Some 22 meters below the traffic and bustle of Piccadilly in London is a silent maze of corridors and dark rooms, rarely seen or visited, but which played a vital role in the course of 20th century history.
Now, the opportunity has arisen again to slip behind the door of the abandoned Down Street tube station and descend by torchlight to the World War II hideout from which campaigns such as the D-Day landings were coordinated. and the evacuation of Dunkirk.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill took refuge here, in secret, in November and December 1940, when the German bombing campaign known as The Blitz was at its peak, and a team of 40 employees worked here day and night in efforts to war.
While the more well-known Churchill War Rooms, a British government command center throughout the war, is open to the public as part of the Imperial War Museum, tours of Down Street are a much less frequent delight.
Citizen Free Press Travel had a preview of the experience, before a new group of tours through the hidden London of the London Transport Museum go on sale this December 3.
An ideal bunker
Historian and guide Siddy Holloway meets us on the basement level, where Leslie Green’s distinctive reddish tile arches on the façade remain the same as in the many other famous Edwardian tube stations he designed, including Covent. Garden and Russell Square.
Down Street opened in 1907 and served the Piccadilly line, but by 1932 it had already closed. In the heart of wealthy Mayfair, a short walk from what are now Hyde Park Corner and Green Park tube stations, it was a little-used station. In addition, it was particularly underground and there were long corridors that led under the busy Piccadilly Road.
However, after seven years of disuse, Holloway explains, “all the things that made it unviable as a station made it absolutely perfect for secret bunkers during WWII.”
When war was declared in 1939, Down Street became in a matter of days the new headquarters of the Executive Committee of Railways (REC). The REC acted as an intermediary between the War Office and Britain’s railway companies and would be crucial to the movement of troops, horses and equipment in the fighting to come.
Today when descending to the platforms, it is still clear that this is a subway station like no other. The old signs point the way “To the offices” and the “Committee Room”, the pencil marks of the cartoonist are still visible in some areas.
Mustard-colored plasterboard clings to the tiles, remnants of an attempt to create an office-like environment, while the floor has been leveled to create the typing equipment where up to eight secretaries would sit and tap their keys.
Staff lived and worked here shifts of up to 12 hours, often overnight, perhaps only going out into the outside world for air every 10 to 14 days. Dirty bathtubs and toilets are left over from bathroom fixtures, while soot obscures patterned wallpaper in executive bedrooms.
Still, there was opulence here, in a way. “Bunkers and shelters were short of rations during the war,” Holloway says. Here they enjoyed a meal of much more class than that of civilians abroad.
The REC was the same company behind Britain’s many great railway hotels, and the staff here were able to dine on crystal china and wash in the Royal Doulton toilets.
There was a fully staffed kitchen and two dining rooms, also with waiters, and here 27,000 meals were prepared and eaten each year.
Brandy and cigars
The War Rooms, just 1 mile from Down Street, across from Buckingham Palace, were underground but not bomb-proof. “If they took a direct hit, it would wipe out everyone in there,” Holloway says. “By November 1940, people were beginning to fear for the life of Winston Churchill.”
Ralph Wedgwood, chairman of the Down Street facility and brother of British MP Josiah Wedgwood, convinced Churchill to come to Down Street “because it is so close to the seat of power,” Holloway says. It is very comfortable, it is very private, it is very well supplied with brandy and cigars and things like that ”.
Churchill spent the night here at least five times in the winter of 1940, having been infiltrated to the underground level and then, again, his presence concealed from most Down Street personnel. While he slept on a modest fold-out bed, in the executive dining room, at least, he was able to live life well.
Official John Colville recalled in his diaries that caviar, Perrier-Jouet Champagne and 1865 brandy were offered to them in Down Street.
Disused London Stations
The other Hidden London tours that will restart for the first time since March 2020, are the disused stations and tunnels at Euston, Moorgate and Aldwych, all of which have their own unique character and history.
Aldwych, the most famous, provided refuge for ordinary Londoners during the Blitz and has been used for film and television shootings, including “The Darkest Hours” and “Sherlock”.
The Down Street tours have the highest price, $ 112 for adults and $ 106 in concessions, while the other tours of the station cost $ 55 full price and $ 48 in concessions.
The Down Street and Euston tours will run on select dates between January 15 and February 13, 2022, while the Moorgate and Aldwych tours will run on select dates between March 2 and 27, 2022.
Tickets go on general sale on December 3, but, a word of warning, they usually sell out very, very quickly. Priority booking is available on 2 December for subscribers to the London Transport Museum newsletter. To register and find out more about individual tours, visit ltmuseum.co.uk.
If you miss trips to the station, there are also walking tours of the exterior and the Hidden London exhibition at the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden.