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…