A couple of years ago I was tasked with an event management challenge at work. I was asked to create a day-long tour of London's most exciting hidden locations. The event itself was created for attendees of the TEDGlobal conference, so I needed to find sufficiently varied sites which would appeal to a vast range of people; from designers to poets, and e-commerce entrepreneurs to artists. Using numerous contacts kindly provided by colleagues we secured access to go backstage at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, and even right up to the top of the BT Tower. But our very first site of the tour was the one which the attendees were still talking about by the end of the day.
We kicked off our day of exploration by going underground, and visiting one of the city's fabled 'ghost stations'. After James Bond met his boss, 'M', in one of these disused Tube stations underneath the city in the film 'Die Another Day' the profile of these secret stations had risen. As you travel through London on the Underground system you may well pass through a ghost station or two, only visible to the keenest of eyes which can spot a sign flashing by or an unexpected light in a dark tunnel. Once built to serve particularly busy areas of the city some hundred or so years ago, as commuter patterns and centres of employment changed certain stations became underused and were finally taken out of service. But the station which we went to visit, the now disused Down Street station, had found a new purpose once it had finished transporting Londoners to and from Mayfair. It became a secure meeting venue for first the members of the Emergency Railway Committee (for when you've just got to have a new train track right away!), and later for Winston Churchill's War Cabinet during the Second World War.
From the outside the station is almost invisible now. Who knows if the man in the photo above has any idea what he is sitting on top of. After descending ancient clanging metal stairs (the Emergency Railway Committee apparently insisted on a lift as they were not of a physique to clomp up and down endless stairs) we walked along eerily empty passenger tunnels, lined in the ceramic tiles which still cover many of the city's Underground stations today. As the tunnels widened we learnt that this was not merely a thoroughfare during the station's wartime use but a typing pool. Whilst the desks and chairs are now gone I could easily imagine rows of girls of a similar age to me down here in this odd, underground, echoey tunnel tapping away on their typewriters. But where did they make a cup of tea or take a break from their secretive toils? Further along the tunnel the space opens out onto the old platforms. Heading right we followed a wall which blocks off the tracks from tiny bunk-rooms, bathrooms and kitchens. People lived down here during World War Two, a secret community of decision-makers and their administrative staff. As we peered through the gloom at now filthy sinks, under decades of dust, a roar ripped through the station. The lights of an approaching train briefly illuminated the bricks, tiles and metal furniture, as the train vibrated the platform and metal grille which now cuts off the station from the carriages whirling by. We cut our flashlights to avoid alarming the train driver. Sat behind the beams of their headlights, Tube drivers are some of the privileged few who ever get to see inside these empty stations that have served multiple purposes across our city's history.
If you stand on Down Street itself today and look to the left of a small news-agent you can see where the entrance once stood. The wide arch now sealed up, with only a small metal door providing access to the station beneath. And look very closely as you speed along the Piccadilly Line between Hyde Park Corner and Piccadilly Circus, and you might just spy a flash of the ghost station. Look for the pale bricks that now block off the platform that served commuters in the early 1900s and that kept Winston Churchill safe as he worked to keep an entire country secure.