It’s one of the most startling features of Williamson’s underground kingdom. And first-time visitors are usually mesmerised by it. Despite its name, the Banqueting Hall has no dining tables or chairs, but it does offer a generous serving of size and spectacle.
65 feet (20 metres) long, the vast chamber was originally dug down from ground level. Williamson’s men put an arched roof along its full length, then added another level of tunnel on top of that. So as you climb up the huge slope of rubble that pervades this area like so many parts of the tunnels, you are still a long way underneath the ground surface.
That floor you can see isn’t the bottom of the chamber at all. That is a layer of dense rubble, its surface smoothed off by the boots of explorers and visitors over many decades. How deep? Probably six feet at its shallowest and 20 feet at its deepest.
So why is it called the ‘Banqueting Hall’? A very old story has it that: On one occasion, Williamson invited a number of friends and well-to-do acquaintances to his house for a meal. He sat them at a ramshackle table and placed in front of them a poor man’s meal of bacon and beans. Most took offence and left. To the remainder he said ‘now I know who my true friends are, follow me…’. He took them through to a banqueting hall and treated them to a feast fit for a King. Many have thought ever since that the large cavern seen here must have been where that event took place, hence the name.
Features of the Hall include a delightful gothic arch high up in the south wall, which offers a tortuous climb up a shaft to the surface. Also the tall slab-roofed ‘gash’, which visitors descend through in order to arrive in the main hall.
Just as with the Paddington section of the tunnels, we hope and plan to clear and excavate the infill from the Banqueting Hall. Who knows what passageways and features may lie beneath the deep layers of rubble that have hidden its secrets for so long.