The urban myths and murky reality of another London existing under our feet breed seductive stories.
They involve the dark, the dirty, the unknown, and the fear and suspicion of what 'they' might be up to.

Chapman Pincher in the Daily Express in 1959 wrote of Ten miles of reinforced tunnels built under London
after the last war at enormous cost ... below Whitehall, Leicester Square, Holborn and Victoria.

 

 

The Buckingham Palace Tunnel
There are several rumoured escape tunnels from Buckingham Palace. One is said to run under Green Park to the Piccadilly Tube line, giving the royals a speedy escape route to Heathrow. Another is said to give access to the Victoria Line - which runs under the Palace - for a similar escape, and one is said to lead to Wellington Barracks just over the road. More likely is the tunnel running along the Mall to the underground citadel called Q-Whitehall which is rumoured to stretch as far north as Holborn. Supposed evidence of this complex is the huge extractor fan outside the Gent’s toilets in the ICA, which the ICA say is nothing to do with them, and the fortress on the corner of the Mall and Horse Guards Road which is said to be an entrance to Q-Whitehall. This network, known as Pindar, connects to 10 Downing Street via the atom-bomb-proof bunker which was built under the Ministry of Defence building at a cost over £110 million in the early 1990s.
As the years go by Pindar becomes less of a secret, being mentioned matter-of-factly in, for example, Andrew Rawnsley's The End of the Party. A new (2010) edition of this book, about the death of the Labour party, has Gordon Brown going down into the basement of 10 Downing Street, going through a hefty door and walking tunnels to the Ministry of Defence, on his way to a fruitless meeting with Nick Clegg after the 2010 general election.

The Chancery Lane Tunnels
Sometimes deceptively known as the Kingsway Tunnels (they are a fair distance from Kingsway) they were in the news in October 2008 due to BT putting them up for sale. The tunnels run under High Holborn from just beyond Chancery Lane all the way to Leather Lane. Access is gained through an inconspicuous goods entrance in Furnival Street  - the only one of the three original entrances, which included one in High Holborn, that remains. The two half-mile tunnels were originally built in 1942 as deep-level shelters. After the war they passed to a section of MI6 called The Inter Services Research Bureau, said to have been a branch of MI6 that helped the resistance groups in occupied Europe. The Public Records Office took them over on May 8th 1945 and stored classified documents there, before the tunnels were acquired and extended by British Telecom in 1954. They added new tunnels and housed some very secure telephone exchanges, as well as a staff bar and restaurant which retain their decidedly 70s orange and brown colour scheme. The restaurant reportedly had fake windows with views of lakes and gardens. At the time of revising this (December 2011) BT have yet to find a buyer for the tunnels.


The Kingsway Tram Tunnel  
In 1905 the London County Council's' Holborn-Strand improvement scheme involved massive 'slum-clearance', in the name of which many fine streets and building were destroyed and Kingsway and its tram subway were created. Services from the Angel to the Aldwych began using the tunnel on the 24th January 1906. The Fleet Sewer in the north and the District Line tunnel by  the Embankment set the limits of the tunnel, and the slope of the north entrance was so steep that drivers not concentrating would find themselves rolling back into the Holborn tram station. In 1929 the tunnels were enlarged to take double-height trams, but when trolley buses were introduced a few years later the trams were slowly phased out. The last one ran through the subway on the 5th of April 1952. The south end was made into a traffic underpass in 1964, but the northern section remains abandoned and spooky, used occasionally for a  film or TV series, most recently as a fictional Underground station called Union Street in the film The Escapist. The posters and signs on the walls down there are said to mix the real with the fictional, what with the addition of film-set decoration layered over real old stuff.
  The South Kensington Tunnel
Not very spooky, but a well known tunnel used by visitors to the South Kensington museums coming from South Kensington Underground station. 'But, why was it built?' You ask.  Well the 500 yard pedestrian tunnel was built for visitors to exhibitions held on the site of what is now Imperial College. After the success of the Fisheries Exhibition of 1883 and the Health Exhibition of 1884 a tunnel was built and a toll of 1d (one old penny) was charged. It was built to keep pedestrians away from the dangers of Exhibition Road, the haunt of 'cab-callers, hawkers and other objectionable characters'. There followed the Inventions Exhibition of 1885 and the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886, then the exhibitions moved to Earls Court, leaving the Metropolitan District Railway with a tunnel going nowhere. It was for years opened only on special occasions, and a suggestion in 1906 that it be extended to serve the Royal Albert Hall was rejected. On the 21st of December 1908 it was opened permanently, free of charge, and new exits serving the Victoria & Albert and Natural History museums were opened in 1913. In 2006 it was granted Grade II listed status by English Heritage.

The Tunnels under Lords
The network of railway tunnels under Lord's cricket ground has been in the news in recent years, due to various plans for their development. One of them still carries trains from Marylebone to Birmingham, but two more were sold in 2008 and plans for their use have ranged from various Lords facilities, including their museum, through an underground hospital to a station allowing cricket fans direct access to the ground. Lords' ownership of the ground only goes down 18 inches. Below that belongs to the developers who bought the tunnels, and hence a dispute that's rumbled on for a few years now. The tunnels are currently bizarrely only accessible from the basement of the Wellington Hospital. The photo (see below) is of the tunnels under construction, the image belonging, oddly, to Leicestershire Council.


 

 

 



 

An urban myth (mentioned in an article in the Fortean Times #105) tells of a subterranean race living in a fabulous network of tunnels unknown to us ground dwellers. They shun the daylight and live on a diet of discarded takeaways, vagrants and addledcommuters. London's contribution to the myths of animals living in the sewers is the sewer pig, a story at least as old as Henry Mayhew, who mentions it in London Labour and the London Poor.  It is probably as old as the sewers themselves. 

In Michael Moorcock's Mother London a writer with an obsession with lost tube tunnels becomes intrigued by tales of an underground race living long-unseen by surface dwellers in disused tunnels and side-sewers, and finally he finds them. More recent, and less gothic, is Tobias Hill's tale of tube life Underground, which mixes prosaic London locations with grisly murder and long-lost tunnels. His hero also ventures into one the deeper younger tunnels spaced along the Northern Line which were later bought by companies offering commercial archiving services. And 2006 saw the publication of Conrad Williams' London Revenant, which uses the real strange and dark places under London as a jump-off into territory even darker and stranger.

Published in 2007, Tom Becker's Darkside deals with an alternative dark London accessible either through a sewer pipe
by Blackfriars Bridge or Down Street Underground station (below).

A Stephen Poliakoff film called Hidden City was broadcast on Channel 4 in 1988. It stars Charles Dance as an academic who is approached in the street by a straggly young blonde girl who's seen something strange on some old film, and needs his help tracking down another canister. Their quest takes them through a lot of the famously hidden and abandoned parts of London - the Kingsway Tram Tunnel, the Goodge Street Tunnels, Postman's Park and the St Pancras Hotel, for examples. As something of a lost grail for tunnel-types and fans of lost and abandoned London it's fitting that this is viewable only as a murky downloadable copy of an old VHS tape. Or in the BFI's swanky videotheque.

The Kingsway Tram Tunnel also appeared in an episode of The Goon Show broadcast in 1954, The Last Tram From Clapham,  featuring Henry Crun and Minnie Bannister as the crew of a number 33 tram, stuck in the tunnel two and a half years after the official ceremony to commemorate the last tram.
 

 

  The Underground  provides related legends of bricked-up trains full of skeletons in dark and dusty suits and of lost and miraculously preserved stations.  This  theme has been covered by fiction as disparate as the 1972 film Death Line and an episode of The Goon Show called The Scarlet Capsule, the mysterious 'mind-the-doors' chant being a shared theme. More recently Whispers Under Ground, the third in Ben Aaronovitch's witty series featuring the Met's own magic-wielding supernatural detective Peter Grant, covers old and fresh ground underground. It references Death Line, has big-eyed white-faced types living underground and raising pale pigs, and brings the whole thing up to date with tunnels being built secretly under cover of the construction of the Crossrail project.

There is supposed to be an office block in the City which has a basement room where, if you open an old door behind a filing cabinet, you find yourself on a long-disused station platform, where the chocolate machines take pre-decimal money and posters advertise long-forgotten films. Ghost stations which do exist include Down Street (see photo left). Closed in May 1932 its brick walls are visible when travelling between Hyde Park Corner and Green Park on the Piccadilly Line. (Tours of Down Street can be booked through The London Transport Museum.) Then there's Spring
Grove (Piccadilly Line), Tower of London and Lords (Metropolitan), British Museum and Post Office (Central), and Bull & Bush, King William Street, City Road and South Kentish Town (Northern). There are 40 in all.

In November 2011 came the news that a businessman is trying to persuade TfL to let him buy up, and put to use, 26 of these disused tube stations. The term 'ghost stations' has become de rigueur, but Ajit Chambers has set up The Old London Underground Company and is hoping, by making some of them into tourist attractions, to open more as money-making restaurants and nightclubs and such like. He takes an Evening Standard journalist down Brompton Road station, which was used as an anti-aircraft control station during WWII and was where, we are told, Rudolf Hess was interrogated. The article was preceded by a news item earlier in 2011. London's cartoon-character Mayor Boris Johnson was very enthusiastic, but let's hope that something good will come of this anyway, although, as 2014 dawns, nothing has as yet.
     



 


 
Aldwych Station
Opened in 1907, Aldwych was always a bit of a runt of a station. Originally called Strand Station, it ran as a single-stop shuttle from Holborn as it was always meant to be the first stop on an extension, but this never happened. Three large lift shafts were dug in expectation of expansion, but only one ever had a lift installed. In 1917 the eastern tunnel and platform was closed and used to store paintings from the National Gallery during the war. In the next war the station was used as an air-raid shelter and to store British Museum treasures, including the Elgin Marbles. The station was closed on Friday September 30th 1994, and it now features in almost every film made in London which needs some London Underground scenes. This is due partly to its good location, and partly to its large lift, which is ideal for moving location camera gear. Old tube stock is permanently is also parked here for this purpose. If you've seen Nil by Mouth, Sliding Doors, Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere or This year's love, amongst many others, you've seen a film filmed down the Aldwych. If you've played Tomb Raider III you've played a game with some action set here (see below). Lately it's featured in the Harry Potter films, the TV series Spooks and in 2014 in the tube-centric shenanigans at the e
nd of the first episode of season 3 of the BBC's modern-day Sherlock.


 

 

 

 

 

 



You can hire it for a party for up to 350 people, and in early 1999 it hosted an art experience by John Berger and Simon McBurney called The Vertical Line. In 2000 it was opened to the public as part of that year's Open House weekend, but it was filled with some truly tedious modern art, and you couldn't get below ground level to the tunnels or platforms. There's been an unused platform there since 1908, used for storing paintings from the National Gallery during World War I, for testing tunnel finishes, and for training by the fire brigade and Transport Police.

Over a couple of weekends in November/December 2012 the London Transport Museum did daytime and evening tours entitled Aldwych - The Secret Station which soon sold out. The evening tours included a choral concert from the TfL choir with tea, coffee or mulled wine included in the ticket price.

  Charing Cross Jubilee Line platforms
Some relatively new abandoned platforms that became disused when the Jubilee Line extension bypassed Charing Cross on its stretch from Green Park in favour of Waterloo. Since their closure in1999 the platforms have been kept maintained for use by film crews needing a more modern setting than the platforms at Aldwych.

Dover Street
The film Wings of the Dove  featured a handsome Edwardian station called Dover Street, which is what Green Park station used to be called. The webmaster of the excellent Underground History website linked to below is of the opinion that this is a set, if an unusually accurate one, but is keen to hear from anyone with certain knowledge. The characters also travel through an authentic sequence of stations, even if the do look like the same set with different name panels!

Down Street

 

 


Euston Station
There are many tunnels and lift shafts beneath Euston that haven't seen commuter action in many a year - some have been closed since 1967 and some since 1914.
For this knowledge, and some mighty fine photos, thanks to Robert Stainforth. I especially like the scraps of 1960s posters.

Goodge Street
At the end of one of the platforms of Goodge Street Underground station a sign warning of a deep shaft is evidence of a deep and once secret complex of tunnels built as air raid shelters in the Second World War. (More shelters were built along the Northern Line at Belsize Park, Camden Town, Clapham Common, and Clapham North.) Also said to have been used as a transit camp by soldiers on their way to Suez in 1956. There are entrance buildings in Chenies Street opposite the station entrance and further along Tottenham Court Road, opposite Heals. Photos here
Update: an e-mail I received from an old soldier in August 2007 confirms the transit camp story, as he stayed there in 1952 on his way from his base in Newton Abbott to the Canal Zone. He writes: 'I only spent one night there. With the noise of the trains in the other tunnels that was more than enough!'

     

 


 
Nick Catford
Secret Underground London

Even its most fervent fan would hesitate to describe this as a beginners' guide, I think. The photos are capable and clear, but are more things of record than art. The text is informative and informed, but not what you'd call elegant. But boy does it know its stuff and cover some ground! Almost every underground construction that isn't just a basement is covered in this book. Disused tube stations, government bunkers, the GPO railway and deep-level shelters are all present and to be expected. But there are also cemetery catacombs, deep-level shelters, Bishopsgate Goods Yard, quarries and mines in Surrey and local council bunkers. (And the Crystal Palaces subway (see right) - who knew?) All are covered in exhaustive detail with maps, histories and copious photos. The author has been taking these for years and so has some gems of places now gone. Photographs of flooded floors, piles of rubble and corridors full of disused ducting abound. A relentless and useful addition to the ever growing pile of literature about matters underground and abandoned.

Tim Bradford
The groundwater diaries
Trials tributaries and tall stories from beneath the streets of London
The reviews in these pages tend to be positive. No-one pays me to write this stuff so I only read what I think I'm going to like.  I thought that I was going to like this one - the chapters have weird titles and the pages are full of odd drawings and peculiar layouts. But let me quote. Talking about how rivers tend to be named after pre-Roman goddesses, we are told that the naming of the Thames derives from a pre-Indo-European tongue and referring to the Goddess Isis. Some posh Oxbridge rowing types still call it that. Well we've got names for posh Oxbridge rowing types, like 'big-toothed aristo wankers' etc. The next paragraph deals with Samuel Johnson's famous quote about being tired of London meaning that you're tired of life saying: He may have been a fat mad-as-a-hatter manic depressive in a wig, but there is something in his thesis. And so on. There is a non-thin line between entertaining irreverence and relentless boneheaded blokishness and after several pages of this kind of stuff I was unwilling to persevere and find out if this book ever stepped back over this line.

 

 

J. E. Connor
London's disused Underground Stations
A mine of good stuff about long-closed and spooky stations, their old signs just visible through the murk, posters for long-forgotten films and chocolate peeling from their hidden tile walls. The entry for the old British Museum station mentions talk of an ancient Egyptian ghost, and that the 1935 film Bulldog Jack featured a station called Bloomsbury which had a secret passage leading into a sarcophagus in the British Museum. Stations like Hounslow West tend to lack the glamour of the above, but there's a map, some fine photos, including lots of tickets and nuggets of fragrance amongst the dates and stats in what is essentially a buff's book. To go with it there's...

J. E. Connor
Abandoned Stations on London's Underground 
Which could easily be confused with the above book, having a title which almost rearranges the words in the other book's but is, in fact, a companion volume containing less info but more pictures. It's well worth getting too, having some lovely old black and white pics (left is one of City Road Station) of dusty tunnels and stations and entrances in streets in the 1920s with blokes in flat caps sitting around, whilst a woman out of a P.G. Wodehouse story strolls past (page 45). And more old tickets (in colour this time) and maps.

 

Andrew Emmerson and Tony Beard
London's Secret Tubes
The first book on its subject in a few years sets out to provide the facts, and thereby lay to rest romantic conspiracy theories and other woolly conclusions. The chapters attempt to be thematic rather than chronological, but consequently lack flow somewhat. The subjects covered range from the adaptation of freshly-built tube lines as wartime shelters to the building of new tunnels for use as shelters during the war. The transport-centric viewpoint is not well camouflaged, but the book also covers the mail-railway and the Whitehall tunnels. The detail ranges from the interesting to the excessive, but the photos are fascinating in a functional way.
A bit of a buff's book then, but with enough style and fascinating stuff to interest us dabblers.
  Stephen Halliday
Amazing & Extraordinary
London Underground Facts

This looks like one of those gift books that live in toilets rather than on bookshelves, but it's better than that, and a stylish production too. It's a mine of information from the basic facts to the arcane, with chapters devoted to each of the lines, as well as to the entrepreneurs in the early days, the tube during the war, the catastrophes and bombings, and such. The author has form - he wrote The Big Stink, reviewed elsewhere on this site, as well as the esteemed Underground to Everywhere, which confirms this as being no mere cheapo hack job. An efficient and pretty introduction, then, and of interest to enthusiasts too.
     


 
Penguin Underground Lines:
Twelve Stories from Twelve Authors

In March 2013 (on the day after my birthday) to celebrate 150 years of London's Underground railway,
twelve small books by twelve different authors were published and put into a sweet little box.
But do you need to buy the box?

Score so far: Positives 4 - Negatives 1

John Lanchester
The District Line
What We Talk About When We Talk About the Tube
I thought that I'd start with this one as it's the one by an author I like and because its humour and historical overviewing makes it a good introduction. He starts by boarding the first Underground train of the day - the 4.43 from Upminster - and this journey then leads into ponderings upon the people and the history, mostly social, of the District line and the rest of the network. It's an educational and entertaining survey of the common issues and tropes, taking in films, novels, train-buff DVDs and, especially, how the Underground both reflects London and has formed it. I found this latter discussion fascinating, with its convincing idea that being formed by an underground public transport system has benefited London in the same way that being formed by the demands of the (strong) automobile lobby has resulted in places like Los Angeles and has left such places without any good public transport. There are quirky and personal observations too, like the District Line staff member who observes that the working-class people at the East end of the line will shout at you if they think something's wrong, whereas those at the posher West end will, shudder, write letters.

William Leith
The Northern Line
A Northern Line Minute
Now this one's very Tube-y, dealing as it does with the anxiety some people feel when venturing below, to the point of it preventing their travelling. Leith tells us about the time he finally got on a tube train after just such a period when he just couldn't, which of course then stops unexpectedly in a tunnel. Around this event he strews more bad tube-related experiences and the various causes of similar anxiety. That a meeting with some 80s trader-tossers is included because it took place near Bank station shows the, ahem, breadth of his viewpoint. I'd question his somewhat melodramatic inclusion of the 1992  Baltic Exchange bombing which gets mentioned because it's also near Bank Station, because it really isn't that near. But, pedantry aside, this one reeks of the tube, in many ways, and earns a firm place in the box's positives.

John O'Farrell
The Jubilee Line
A History of Capitalism According to the Jubilee Line
In which we get another tale of a train stuck in a tunnel, but this time it's the start of a comprehensive delve into the political issues affecting, and plaguing, London, the tube, and life. And it's all a dream. As the Jubilee Line runs from some prime railway-created suburbs through Westminster and Canary Wharf to Stratford, with its made-for-the-Olympics shopping centre where there are more of the shops that are everywhere than anywhere else, there's considerable grist for the author's humourous mill. Like how the line was originally going to be called the Fleet, and much signage had already been bought, before a (Conservative) politician decided it was going to be called the Jubilee, to commemorate it opening a year after the queen's Jubilee. So I can recommend this one for providing lotsa laffs, authentic tube-related content, and a sound survey of current political concerns and moods.

 





 

 

 


 

Lucy Wadham
The Circle Line
Heads and Straights
I doubt I would have read this if it hadn't been part of this set, and how right I would have been. Its only connection with the tube is a mention of Sloane Square station, which is on the Circle Line and in Chelsea where the author spent her girlhood. She tells the story of her family, and it's a story almost totally free of originality. Posh girls roughing it, hippies, drugs, punk, a wild granny with a past, alternative lifestyle dabblings, conspicuous consumption, Thatcherism, racism, experiences abroad, name dropping...it's all present and predictable. Next!

Peter York
The Piccadilly Line
The Blue Riband

After a brief admission of his own relationship with the tube York gets down to a presentation of the Piccadilly Line as the poshest of the tube lines. It takes in Knightsbridge, South Kensington and Piccadilly - sites reeking of old money and synonymous with new maga-money - as well as some more ambiguous areas, like Earl's Court and Bloomsbury. The line is also the most tourist-trap infested too - Buckingham Palace, the Museums, Harrods, Covent Garden, Piccadilly Circus... This is mostly about the areas around the stations, and their property values, rather than the actual tube. York does talk convincingly about the tube's tasteful taking-onboard of modernism between the wars, and the Holden stations, but his talent is identifying trends and movements. His pop-culture references occasionally provoke bemused frowns rather than wry grins but there's no denying his smarts and his ability at getting to some fascinating nubs.  

 

     


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