What Lies Below: A Look at Secret Subterranean London

By Spencer Hart on at

Every year millions of tourists flock to London to marvel at its historic buildings, parks and attractions, but if you scratch beneath London's surface, you'll reveal a dark, intimidating web of abandoned stations, military tunnels and historic catacombs.

The Tube

If you've spent more than a day in London, chances are you've travelled on the London Underground. The tube was world's first subterranean railway network, and with over one hundred miles of underground track now serving around four million passengers a day, one of the largest in existence.

[Image Credit: Time Out]

Of course there are some areas of the tube network that aren't open to the public, sometimes entire stations have been abandoned, these are known as ghost stations. Today, if you visit Aldwych Station's surface entrance on the Strand, you can still glimpse a perfectly restored and preserved ticket area.

When Aldwych first opened in 1907 there were plans to extend the line underneath the Thames but in 1994, after years of low passenger numbers, it's original lift broke, and instead of costly repairs London Underground decided to close the station. It's now regularly used by media companies as a filming location and by TfL as a testing ground for lighting systems.

Aldwych isn't the only disused station, there are actually around 40 derelict stations both underground and above ground. For example, if you look out of the window as you travel between Tottenham Court Road and Holborn on the Central Line, you'll notice the British Museum Station, which has been closed since 1932.

[Image Credit: TheCoolist]

Ghost Stations have been a recent topic for discussion, with TfL preparing to accept development proposals from private companies to convert the derelict stations into shops, bars, nightclubs and museums. Some tunnels have already been converted for different use, for example Zero Carbon Food is currently growing rocket and Thai basil under Clapham North (seen above), Waterloo houses a skatepark and Shoreditch Station is a bar.

But this isn't the first time London's stations were used as something other than their original intention: during World War II, many stations were converted to Air Raid Shelters. Some of these shelters, such as St. Mary's at Whitechapel, have been abandoned ever since, acting as time capsules.

[Image Credit: Ilford Recorder]

Aldwych was used by the British Museum to house its priceless collection and Down Street Station was used by Winston Churchill before the War Rooms were created. The platforms at Down Street were converted into offices, meeting rooms and dorms complete with fake windows. To round off the war effort, a northern extension of the Central Line was used as a munitions factory, with a five-mile production line creating ammunition shells, radios and aircraft wiring.

Pedestrian Tunnels and Catacombs

[Image Credit: Trip Advisor]

OK, so train tunnels get all the glory when it comes to underground London, but before locomotion, pedestrians and horses had run of the warren as well. You may have visited Camden Market before, but you may not know that beneath Camden is a network of catacombs which were used as stables for pit ponies in the 19th century.

[Image Credit: Museum of London]

Clerkenwell is also home to an extensive labyrinth of catacombs. Beneath the Clerkenwell House of Detention, which opened in 1617 and was demolished in 1890, a complex of tunnels had the capacity to house 286 prisoners. Even though the site is now home to a block of flats, the catacombs remain accessible via Clerkenwell Close and are occasionally used for art exhibits and as a film set.

[Image Credit: Wikimedia]

Tired of crossing the Thames on boring touristy bridges? Well there are two pedestrian tunnels in Woolwich and Greenwich which allow you to cross the river in dark, damp solitude. Greenwich tunnel opened in 1902 and Woolwich ten years later, replacing unreliable, expensive ferry services. Greenwich Tunnel is 370.2 metres long and 15.2 metres below surface level, while Woolwich is 504 metres long and features a 'leaky cable', which provides mobile signal to all the commuters below the river.

Rivers

[Image Credit: The Bearded Otter]

During London's rapid growth, many of the Thames' tributaries were built over, forcing the streams and rivers underground. The largest of these tributaries is the River Fleet, which flows under (and lends its name to) Fleet Street. The Fleet begins at Hampstead Heath and flows four miles to Blackfriars Bridge where it joins the Thames via a sewer overflow. If you listen carefully enough, the river can be heard through a grid in the centre of Charterhouse Street.

[Image Credit: Londons Lost Rivers]

The River Tyburn is another interesting tributary which flows into the Thames. Once again beginning in Hampstead, the Tyburn helped form the precursors to Oxford Street and Park Lane (previously Tyburn Road and Tyburn Lane). Grays Antique Centre in Mayfair, claim that the body of water contained in an open channel in its basement is part of the River Tyburn.

The London Post Office Railway

[Image Credit: Place Hacking]

Known as Mail Rail, the Royal Mail operated a narrow gauge, driverless underground railway to ferry post between sorting offices. The service began in 1927 and ran until 2003, when the project was mothballed due to it's high running cost. In October 2013, the British Postal Museum and Archive announced plans to open part of the network as a tourist attraction, with a museum and short train journey.

Military

A number of military structures were constructed below the streets of London during World War II and the Cold War. These structures are mostly used as secure centres for defence co-ordination, with a large network of tunnels which may (or may not) connect.

[Image Credit: Wikimedia]

The most import military structure in London (and possibly Britain) is Pindar. Pindar is a fortress built deep below the Ministry of Defence on Whitehall, it was completed in 1994 and cost a whopping £126.3 million. It's reported that the building is connected to Downing Street and the Cabinet Office via a tunnel running under Whitehall, but these rumours have been denied by government officials. Pindar is named after the Ancient Greek poet, whose house was the sole survivor when Thebes was destroyed in 335 BC.

[Image Credit: El Cajon De Grisom]

Winston Churchill famously reinforced the basement of the HM Treasury, and used it as the Cabinet War Room during World War II. The War Rooms covered three acres, housed 528 staff, with a canteen, hospital, dorms and a shooting range. In the very centre of the building was the Cabinet and Map Room, where the fate of thousands of lives was decided. The Cabinet War Room has been perfectly preserved in exactly the same state as when it was abandoned.

Urban Legends

[Image Credit: Skyscraper Page]

Q-Whitehall is a telecommunications tunnel which runs under Whitehall from Trafalgar Square to King Charles Square; these are the facts of the matter. Certain rumours also surround Q-Whitehall, most notably that the tunnel serves as a connection between government buildings, offering an escape route in case of attack. The tunnel appears to have been extended in 1951, but files relating to the tunnel are protected in the archives for 75 years – so put 2026 in your diary!

[Image Credit: Wikipedia]

And finally there's the oft-discussed Buckingham Palace tunnel: some theories suggest the Royals have a personal Tube train that takes them to Windsor Castle, 10 Downing Street, Houses of Parliament or Scotland (depending on the rumour). While others suggest the tunnel is a simple pedestrian tunnel, linking to Green Park, 10 Downing Street or the Houses of Parliament. These rumours are usually dismissed as absolute codswallop, but in 2006 the Queen Mother's former equerry revealed that Buckingham Palace did have secret tunnels. He quoted the Queen's Mother as saying:

"It was just after the war and we went down to the basement more out of curiosity than anything else. When we reached the basement, there was a man, I think he was a Geordie. He'd been there for a while and was very courteous to us." She added with a chuckle: "As it turned out he didn't have a role at all. He was just a friend of a friend who lived in the basement. He was very polite though. I wonder what happened to him."

Does that sound believable? I'll let you decide.

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