London is fast discovering the limitless potential of its historic underground stations, vaults and tunnels. The city’s forgotten underground stations could be the next big thing on London’s arts and cultural scene

Words: Elaine Wong

Transport for London is planning to reuse Down Street, an abandoned tube station on the Piccadilly line between Green Park and Hyde Park Corner. TFL has asked businesses to submit ideas for its new use, with the aim of generating revenue for the transport network.

Down Street station opened in March 1907. It transported Londoners on the Piccadilly line for 25 years before it shut down in 1932. This was mostly due to low passenger numbers. However, its decline was also sparked by wealthy Mayfair residents who preferred to travel around the city in the comfort of their own cars. The construction of the station was never popular amongst the surrounding home owners as they believed it made it easier for strangers to access their neighbourhood.

From the tube network’s perspective, eliminating this stop on the Piccadilly Line also made it more efficient for passengers. As nearby Hyde Park Corner and Dover Street stations (now known as Green Park) remained open, there was no great need for a third station in the Mayfair area.

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Down Street Station in Mayfair was open for 25 years

Despite this decline, Down Street has an interesting history. It was transformed into an air raid shelter during the Second World War, and was later used by Winston Churchill when living accommodation and meeting rooms were created there. This was where Churchill secretly discussed issues with his war cabinet, before the Cabinet War Rooms opened in 1939.

Today, TFL is hoping to find a commercial purpose for Churchill’s bunker. Months have been spent researching ideas for its use as a two-year redevelopment plan gets under way. TFL believes the transformed Down Street station will appeal to a mass audience and if successful, it could be the first of many renovations in the coming years.

Other possible underground sites that could potentially reopen include Dover Street and Aldwych station. Aldwych was recently used by television and film companies to film Patriot Games and Neverwhere

‘Ideas have been submitted by the public and businesses interested in the space and are currently being looked at,’ says Sylvia Quagraine, spokesperson for TFL. ‘If this works, then we will look at potentially bringing other sites forward.’

Other possible underground sites that could potentially reopen include Aldwych station, which closed on 30 September 1994. This was also once an air raid shelter before it became an art storage space for the British museum. More recently, Aldwych has been used by television and film companies, with Paramount’s Patriot Games and the BBC production of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere both filmed here. Art exhibitions and book launches have been hosted inside the ticket hall and while tours of the tunnels are not usually available, special visits are announced very occasionally.

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Brunel’s impressive Thames Tunnel is used for a variety of functions including gigs and concerts

Another likely contender for redevelopment is Brunel’s Thames Tunnel in South East London. Once known as the eighth wonder of the world, this was the birthplace of the tube. It took 18 years to build and in 1843, the tunnel opened as a tourist attraction. 50,000 people visited on the first day, but its intended use to transport cargo never became a reality due to financial pressures. The tunnel eventually became a railway, transporting people from the north and south of the city.

Brunel’s Thames Tunnel in South East London, once known as the eighth wonder of the world, was the birthplace of the tube

Today, the tunnel forms part of the London Overground network and recent news suggests the public could soon be allowed inside Brunel’s underwater creation. In April 2015, a London-based architecture firm won planning permission to transform the tunnel into a performance space. Tate Harmer has already designed a new staircase that will provide access to the original entrance in Rotherhithe.

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The Old Vic Tunnels is home to a skate park, cinema, bar and café.

London’s historic subterranean landmarks stretch beyond transport, though. The Old Vic Tunnels, located beneath Waterloo, were once considered the most creative space in London. After it opened as a popular theatre space in 2009, the venue didn’t create enough revenue for trustees to continue investing.

Despite fundraising efforts by former US President Bill Clinton and his daughter Chelsea, the tunnels shut in 2013 – but not for long. Just over a year later, retailer Vans opened London’s first indoor skate park here. With Vans on board, the Old Vic Tunnels are now home to an 850-capacity music venue, a 160-seat cinema, a gallery, two bars and a café.

Could this be inspiration for TFL and its plans for Down Street? A decision for the station’s new use is yet to be made, but with a number of sunken attractions in London to be explored, one thing’s clear. Life in the capital is just as exciting underground.