London, Underground Part 2




Collecting books on London is a lethal habit; you start with a couple of photographic albums and end up building extra-strong shelves for large-format esoteric handbooks on vanished railway stations.

So many volumes have been written that one would think every possible area and subject had been covered – some while back I made a count at the London Transport Museum shop and found seventeen on the tube system alone – and many authors have recorded the history of London under the ground. Our capital city has been burrowed into and built upon so often that discoveries are still made whenever buildings are demolished.

The subject came back to mind this week with the news that two Parisiennes were lost in the catacombs for three days – I can see why, having nearly been lost down there myself after sheltering one day during a thunderstorm and finding no guide – or indeed, any other people – in this creepiest of all venues. (I have a feeling I wrote about the experience here).

Naturally, when we’re considering all things under the ground in London, graveyards and their contents deserve a thorough rummaging-through, from music hall memorials to the mysteries of exploding caskets, and although West Highgate Cemetery is well known, odd places like Abney Park Cemetery are less popular and the catacombs of Kensal Green turn up a few surprises. A trip to the decommissioned mail railway under Mount Pleasant apparently has an odd effect on adults due of its Lilliputian scale. Now part of it is finally due to open to the public.

Stephen Smith’s definitive book ‘Underground London’ gets into spots few other writers manage, clearly because of his enthusiasm and affability. His effect on our subterranean guardians is positive enough for them to unlock doors and open passages with gentle remonstrances that really, the area is meant to be off-limits. He meets the man who walks the Northern Line alone, and hears about the West Indian ladies who nightly rid the tunnels of human hair and sloughed-off skin. But he also meets his match in a pair of bunker-investigating anoraks who creep around radar posts cataloguing masts with the faintly desperate air of people who know they’re boring.

The journalist Duncan Campbell has often spoken of his basement bicycle ride through a forgotten communication link codenamed ‘L’ between Euston and Waterloo, and from his talks you get a sense of hidden government secrets. A passageway beneath the statue of George IV in Trafalgar Square reveals ‘the inner sanctum of the state-in-hiding’ because it radiates out to Downing Street, the Treasury and the Cabinet Office. Toilets make a late re-entry in the Smith volume with the image of Churchill phoning the US president from the smallest room, his call scrambled by a primitive computer stashed in the basement of Selfridges. You can see the phone now in the War Rooms, London’s most well-spent underground afternoon.


Four underground fortresses known as Citadels had been built in 1941, but their demolition and the fact that in times of terrorism all security loopholes have to be sealed means that much of underground London has now been closed off for good. This is a shame, because so much of the centre is privately owned that access is increasingly difficult to obtain. For all of its invasive surveillance, London remains a city of secrets, but as long as authors like Smith can cajole enthusiasts into dusting down the past by simply showing an interest, there’s hope that we’ll be able to understand our surroundings a little more.

The next challenge for writers may be skywards, as more and more private high-rise buildings deny access on the grounds of security and keep themselves turned from the public eye. The Walkie-Talkie (20 Fenchurch Street) has every reason to be embarrassed about its much-vaunted Sky Garden, which was supposed to be a cloud-bound parkland open to all – it is open, technically, if you apply several days in advance – but the garden was quietly hacked down to just a bit of shrubbery when they added a second bar for private functions, in a deal secretly cut behind closed doors.

It seems there are few parts of a city we can now be trusted to explore for ourselves, from the new fun-style museums that infantilise us and tell us what to think, to the last remaining nooks and crannies that have pop-up bars shoved into them. There’s little chance of anyone getting lost in a London site for three days…

8 comments on “London, Underground Part 2”

  1. Roger says:

    Two Parisians, rather than three Parisiennes were lost in the catacombs for three days according to the BBC, though they’re quite big enough for them all to get lost and never meet. They’re being treated for hypothermia, which inspires a certain envy in me.

  2. Ken Mann says:

    Don’t forget the esoteric books about never built in the first place railway stations. If only Mill Hill The Vale had been built.

  3. Jan says:

    If the 2 Parisians had been down there in the freezing cold for much longer perhaps they would have become two Parisiennes by default. (Catacombs!)

    Ken is Mill Hill the Vale the plan to extend the Northern line out into Herts on its north west branch ? When you get out to the North west edge if town there are bridges and viaducts which were built (now rotting away) which were going to take a super fast Northern line right out of town. Very, very interesting. Also up there near Mill Hill is (I kid you not) a sort of alternative ending for the M1. Now,a long distance footpath – honestly! Many years ago the IRA planted a bomb at Staples corner making the M1 flyover unsafe this little alternative ending was looked at but dismissed as unnecessary the traffic was diverted in other ways. North West London from Edgware road onward the Old BT exchange( luxury flats now near Kilburn Jubilee line tube) right out past Burnt oak is a whole trail of hush hush places.
    Interesting now that an old Bakerloo station- Watford South if I remember correctly – is to be brought back into use to replace the existing Watford Met line end of line terminal station where new development is to take place. Mothballed stations are exactly that waiting for traffic pressures on the lines to change and to come back into use. O God I am such an anorak Heeeeelp!!! I neeeeed heeeeeelp

  4. Jan says:

    Chris Duncan Campbells other famous ride, he got about on that fold up bike of his, was from out in the East End back travelling west into Central London. Near Underground BT exchanges and deep level shelters. Through Whitechapel if I remember. The Sub Brit group revere his jaunts

  5. Jan says:

    The most famous of the underground citadels is that massively strong ivy clad building you can see at the end of the Mall closest to Admiralty Arch / Trafalgar Square. You get a really interesting view of it from the canteen at the National Gallery. That might actually be the staff canteen but is very interesting view!

    It turns up on tv at the trooping the colour. It must be still in use in,some form, because when Michael WINNER(sorry that might be Sir Michael) wanted to create a national memorial to police officers killed on duty they allowed him to create his memorial by the side of that blockhouse “The Admiralty blockhouse” because it neatly obstructed the view of the modern air filters.

    The other big one is now private security archives is off Tottenham court road in that road which is always fabulously decorated with Christmas lights. Sorry I can’t name the road can’t find my A-Z. Eisenhower stayed there for some time. The American church is on the other side of TCR.

    There’s one near Kentish town and the other is at Stockwell. The first west Indian people who came over on the Windrush were housed here as we’re the next few boatloads of people and when they got fed up with the subterranean lifestyle they went up into Brixton for lodgings. That blockhouse is the reason why there’s such a large West Indian population in Brixton. Isn’t it strange how. diverse bits of history connect and create the city we know.

    Must stop now time for my anti nerd meds.

  6. Jan says:

    Store Street up near Goodge street. That’s the location of the Holborn Citadel

    Got offered a tour of the place once through work + I never got round to taking the offer up. I am a Burk.
    There was a really serious fire in the tunnels here in the mid fifties I think. Apparently used quite regularly up to that point to house troops.

    There was a shelter beneath Warren Street tube which I think dates from the first world war. Had some plans for it once but gave them away. There was a very large cellar in Queens Square near Great Ormond street where about a hundred people were killed by an aerial bomb sheltering from a world war 1 night air raid. There is a plaque commemorating this loss of life within the garden in the centre of the Square. And to the SW of the square there’s a statue of a black cat. For some reason I can’t remember.

    The Northern line is a weird old line a sort of proto Victoria line a lot to do with defending the capital. A pity you never got hold of that Peter Way book.
    Isn’t a blog a odd thing? You have moved on to talk Ballard ( or something very similar),while I am still chuntering on at my nerdiest about underground London from the last century. Well weird.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    4 posts, Jan, a new record I think.
    I’m imagining that aerial bomb sheltering from a world war one air raid. What set it off- nerves? (that’s overboard facetious, but I can’t help it.)

  8. Ian Luck says:

    I was wondering if the old electricity control rooms built into a disused shaft of St Paul’s Underground station still existed. I notice mention of Duncan ‘War Plan UK’ Campbell’s subterranean bicycle ride. Not long after he wrote about it, a large and unwieldy sculpture was placed over his entry point on a traffic island between Bethnal Green Road, and Sclater Street. The voids and interstices below London are indeed, endlessly fascinating.

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