My friends and family think I’m bonkers, and can’t understand where my obsession has come from – but I’m nuts about the tube. Not riding on it you understand. I loathe my commute with every fibre of my being. But the history and uniqueness of it – that is my bag entirely. And it is in that vein that I found myself in an online queue 8 months ago trying to buy tickets for the one thing I’ve been excited to see for years – Down Street, known as Churchill’s secret station.
You see, I’ve got this thing for abandoned, secret places in London and tube stations rank highly on the list. I’ve already seen Aldwych, but none of the other secret stations appeared to be any closer to opening. Until last year. The Hidden London series of events got started and I purchased my golden ticket.
So what exactly happens on a Down Street station tour?
First things first – what is the deal with Down Street? Well here goes. As a tube station, Down Street was completely useless. Situated between Hyde Park Corner and Green Park stations in Down Street, it was a working station from 1907 to 1932. Barely visible from the main road of Piccadilly, Down Street was an unpopular station right from the get go – the upper class residents of Mayfair didn’t want it so signage from the main road wasn’t permitted, and they didn’t need it either as they largely had their own transport. It was finally killed off in 1932 because of lack of use and that was to be the end of Down Street.
Or was it?
Down Street was a particularly difficult station – it was delayed in opening due to difficulties in getting the appropriate permissions to use the land and because of disagreements over the safety of passages deep underground. It has a complicated layout because of this, which made it difficult for passengers. Hardly an ideal tube station.
The war years
But the Piccadilly Line’s loss was in fact the war efforts gain – and this is why the station is so intriguing to tube and war history geeks alike. Because Down Street was to get a fairly major role in protecting government operations from bombing in the event of war, and specifically was used by the Railway Emergency Committee. The REC controlled the operation of Britain’s Railways during the war (including ensuring vital supplies and medical staff could use the railways unhindered), and in 1939 the enclosed platform areas and space in the passages were divided up into offices, meeting rooms, toilets and dormitories. It even had a telephone exchange.
During the war up to 8 secretaries and countless REC staff used the space round the clock and often had to stay underground. As well as the REC, it has been rumoured (although not definitively confirmed) that prime minister Winston Churchill and his war cabinet had space there, and we do know that Winston Churchill stayed overnight in one of the REC rooms during The Blitz.
However, since the end of the war it has been used only as an emergency exit from the Underground.
Post war and dismantlement
Sadly, at some point after the end of the war and present day somebody thought it was a good idea to dismantle all that had been modified as part of the REC requirements. Partition walls have been removed, toilets dismantled and even the telephone exchange has been painted over in a deep grey. Even down to the wires. All that is left now are little snippets of what it might have looked like during this time – a mark in the wall where a clock might have been, or the raised floor of a meeting room. In one of the old rooms remains a bath.
Unfortunately no one knows why or when this took place.
going on a down street station tour
I attended a station tour in early December (after booking my tickets all the way back in May!) on a cold bleak Sunday evening (which felt appropriate given the fact we’d be visiting a ghost station!). We met at the Athenaeum Hotel just round the corner and were given a safety briefing and a torch. This already felt a lot more “edgy” (edgy? I can’t believe I have described a London tube station tour as edgy) than my tour of Aldwych.
After entering the station (which is visible from the street, noticeable only by the beautiful red tiles that are typical of a Leslie Green designed station), we started our ascent down the emergency spiral staircase as the lifts had long been removed. Within the station itself is a glorious mishmash of history – original tiles which can still be seen in other Piccadilly Line stations, 1930’s signage and then of course evidence from the war years. This included really quite hideous ochre coloured paint, arrows and signs that bear no resemblance to typical tube station design. On top of that there were also some modern signs to help with its current function as an emergency exit.
During the tour we were led around passages and given the history of what would have happened whilst the REC were there. The typing pool, the meeting rooms, the telephone exchange, the kitchens and the dormitories. The space was tiny and I couldn’t ever imaging working there. Particularly as only a small thin wall separated these rooms from the Piccadilly line track. Throughout the tour as we used our torches to navigate the dark damp passages we were told to “STOP TOUR, LIGHTS OUT” so as not to startle the passing Piccadilly Line drivers.
Believe me when I say there is nothing more terrifying than having to stop dead still in the pitch black whilst a train speeds just past your nose.
After years of wanting to see inside this intriguing station I wasn’t disappointed. It was everything I wanted it to be and so much more. And as an aside, the volunteers that lead this tour are absolutely amazing. Clearly passionate about the tube and its history, wanting to preserve it for future generations. I’ve totally found my next volunteering role (and I’m not even joking).
Want to see for yourself?
You can buy tickets for this tour via the London Transport Museum. It is expensive, but if you are curious don’t let that put you off. The tour size is small, and because of its proximity to the working Piccadilly line, safety requirements and a large number of staff are required to go with you.
Want to see inside but don’t fancy the visit yourself? The Londonist (my favourite site for quirky London facts) have made this video so you can get a peek inside too!
Are you inspired to find out more about the world beneath London’s feet?
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