YOU may have heard the tales yourself. Beneath Colchester’s town hall or castle lie a series of secret tunnels connecting with the rest of the town.

But the truth appears to be rather more prosaic.

According to Colchester historian Andrew Phillips, there is more myth than fact behind the legends.

He said: “They’re like Humpty Dumpty and other Colchester myths.

“They will never go away. They always lead to the castle or from the castle, and the legend gets wilder and wilder the further they travel.

“I’ve heard people saying they travel as far as Hedingham Castle.”

So what does lie beneath Colchester?

One tunnel that definitely does exist is a drainage system underneath Colchester Castle.

Mr Phillips said: “I have no reason to believe any tunnels, apart from the Roman drainage system, exist.

“It used to be called a drainage tunnel, but the latest thought is it may actually have been the opposite, a source of bringing water into the castle from a spring.

“It’s not a tunnel, in the sense it may well have simply got covered over since Roman times.”

According to the legends, there are also a host of tunnels which travel underneath the High Street and link with the town hall. There are a number of large cellars beneath Colchester, most famously at the former home of Lay & Wheeler, in the High Street, part of which is now Caffe Nero, in Culver Street West.

But Mr Phillips believes it is unlikely these ever formed tunnels and extended to the town hall.

He said: “There are a very large number of extensive cellars which invariably are medieval in origin.

“There’s a very well-known one which extends under the High Street, from one side to the other, which was used by Lay & Wheeler.

“These are often mistaken for tunnels. They are not. A lot of this is oral history, and to try to find the person who has actually seen it is quite difficult.”

Some of the cellars were used for refrigeration.

Mr Phillips said: “Well into the 20th century, people used to fill them up with ice, which was sawn off in chunks from Norwegian locks, where it was an industry.

“They had special boats that unloaded them at the Hythe. It would last for most of the winter.

“Some of the cellars, particularly the wine merchants’, extended a very long way.”

As for anything else lying underneath the town hall, Mr Phillips remains sceptical. He said: “If there was, it’s very secret, because it never got mentioned when the town hall was built.

“It was built, by historic standards, very recently. The basement was not finished until 1899.”

However, some believe there is at least one tunnel leading from the town hall.

Philip Crummy, director of the Colchester Archaeological Trust, has heard one tale, from a Colchester resident, of a tunnel used in the Second World War.

Mr Crummy said: “He claimed there used to be a tunnel running from the back of the town hall to the back of a property at North Hill, which was a shelter during the Second World War.

“He said he used to go in it as a boy.” But beyond the castle and the cellars, evidence of the existence of a network of tunnels becomes pretty thin on the ground.

According to Mr Crummy, a tunnel has been made for excavation purposes under the Hole in the Wall pub, next to part of Colchester’s Roman wall.

He also reveals that, in places, there are Roman drains which were once big enough to crawl along.

Colchester certainly boasts a rich history, which took in Boudica’s sacking and the Civil War siege. But in terms of the legend, Mr Crummy argues: “There are elements of truth in it, but, for me, there is no network of tunnels. There’s no reason to have them.”