What Lies Below Special: Inside Britain's Secret Subterranean Spaces

By Spencer Hart on at

Throughout 2014 we've been looking at what lies underneath some of the UK's largest cities. Bow it's time to reflect on some of our favourite secret subterranean space – and discover some new ones as well.


Perhaps the city with the most going on below it is the capital, with its Tube system, rivers, military bunkers and – alleged – secret Royal train stations…

Going Underground

If you've spent more than a day in London, chances are you've travelled on the London Underground. The Tube was the world's first subterranean railway network and, with over 100 miles of underground track now serving around four million passengers a day, is still 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, with entire stations sometimes abandoned and now known as "ghost" stations. Today, if you visit Aldwych's surface entrance on The Strand, you can still glimpse a perfectly restored and preserved ticket area.

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

Aldwych isn't the only disused terminal, either – 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 – hurry as the former's closed for most of 2015 – you'll notice the British Museum Station, which has been closed since 1932.

[Image Credit: TheCoolist]

Ghost stations have been a topic for discussion this year, with Transport for London 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, such as Zero Carbon Food's rocket and Thai basil garden under Clapham North (above), while Waterloo houses a skate park and Shoreditch, unsurprisingly, a bar.

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

[Image Credit: Ilford Recorder]

Aldwych was taken over 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.

Urban Legends

[Image Credit: Skyscraper Page]

Q-Whitehall is a telecommunications tunnel that runs under Whitehall from Trafalgar Square to King Charles Square – these are the facts of the matter. Certain rumours also surround Q-Whitehall, though, 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 project are protected in the archives for 75 years. So put 2026 in your diary!

[Image Credit: Wikipedia]

And then 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 what tinfoil hat you listen to – 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? We'll let you decide.


The Vaults

The subterranean spaces are equally fascinating and historic north of the border, with the beautiful Scottish capital leading the way with its many spaces built over centuries as a result of fear and mistrust of the English.

The Scots decided to erect a defensive wall around the city and it was a barrier that forced citizens to expand vertically, building houses on top of one another, sometimes reaching 14 storeys high. This verticality created a dark underworld beneath the new city known as 'The Vaults', a location that remained lost for hundreds of years.

[Image Credit: Visit Britain Shop]

The most famous of these vaults is known as the 'South Street Vault'. Originally built as a bridge, it was completed in 1788. People deemed it an honour that the area's oldest resident, a judge's wife, should be the first to cross the threshold. Unfortunately for the judge, several days before the grand opening, the woman died.

Unperturbed by this, officials decided she could still be the first 'body' over the threshold, so she crossed it in a coffin. Many superstitious locals claimed the bridge was thus cursed, and refused to cross it.

The arches below the bridges were developed into vaults and quickly became trading premises in their own right. Archaeology shows evidence of taverns, cobblers, cutlers, smelters and milliners. These businesses didn't last long, though, as the vaults were dark, damp and very unpleasant; as legitimate business evacuated, seedier society multiplied, quickly becoming a place for more disreputable folk.

Most infamously, the Vaults were said to be home to Burke and Hare, the body snatchers who hid the corpses of their victims in the labyrinthine tunnels.

[Image Credit: Ghost Adventures]

But after 30 years, with no light, heat or plumbing, the place became completely uninhabitable. It was abandoned and filled with rubble to prevent any further habitation. The tunnels were rediscovered in 1985 by Norrie Rowan, an international rugby player, and now they're used for ghost tours or can be hired for private events.

Mary King's Close

Alongside the South Street Vaults, Mary King's Close is another popular destination for history buffs and ghost hunters alike. The location was named after Mary King, a prominent businesswoman who traded fabrics and sewed for a living.

Mary King's Close is a labyrinth of streets and passageways that run below the Old Town area of Edinburgh.

[Image Credit: Real Mary Kings Close]

In 1645, the area was hit by the plague, and myth has it that the council decided to confine the victims within the streets, bricking up the close and leaving people to die inside. To this day people still claim to be able to hear the shouts and cries of those trapped inside.

In 1753 the close was completely buried when the Royal Exchange and City Chambers were built on top, using the existing buildings as a foundation.

[Image Credit: UK Wanderer]

During the Second World War, the underground maze was used as an air raid shelter. Now it's a popular tourist attraction, with a company by the name of Continuum running tours around the historic underground streets.


Shops, Shops, Shops!

If there's one thing we still can't seem get enough of at Christmas, it's shops. One day, though, everything will be sold online and we can bury Primark, Marks & Spencer and Topshop below acres of new parks and walkways, just like Manchester did years ago (kind of).

[Image Credit: 28 Days Later]

One of the most fascinating underground structures in Manchester is the Victoria Arches, which were built into the embankment of the River Irwell in the 1830s. A number of businesses occupied the riverside complex, including wine merchants, silk-dyers, printers and cabinet-makers.

The shops were accessible from street level via external wooden staircases, with at least one arched tunnel used as a launch point for steam-ferry cruises, which took passengers around Salford Docks and the Manchester Ship Canal (despite the rising pollution levels).

[Image Credit: Derelict Places]

The businesses were closed in the 1930s and the shops converted to air-raid shelters during the Second World War. The storefronts were bricked up to add gas- and blast-protection; these improvised shelters could hold 1,619 people and have remained relatively untouched since the end of the war, with 1940s crisp packets and posters still on the floor.

[Image Credit: The Potteries]

Adding to the list of Manchester's subterranean shops, Lewis's (now a Primark store) was known for having extravagant basement attractions. On one particular occasion, during the shop's Venice display, the basement was flooded to create an underground boating lake -- complete with gondolas that customers could ride.


One suggested reason for the Picc-Vic line – Manchester's proposed underground system – being scrapped is that the line ran too close to the Guardian Telephone Exchange in Chinatown. The exchange was built in 1954 together with the Anchor Exchange in Birmingham and the Kingsway Exchange in London. These underground bunkers housed "hardened communications", providing secure connections in the event of a nuclear war.

[Image Credit: Khoros Architecture]

The tunnel is 34 metres below surface level and the main tunnel is 300 metres long with two-kilometre extensions to Salford and Ardwick. The exchange was designed to survive an atomic bomb blast capable of flattening the city, and contained a six-week food supply, generator and fuel tanks. It originally cost £4 million to build and was funded by the UK's NATO partners, namely the US.

[Image Credit: Manchester History]

The main entrance to the Guardian Exchange can be found on George Street, between Princess Street and Dickinson Street. The tunnels are now home to more pedestrian BT cables, which caught fire in March 2004 and caused widespread disruption across Manchester.


Mines, mines everywhere

With the amount of coal mines in Wales, it's surprising the ground hasn't completely collapsed. Luckily it's home to a number of intriguing caverns, mines and tunnels. Coal mining has been present in Wales since the Iron Age, but was first undertaken on an industrial scale by the Romans.

[Image Credit: Wikipedia]

One of the oldest surviving mines is from the Bronze Age, around 4,000 years ago. Located in Llandudno, North Wales, and known as the Great Orme Ancient Mines, these old holes in the ground are thought to have been responsible for producing 2,000 tons of copper. The mines were dug by nothing more than stone and bone tools -- now the mines are a tourist attraction which cost £6.75 for adults and £4.75 for children.

King Arthur's Labyrinth

Slate was first mined in Corris, southern Snowdonia, in 1836, when a narrow gauge railway took the slate down to the Dyfi estuary. The miners created a series of chambers that were 50 metres wide and 25 metres high, leaving large pillars to support the ceiling. By 1878 the mine employed 250 men and produced 7,000 tonnes of slab a year.

[Image Credit: Visit Wales]

As costs rose and demand fell, the mine was used intermittently by five companies, but all failed to make a profit.

Eventually in 1994, the tunnels were flooded and King Arthur's Labyrinth was opened. Tourists are ferried into the subterranean space through a magical waterfall by a cod-mysterious hooded boatman. Once docked, you're taken on historical tour through the tunnels, learning about the myths and legends of King Arthur, with stories which include dragons, giants and magic. As a way to make old underground spaces profitable, this is one we definitely approve of.


The Burlington Bunker

The village of Corsham in Wiltshire might sound like an unlikely location to have an interesting subterranean secret, but in fact it perches atop one of the most important military bunkers in the UK.

The Burlington Bunker was a relocation site for the Government in the event of nuclear attack during the Cold War. It's located underneath the village of Corsham in Wiltshire, about 100 miles from London.

[Image Credit: Burlington Bunker]

The site was abandoned int the 1980s and until 2004 the site was strictly classified. It's had a number of code names since its conception in the early 50s, including Burlington, Stockwell, Site 3, Turnstile and Subterfuge.

The bunker took over from Churchill's famous War Room's in the early 1960s, and was constructed in an underground stone quarry to the tune of £20 million in 1940. The site became the alternative seat of power in case of an emergency in the UK.

[Image Credit: Burlington Bunker]

Burlington has it's own train station with a direct line to London and the Underground, which the ministers would of used to evacuate the capital. The bunker was designed to safely house up to 4,000 officials in the event of a nuclear blast.

The site spans one kilometre, including a medical centre, dentist, bakery, laundromat, two canteens, a well stocked library, telephone exchange and private accommodation for the PM.

People travelled around the bunker on electric vehicles, which were parked and charged in an underground vehicle depot. With no need for registration plates, some vehicles even had handwritten names, such as "Alien".

When the Cold War ended, the bunker was scaled down and only a handful of staff were kept to maintain the site. A £40 million upgrade proposal was turned down in 1991 and the bunker was emptied of fuel and food, falling into disuse. Crucially, though, the site remained classified and ready to spring back into action – a state that cost the Ministry of Defence a whopping £500,000 a year.

Finally, in December 2004, the site became declassified and any future plans for the bunker are uncertain. The MoD is expected to offer the site to private investors looking to bring new life to the bunker. Anyone out there who's not overly set on windows and after a nice one-bed doer-upper? Although don't start choosing wallpaper just yet as English Heritage has shown an interest in preserving the site for historic purposes.