Tubing round London's how most of us get by, but it's not every day you get to visit a station that's been closed off to the public. Public tours of Aldwych Station are only very rarely organized by the London Transport Museum, and with so many people champing at the bit to get the opportunity to run amok in a Tube Station without having to jostle with hundreds of other commuters, the £25 tickets sell out faster than the trip from Covent Garden to Leicester Square. Luckily for the London Google City Experts (Or Local Guides, as we're calling ourselves nowadays), our Community Managers put together an exclusive tour just for us. DS and I signed up for it immediately.
The station's been closed for over 20 years now, with the last commuters going through the gates in 1994. A lot of big plans were made for Aldwych Station, but financial issues and parallel developments always got in the way of them taking off. For most of its run, the trains coming in were bringing people down from Holborn, which isn't terribly far away. I suppose a great deal of people figured it was faster or more pleasant just to get out from the Underground and walk. There was a photo booth right outside the station, and what with the Indian Embassy up the road, it got to the point where the photo booth was being used more than the station itself.
Although Aldwych is no longer a functioning station, much of the infrastructure has been preserved for its historical value. If you go on the tour, you can see the original telephone booths that had been installed in 1907. One of its other important features is the ground floor women's bathroom, which had extra large doors so ladies bedecked in wide bustle skirts could fit through. Oh, to have that much space in public loos nowadays.
Since its closure, the station's been used as a filming location whenever a scene is set in an old tube station. The James Bond chase scene from Skyfall needed something a little more up to date, so filming for that took place on the closed Jubilee Line section of Charing Cross, but for period pieces, Aldwych station invariably provides the backdrop. The first time I'd seen it on screen was in Atonement, where it stood in for Balham station. Our tour docents' usual day jobs involve dealing with filming companies, and overseeing the movement of logistics crews and extras. A part of that includes making sure absolutely no one brings food down to the tracks. The station's been happily rat free for years, and they're determined to keep it that way.
The lifts at the station don't work, and the sheer cost of replacing them was one of the many reasons why the station was ultimately shuttered. That means every single person and piece of equipment that heads down to the tracks needs to go down the winding 160 step staircase, and back up again once filming is completed, or in between if they want to eat or use the loo. It all sounds quite grim. The story goes that a big name director didn't want to go down the dozens of stairs, and offered to replace the lifts before balking when presented with an estimate of the bill. £3 million to replace two lifts does seem rather absurd doesn't it?
The carriages (Still the original ones from 1907!) are stuck at ground level, and all of us had a good wander through the both of them. With a bit of imagination, you can even simulate them working. While filming Mr. Selfridge, the actors all bent their knees to make it look like they were heading down to the trains. Ah, acting! With the ground floor quite thoroughly covered, it was time for us all to head properly underground, and we were herded down the stairs. Aldwych doesn't have quite as many steps as Covent Garden (160 to 193), but it was quite a hike nonetheless.
Our backstage pass took us through all the hidden passageways that commuters of the early 90s would never have seen, and there were stories to accompany the rather spooky effect of bare walls in the abandoned station.
It turns out that a theatre was shut down to build the platform, and one of the actresses threw herself under a train in response. Her ghost does haunt the station, but it seems you need to be dressed in your 1910s finest before she'll deign to appear. She doesn't care much for modernity it seems.
Here and there were unfinished tunnels. When the station wasn't under threat of closure, it was always the centre of one expansion plan or another, even if nothing really ever came of it. You can see where they tried to get started on planned extensions to link it up with Waterloo station, but the southbound tunneling never went anywhere. I'm not an engineer, but it was fascinating to see the marks left behind as they bored through the ground one section at a time. You can't quite mistake the place for a work in progress though.
Stripped of an endless stream of people and free from a civilizing coat of paint or layer of tiling, there was an unsettling almost-wildness to the yawning chasm of abandoned lift shafts and tunnel networks. Undiscovered caves are one thing, but abandoned man-made places always set off some kind of alarm in my lizard hind brain, leading to such unhelpful thoughts like "What if it's been cleared out because of some unspeakable Eldritch horror lurking in the darkness?". All the same, it was terribly interesting to have the cosmetic smoothness of everyday experience stripped away, leaving the bare sinews of the city exposed.
Stepping onto the main platform proper was like entering a time warp. Posters used on the various film sets located had been left plastering the walls of the station, and it was like going backwards and forwards through time. And while the original signage announcing Aldwych station had been taken off, makeshift replacements adorned the walls. The only constant seems to be the tiling that remained from when the station was first opened, at a time when a significant portion of the population was still illiterate and recognized stations based on the patterns formed by coloured tiles.
The station's been maintained well, and the tracks are still operable. If you have the money, you can even hire an actual train to drive into the station. We weren't allowed to walk on this section of live track, but if you did follow it all the way, it would take you all the way to Holborn Station. From there, it seems you have to exit by a secret side door that leads out to a platform on the Central Line. I've walked up and down both Central Line platforms at Holborn, and have yet to discern where exactly this secret door is. They've hidden it well.
We were brought to the Eastern Platform of the station, which has been in disuse since before the First World War. It had a bit of an 'underground lair' feel to it.
The tracks here are perfectly safe to walk on, and once we were given the go-ahead, we scrambled onto the track to take pictures. Most of the people I know are so law-abiding that telling them I've walked on tube tracks does nothing for my street cred, but it was the one chance I got at playing at being edgy.
This far down, there was no signal, so everyone had to delay our Instagrams. Still, all cameras were out and the questions flew thick and fast. Someone wondered about which tube station was furthest underground, and when the docents weren't quite sure ("Although I think it should be along the Northern Line somewhere"), we all figured we'd Google it once we got out.
The staff have been excellent at policing the presence of food, but something else had been left behind by a previous visitor. Not sure whether the graffiti was done by one of the passengers or one of the extras or film crew though.
Towards the end, our guides switched the lights off to show the cool glowy paint that lined the stairs, which would help us all get out in case of an emergency. Thankfully they switched the lights back on or there would have been an actual emergency on their hands. Climbing all 160 stairs all the way back up was bad enough. Most of us are foodies or soft artsy types. We were never meant to climb so many stairs.
There was a bit of panic during the head count at the end when we seemed to have an extra person for a moment, but a quick recount soon put it to rights. Uncle K and Auntie B were in town, so I flitted off a tad bit earlier than everyone else, but the whole experience had been marvellous. There's so much still undiscovered in London, and the excursion was a real treat.