Millions of travellers daily use the London tube network. What millions of travellers perhaps don't realise is the many different tunnels, dissused stations, branch lines and other bit's and pieces of the network still exist. Many of which for one reason or another are now either blocked up, not in use or just left derelict. Some of these stations are left to rot away, others are used for filming such as the Aldwich branch line and others like the Down Street Tunnels are occasionally opened by Hidden London for members of the public to look around them.
Their mix of history, architecture and the chance to get to see parts that many people don't see is one of the less known experiences in London. They also get booked up VERY quickly so don't delay in getting signed up on the mailing list to be made aware of when they become live!
I had heard about these trips from many people but this was the first time that I headed underground by Mayfair’s Down Street. It was on my bucket list for 2019 and glad that I could tick it off before my 2020 list! A station whose wartime history and connection to Winston Churchill make it one of the most fascinating.
Down street station in it's Hayday - photo credit London Transport Museum
Down Street station originally opened in March 1907 as part of the new Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway (now called the Piccadilly line). Disputes and layout issues meant it opened late, and it never really caught up with the demand expected of the station. It was too close to other stations and trains didn’t always stop as there were no passengers to get on and off. It's also hidden away down a side road of Piccadilly surrounded by rich local residents who had their own transport and didn’t want the Tube spoiling the neighbourhood.
With nearby Green Park and Hyde Park Corner stations being enlarged for escalators and the Piccadilly line extending this put the pressure on the quieter stations like Down Street too close. It finally closed in May 1932, when it was planned that it would spend the rest of its life as a ventilation shaft for the Piccadilly Line. That was until the Second World War. When war broke out, it got a new life as the secret headquarters of the Rail Executive Committee (REC).
The Rail Executive Committee
The Rail Executive Committee controlled Britain’s railways during the war. This was key to the war effort. Back at the time of the war the car and road network wasn't what it is today. This was also all pre the Dr Beeching cut's that destroyed the UK rail network in the 60's. The REC was made up of representatives of the four mainline railway companies plus London’s transport board. They needed a central London wartime HQ that was bombproof, and was big enough to house an underground telephone exchange. This was Down Street's chance! The central Mayfair and deep tunnels plus of course potential tube line access made the location perfect.
So in 1939 the tunnels came back into use. But not for ordinary passengers, no. A select band of workers who's sole aim was keeping Britain moving. It was converted into a network of offices and meeting rooms, with living accommodation for up to 40 staff. Bombproof and hidden away from prying eyes, it was seen as the safest place during the Blitz for these people to work. It was even safe enough to be used by PM Winston Churchill as a shelter until the Cabinet War Rooms were ready. It's believed he spent a good few nights in the tunnels. Once the war was over the offices, meeting rooms, kitchens that lined the tunnels were cleared and left abandoned to how we found them on our visit.
What is left now is just a small glimpse into the history of the war effort that's often forgotten about...
The Trip down
We met the Hidden London team at an office block around the corner from the tunnels. A safety briefing and the instructions about the site then followed. We then walked around to the entrance to the station. If you know London the design of the front of the station is like many from the older stations of the time all designed by Leslie Green. Distinctive red tiles can be still seen and found, but rather than a station entrance there is a mini mart!
We enter through a small but heavy metal door. It's the sort of door that on most days you would just ignore and not pay any attention to - not being aware of the hidden world that lies below... Immediately you can start to see the tell tail station designs. The old signage, the coloured tiles that still are around today. Slowly these are being replaced as the tube line modernises but here they are caked in dust and grime from near 100 years of use with no cleaning!
We slowly descended the 120+ steps (the lifts went years ago!) Anyone who's done the stairs at stations like Covent Garden will know these are tight and twisty. These are no exception!
Hidden London Down Street Tunnels
After the end of the war lots was stripped out and returned to empty tunnels but some things remained. However historians have used old photographs, marks on walls, to pull together what the old place looked like when it was home to 40 members of staff. I spend days wondering through the TFL tunnels - but I can't imagine being down here in the Blitz. The small cramped spaces, the lack of light, ventilation and the not knowing. Were you going to come out after your shift to find your house destroyed, your loved ones killed? The thoughts just don't bear thinking about!
Remnants of the old uses still remain in view. You can see some snipped off wires hanging from ceilings. Areas where clocks once hung on the walls but were protected from the smoke and grime that had nowhere to go. Old tin baths and china sinks in a tiny partitioned bathrooms now almost black from the dust from the tunnels. Grease and grim from the old kitchen area still visible. The only thing which was totally left in place was the old telephone exchange which is now completely covered in dust and I think probably isn't now useable!
I think one of the most confusing things is your sense of baring's in the tunnels. You follow a few signs but then find yourself on what would have been the old platforms. There were so many rooms constructed that they all link in and out of each other and you don't actually really realise how close you are to the platform edge. When we got really close and a train went past we had to turn off our torches so that the drivers were not dazzled by them. Back in the day a section of the platform was left open so REC executives could get picked up by passing trains and leave the site secretly. I wonder if that technique is still in use today?!
There is some modern day signage on the platforms just so that TFL workers who now use the tunnels on occasion know where they actually are all the time. Apart from that it's all the old signage that would have existed at the time when trains did stop for paying passengers.
A "Certain Gentleman"
The tunnels were packed full - but at all times the central tunnel area was kept clear for ventilation. However midway through 1941, an order from above came that ‘a certain gentleman’ had requested his own personal quarters be constructed in the tunnels. Within six weeks they were ready.
Although there is actually no proof that Churchill actually stayed in his Down Street quarters they can be sure that he certainly used the space for meetings, dinners and important discussions.
It just adds to the mystery of the site that whilst the outside just looked like a normal disused train station actually was a key part of the war, had one of Britains greatest leaders use it, and was a key home to 40 employees who came and went all in secrecy.
How you can visit Hidden London Down Street
Down Street is one of the London Transport Museum’s Hidden London tours. Hidden London covers a number of different underground sites across the city. The Down Street tour takes about 100 minutes and costs around £85 per person. This also includ's a one-day pass to London Transport Museum. There are only a couple of trips to the tunnels for Hidden London a year and you can sign up to the mailing list here. Hidden London also run a number of film nights - showing classic films with some connection to the tunnels along with a tour of the appropriate tunnels. These can be seen here
Please note that if you want to visit you would need to climb up & down 122 stairs on the tour. There’s no lift or toilets on the route and it can be dark and includes small spaces and uneven pathways it's not one if you are afraid of confined spaces. It's also advisable to wear clothes you don't mind getting dirty. Some of the site hasn't been cleaned in years!!
Hidden London Down Street tunnels very well worth the visit if you are any kind of history buff!