Hidden London: My Charing Cross Station Tour

TfLHiddenLondonBannerOn Sunday 14th, after the Blogtacular conference, I had a long-awaited date with some murky tube tunnels.  This subterranean world was, in many ways, as far away from the cheerful bright colours of a creative conference as one can get, but I was equally excited by it.  Gone was my Colette Chantilly dress; on were my jeans, trusty Lacostes and ribbed jumper was I waited by the exit of Charing Cross station.

A decent number of London folk know that Transport for London (TfL) organises tours of ghost or disused stations, or areas not accessible to the public, under the banner of Hidden London.  The problem isn’t the knowledge, though – it’s being quick enough off the mark to get onto one!  This time success was ours, and I had the company of my mum and one of her good friends for the day in town.

After we’d been met by a steward, briefed and braceleted up, our group was led down the escalators to a hidden door within the wall, just by the Bakerloo line platforms.  Down we went another set of escalators to be received by Martin and John, our friendly tour guides for the day, and greeted by the cheerful orange spectacle at the beginning of this post.

They began with a brief history of the Jubilee Line from conception to East London extension, which necessitated the closure of the terminus at Charing Cross.  Initially, the extension was to follow the course of the now-subterranean River Fleet, but a change of mind saw the Jubilee Line run from Green Park to Waterloo and beyond, just skimming the south of the river (here’s a link to the tube map for the uninitiated).  Although I was 16 years old when this work was completed, I had little use or memory of the station as it was.  Here are a few snaps of the concourse:

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This part of the tour was led by Martin.  Childish though it might sound, I liked him best because he’d worked on the tube for 35 years and spoke about his world with all the gusto and generosity you might be able to imagine.  Now retired, he pointed us towards a modern reprint of a job advertisement for a canteen worker.  He and John told us that the wage was equivalent to £3.75 per hour in today’s money – and that even in it’s day it was poorly paid.  Ever grateful for his pension, Martin was very happy to remain attached to his former life on the London Underground, but later on I realised just why he’d highlighted the workers’ situation and the union’s fight on their behalf.


After our group had formed a loop around the two platforms we were shown clips from recent films that had used the Jubilee Line platforms for filming: The Bourne Ultimatum, Skyfall and Paddington.  The shaft and tunnel that Daniel Craig descends in Skyfall was also part of the tour – but I’m getting ahead of myself!

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At this point our group was divided in two so that we could see that ventilation tunnel and shaft, and the construction tunnel under Trafalgar Square safely and separately.  I nudged my company towards Martin’s group, so we saw the Trafalgar tunnel first.  This was accessed through a grating in one of the station corridors – “The world of the passengers,” in Martin’s poetic words – and after being safely marshalled by Susanna, we were ushered into the netherworld amid some bemused and intrigued passenger stares.

Down we walked amongst dust and dirt: these areas are still used for storage, and we saw many bags, railway sleepers and even odd bits of rail.

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We stopped at a juncture between two different construction methods in the wall, where it went from uninterrupted roundels, some of which were filled with cement.  Many of the rings had dates branded or embossed into the metalwork – artefacts in action.  Even now, engineers build tunnels using the same methods, but with somewhat more powerful equipment.

Here’s a short video of Martin addressing the group (courtesy of my mum):

See? Told you he was a good ‘un :).

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In the snap below you can see the Victorian engineers working by candlelight (don’t worry, no gas in the vicinity then or now!) with picks and shovels, and on the right candles have been exchanged for lamps.  You can also see some rails laid down on the floor, doubtless getting longer as the build progressed.  Incredible stuff, and awesome to see just how well it has lasted.

From here we took a left down another tunnel (above left), past a generator (below) and up a ramp to the walkway above the Northern Line platforms.

CharingXTunnel7Yes, that’s right – we all got to stand directly above live trains and unsuspecting tube passengers!  I managed to get a few stills, but my mum’s phone is better and quicker at capturing video than mine, so everyone watching this video owes her a debt of gratitude!

It was surreal; the gratings are only metal, so not recommended to anyone with vertigo.  This sometimes applies to me, but I have got better at managing it over the years (including forcing myself to walk across the Hungerford Bridge) and during that moment, I was glad to have had some control over it.  I would not have missed the view or those precious few minutes for the world.

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And here’s the video!

I was glad we had the long walk back through the tunnels to start absorbing what I’d seen: up next was the Skyfall shaft, and after having another little giggle at bemused and baffled passengers we went single file to another door, where we were issued with hard hats in anticipation of any falling debris.

Winding our way through another tunnel, we arrived at the shaft.  The tunnel that Daniel Craig runs down whilst Q is heard and seen via his earpiece and cross-cutting was blocked off to us, but here are a few shots of what we could see:

CharingXTunnel10The space was too narrow to really get a good angle of the daylight above us, but never mind that; the geography was more impressive.  We were directly under Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth!  And judging by the group’s response to this information, I wasn’t the only one to have lost all sense of space.  My bearings had gone and I’d entrusted my wellbeing to someone else – much like I and millions of others do when travelling on public transport.  In the third picture here, you can just about make out the same registration information seen on the construction tunnel roundels and cubes.

CharingXSkyfallShaft1It was the end of our tour, and we were buzzing with wonder as we eventually found ourselves back in the world of the passengers.  Martin pointed us all in the direction of other tours at other stations – as if we needed any encouragement! – and after the three of us had made a pact to commit to any other Hidden London visits, my only other question was whether I could get one of the T-shirts modelled by our guides and stewards.  The answer was no, it’s uniform only – but if I’d managed to get one, I’d have tweeted and Instagrammed it with pride!

CharingXSkyfallShaft2Just over a week later, I am still fascinated and inspired.  I was lucky enough to find a programme on BBC iPlayer, How They Dug the Victoria Line, made in the late 1960s.  Seeing the miners and engineers working, putting together identical tunnels to the ones I walked down last week.  No hard hats or high-vis clothing, or ANY protective clothing – just dedication and industriousness; it brought a tear to my eye.  I will definitely be back on another TfL tour.  Using the tube will never be the same again.


5 Comments Add yours

  1. Jo says:

    I loved this post. Fascinating. Although I live a long way from London I usually manage to visit a couple of times a year. I didn’t know that these tours existed but it would definitely be something very interesting and a bit different to do.

    1. Thank you Jo! Very glad to hear that you enjoyed the post. I recommend getting on TfL’s mailing list for the tours, as they sell out extremely quickly. We’re waiting with bated breath for the autumn/winter offering 🙂

  2. thehookstook says:

    I didn’t realise TfL did tours like this! Will have to put my name down on the mailing list. In the meantime, I have to make do with a book I was given a few years ago about London’s disused tube stations.. Did you get any inspiration for your knitting designs on the tour?

    1. Definitely 😊 – it’s a bit out of my comfort zone but I plan to do a bit more research and come back to the photos to make sure I do a good job. I also went to the museum shop to look for books but there were so many, the choice overwhelmed me a bit! Which book do you have?

  3. thehookstook says:

    The book I have is called London’s Disused Underground Stations by JE Connor. A good mix of photos and plans and words. But a book to dip into, I find, rather than to read straight through. I like the way that each station has different patterns/pictures on the walls (existing, as well as disused). I heard this was to help workers who couldn’t read know where they were, back in the early days when not everyone went to school. I look forward to seeing how you transfer the tube into knitting/crochet patterns.

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