If you're looking for something different to do on your vacation in London why not get a historic underground tour of the city? Few passengers careering between tube stations know there's an underground city beneath London. We sent our UK correspondent, Cindy-Lou Dale, to investigate.
Along the entire 255 mile underground track, some forty underground stations have fallen into disuse. Several remain almost intact, trapped in a sooty time capsule of the era when they were closed. Aldwych, for example, is at the end of a disused railway siding right in the heart of London, Down Street is where Churchill held several WW2 cabinet meetings and there's Brompton Road which was used as a WW2 anti-aircraft command center; military maps can still be found on their underground walls today. During the Second World War, the platform levels of St. Mary's (Whitechapel Road) were bricked up and used as an air raid shelter. Rooms were created by bricking up the platform which is still accessible via an entrance at surface level.
An innumerable number of documents need to be studied before any development can take place in the city as a detailed map of the tunnels and the capital's subterranean innards does not exist. In the 19th century, digging underwater deep level tunnels was hazardous. Numerous attempts to cross the Thames going underground, failed with many lives lost. Today, the East London Line uses the Brunel Thames Tunnel, the first successful under Thames crossing. When steam traction was exchanged for electricity, deeper tunnels could be dug, using compressed air and a large circular drilling shield, which were then lined with cast iron rings. Tunnels were speedily mined and many stations were built on each of the lines created, most of which are still in use today. The cut-and-cover stretch of line shared by the Metropolitan & District Line between Paddington and Bayswater predates electrification. The steam locomotives that historically served those lines needed to surface periodically to vent off steam and smoke. So, when riding this line, you may spot flashes of daylight because when developing this stretch of the line it became necessary to demolish number 23 and 24 Leinster Gardens; part of an upmarket street of terraced houses. This demolition would form a break in the uniform row of homes and was met with council resistance. So it was decided to build a facade which matched the houses on either side of the break and use the gap behind the facade as a steam venting point. The illusion is quite effective; the painted windows and doors have an identical appearance to the surrounding buildings.
The abandoned tunnels and passageways on London's underground network on the whole, do not lead off to secret government laboratories nor are there secret passage ways to Buckingham Palace or the Houses of Commons.
However, many of the underground tunnels are remnants of the early days of the stations. Vauxhall Cross is a fictitious station in the James Bond film ‘Die Another Day' and Broadcasting House does not have a secret platform on the Bakerloo Line for the BBC. When the underground network was first devised and built, escalators had not yet been invented. As such, access to all the deeper stations could only be made with elevators. The invention of the passenger escalator was one of the innovations that made deep level underground stations possible. In fact, almost all the deep level stations on the Central, Piccadilly and Northern lines were originally built for access via elevator, with a spiral emergency staircase built in a secondary smaller vertical shaft. As the use of the stations increased and escalators became more widely available, most of the busy stations were converted for escalator use. This left the lift shafts and their access tunnels abandoned. Many such lift shafts and tunnels can still be found at Shepherd's Bush station on the Central Line, St. Paul's or South Kensington's Piccadilly Line, for example.
In times of war
As Northern Line congestion increased in the '30s, a plan was developed to build a second tunnel that would act as an express route beneath the existing Waterloo branch of the Northern Line. These plans were shelved at the outset of WW2; instead work began in 1940 on building deep level bomb shelters. In fact, ten shelters accommodating some 8,000 bunk beds were built. However, several were reassigned to the military as General Eisenhower used the Goodge Street Tunnel as the HQ of America's wartime operations in Europe.
During the 1930s three subterranean civil defense strongholds were installed in north London and ‘the hole in the ground' was excavated under the Treasury in Westminster to provide secure space for top politicians and civil servants. Four subterranean fortresses were built more recently beneath central London to house vital government activities in event of nuclear war. The northern section of Kingsway Tram Tunnel has been equipped as an emergency control center should London be faced with a major disaster. Although Tower Subway was not strictly part of the underground system, it was the world's first underground railway. Constructed using the circular drilling shield, it housed a single carriage, which was cable operated and used as a shuttle service between the two banks of the Thames. Apart from being used as an air raid shelter during the Second World War, Aldwych tube station also stored priceless art pieces from the British Museum. Today Aldwych is being maintained by London Underground mainly as a museum piece and film set. The ticket hall is frequently hired out for art exhibitions, book launches and private parties.
Insider London offers excellent historic London Underground tours.
Words by Cindy Lou-Dale