Subterranean London, Adventures Beneath
Exploring the forbidden subterranean world of ghost Tube stations, Victorian sewers and disused shelters has given academic geographer and urban explorer Bradley Garrett a whole new perspective on the city.
Urban explorers – who now number in the thousands across the globe – access neglected, forgotten, closed and hidden areas in cities. There is attentiveness to time in everything urban explorers do: from a considered historic appreciation of derelict remains, to knowing the window of opportunity when one can scale a construction crane over the City – explorers recognise everything is temporary. A French explorer once said that “ruins are just like construction sites because they reveal the city as it really is – a place of constant change”. Though ruins and construction sites morph at a different rate, he argued, they both hint that the city we pass through every day requires careful and dedicated maintenance to preserve the urban stasis we all take for granted.
There is also attentiveness to space. Victorian Londoners used to tour urban infrastructure, including sewage pumping stations, curious to know how it all worked. Far fewer people today think about what happens where they flush the toilet, make a phone call, or throw something in the bin – what kind of process that triggers and what sort of physical spaces are required to make those things possible. As Alan Weisman made clear in his book The World Without Us, the time it would take for the city to begin to break down and deteriorate if we stopped maintaining it is incredibly short.
The photography of hidden places that explorers undertake – a practice which is quickly developing its own particular aesthetic sensibility – is an attempt to create a visual mark of the present, with reference to what came before, what will come after, and how it is all connected through us. Explorations behind the scenes show us that a city is not a collection of isolated locations but a beautifully and delicately threaded tapestry of wires, pipes and rails.
The Kingsway Telephone Exchange was originally built as a second world war air-raid shelter under Chancery Lane. These deep level shelters were, at one time, connected to the Tube and citizens would have undoubtedly taken refuge here during Luftwaffe bombing runs. In 1949 the tunnels were sold to the General Post Office where they became the termination for the first submarine transatlantic phone cable – the £120m TAT1 project. The system, meant to protect the vital connective tissue of the city in the event of terror-from-the-air (including nuclear attack), stretched for miles. It only had three surface entrances and contained a bar for workers on their off-hours, rumoured to be the deepest in the UK at 60m below the street. Although the government employed a host of people to maintain the tunnels, Kingsway was a spatial secret of state – part a trio of the most secure and sensitive telephone exchanges in Britain, along with the Anchor Exchange in Birmingham and the Guardian Exchange in Manchester.
The conversion of the air-raid shelter into the Kingsway Telephone Exchange was undertaken secretly by the government. In 1950 the tunnels suddenly vanished from the map, as did a big chunk of taxpayer money used to retrofit them. However, as the journalist Duncan Campbell wrote in his book War Plan UK, “the secrecy of the new government project did not last long – a report of the ‘Secret Network of Tunnels’ appeared on the front page of the Daily Express in September 1951.” The Express later published a second article suggesting new networks were being dug under Whitehall – what would eventually become subterranean military citadels, connected by tunnels not on any map of underground London, even today. The Cabinet Office called a meeting with MI5, GPO employees and Ministry of Works officials to discuss their options for suppressing the Daily Express or leaking counter-information about the tunnels. Campbell writes:
The minutes of the secret committee, known only as MISC 379, observed: ‘It would be embarrassing to the government if the public got the impression that deep shelters were being constructed. Either the public would think that the government were out to protect their own skins and those of their immediate servants; or the public would assume that the shelters were intended for public use in time of war and would be disappointed when they found they were not.
Word of these tunnels systematically disappeared from the public eye. Then, incredibly, in 1980 the ever-tenacious Campbell – equipped with a bicycle and a camera – gained access to them and explored the entirety of the system. He published his explorations, including photos, in the New Statesman. The GPO suggested the explorations were fake and that the photos of the tunnels had been made in a studio – which obviously wasn’t the case because Campbell relayed access details for the tunnels which, 30 years later, got us in.
Urban exploration carries on the important work of exploratory journalism; it spreads stories that help us perceive worlds other than the ones presented to us, and it gives us an alternative where one has not been offered. Urban exploration is an apathy killer. As the geographer David Harvey wrote, the freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is one of the most precious and neglected of our human rights. If we want to live in cities replete with citizens rather than inhabitants, we must encourage exploration.
Most of the tourists walking at street level – photographing Parliament and clippers cruising the Thames – haven’t a clue that there is a snarl of tunnels underneath their feet, many of which aren’t on any map.
Urban explorers want to know what is being built, by whom, with what funds and to what ends; they want to know what has been forgotten and left behind and how that space might be re-imagined with the public interest in mind. These expectations – like the expectation that people will explore whatever environment they happen to live in – are threaded with common sense throughout, unlike many of the policy decisions that have led to our cities increasingly become a sight to be seen rather than a place to participate in.
This feature originally appeared in The Guardian.