The Aldwych branch of the Piccadilly Line has always been strange in that although it was operated as a basic single train shuttle service from early on in its life, the line was originally built as a double track, with two platforms at Aldwych and two platforms at Holborn, only one of which connected to the North bound Piccadilly line, the other terminating in a bay platform (see here for more details).
The reason for this strange configuration comes about because the current Piccadilly line is an amalgamation of three separate projects with different government planning permissions obtained for each; the Great Northern & Strand Railway (Wood Green to Aldwych), the Brompton & Piccadilly Circus Railway (Piccadilly Circus to South Kensington, though not the locations we know today) and the Deep Level District, (an express route from Earl's Court to Mansion House). When the Yerkes Group eventually amalgamated these in preparation for building, the Deep Level District was dropped and never built (apart from a single platform at South Kensington) and the other two were amalgamated into the stretch of the Piccadilly line that was largely completed in 1906.
The reason for the Aldwych branch being included in the final plan seems to be shrouded in mystery - some say that there was a parliamentary condition that the route to Aldwych be built, others that it was originally viewed as an ideal place to extend the line south of the Thames (a point borne out by the fact that several plans of this nature were subsequently made but dropped).
The branch opened on 30th November 1907, with the Aldwych station initially being opened as Strand and then soon renamed due to confusion caused by the name, since at that time Charing Cross station located on the much more salubrious end of the Strand bore the same name! However, by 1917 only one track was ever used since the number of commuters on the line was less than expected. The second tunnel was closed and the track lifted meaning that platform B at Aldwych was also no longer used. Since then however this platform has been used to try out new platform designs for other stations and to test new lighting designs.
During the Second World War, Aldwych was closed for nearly six years and was used as an air raid shelter and the unused tunnels being used as storage for art and treasures from the British Museum.
Over the years, Aldwych has often felt the shadow of an overhanging axe due to low patronage and for many years had been run as a peak-hours only service. In 1994, the straw that broke the camel's back was the need to replace the old (original) lifts. Although still in good working order, the lift machinery contained exposed moving parts and high voltage components, the equipment was therefore deemed no longer safe to maintain. Since the refurbishment was estimated to cost between £3 million and £5 million, the number of people who used the station daily (about 600) couldn't justify the cost of the conversion so the line was closed.
The last train carrying the general public left Aldwych on the evening of the 30th September 1994, just less than 87 years after being first opened to the public.
This image shows the ultimate cause of Aldwych's demise - the original Otis lift gear, still in use until closure in 1994. Notice how the dust is now gathering on these once active machines.
The original Leslie Green designed ticket office window
Today, the station is being maintained by London Underground mainly as a museum piece, film set and the ticket hall is frequently rented out for art exhibitions, book launches and other private parties. The underground section will slowly deteriorate over time since little maintenance is now performed (apart from redecoration for filming!), however if you go to the surface entrance, you can peer through the gates and see that the ticket area has been restored almost to the same condition as when it was built. Even the external facade has been cleaned and painted, with the original Strand sign now prominently on display.
A driver's eye view of platform A at Aldwych. Look carefully and you can see the short circuit device connecting both live rails to ensure no electricity is running.
Aldwych is almost certainly the most "used" of the disused stations on the London Underground - today not by passengers, but by film and television companies. The fact that it's on a branch line still connected to the main network and that it's now deserted, yet at the same time being in reasonably good condition down at platform level makes the station an ideal filming location. Films and TV programmes that have used it as a location include Paramount's Patriot Games, the All Saints film Honest, the BBC production of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere and pop groups for their videos such as Prodigy's FireStarter and Everlast's Black Jesus.
Although the decoration was remarkably similar to Aldwych, Vauxhall Cross, the disused station featured in the latest James Bond movie Die Another Day was in all probability filmed on a sound stage. Look here to read some of my thoughts about this.
A location shoot at Aldwych and on the station's sister platform at Holborn. More photographs of this filming can be seen on the Scrap Book.
Aldwych station was built on land that had previously been occupied by an art gallery, a non-conformist chapel and then the Royal Strand Theatre, which was demolished in 1905 to make way for the new station. Some people have said that the station is haunted by the ghost of an actress; indeed some line engineers claim to have been frightened by a ghostly figure down at track level at night...
An eerie figure waiting for a train that'll never come, or perhaps a trick of the light... ?
For further reading about the Royal Strand Theatre, see this page.
The Three ages of Aldwych
The station is especially interesting since there are three distinct types of passageway and platform that exist beneath the ground. There are sections of the station that were in daily use up until its ultimate closure in 1994. As mentioned previously there are also sections that fell into disuse by 1917 and remain largely untouched since then and there are other parts which were never even completed and have a rather rough look about them since they were never decorated.
This diagram shows the lower concourse and south end of the two platforms. The colour code indicates when each section was used.
London Transport Museum occasionally arrange tours of Aldwych - sometimes theming the station with guides and actors. Contact the London Transport Museum for details.
I have visited Aldwych and had the opportunity to photograph the location. I found my visit a fascinating and interesting experience. I have written an account of the visit in the form of a tour, which you can read by clicking here or on the tunnel entrance below. The page contains many more pictures of Aldwych, both above and below ground!
Tomb Raider at Aldwych
As fans of Lara Croft from the Playstation game Tombraider would know, one of the levels of the game features Lara visiting an abandoned underground station named none other than Aldwych! Fortunately for game-play, the Aldwych in the game is much larger featuring many platforms and hidden tunnels. You are also required to run down the train tunnels - dodging into doorways and alcoves as trains quickly approach!
Personally I think the game programmers and designers did a sterling job with this level capturing beautifully the melancholic atmosphere of a disused station both visually and through the background sound track.
Lara contemplates her next move
Who left that train here ?
The Secret Station
In 2008, film maker Luke Oliver was given access to film in a number of Aldwych's locations. The documentary is well worth a look.
Aldwych's Status in Mornington Crescent
There has been much debate recently as to whether or not Aldwych can be regarded as a valid destination in the game titled Mornington Crescent (popularised by Radio 4's I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue). Since the station is now closed, the 1972 Anderson-Perkins rules indicate that closed stations can only be used after the previous player has performed a Johnson switchback manoeuvre (who can forget the great ending move of the 1987 championships). However, since the line is still maintained and trains are run often for filming companies, I believe the Hughs amendment to the 1997 rule on terminating lines could be applied and Aldwych used as a normal location in the game.
Last modified: 12th March 2003
Exterior photographs taken Wednesday 22nd March 2000 and Wednesday 12th April 2000.
Tombraider III and Lara Croft are © and TM Eidos Interactive and Core Design. All legal disclaimers apply.
Thanks to Derek Smith, train operator on the Aldwych branch for his help and information.
All material on this page is © 2001 Hywel Williams unless otherwise noted.