Down Street: Churchill’s Secret Station
This time, he took a tour of one of Churchill’s many secret underground facilities during WW2, the former Down Street Underground station. Fortunately for us, he also took his camera (click on any picture for a full-size version) and notebook to provide us this fascinating review of his tour.
2015 has been an eventful year for those of us fascinated by the many disused underground stations across the capital. Throughout the year the London Transport Museum (LTM) has been opening more and more previously inaccessible sites to public tours as part of their Hidden London programme.
Probably the most exclusive and hardest to get into in their itinerary is the infamous Down Street Station; well-known for having acted as a shelter for Winston Churchill and, less well known but equally importantly, the Railway Executive Committee (REC) during the Second World War (the latter responsible for the transportation of millions across the nation during the war).
The team LTM have certainly done their utmost to deliver a true premium experience which justifies the £75 price tag for admittance, not least by starting their tours in the luxurious 5* Mayfair hotel The Athenaeum, where there is tea, coffee, fancy biscuits and fantastic toilet facilities to boot!
The tour begins in a private room at the hotel where the guides greeted us and introduced us to a very concise and well worded explanation of the history of Down Street Station prior to its transformation into a ‘secret bunker’.
Put simply, when it opened in 1906, the Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Road Railway (or Piccadilly Line) wanted a prestigious Mayfair address, but couldn’t afford to purchase the land fronting onto Piccadilly itself. Plus there was resistance to their destroying any of the fancy Piccadilly buildings, so they bought the slightly cheaper land on Down Street and the station duly opened in 1907.
Unfortunately for the Piccadilly Line it’s still Mayfair and the Nimbys were out in force. Mayfair folk don’t need to use public transport (travelling with the commoners? Heaven forbid!). Also, it isn’t exactly near any tourist hot spots, so it closed permanently in 1932 through general lack of use.
As we left the hotel we paused to admire the wonderful Leslie Green facade of the station which still remains (we were told that it is ‘probable’ that the original name of the station is still present), however the former ticket hall has been converted into the Mayfair Mini-Mart and the lift shaft acts as ventilation for the Piccadilly Line.
We then headed into the station to find not only are the original lifts gone, but so are the original stairs, replaced circa 1992 by a stainless steel staircase (the station acts as an emergency exit for the Piccadilly line and the original staircase had succumbed to moisture damage over the years).
Some of the original internal maroon and cream tiling from the station remains, however most has been covered over by a wartime yellow (which probably looked better when it was fresh), which gives the station a strange eerie yellow glow about it.
We were told that the station was converted for use for the Railway Executive Committee (REC), which comprised the four big railway companies in Great Britain at the time.
It was their responsibility to ensure the railways ran smoothly and safely throughout the war, and they moved into Down Street and converted it due to its largely unused and long forgotten status.
About three-quarters of the way down the spiral staircase is a striking combination of signage installed during the 1940s near a door that retains a piece of the original Leslie Green station design above the doorway. The door leads to what was an emergency passage, later converted into lavatories.
Although the space still manages to retain the feel of an underground station, the level of work which went on to change it into a government facility is clearly evident with the walls stripped away and the floors levelled for the offices. The years of disuse is also clear with everything looking rather battered and bruised (which only served to add to the atmosphere!).
When the government moved in during the war, the corridor was divided into a variety of offices such as typist pools, secretary offices and offices for the chairmen and the all-important committee room where the decisions were made on how to transport troops, munitions, supplies and civilians across the country.
Throughout our visit we could hear the rumbling and feel the gusts of air caused by the Piccadilly line trains passing nearby, a constant reminder that we were only a few feet from an active Tube line.
The Piccadilly Line remained running throughout the war and the government and REC workers based here would have had the same experience. Whilst exploring the rooms created for the REC it was really hard to feel as though you were still in an Underground station, which must have gone some way to helping those working here to detach themselves from the reality of where they actually were.
Moving down to platform level we were greeted by modern signage installed to help the contractors know which platform was which.
We then moved onto the old eastbound platform and visited the most important room in the entire facility, and indeed one of the most crucial rooms for the war effort and the main reason why the REC moved into the safe, secure and secret location – the telephone exchange.
Still present (more or less) it acted as a vital communications hub throughout the war and ensured that communications could still continue, even if their primary exchange at their Fielden House HQ was destroyed.
So valuable was that it had its own adjacent battery room which would have kept the exchange up and running in the event of a power failure.
Wonderfully detailed diagrams are placed at opportune points to ensure we knew exactly where we were.
This one is an example from the Railway Gazette, which in 1944 advertised the use of the station as a secret bunker – presumably ‘showing off’ to the public. Imagine picking this up at your local WH Smiths!
I found the graffiti which various contractors had scribbled into the walls over the years of greatest interest. It really added to the overall ‘flavour’ of the station by connecting it to the modern age and suggesting what cheeky antics staff were up to long after the facility closed down in 1947.
Original signage remains from the 1907 station, just about visible above the modern signage and behind the ladderattached to the wall.
We were also lucky enough to have our guides point out a unique opportunity to see the ‘maker’s mark’ on the station tiles. Rarely present on underground stations, this one has been perfectly preserved.
So what about the man himself? What about Winston Churchill and his time spent at the ‘Burrow’ as he called it?
Churchill was certainly well represented throughout the tour and it was interesting to learn that he has been recorded as staying there for only 40 nights between October 1940 and May 1941. Therefore, rather than dominating the guides’ story, he was given prominence – such as being shown the areas where he slept, ate and bathed – but not so much as to overshadow or detract from the other activities which took place.
A notable highlight was the Churchill quote about having four minimal requirements to life: ‘hot baths, cold champagne, new peas and old brandy’ which was well interpreted, as were other quotes of his life and actions during the war which made for an entertaining and enjoyable story.
The highlight of the Churchill story was the corridor he personally requested to be converted into offices and a switchboard – but the information about exactly what went on here remains highly classified so modern-day interpretations remain sketchy at best.
All we were told was that it is ‘highly probable’ that the switchboard within this ‘Churchill Corridor’ connected to the US army HQ at Selfridge, and the also the SIGSALY voice encryption machine which allowed for secure communication with Allied forces across the world.
Whether Churchill ever visited the offices he personally requested to be built is a mystery as is what the site was used for after the REC left in 1947.
By the end of the experience we really felt as though we had been taken through a long-forgotten secret base which had been stripped clean and allowed to gather dust.
It was an eerie feeling to stand in a dark, 2ft wide corridor watching the passing train lights through the metal grills and hearing the creaking of the station doors before they violently slammed shut in the darkness due to the huge gust of air caused by the train passing at 40 mph. It really made us forget that this site once used to be just a regular, ordinary underground station, just like any you could find yourself on today.
Walking the empty dark corridors and standing in those desolate rooms with only an image and some torch light showing what it once looked like, we truly felt the ghosts of the individuals who once worked there day and night striving to ensure Britain’s railways worked efficiently and smoothly throughout the war and keeping Churchill safe during the Blitz.
Although each of the sites the London Transport Museum hosts are unique, there is something particularly impressive about the experience offered at Down Street Station. It is a truly atmospheric and special place, with mysteries still to be revealed within its dusty corridors.
However, before you scramble to the London Transport Museum’s website to snap up the last remaining tickets, I’m afraid to say they’ve all long since gone, but we were reliably informed that more tours of Down Street will be released in the coming year, along with the other stations the LTM has in their current quota: Aldwych, Charing Cross and the deep level shelter at Clapham South. More stations and facilities were hinted at but not explicitly stated, so we’ll have to wait with bated breath as to what they will be.
The price for this event reflects the premium experience delivered throughout, from the hotel and the superbly produced booklet at the end, along with the fascination of the site itself. Whilst the price may seem at first glance high, it took a great deal of resources to put on the tour and it’s wonderful that this site is open to public tours. With any luck it will remain so for many years to come giving the opportunity to many more.
Whilst perhaps the founders of the Piccadilly line’s hope for a prestigious Mayfair address ultimately failed, it seems that the London Transport Museum has succeeded, and in a time when self-funded charities such as the LTM have to work hard to generate a profit, this excellent Hidden London programme of theirs will go a way towards preserving the museum and its heritage activities.
Have you been to Down Street Station? If so, we’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts, so please let us know in the comments below.