There’s something mysterious about the maze of tunnels winding their way through the ground below the city. I’m not really sure why we’re so fascinated with this particular form of public transport. Maybe it’s because our imaginations go into overdrive during those subterranean commutes as we desperately avoid any kind of social interactions with strangers. Maybe it’s because we don’t know exactly what’s lurking in the darkness beyond the train’s windows. Maybe it’s something else entirely – all we all secret train buffs?
The London Transport Museum has a way of both sating and feeding this curious curiosity of ours; tours of Aldwych Station – one of the 40 disused tube stations dotted around the network. Aldwych closed in 1994 when TFL decided that the 450 passengers a day wasn’t nearly enough to warrant the cost of the upkeep. So they put up a sign saying “Don’t come in!” and lo, now tickets for the tours disappear as quickly as proverbial hotcakes.
Luckily, this intrepid museum adventurer managed to nab a pair of tickets to amble around Aldwych station (and – yes- this counts as a museum adventure because it’s done by the London Transport Museum).
But wait, if I’m at Aldwych Station, why does all the signage say “Strand”? Well, the station opened as Strand in 1907 and was renamed Aldwych on 9th May 1915.
If you keep our eyes peeled, you’ll see that there was a roundel declaring this Aldwych rather than Strand.
Although, saying that, if you look closely at platform level, you can still see traces of the Strand.
Labels aside, I was fascinated by this little station’s story. Although it was nigh on useless on a transportational level, London would have been a very different place without the facilities this strange little station provided. As Londoners took to the tubes to shelter during the War, Aldwych functioned as a suitable shelter because it could be completely given over to this purpose without affecting the rest of the Underground. Can you find it on the map below?
Not only did the station save lives, it also saved the treasures from London’s museums. The deep tunnels functioned as a storage facility for both the British Museum and the V&A. The Parthenon Marbles were stored here from 1940 and returned to the British Museum in 1948, but didn’t return to public view until 1962!
Interestingly, the Government saw it fit to save the art and artefacts before making sure that the tube could shelter people.
Although it’s easy to make judgements about this in hindsight, bear in mind that the Strand and Aldwych wasn’t (and still isn’t) a residential area; most of the buildings are either offices or theatres. Protection must have been sorely needed as the station was full most nights. On the tour, one of the guides showed us pictures of Londoners sleeping in the station.
We were also treated to the tale of The Unapplauded Actress, the station’s resident Ghost. “Before it was a station,” the guide began, “it was a Theatre.”
With the scene set, in the dim light of the disused tube station, the guide continued his story; “After the last performance before the theatre was torn down to make way for the station there was one actress who didn’t receive any applause. Legend has it that when she died, the Actress’ Ghost returned, craving the applause she was denied in life. If you feel a presence – CLAP!”
I do love a good ghost story, but I think the Holborn one is better.
The guides made a big deal of showing us areas that “aren’t usually open to the public,” which served to not only pique interest (and encourage lots of photographs of dark tunnels) but also made me think, “Well, yes, but the whole station isn’t usually open..?” I suppose on a guided tour, silence is anathema, and technically what they were saying was true…
There’s nothing quite like being in a place that usually closed off. It’s so good that the London Transport Museum can occasionally open it up and share the stories. I wonder if they do the same with any other stations?
If you enjoyed this post, you can see a badge from the London Transport Museum over at the Museum of Museum Badges.