arrange and join group visits to a variety of sites and areas both within Britain and further afield. Sub Brit’s Facebook and Twitter pages are open to all.