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In these abandoned tunnels, around a table where the floor is marked, Britain’s wartime transport network was managed.

At the end of November I ticked off a longstanding item on my ‘to do’ list when I managed to get myself a place on a rare tour of one of London’s lost underground stations. We’d managed to get into Aldwych a couple of years ago (I’m so lucky that Mrs M shares my fascination with hidden bits of London), but that’s not too difficult as, although the station closed to the public back in the 1980s, it’s still in regular use for filming and training. Down Street is another story altogether…

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The entrance to Down Street – still recognisable today from the red tiling.

As an underground station it had a fairly short life. Opened in 1907 midway between what are now Green Park and Hyde Park stations on the Piccadilly Line, it was tucked away off the main route of Piccadilly itself as property on the main road was too expensive to obtain, and the wealth of the local residents meant that few of them were natural tube travellers. By 1918 it was already closing at weekends, and when the neighbouring stations were remodelled in 1932, bringing their entrances closer to Down Street, it closed altogether, with the buildings remaining in London Transport ownership to provide a ventilation shaft.

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Heavy steel, and guarded 24 hours a day, the only way in and out of the bunker at street level.

The threat of imminent war in 1938 brought the formation of the Railway Executive Committee to run Britain’s wartime rail transport operations, and with it the need to find them secure, bombproof accommodation with good communications. Down Street’s empty platforms and corridors offered a novel but highly effective solution and work began in 1939 to install office, operations, living and sleeping accommodation for up to forty staff, complete with kitchens (manned and liberally supplied by the railways’ own hotels), telephone links, air filtration and sewage disposal. The original lift shaft was capped with concrete to guard against a direct bomb hit, and additional facilities secured in adjacent buildings.

By 1940, the establishment was fully operational and, as the Blitz reached its height in the late autumn, additional working accommodation was ordered for ‘a Certain Gentleman’ who had been forced to shelter there during the heaviest nights of bombing, the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. By the time, the building was complete, , the Blitz had subsided, and the Cabinet War Rooms had been reinforced, meaning that Churchill stayed close to Downing Street, but the connection makes Down Street one of the prime sites for the student of Britain’s home defences.

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But for special individuals, a red light would stop a passing train.

Unused since the War, Down Street is an eerie place. The wartime brick walls are all still in place, and the tunnels bear witness to where temporary walls, wiring ducts and even clocks once sat. Sadly, someone saw fit at some stage to cover every wall with dark grey paint, hiding forever not just any original signage but also the wallpaper which quaintly decorated some of the accommodation. Still, London Transport Museum’s archivists have carefully scraped away the paint in some key places, revealing not only wartime signage but the original station direction signs, unused by passengers since 1932.

In preparation for the current programme of tours – the first for
many years and all rapidly sold out – the Museum staff had installed a fascinating selection of original photographs, all carefully placed exactly where the original image was taken, along with blow-ups of site maps. The tour guides are – as with any LT Museum tour – enthusiastic experts, whose scripts are built on original primary source material and who have spent hours on site seeking out every little detail to bring the site to life. We were constantly reminded of the proximity of the operating Piccadilly Line, not least when the command ‘Tour Stop’ saw us all extinguish our torches and plunge the station into darkness so as not to distract the drivers of passing trains.

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The last tube passengers arrived through this portal in 1932, but the paint and tiles survive, with traces of the original signs.

And that’s the magic of Down Street – at ground level, a red-tiled fascia in a Piccadilly side street, giving away its origin only to those familiar with tube station design, whilst at track level, thousands of tube passengers daily speed past a long-lost station, much as their predecessors did in the dark days of the Second World War. Look carefully next time, and you might just catch a glimpse of a wartime secret.

The London Transport Museum runs regular tours in its Hidden London programme, but they’re always heavily subscribed, so visit the website and sign up for news if you’re even vaguely tempted.