A couple of years ago, I was incredibly excited and privileged to go on an Aldwych station tour, visiting one of London’s closed underground stations. I am an epic geek about all things Tube related, and I’m particularly interested in the history behind how our subterranean tube network came to be, and why stations like Aldwych closed. The London Transport Museum seems to open the station up to the public every couple of years (I went a few years ago for a Blitz themed tour of the station), and tickets are snapped up within hours as everyone wants to know what happens to a station after the public leave.
There is much interest in Aldwych, not least because it retains many of the original or oldest features on the tube network right from the early parts of the last century, and because due to a number of political and financial decisions over the years it was left literally out in the cold. I had never had the chance to use the station when it was in operation (it closed in 1994 when I was 11), and although I had been on an Aldwych station tour before, the station was done up with Blitz regalia, actors and was very dark, meaning I was not able to really see some of the stations best features. On this tour, I was to discover the platform closed in 1914 and used as a museum store, and see the place where films such as Atonement and V for Vendetta were filmed.
The curious thing about Aldwych, is that it really was the station that never was. Right from when it was built, the shifting sands of train and tube development, ownership and finances meant that it had already become a stub station, just off what we now know as the Piccadilly line almost as soon as it opened. This is why many of its original features are still there – the original 1907 lifts are still in place, (although obviously not operational), and the second platform (that was almost entirely unused for the station’s history) shows the tracks laid before the introduction of suicide pits common on tube lines today.
It felt incredibly lucky that Aldwych as the station’s loss was our gain – being able to see an insight into London Underground’s past simply because this station was not updated and renovated regularly like it’s other nearby cousins did feel like a real victory. Part of our tour includes a climb down (and sadly back up) the old spiral emergency staircase and there was an original tube train still sat at one of the platforms.
Despite the efforts of various companies to get the station in to good use, such as operating a shuttle service after the theatres chucked out (the station was after all built on the site of the old Aldwych Theatre), use dwindled until its closure. I’ve heard that it was used fairly regularly by many Kings College students (the union is right next door) but this wasn’t enough to keep it open – particularly as those 1907 lifts needed replacing and the revenue garnered by the station made it not worthwhile.
But it isn’t just the closure, and the fact that it is still visible above ground that hold fascination for many (although this is a huge part of the reason – many disused stations are not properly visible from the roads any more, only those red or blue tiles that you have to be really geeky to look out for). It is also because Aldwych is one of the stations that has a dual hidden history.
As mentioned, even when open, only one of two platforms was in use. The second was used to store important objects or artefacts, such as the Elgin Marbles – a collection of stone objects, sculptures, inscriptions and architectural features – acquired by Lord Elgin during his time as ambassador to the Ottoman court of the Sultan in Istanbul.
It was also used extensively during the Blitz as a shelter, with the station closing and then reopening with proper facilities beds, toilets and nightly entertainment at it’s height, and in a bizarre turn of events, it was used as part of a security drill by the SAS for the London 2012 Games.
Emergency services, members of the public and actors gathered at Aldwych station, to deal with would-be casualties in the mocked-up terror attack on the transport network.
And finally, of course we have the extensive use for film and TV. We were warned that vast majority of the posters at platform level would have been made up and put there for filming purposes (which is a shame, but if you are interested in the poster history of the tube, do check out the poster collection at the London Transport Museum). Many people automatically assume that most things are filmed down there because of its disused nature, and whilst many things are filmed there, disused platforms at Charing Cross are also extensively used. If you like horror and the tube combined, check out the film Creep, and for other filming titbits, Transport for London’s Film Officehave loads of publicly available information.
Overall, this was an excellent insight into the history of the tube and station, and an Aldwych station tour is must-do for all London, political, historical and tube geeks out there. Whilst the opportunity to go right now has passed because the station is closed for repairs, look out for further announcements through the Hidden London campaign from London Transport Museum or sign up to their mailing list. Tickets will be sold direct from the London Transport Museum.
If you want to find out more about the history of Aldwych and all its quirks, check out The Aldwych Branch by Antony Badsey-Ellis.
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