(NewsMadura) — About 80 feet below the traffic and bustle of London’s Piccadilly lies a quiet maze of corridors and pitch-black rooms, rarely seen, rarely visited, but which have played a pivotal role in the course of 20th-century history.
Now the chance has passed 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 and the Dunkirk evacuation were coordinated.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill took refuge here — secretly — in November and December 1940, when the German bombing campaign known as The Blitz was at its height, and a team of 40 personnel worked here day and night on the war effort.
NewsMadura Travel got a taste of the experience ahead of a new series of Hidden London tours from the London Transport Museum that go on sale December 3.
An ideal bunker
Tickets for the latest Down Street tours go on sale on December 3.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Historian and guide Siddy Holloway meets us on the ground floor, where the facade’s distinctive Leslie Green oxblood-tiled arches are still the same as on the many other famous Edwardian tube stations he designed, including Covent Garden and Russell Square.
Down Street opened in 1907 to serve the Piccadilly Line, but it had already closed in 1932. In the heart of affluent Mayfair, a short walk from what are now Hyde Park Corner and Green Park tube stations, it was an underused station. In addition, it was particularly deep underground and there were long corridors leading it under the busy Piccadilly passage.
But 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 was converted into the new headquarters of the Railways Executive Committee in a matter of days. The REC acted as an intermediary between the War Office and the British railway companies and would be crucial for the movement of troops, horses and equipment in the coming battle.
As we descend to the platforms today, it is still clear that this is a metro station like no other. Old signage points the way “To Offices” and the “Commission Room”, the artist’s pencil marks are still visible in some areas. Mustard-colored drywall clings to the tiles — remnants of an attempt to create an office-like environment — while the floor has been leveled to create the typing pool where up to eight secretaries would click their keys.
The staff lived and worked down here, working shifts of up to 12 hours, often at night, perhaps only every ten to 14 days to the skies in the upper world. Dirty baths and toilets are the remnants of the washroom facilities, while soot obscures the patterned wallpaper in the executive sleeping quarters.
Yet there was, in a way, opulence here. “Bunkers and shelters were off-rations during the war,” Holloway says. Here a much higher class of food could be enjoyed than by citizens above ground. The REC was the same company behind Britain’s many major railway hotels, and the staff here could dine on crystal dinnerware and wash at Royal Doulton sinks.
There was a fully staffed kitchen and two mess rooms, also with waiting staff, and 27,000 meals were prepared and eaten here each year.
Brandy and cigars
The War Rooms, about a mile from Down Street, on the other side of Buckingham Palace, were underground, but not bombproof. “If they got a direct hit, you’d destroy everyone there,” Holloway says. “By November 1940, people had [had] began to fear for the life of Winston Churchill.”
Ralph Wedgwood, chairman of the Down Street facility and brother of UK MP Josiah Wedgwood, convinced Churchill to come to Down Street “because it’s so close to the seat of power,” Holloway says. It’s very comfortable, it’s very private, it’s very well stocked with brandy and cigars and things like that.”
Churchill stayed overnight here at least five times in the winter of 1940, having sneaked in on the ground floor and then, again, concealing his presence from most of the Down Street staff. While he slept on a modest cot, at least in the boardroom, he was able to live a good life. Civil servant John Colville recalled in his diaries being treated to caviar, Perrier-Jouet champagne, and 1865 brandy in Down Street.
London’s disused stations
Throughout the London Underground you are one step away from a secret labyrinth of forgotten tunnels and shafts
The other Hidden London tours relaunching for the first time since March 2020 will be of the disused stations and tunnels in Euston, Moorgate and Aldwych, each of which has its own unique character and history.
Aldwych, most famously, was home to ordinary Londoners during the Blitz and has been used for film and TV shooting, including “Darkest Hour” and “Sherlock”.
The Down Street tours are the highest priced, £85 for adults and £80 concessions ($112 and $106), while the other station tours are £41.50 full price and £36.50 concessions.
The Down Street and Euston tours will take place on select dates between January 15 and February 13, 2022, while the Moorgate and Aldwych tours will take place on select dates between March 2 and 27, 2022.
If you miss the station strips, there are also overground walking tours and the Hidden London exhibition at the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden.