Station Visit - Part 1

Down Street surface entrance

Having visited Aldwych earlier on in the year I can honestly say that this visit was very different in both what was seen and also in atmosphere, due to the fact that this station had such a key role during the Second World War as a meeting place to several important war committees including the Railway Executive Committee and on a few occasions Winston Churchill and his Cabinet.

Turning the corner into Down Street, one building immediately stands out unmistakeably as a Leslie Green station facade with its ox blood red bricks. Since closing, part of the building has been converted for use as a newsagent but there was also a doorway on its frontage, which we were now approaching.

The moment the door was opened, I was nearly blown off my feet with the force of the draft from the trains down below as I entered the building!

Stairs down to spiral staircase Spiral staircase down to platforms

The stairs down to platform level

We then walked down a small narrow flight of steps and we arrived at the top of the original spiral staircase, complete with its original maroon and cream tiles so typical of other stations built during the early 1900s. There were 103 steps in total (23 for the narrow straight staircase and 80 in the spiral shaft, with the shaft itself being 22.2 metres in height) Even at this point there was evidence of use during the Second World War. Above was a reinforced concrete and steel cap to prevent bomb penetration down the emergency stair shaft. Behind a door at this level, an emergency generator would have been housed which could provide power for the whole complex below should the electrical mains be cut. The room was now empty, save a single tank mounted near the roof. The floor was damp and the room smelt quite musty.

Looking down the centre of the spiral staircase, a space could be seen which had originally been occupied by a small two person lift which was installed to make access easier during the War. Folklore suggests that Winston Churchill got stuck in this lift at one time and I can understand why - it would have been quite a confined space! The lift itself along with its machinery had long gone but the door still remained along with the remains of the lift-summoning button.

We then walked down the spiral staircase. This new aluminium staircase had replaced the old crumbling steps comparatively recently. Marks on the wall where the old stairs had been flush with the tiled walls could be seen since the new stair way left a small gap between itself and the wall. Why build a new spiral staircase in a disused station? Well, Down Street is in fact one of the designated emergency exit points for the Piccadilly line and for this reason the staircase and corridors down to platform level are reasonably well lit.

We stopped about two thirds of the way down at a doorway to see a passageway that was unique in an underground station. Due to the fact that this was the last but one of the original Yerkes stations to open (the final being Aldwych), some extra features had been added. This doorway provided an alternative emergency exit down to the passageways below. During the Second World War, this corridor had been equipped with bathroom and toilet facilities and signs on the wall indicated that this was also an alternative route to the office complex below during its War use to enable part of the complex to be closed off for privacy. [Note: I've been told that since my visit, this door has been replaced by a modern fire safety door and is now locked.]

Doorway to WW2 bathroom facilities Detail of doorway

A wall had been built down the tunnel forming a narrow corridor with doorways to our left opening into several small rooms. The first door (actually just an opening as the door itself had long gone) revealed the toilets - two cubicles containing two porcelain base units - but the water cisterns had long since been removed as had much of the plumbing. The next two doors revealed two bathrooms, one of which still had its original electric heater and tank. The bath with the heater I'm told is known to staff as "Winston Churchill's bath" - though no cigar stubs have ever been found there! The final room contained two very dirty washbasins. Going further down the corridor wasn't possible as there was a wet slime of stagnant water on the floor and let's just say the air was, like its aroma, unpleasant (a MASSIVE understatement) - if not unsafe to breathe! Had we been able to go further, the corridor would have led to a stairwell leading down to platform level.

Churchill's bath Toilets (yuk!)

The bathroom facilities, added during rennovation in 1939. Yup, that's a LOT of dust!

At the bottom of the spiral staircase, the first impression I had of the tunnelling down here was a strange feeling of scale. The foot passageways had been tiled using cream and purple tiling (now very much coated in dust) but everything seemed somehow bigger than I'd expected. The interconnection tunnel I was standing in seemed to have a larger diameter than a standard underground station foot passageway. It was soon explained that when the station was being built, the railway company was running out of resources and had none of the metal tunnel casings that were usually used to make foot passageways left. They did however have an excess of standard rail tunnel sized casings so these were used instead giving the rather strange illusion of scale. The corridor we were now standing in would originally have served as the station's exit - there was also a parallel entrance tunnel from the lifts, which we were to see later on.

Typist's Pool area

The bottom of the spiral staircase and the Typists Pool area.

Enquiries & Committee Room sign Along the walls of these passageways several painted signs could be clearly seen, one of which read "Enquiries & Committee Room", a reference to the committee room used during the War. See here to see a gallery of some of these signs. There was also additional evidence of War use here - there was a slightly raised floor area with a narrow section to our left sectioned off by a barrier. The raised area was originally walled to provide a separate room, which was used as a typing pool for the officers and civil servants that used the complex during its days of active service. The partition walls down this corridor had been removed in the 1960s to enable ease of access when a new signalling system was being installed in another part of the station. The narrow section would have been a corridor around the walled off section - just wide enough for a standard issue civil service tea trolley to pass through!

Walking down this passageway, the loud noises of passing trains could clearly be heard occasionally rumbling not too far away. These were however very different from the noises usually heard in today's Underground stations. In this case, the trains were hurtling past on the lines down below at full speed, with no slowing down - it was quite a strange experience.

Committee Room area Bridge over eastbound Line

The Committee Room area (walls now removed). Then, the bridge over the eastbound line.

We walked around a corner and we were in the part of the tunnel that was actually used as a committee room. Many very important decisions had undoubtedly been made here by Winston Churchill and his committee and later by the Railway Executive Committee. It was exhilarating to know that I was standing in a place now almost forgotten, that had been so important in history.

To our left was a small entrance - the other side of the alternative emergency exit passage (the bathroom corridor mentioned above). Looking through this door, a stairway could be seen leading upwards to the bathroom area. The stairway had a partitioning wall down it's middle, though it was unclear exactly why this had been done, since within the partition the stairway was blocked at both ends.

Alternate stairway to bathroom area

Then, walking a bit further we walked over the bridge that spanned the east bound Piccadilly Line and after turning the corner, walked down a short staircase, which led down to what originally would have been the platforms.

Stairwell to lifts

End of part 1.

In Part 2, the platform area is investigated. Many discoveries are made including a derelict telephone exchange, some original tiled "way out" signs a ghostly lift shaft.

Proceed to part 2 of this visit!

Frist Draft: December 13th 2000

Last Modified: November 14th 2001

Rearranged: August 14th 2003

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All pictures are © 2001.

Exterior photograph taken 21st August 2001.

All material on this page is © 2001-2003 Hywel Williams unless otherwise noted.

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