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Into the Megatron: We explore Sheffield's secret rivers

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The Megatron. Photo by Rob Eavis for The Outdoor City.

I have to duck as I enter the Victorian tunnels buried beneath Sheffield station. This crumbling brick-built waterway wasn't designed to be explored by anybody taller than 6ft. In fact it wasn't designed to be explored by any humans at all.

The culvert was built to cover over the River Sheaf, after which Sheffield was named, to allow the building of the station above it in 1870. The advantages were twofold, as the amount of sewage and industry waste then being emptied into the Sheaf made it a smelly stain on the city's reputation.

We enter the network via the smaller River Porter, so called because it was once the colour of dark beer, which feeds into the Sheaf underground.

Starting at the Matilda Street pocket park, the first tunnel takes us underneath the student flats at Leadmill Point, before briefly surfacing in a dour man-made channel next to the Q Park. Teenagers outside Spar heckle us as we struggle to stay upright on slippery cobblestones.

As we walk through the concrete confluence of these two rivers, I almost stand on an empty bottle of white wine perched on a bank of mud and debris. It's not clear if this has floated down from upstream, or if it was drunk down here by one of the many urban explorers who have infiltrated the network.

I'm here on a press tour ahead of this year's Festival Of The Outdoors. It's a new month-long exploration of the city's hiking, biking, climbing and caving opportunities from the folk at The Outdoor City.

ShAFF is as much about the adventure as it is about the films

One of the month's highlights is the return of the long-running Sheffield Adventure Film Festival (ShAFF) to The Showroom. This year, over 100 adventure, travel and extreme sports films have made it onto the programme, hand-picked by festival director Matt Heason.

"ShAFF is as much about the adventure as it is about the films," said Heason, "and whether you're a seasoned explorer or just discovering your first taste of outdoor adventure we want to inspire you into action."

I am not a seasoned explorer.

While me and a gaggle of journalists stand somewhere underneath Platform 4, with crisp packets and hamburger boxes swirling around our wellies, Heason shows us a few short films to give us a taste of this year's ShAFF.

These include an octogenarian ice swimming in a lake, and a French man skiing to work over the snow-covered rooftops of an alpine resort. It's all very nice, though it's difficult to concentrate on the cinematography when you're trying to avoid dropping your phone into the unidentifiable sludge below.

A handful of us carry on into deeper waters, past the small open-air section between the station and Ponds Forge. The Look North contingent, with full-sized cameras on their shoulders, turn back.

I can't feel my feet any more, and wonder if it's been long enough to catch trench foot

The part between Ponds Forge and where the Sheaf empties into the Don at Blonk Street is the actual Megatron itself. It's the tallest part of the tunnel, reinforced over time to support Park Square roundabout and the tram bridge above it.

As I step into a thigh-deep section of the river, freezing and dirty river water floods my wellies. I find new admiration for the good judgement of my BBC counterparts.

We stand semi-submerged for what feels like an eternity, as press shots are taken of the photogenic man from the Youth Hostel Association. Later, on the way out, I'm unable to muster the energy to lift my water-filled wellies over a small fence, and have to stand on his knee to get out.

We finally turn back. The return journey is even more unsteady, as we're fighting against the uneven current. It's pitch black, with only our head torches for assistance. These tunnels felt friendlier when there were 20 of us, rather than 5.

Simon Ogden, the culvert expert from the council, helpfully informs us that people were murdered down here hundreds of years ago. I can't feel my feet anymore, and wonder if it's been long enough to catch trench foot.

I check with my torch for rats, but see only small fatbergs of used napkins and dirt. The brick pillars of 1865 rumble as intercity trains roll overhead.

Sam Gregory

Festival Of The Outdoors runs all through March, with dozens of individual events. The Sheffield Adventure Film Festival runs from 22 - 24 March at The Showroom.

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