If you are a regular reader of this blog, or have met me even just once, you’ll know I’ve got a not so guilty pleasure – I’m nuts about the tube! Whilst I find commuting hell, and I’m perhaps not quite so nuts about changing trains during rush hour at Oxford Circus, the history, the culture and the architecture of the London Underground gets my geeky senses firing. I love how our Victorian era subterranean railway has quite literally shaped the London we are today, and its development is one of the most interesting things about the UK capital, no matter how we might feel about actually riding it.
So I’ve already explored both Aldwych and Down Street Stations, both disused and with some incredible stories to tell, but what about a station still partially in use and with a very real and important role to play now? It’s for that reason that I booked myself on another of London Transport Museum’s Hidden London tours for a very different sort of experience.
So why is Highgate Station so special, and what does it have to offer secret London geeks like me?
So what is the deal with Highgate?
If you live in North London, or have taken even a cursory glance at London’s tube map, you’ll already know that Highgate is situated on the Northern Line, a busy commuter spot for those making their way down the hill into London. But even if you’ve used that underground station a thousand times, you may not know that it has a high level station next door, buried deep amongst bushes and trees and teeming with wildlife. In fact before the Second World War, Highgate was set to become one of London’s most important transport interchanges, ferrying those that lived in the so called “Northern Heights” area of London right into the heart of the City.
Highgate first opened in 1867 at the height of steam train popularity, developed by the Edgware, Highgate and London Railway, but less than 100 years later (like many others on our network) it had closed due to passenger decline.
What happened?What happens when the tube goes wild? This is what visiting a secret station is like with @ltmuseum Click To Tweet
The history of Highgate Station and the Northern Heights
The Northern Heights has had an interesting role to play in London’s history. Like so many areas of outer London, it’s prominence and occupation came first due to Londoners trying to escape the crowded and and somewhat squalid conditions the City of London had to offer, and then due to savvy investors creating railway lines connecting these small villages to the centre. In fact, where I live now is known as “Metroland”, and was built during the 1930s as the Metropolitan line as we know it extended to the west of London.
In the 1300s, Highgate was indeed a “high gate”, where travellers would pay a toll to pass through on their journey. If you can imagine a time of stage coaches and highway men, you can picture the scene at this time, and in fact it is said that Dick Turpin was an active criminal on the roads in this area in the 1700s. Folklore also suggests that the road from the Northern Heights area down into London is where Dick Whittington heard the Bow Bells which caused him to turn again and return to the City of London.
It’s an area full of history and intrigue that’s for sure.
The Northern Heights describes the area of hills running from Willesden to Hampstead and Highgate to Wood Green, and because of its hilly nature, traditional rail companies had avoided running trains through there leaving the villages and its residents isolated. Plucky railway speculators saw the opportunity to make money by connecting these villages to London, and beyond that creating new suburban areas right through to High Barnet and Alexandra Palace.
Highgate Station was at the heart of this, and its where the magic (and its eventual downfall) began.
The ups and downs of Highgate Station
The above ground station at Highgate saw many changes over the years as its popularity and importance grew, but as the 1900s approached, the journey on these steam trains into the city centre became cramped and unpleasant. Transport options in the capital grew with the introduction of electric underground railways, trams and buses – trams being particularly important as they were cheaper and more frequent than the traditional steam trains.
With the population in London booming during the 1920s and 30s, the many competing services across London needed to be rationalised, and the newly formed London Transport developed a huge government funded “New Works Programme”, of which Highgate and the Northern Heights was a part. A huge redevelopment was planned to connect the outer reaches of North London with the Northern Line of the underground scheme, and this meant the station required a significant upgrade.
Charles Holden, one of the most prolific station architects of the time was brought in to design the high level platforms (you may recognise Piccadilly Circus as one of his), but only part of these works were completed before the Second World War hit. In fact, the parts of the unopened underground station were used as deep level air raid shelters.
Post war, London and investment into its transport infrastructure were in a very different place. The New Works Programme was eventually scrapped in part due to austerity measures and dwindling passenger numbers and due to the introduction of the Green Belt which meant extension past Edgware became impossible (and meant the numbers really didn’t add up.
In 1958, the tracks at Highgate’s high level station were removed and that was the end of Highgate’s overground story.
Highgate Station today and it’s descent into the wild
On the Highgate Station tour, you can see many of the areas of the high level station – the platforms, the old station building and the tunnels at either end. But that isn’t the most interesting thing about Highgate Station now.
As thousands of commuters pass through the ticket barriers every day to enter the underground, right next to them is an urban sanctuary – a peaceful oasis for all kinds of plants and wildlife. Highgate is in fact a hugely important green corridor, allowing wildlife to move safely between green spaces in London. And the tunnels? They are home to six different species of bats (vital to the UK’s biodiversity) and as such are off limits to all humans expect those that monitor and look after them. You know what? I’m ok with that – I’m just happy they’ve found a home for themselves there, and I don’t have to interact with them!
So whilst Highgate might not have had the future as the station that was imagined, it’s an extremely important part of London’s natural habitat – and is fascinating as a result.
Want to see for yourself?
Firstly, I want to say that the Hidden London tours are really a joy – the volunteer tour guides and London Transport Museum staff are so enthused by the history you cannot help but be drawn in to the stories and secrets that are shared on the tour. Safety is always considered, and hi-vis vests and hard hats are given out to these small group tours to ensure you get the best from the experience.
You can buy tickets for this tour via the London Transport Museum. It is certainly one of the cheaper Hidden London experiences, so its a great one to dip your toe into if you not sure how deep your obsession runs. Whilst at the time of writing the Highgate Station tour is currently sold out, sign up to the mailing list on that page to be alerted to more tickets going on sale soon (I can’t wait to check out Clapham South and Charing Cross next!)
Can’t wait for a tour? Get yourself to London Transport Museum’s Acton Depot where you can find more history, old tube stock, trams and buses than you could ever imagine!
Need MORE geekery?
If you want to find out more about the history of Highgate and all its quirks as well as the Tube network as a whole, I’d totally recommend getting on these book, STAT.
- The Hampstead Tube by Antony Badsey-Ellis.
- Finsbury Park to Alexandra Palace by J E Connor
- Do Not Alight Here by Ben Pedroche (all about London’s disused stations, tunnels and tracks)
- Amazing and Extraordinary London Underground Facts by David + Charles
- London Underground by Design by Mark Ovenden