Reawakening the Underground
A small annex room with original air cleaning equipment in an abandoned station of the London Tube system. (Johni Parker)
For most Londoners, the delights of the world’s oldest subway system faded long ago, but one man is intent on making the city fall back in love with the Tube.
There are around 40 abandoned or unused Underground stations in England’s capital – huge caverns of prime real estate going to waste in one of the world’s most expensive cities. As transport patterns changed over the past century, the underground network waxed and waned, with new stations opening and others closing to match demand.
Tube travellers can still get the odd glance of an abandoned station – there is one barely visible between Tottenham Court Road and Holborn on the Central Line, which until 1932 served the British Museum. But normally, save for the odd urban explorer or raver illegally slipping onto the tracks for a nose around or a dance, this eerie world of shadows and ghosts has been all but forgotten.
Ajit Chambers is a former City of London banker who quit finance to set up the Old London Underground Company in 2009, which is leasing the subterranean land from the city. He hopes to transform these old stations into an array of nightclubs, museums, restaurants and galleries, turning subterranean London into the city’s newest tourist attraction. Chambers recently invited me below ground at the Brompton Road Tube station in West London, which he intends to turn into a restaurant and museum in time for the 2012 Olympics. There are also plans for public tours of the War Rooms.
Above ground, the old redbrick building at Brompton Road, which is a short walk from the Victoria and Albert Museum, is used by the Ministry of Defence for Army Cadet meetings and social events. Down below, the Underground station itself has not been used in any capacity since the 1950s, and has not been part of the working subway network since 1934.
Dressed in overalls and boots, I was led through a locked door and down into the void, my tiny torch struggling to fight against the pitch black. A staircase spiralled down to a landing which led on to a series of circular rooms, some containing original mechanical equipment that once cleaned the air for those working here. Everything was covered with a thick layer of grime, from the old fashioned metal light fittings to door handles and banisters. There were still signs and posters up on the wall, a little faded and tattered, remnants of ’50s-style warnings not to smoke or use matches down there.
During World War II, the Ministry of Defence used the Brompton Road station as a military bunker, and Winston Churchill himself is said to have held strategy meetings there. In one of the rooms, there is still a map of London stuck onto the wall from the wartime conferences that took place. A display of photos in the lobby of the army building upstairs shows banks of telephonists sitting in the room, while a group of generals lean over a table, pushing markers around a map. Brompton Road is also rumoured to be where Nazi deputy Rudolf Hess was held when he was captured after crash-landing a light aircraft in Scotland in May 1941. He was apparently coming to negotiate a peace settlement and was taken to Brompton Road for “debriefing”. Hess was eventually tried at Nuremberg and died in prison in 1987.
Chambers hopes to turn the lower levels of the station into a museum and exhibition space, and build a restaurant and rooftop bar higher up. He also plans to transform the 28m-long ventilation shaft into a subterranean climbing wall. It is an ambitious project — just trying to clean the 60 years worth of dirt is just the first task in getting the place up to the required levels of health and safety for public use. But Chambers is optimistic. Once Brompton Road is finished, he explained, he will be turning his attention to the abandoned Aldwych station in central London, which has been used for Tube locations in Hollywood films like V for Vendetta, Atonement, and28 Weeks Later. If it works, his plans could do for the city’s underbelly what the London Eye did for its skyline.