Hidden London – Down Street: Churchill’s Secret Station

Entrance to Down Street

I’ve visited several “secret” stations on Hidden London tours, and recently was lucky enough to go to Down Street, also known as “Churchill’s secret station.” Down Street opened on 15 March 1907 on the new Great Northern, Piccadilly & Brompton Railway (GNP&BR), part of what is now the Piccadilly line.

Plan of the station

Designed by Leslie Green, the station was situated on a side road called Down Street, in between two popular stations in a rich area – so it wasn’t used much from the start. The station layout was designed by Sir James W Szlumper, Chief Engineer for the railway. A dispute about the escape route led to several redesigns, and the station opened after the rest of the railway with an extra cross passage, stairs and landing. It closed on 21 May 1932, with its passageways converted to act as a ventilation shaft for the Piccadilly line.

Inside the station

Down Street wasn’t empty for long, though. A Railway Executive Committee was formed to coordinate British railway companies in the event of war, ensuring the smoothest possible travel for people, the military, and supplies. A headquarters was needed: the Underground was safe and this station’s central location was ideal. Plans were drawn up to convert the station: the lift shaft was capped with concrete and air filtration protected against gas attacks. The REC met in the Committee Room, while a typing pool sat just outside and a telephone exchange was situated on the now boarded-up platforms, along with dormitories for those staying overnight: the need for secrecy meant staff could not be seen going in and out all the time and they needed to stay and sleep in shifts.

Sign directing passengers to the train

Executive staff members had sole bedrooms, as well as posh furniture and good food: catering was provided on-site, as well as bathroom and toilet facilities. A team of four motorcycle despatch riders carried letters from above ground. Executive staff members who needed to leave could use the red stop signal located on the platform, stop a Piccadilly line train, and board the train in the driver’s cab.

Old platform signs

Churchill used these rooms for 40 days from October to December 1940, at the height of the Blitz when the Cabinet War Rooms weren’t ready. He was impressed with the accommodation, unsurprisingly. One meal he shared with some REC and War Cabinet members included caviar, champagne, brandy and cigars. Later, rooms were built for him in the passageway that London Transport engineers had originally insisted be kept free for escape purposes, although he may have never used it.

Directions to the committee room

These days, Down Street is still used for ventilation purposes. If you look carefully when travelling on the Piccadilly line between Hyde Park Corner and Green Park, you may catch a glimpse of this hidden station.

Winston's bath?

Hidden London – Clapham South: Subterranean Shelter

I was lucky enough to snap up a ticket to the Hidden London Access All Areas Subterranean Shelter: Clapham South tour in association with the London Transport Museum. This was a unique opportunity to go underground and explore one of the shelters that was built during the Second World War as a refuge for Londoners to stay safe from the Blitz. I arrived at Clapham South station on Sunday morning and excitedly awaited my turn.

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Entrance to the shelter

We were given wristbands and taken down the road to an imposing white cylindrical building, set into the side of a housing estate. I am sure the residents were bemused by all these people going in and out all day. We were taken around the space by several guides, all of whom were really knowledgeable and helpful. This is just as well as the shelter is a big place, and it would be very easy to get lost if you were separated from the group.

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Inside the shelter

Clapham South subterranean shelter was one of eight shelters built between 1941 and 1942, 120 feet below ground and underneath even the tube itself. Previously, people had been sheltering in tube stations but even they were not safe in case of a direct hit: for instance, an bomb at Balham tube station in 1940 killed 66 people. The eight shelters together could hold 64,000 people, though in reality the total was never much more than 12,500.

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One of the long tunnels making up the shelter

The shelter at Clapham South was dug out by hand by workers on 12-hour shifts, with no protection from the conditions. Once the death toll reached double figures they were finally provided with a shield. The resulting tunnels were made of cast iron and concrete, with two entrances: one at Balham Hill, the other at Clapham Common. The excavation caused a huge mountain of dirt to appear on the Common.

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Photograph of a newly-opened deep shelter

Once construction work had finished, the worst of the Blitz was over and the shelters were initially used for other things, such as military occupancy. In 1944, however, the V1 and V2 raids began, and the shelters were hurriedly converted to their original purpose. Up to 8,000 people could be accommodated at Clapham South, though in practice the shelter never held more than 4,000 at once.

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Former bathroom

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Remains of what was once a bathroom

Clapham South shelter was well-organised. On entering, a shelterer would be allocated a ticket to a dormitory; these dormitories were typically named after admirals. The shelter had a superintendent and a small hospital, with a doctor, nursing staff and a consulting room. For entertainment, music was played over the PA system, and sometimes dances were held. Chemical toilets were provided, with an innovative air compression system to shoot waste to the surface every few days. There were eight canteens dotted around the shelter, staffed by volunteers, with food provided by London Transport. The food was off the ration, but more expensive than it was at the surface: a cup of tea, for instance, was tuppence.

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Directions

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This area of tunnel was once a surgery

The shelter was connected to the Underground via a tunnel designed, but never used, as an emergency exit. Sometimes, shelterers were allowed to leave this way to hop on a train and get to work in the morning. Plans to convert this and some other shelters to an express Northern Line after the war never happened, owing to lack of funds. Instead, another function had to be found for the shelters once the war had ended in 1945.

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Entrance to the Northern Line

After the war, Clapham South was used as a penny hotel, cheap accommodation for those visiting London on a budget. It was also used to house some of the arrivals from the Windrush once they arrived from the West Indies. During the 1951 Festival of Britain, the shelter was transformed into the Festival Hotel, costing three shillings a night. Used mostly by young students, female guests got sheets for their beds while men had to content themselves with blankets. The shelter was also used to house troops during the funeral of George VI and the coronation of Elizabeth II.

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Sleeping quarters in the shelter

After a fire took place in another shelter, it was decided that the shelters were no longer safe for accommodation. What then should they be used for? TfL took over the shelters in 1998, and many were used for archive storage. Here, the last archives left in 2008, but they are still in place in some other shelters, such as Goodge Street. Another is now used for growing micro salad for an upmarket restaurant.

I loved my fascinating tour of the Clapham South shelter. Everyone was really knowledgeable and it was amazing to be in such an atmospheric place.

Shoreditch Underground Station (Pillow Cinema)

This post should probably be about Pillow Cinema, the east London phenomenon dreamed up by the same people who founded Hot Tub Cinema. The idea of sitting in a hot tub surrounded by strangers has never particularly appealed to me, but the Pillow Cinema idea is much better-sounding – sprawl out on a giant bean bag, pillow behind your head, and relax while watching a classic movie. I saw Billy Elliot on Saturday, and the experience was a great one – but that’s not why I wanted to write this post, and it isn’t why I wanted to go in the first place. After all, I could probably have recreated the experience much more cheaply in my front room with a couple of duvets and a pile of cushions.

No, it was the location of Pillow Cinema that appealed to me, much more than the concept itself. Screenings are held in the former Shoreditch Underground station, and being the Tube obsessive that I am – particularly when it comes to disused or “ghost” stations – I was certain that I wanted to get inside.

Shoreditch Underground Station is located near Brick Lane, at the end of Code Street. It’s covered in graffiti so it’s not hard to spot. The station used to be the northern terminus of the East London Line, and it closed in 2006 in preparation for the development of the Overground network, which now runs through Shoreditch High Street station.

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Approaching the station from Brick Lane

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Sideways view

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View from Code Street

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The original entrance

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Inside the building

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Looking west

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Trains still run past the station towards Liverpool Street

Originally opened in 1876, the station had only one platform and track in use towards the end of its life. It had low passenger footfall, and when it was closed, the platform and track area was filled in.

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Inside the cinema

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The arches

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The opposite wall

The cinema is located where the platform and the track used to be. You can see the walls with their filled-in arches, and the hooks on the side designed to hold the cables. I’m probably the only person who got excited by this, but I kept imagining ghostly trains moving through the space where we were sitting, one era layered upon another like Russian dolls. Pretty impressive to me.

The end of an era – the last wooden escalator on the Tube

Yesterday, I saw quite a few tweets linking to articles (like this one on london24.com) announcing the wooden escalator at Greenford station’s last day of operation. The escalator was first installed in 1947, and was the last remaining wooden escalator on the Underground. Most were taken out of service after the King’s Cross fire, seeing as they pose obvious fire risks; Greenford’s presumably lasted longer as it was in the open air.

A new, temporary escalator has been installed for the time being, meaning that the tube’s oldest and newest escalators were positioned alongside each other. In the longer term, the wooden escalator is due to be replaced by an innovative glass incline lift: the introduction of step-free access is obviously great news but it’s sad to say goodbye to a piece of history.

As it happened, I had the day off work, and Greenford is close to where I live, so I had time to pop down to the station hoping to ride the wooden escalator for the last time (yes, I am a massive geek). Sadly, the escalator had already been cordoned off: apparently it stopped running several days ago. This was disappointing, but I still managed to get some pictures before it vanished completely.

Wooden escalator at Greenford station
The wooden escalator, disappointingly out of use

Wooden escalator at Greenford station
End of an era for the last wooden escalator on the tube

New escalator at Greenford tube station
Looking to the future: the newest escalator on the tube network

Tube challenge complete!

Ever since I moved to London at the beginning of 2011, I have been trying to complete a project which involved visiting every single Underground station. More specifically, I wanted to visit every station on the Underground map, which included the DLR, the Overground network and the cable car as well as the Tube itself. On Friday 29 November, I finally completed my challenge.

I went to Northfields station, on the Piccadilly line, last and celebrated with friends in a local pub. I felt so happy to have finally completed my challenge, but now I need a new one for 2014. Someone suggested bus stops, but I don’t think that is a particularly good idea…

Mail Rail: A Photographic Exhibition – British Postal Museum and Archive

The Royal Mail Archive

After work last Thursday I decided to pay a visit to Mail Rail: A Photographic Exhibition, hosted at The British Postal Museum and Archive. This little-known facility is located near Holborn, and doesn’t have much in the way of a museum yet – though a purpose built one is planned – but the reading room is large and inviting, and the small exhibition inside it is a little gem.

The images in the exhibition were taken by Bradley Photography in Northumberland, and show the Mail Rail network, a series of tunnels in use between 1927 and 2003 and used to transport mail around London. The photos capture a ghostly underground world, left more or less in the same state as the day it closed. I am fascinated by underground London so I really enjoyed viewing these images. I only wish it was possible to have a tour of the network!

Waiting in the dark
Waiting in the dark. © Bradley Photography

FACTS

Address: Freeling House, Phoenix Place, London, WC1X 0DL

Website: postalheritage.org.uk

Opening Hours: Mon-Fri 10am-5pm (until 7pm on Thurs)

Prices: Free

Metroland

The end is in sight for my visit-every-Underground-station project – after Saturday’s excursion I only have fifteen stations to do. Fifteen! I can hardly believe it.

So what did I do on my Saturday excursion? I did something I’ve been meaning to do for a while – I headed to the end of the Metropolitan Line, one of the oldest parts of the network, to check out the stations there. These were built before the Green Belt around London was constructed, hence why they are so far out compared to the rest of the stations (Zone 9 no less!). The villages here are actually in Buckinghamshire, and you can hardly believe you’ve just got off the tube, so different is the entire area to busy central London.

First of all, Chalfont & Latimer station (the junction from which you branch off to either Chesham or Amersham) seems to be a housing estate with a main road running past. It was very quiet: this attractive-looking tree and bench seemed the most noteworthy landmark in the place.

Just outside Chalfont & Latimer station

I visited Chesham first. I really liked Chesham – it had a really old villagey feel and I could see the hills on one side. There was a market on when I was there, too.

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Chesham town centre

I didn’t like Amersham quite so much, as it wasn’t as pretty – I suspect Old Amersham is the ‘pretty’ village, but I didn’t have time to go there. What I did like – in both Chesham and Amersham – was the number of charity shops. I love a good old charity shop rummage: on this occasion I came back with two bags, one from each town. I love them both, especially the leather one, which is basically Proper Vintage.

Tapestry bag
Leather bag
Leather bag

Steam returns to the London Underground for the 150th anniversary

I make no secret of the fact that I have a bit of an obsession with the Tube. So, it seems, do plenty of other people, given the popularity of the heritage train trips that have taken place over the last couple of weekends. I entered the ballot and was lucky enough to be allocated a ticket for Sunday night’s run from Kensington Olympia to Moorgate. I was sent the details in the post, including this beautiful purple celebratory ticket.

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This train was comprised of the Metropolitan Railway’s ‘Jubilee’ carriage no. 353 (built in 1892) and the Chesham set of coaches loaned from the Bluebell Railway. At one end of the train was the newly-restored Met Locomotive No. 1; at the other was the Metropolitan Railway electric locomotive ‘Sarah Siddons’.

This journey involved being pulled by the steam locomotive for the first few minutes, after which the train moved in the other direction towards Moorgate, pulled by the electric locomotive. I chose this journey because of the price – £50 as opposed to £150. This way I was able to experience a steam journey as well as an electric one.

I spent Sunday exploring some tube stations in the north before heading to Kensington Olympia station about an hour before I needed to – I was so paranoid in case I was late. I had time to get a coffee  and sit down for a bit, which was just as well seeing as I was going to be spending a lot of time in the cold!

I got back to the station at 5.20 on the dot as the letter had instructed. There were several people milling around already. I had been worried in case the trip was cancelled due to the snow, but this didn’t happen. We had to register at the table corresponding to our carriage (mine was D), and received a wristband, the kind you get when you go to a gig.

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Clearly this makes the trip so much cooler

After that, it was a matter of waiting for the train to arrive. A couple of District Line shuttle trains from Earl’s Court arrived first and the passengers seemed rather puzzled to find so many people lined up on the platform. It was pretty cold, and it was snowing, but there wasn’t much shelter, so everyone was a bit squashed huddling under the canopy.

Eventually the train arrived and I clambered into my carriage. I was pleased to get a window seat. The train began to move and whistled loudly. Several people armed with cameras waved us off from the road.

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The journey was brilliant. I imagined myself as a nineteenth-century passenger travelling on the Underground. The smoke flew past our carriage, clouding our view of the tunnel walls. I can imagine that this experience would have been none too pleasant one hundred and fifty years ago, with open windows and even more smoke.

I recorded a video showing the train on its way through Earl’s Court station:

At every station along the route, from this one to West Kensington where we changed direction, right through to Moorgate via Bayswater, Paddington, Farringdon and Barbican, there were crowds watching and taking photographs. Some people had obviously come prepared with cameras, others appeared bewildered at the sudden appearance of this historical relic. They waved, and I waved back, feeling rather like royalty!

All too soon, it seemed, the train reached Moorgate. Here, we had the chance to take pictures of the train before it set off on its next journey. I took full advantage of this opportunity. I was pleased that one of the brand new Hammersmith & City Line trains was standing alongside the heritage train: an impressive juxtaposition of the old and the new.

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I had a brief look round the London Transport Museum pop-up shop; I didn’t buy anything but I made a mental note of several items to purchase later.

I know spending £50 on an Underground journey sounds crazy, especially since I could use my Travelcard to travel along this stretch of track whenever I like. However I don’t regret it at all: it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and a journey back into the Underground’s past.