London — 06 November 2012
Going underground: London’s hidden city
credit: The British Postal Museum & Archive

Next year will be the 150th anniversary of the London Underground. But it’s not just the Tube that rumbles beneath our feet. From abandoned stations to air raid shelters, catacombs to secret government bases, Scout takes you under the surface, to the city you never see

Have you ever peered through a vent on a London Underground platform and wondered what was one the other side? Or caught a glimpse of an abandoned Tube station as the train thundered by?

Perhaps you never realised there’s a maze of crypts, catacombs, tunnels, government installations, sewers, air raid shelters and nuclear bunkers all buried beneath our feet. In fact, there’s so much subterranean London, a cross-section must look like a slice of Swiss cheese.

As London Underground prepares to mark 150 years since its first train chuffed its way along the Metropolitan Railway between Paddington and Farringdon, Scout has spoken to experts about the fascinating extent of these hidden parts of the city.

“My favourite places are the abandoned Tube stations,” says Andrew Smith of non-profit organisation Subterranea Britannica, which “studies and investigates man-made and man-used underground places”.

“I’ve been to loads of them,” he tells Scout. “For example, Aldwych is used by London Underground for testing platform lighting and as a film set. It’s still in great condition.

“There’s an incredible sense of occasion when you go down into old tube stations – a real sense of history and the people that went there before you. I find myself wondering what I’m going to find down there, wondering about the history of the place, the stories of what happened there.

“You never know what you are going to find, where it’s going to lead, or if you’ll be the person who finds something which has been lost and forgotten for a long time.

“In some of the stations there are still old adverts from the war. It really reminds you of those old photographs of people sheltering in Tube stations during The Blitz.”

There are between 40 and 50 abandoned stations on the Tube network, including the so-called ‘ghost stations’ that hide beneath London’s streets, looking just as they did when the gates closed for the final time. Among these are Brompton Road, British Museum and Down Street, between Hyde Park Corner and Green Park.

These grubby time capsules of bygone eras have stimulated imaginations and creativity. They’ve been the settings for films, the wildest dreams of party organisers, obsessions for historians, and an enduring source of romantic nostalgia.

For the most of us, they’re out of bounds. But anyone itching to see what they look like may not have to wait much longer.

Ajit Chambers, CEO of The Old London Underground Company, has plans to convert 26 disused stations into museums, bars and restaurants.

He is currently negotiating with the Ministry of Defence, which owns many of the sites. Though the red tape is onerous, he’s fighting through it and winning support from MPs and London Assembly members. Boris Johnson has said he will back the initiative “if it doesn’t cost a penny of public money”.

The former JPMorgan Chase executive – who says he has raised millions of pounds towards the project – is confident of being able to have ‘walk-though’ tours of either Brompton Road or the abandoned deep level air raid shelter at Clapham North by February.

Transformation of the sites into useable venues will begin once three or more have been leased by the company. And within five years, Chambers insists we could be partying underground, dining with the rumble of our train home as a soundtrack, and exploring parts of our city which have lain hidden for decades.

MAIL RAIL

Did you know there’s an old network of tunnels under central London that used to carry post swiftly underneath the congested roads?

In the early part of the 20th century, London’s post was being held up so much by the road system that it was decided to build a subterranean rail network to get the letters and parcels across the city on time.

Mail Rail was built to take post from the Paddington District Office, where it arrived from around the country, across the capital to Whitechapel’s Eastern District Office via eight stations.

The mini railway was opened on December 5, 1927, and was made up of two driverless trains which ran side-by-side, one west and one east. They would stop at stations along the way, where a team of staff would unload the relevant post.

Although the trains are much smaller than on London’s passenger underground, the stations look much the same, and used to rattle with that familiar sound of approaching trains.

However, through declining use and closure of the above ground offices, the system eventually became uneconomical to run. In 2003 the system was suspended and today remains closed.

The British Postal Museum and Archive is currently restoring one of the old 1927 trains, that will be ready for display next year. Seeing the underground railway itself is, sadly, a much taller order.

CATACOMBS

Those Victorians were crazy about death.  After thousands of years of pretty humble burial practices, the morbid, supernatural-obsessed, black-clothed Victorians totally pimped-up the death rituals, all the way from the funeral to the body-internment.

As such, when seven new super-cemeteries were built in the 1830s and 40s – the grandly-titled ‘Magnificent Seven’ – to accommodate the increasing numbers of London’s dead, they all catered to the new trend for catacomb burial, then seen as the height of sepulchral style and exclusivity.

“Most of the catacombs were built beneath chapels, so their residents could be buried nearer the altar,” explains Colin Fenn, who runs tours of the catacombs at West Norwood Cemetery. “And it was also a prestige issue – catacomb burial was very exclusive. It’s much more private and costs considerably more than a standard burial. The only alternative which carried similar status was to build your own mausoleum.”

The Magnificent Seven cemeteries are at West Norwood, Highgate, Kensal Green, West Brompton, Nunhead, Abney Park and Tower Hamlets. The catacombs at the latter two are no longer accessible, but the others can all still be visited in some capacity.

The West Brompton and Highgate catacombs were built only half-submerged, so are visible from the cemeteries themselves.

There are also periodic tours of the Kensal Green and West Norwood catacombs, with Kensal Green being the largest, and West Norwood the most creepy and atmospheric.

RIVERS AND SEWERS

Rivers used to flow all around the capital. And, to some extent, they still do – you just can’t see them anymore. Back in the 19th century, historic waterways such as The Fleet, The Westbourne, The Tyburn and The Effra were culverted (covered over) and channelled into tunnels below ground.

This was partly to make way for building work in the city above, but also for health reasons. Hygiene wasn’t as high on the priority list then as it is now, especially in poorer areas, where all the human, household and industrial waste was just dumped into the nearest river and left to drift slowly towards the Thames.

That was until the hot summer of 1858, known as the ‘Great Stink’, when the stench of raw sewage got so bad that Parliament had to be relocated. Even more troubling was the threat of a cholera outbreak, spread by the rancid rivers.

Engineer Joseph Bazalgette stepped in to save the day, designing a sewage system that kept most of the waste away from the Thames while also channeling the city’s rivers underground – into quite spectacular brickwork tunnels.

“You have these marvellous brick temples underneath London that are almost sculpture-like in their craftsmanship,” says Andrew Smith from Subterranea Britannica. “And many of them are still going strong.”

DEFENCE AND SECURITY

It shouldn’t come as much surprise to hear that there is a network of not-so-secret government tunnels running beneath the seats of power in Whitehall. Often referred to as Q Whitehall, much of the network dates from the days of The Blitz, when it was constructed to provide bomb-proof lines of communication, and to allow government staff to move safely between buildings during air raids.

The exact routes are not publicly known, but documents published shortly after the war showed the tunnels stretching from south of Downing Street to Trafalgar Square and many of the major ministries. It’s likely that they connect to the Defence Crisis Management Centre (Pindar), the nuclear-proof bunker built beneath the Ministry of Defence in the 1980s and 90s which will be used during a time of military threat.

Andrew Smith from Subterranea Britannica tells Scout that the system “links the Admiralty, 10 Downing Street, the QE2 Conference Centre and other places such as the Defence Crisis Management Centre and even Westminster Tube station”.

It’s unlikely you’ll ever get to see the network itself, but you can visit the Churchill War Rooms – a nearby bunker from where Churchill and his military leaders conducted the second world war, and is now an absorbing museum.

AIR RAID SHELTERS

Londoners quite famously went running for shelter in the Tube network during The Blitz. Partly to ease crowding on the Underground platforms, the government built deep-level communal shelters that could hold around 8,000 people beneath eight Tube stations – Belsize Park, Camden Town, Goodge Street, Chancery Lane, Stockwell, Clapham North, Clapham Common and Clapham South.

The Blitz itself was over by the time the shelters were finished in 1942, but five of the eight were opened up to the public in 1944 when London was attacked by the V1 and V2 rocket bombs. Today, most of them serve as document and data storage facilities for companies and organisations, except the shelter at Clapham North, which remains empty.

ENTERTAINMENT

From macabre museums to out-there performance spaces, entertainment in London is also in tune with what lies beneath.

The London Bridge Experience occupies creepy and reputedly haunted tunnels beneath the old eponymous bridge, where various human bones were discovered during renovation for the attraction. Some of these were thought to belong to plague victims, although the circular holes in many of the skulls suggest they could have been those of criminals whose heads were impaled at the entrance to the medieval bridge as a grim warning to other potential law-breakers.

Many nightspots, theatres and clubs have made homes for themselves in the old railway arches around London Bridge and Waterloo. One of our favourites is the wonderfully atmospheric Old Vic Tunnels, beneath Waterloo Station, which has hosted everything from a major Banksy show to immersive theatre and punk gigs.

Finally, a visit to the London Canal Museum can offer the wonderful yet rare treat of a trip through the iconic 960yard Islington tunnel – only passable by boat.

 

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  1. The Old London Underground Company Limited replaced the Old London Underground Company Ltd when it was dissolved in March 2011 having failed to supply any accounts. A notice to dissolve The Old London Underground Company Limited was published this July, also without producing any accounts and no doubt another variation of the name will spring up in due course. Ajit Chambers appears to be CEO, Director, Secretary and the man who makes the tea.

    If you want to go to a disused station then London Transport Museum will be opening Aldwych to the public in November. If opening up the other disused stations was financially viable I think TfL would have done so already and would be raking in the extra profits. If Mr. Chambers had the financial backing he claims to have then why isn’t he open for business?