Friday, January 15, 2010

What Lies Beneath

As I work from home, I rarely venture on to the London Underground these days, which is no bad thing because I'm mildly claustrophobic and being crammed on to a rush hour tube can cause the most sanguine passenger to panic. But earlier this week I ventured into town for a meeting. The tube lived up to its clapped-out image and my journey along the District Line was delayed by about 20 minutes thanks to a signal failure, a frequent occurrence. We were held at Sloane Square station, and not for the first time I thought it was a shame that the bar which used to be on the platform, the only one on the whole of the underground system, had long since closed. A pint might have made the delay more bearable. However, it wasn't too bad, and from where I was sat I could see one of those little curios that make living in London so special.

When the owners of the Metropolitan Railway built Sloane Square station in 1868 they had a problem: the River Westbourne, which flowed into the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park (and was originally crossed by Knight's Bridge, later Knightsbridge, home of Harrods). What did they do? Relocate the station? No, cocking a snook at nature, they built the station regardless and carried the river above the platform and encased it in a large iron pipe. It was that pipe I could see from my vantage point on the train.

Though travelling on the tube can be occasionally unpleasant, there is much I love about it. Rattling home, late at night, slightly drunk, trying not to doze off and miss your stop; the hot blast of musty air that precedes an oncoming train; people-watching on a long journey; the laconic announcements from long-suffering drivers; tourists staring bewildered at the labyrinthine maps; the underground is an integral part of London life. I'm fascinated by its history. Discovering that my local station, Ladbroke Grove, used to be called Notting Hill, but was later changed when a new station was opened and named Notting Hill Gate provided me with the first big twist of my debut novel.

I'd love to find a plot device where I can incorporate the various 'ghost' stations on the line; disused stations fallen into disrepair, of which you catch a tantalising glimpse in the murk of as your train hurtles past. Stations such as Aldwych, which is used as a film set because it's still in good condition; or Down Street, closed in 1932, used as an air-raid shelter by Winston Churchill and his war cabinet, much of which has been bricked up, though some rooms still survive and the fabulous old facade remains on view at street level in Mayfair.

However, my favourite piece of 'hidden' London Underground arcana is above ground and can be seen by anyone, though, understandably, people often walk past blissfully unaware. When the District, Circle and Hammersmith and City lines were built, architects employed a technique called 'cut and cover.' As they were near the surface, they cut a deep hole to house the track and then covered it with a tunnel. This meant having to knock down houses and cut through roads. In working class areas they went ahead without a care, turfing people out of their homes, often without paying compensation. This being Victorian London, in more affluent areas, the story was different. When the Metropolitan line was built in 1868 and ran through a prestigious terrace named Leinster Gardens, in Bayswater, the residents, in a fit of NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard) complained that a great gaping hole where the tube would run might ruin the look of the street. They were also worried that the steam from the trains venting off might rise above street level and that could also prove unsightly.

After much wrangling a compromise was reached to preserve the street's demeanour (and the value of the residents' property): the railway owners would knock down two houses, numbers 23 and 24, to make way for the line but keep the facade, door, railings and windows. From the street, the houses look like this (note the blacked out windows):

Convincing huh? But from the back,  you see this:

A 1930's hoaxer once sold tickets at ten guineas each for an exclusive charity ball at the address, prompting hundreds of guests to turn up in full evening dress and knock on a fake door, and heaven only knows how many pizza delivery drivers, taxi cabs and people spreading the gospel of some God or other have been sent there for a giggle.


Dan - Friday


  1. This excellent piece reminds me of Barbara Vine´s thriller, King Solomon´s Carpet, where we get much interesting information about the tube.

    I sometimes teach a theme called Going Underground where I use extract of Vine´s book plus some short stories etc which takes place in the London Underground. Fascinating texts which most students love reading.

  2. Wow, this blog post is fascinating. I loved the pictures you took of the front and back of the building.


  3. Hi Dorte. Thanks for your comment. I haven't read that Vine book but I will now.

    Another favourite tube story of mine is how many of Victorian London's pious and devout (of which there were many in 1868) refused to travel on it once it opened. Venturing underground was seen as ungodly, and all the steam, the heat, the sulphorous smell, made it seem like the work of the devil. So they boycotted it.

    Barmy it may sound though I must say, after once getting stuck in a non air-conditioned carriage somewhere between Russell Square and Kings Cross in 100 degree heat for 45 minutes at the height of summer, I had some sympathy...

  4. Well, if you are, as you say, slightly claustrophobic, her novel may seem quite scary :D

    An excellent short story is Charles Higson´s The Red Line (1993). I use it often in my classes, and you might say the Victorian notions of the Underground are justified ;D

  5. Dan --

    Great idea for a book. What/who could be hidden in the ghost stations? How could you access them? What remains of the vendors' stations, restaurants, ticket booths, first-aid rooms?

    This is the kind of thing I'd love to write, but I don't know much about London although I've been dozens of times. And, of course, it's your idea, isn't it? As opposed to mine, I mean.


    There would be rats down there, wouldn't there? Oh, never mind.

  6. Dorte, I wonder if that Charles Higson is the same one who has gone on to become a very successful comedy write and author of the young James Bond books.

    Tim, there are rats down there. Plenty. I've seen them. Big as small dogs...

  7. Dan really enjoyed your blog, love anything that involves the history of something/one keep up the good/interesting work. I was put onto this from your dads Twitter page, do you have a twitter?

  8. I well remember arriving at Russell Square station from Gatwick Airport, seeing a staircase, and foolishly thinking that I'd save time and climb the stairs to the surface. Harold Wilson was in office when I started, and Tony Blair was on his way out by the time I made it to the top.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  9. Fascinating post, Dan. You're right a great idea for a story and I will check out the Rendell.

    Paris has several ghost stations replete with old tilework, Metro maps and old advertisements. At one time, twice a year, they'd operate a night ghost station tour on the old wooden subway trains. Wine and music, too.