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The secret city of London

The Times: The secret city is a great reservoir of urban myth. Great article about the urban legend fodder that is ‘the city beneath the city’.

Date: Mon, 09 Jun 2003 15:19:37 +0100
From: “Martin Adamson” (spam-protected)
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Subject: The secret city is a great reservoir of urban myth

The Times

June 09, 2003

The secret city is a great reservoir of urban myth

Richard Morrison

YOU know what worries me most about London? It’s how the buildings stand up. It seems miraculous that they aren’t wobbling like a contralto’s bosom. So many tunnels, bunkers, sewers, stations and vaults have been dug beneath the capital that the famous clay on which London is built must now resemble a Swiss cheese. Last week the Post Office closed its Mail Rail, the underground train that sped our epistles from Whitechapel to Paddington, or vice versa, for 75 years. Most Londoners were vaguely aware of its existence. But what else is down there? The answer is that nobody knows the whole truth, and most of us don’t know a hundredth of it. But that’s fine with me, because in the absence of hard facts this secret city-beneath-the-city is a wonderful reservoir of urban myth. And that’s much more entertaining.

Some things I do know. The Bank of England also has its own underground railway, presumably to cart sackfuls of dosh to fat cats in the Square Mile. So does Harrods, presumably to cart the sackfuls back to the Bank. Also lurking below ground are no fewer than 40 ghost stations: disused Tube stops, their eerily empty platforms briefly glimpsed from passing trains.

Or are they deserted? Some had — perhaps still have — very active afterlives, if rumour can be believed. The Down Street station, between Green Park and Hyde Park Corner, was used as an underground Cabinet Room during the war.

The never-officially-opened Bull and Bush, its entrance half-concealed on Hampstead Heath, is said to be the nerve centre controlling the floodgates that would be swiftly closed if the Thames ever broke into the Tube. But at one time it was also claimed to be the mysterious “Paddock”, the Government’s subterranean control room in the early 1940s. Two things fuelled this enduring urban myth: the reference in Churchill’s memoirs to a bunker “near Hampstead” (which would be a strange description of the well-known bunker at Dollis Hill, near Neasden); and the odd story of a man, walking on the Heath during the war, who was startled to see the unmistakable figure of the great Winnie emerging from what seemed to be a bush.

What’s certainly true is that some Tube stations were equipped at that time with deep-level “parallel” platforms, designed as bomb shelters on the understanding that London Transport would be allowed to convert them into express Tube lines later. Mysteriously, this plan was abandoned. Or was it? Again, urban myth declares that there is indeed a parallel, express Northern Line, but that commuters will never be allowed on it. It is reserved for when VIPs have to be whisked out of London quickly and stealthily. (The urban myth doesn’t reveal what they would do when they reached Morden.)

As for these deep-level parallel stations themselves, their fates are equally intriguing. Eisenhower’s secret wartime headquarters, a vast, 32-storey inverted skyscraper under Goodge Street Tube Station, is now used as secure storage — allegedly for confiscated pornography, among other things. The fate of the wartime shelter under Chancery Lane Tube Station is even more intriguing. During the Cold War it was apparently converted into a very unusual telephone exchange — one with a six-week supply of food, its own well, and 12 miles of tunnels extending across London. That would have withstood an atom bomb attack, but not an H-bomb, so it was scrapped. The saloon-bar experts tell me that something even vaster, deeper and spookier lies under Ludgate Hill. But the Chancery Lane “cavern” still remains off-limits.

So does the bulk of underground Westminster and Whitehall. Buildings such as the Ministry of Defence are said to resemble icebergs: seven-eighths below the surface, and all connected by a warren of tunnels stretching to Buck Palace, Charing Cross and God knows where else. Or so a man told me at a party.

Not all of underground London is secret. You can wade into the cathedral-like caverns of Joseph Bazalgette’s sewers if you want. And some resolute aesthetes do, admiring what is said to be the world’s best Victorian brickwork.

Unsurprisingly, however, there is no comprehensive map of subterranean London. Not in the public domain anyway. The engineers building the Jubilee Line Extension reputedly had to submit their proposed route under Parliament Square time and time again, never being told the reasons for its rejection, until by a process of elimination they found the one passage that (presumably) didn’t send trains crashing into Blair’s war room or MI5’s interrogation cells.

But what’s to become of the tunnel we do know about — the now mothballed Mail Rail? Call me biased, but I think it should be converted into a dedicated cycle track, providing us Lycra loonies with a safe, fast, dry route across London. Either that, or it will have to become the world’s longest, deepest bowling alley.

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