Early in 2000 I heard that there were some experimental projection systems set up on a disused platform at Holborn and being interested in such things, I went along to see if I could catch a glimpse these projectors. While I was there I was given the opportunity to visit the platform itself and got to see much more than I expected!
Platform 5 ("Aldwych" Platform)
Up until recently, the now unused Platform 5 was visible through locked gates alongside Platform 4 (north bound Piccadilly) and served the shuttle between Holborn and Aldwych, which was discontinued in 1994. Doors have recently replaced these gates so the platform can no longer be seen from public areas. The platform is still there however and is still kept in very good condition and has changed little from when it was closed. Looking up platform (towards Aldwych), you could be forgiven for thinking that the platform was still in use. The other direction has had some building work done on the platform itself, which now apparently serves as a storage area for the escalator engineers.
I was amused to see that the advertisements up on the wall opposite the platform were still being updated at several points along the station wherever the public were able to peer through gates. Between these advertisements about 6 white boards had been recently erected/painted on the wall which served as screens for a new prototype video projection advertisement system which was being tested on the platform, the projectors themselves were housed in aluminium casings above the platform pointing out over the track-way. The projectors switch off automatically as a train approaches the station and then on again as the train departs using the same system that is used on other Holborn platforms to turn on the "mind the gap" announcements.
Unfortunately they were off when we visited so we didn't get to see them in action, besides, based on the tarnished appearance of the rails I suspect it had been a while since a train last came into that platform! [I've since discovered that a train is regularly run into and out of the station from the southern Aldwych end of the platform despite the tarnished look on the rails for various purposes including filming and maintenance. A train is in permanent residence somewhere between here and Aldwych - see the Aldwych Visit page and also the Scrap Book for details!]
Another sign of the platform being used for prototyping could be seen on the ground. A slightly raised area on the platform could be seen, presumably spaced so that the raised area would meet with a door when a train was in the station. This I was told was a new type of platform design, to make disabled access to the trains easier and if it was ever used, a single raised area would be placed at a the end of a platform to allow easier access to the train.
When removing some of the more modern signs and hoardings after the Aldwych branch was closed and the platform was no longer in service, some surprises were found behind some of the modern enamel panels including a roll of old tickets and a pre-Heathrow extension map of the Piccadilly Line. One of the maps can be seen in the photograph, are tantalizingly close to every day life at Holborn! Until recently, one of these could be seen through a metal gate on platform 4, but solid doors have now replaced these.Along with its cousin down the line at Aldwych, this platform is occasionally still used today as a location for television and film. An clear example can be seen in the BBC's Neverwhere, where in one episode it can be clearly seen as Holborn station (though the dialogue implies its on the Central line) and in a later episode the same platform is seen disguised as another station (Kings Cross I think)!
Platform 6 ("The Hostel")
Few people realise that the Aldwych branch line was originally designed as a twin tunnel branch and Holborn originally had a sixth (western) platform to serve the second tunnel on the branch. Since the line was never very busy, in 1917 the eastern tunnel was closed along with the eastern platform at Aldwych and western platform at Holborn. It was this closed western platform that was our next unexpected port of call.
The locked entrance to the disused platform was hidden behind some grey panels at the end of the Piccadilly Line Platform 4 making it look like a storage cabinet. Immediately behind the door, I could clearly see some of the original brick and tiling overhead, now looking decidedly worse for wear. After a second door we entered an area that was clearly very recently renovated. As I walked down the original platform, the tiled wall to my right was obviously the original curved station wall, and to my left was a breezeblock wall, built at the point where the platform would have ended.
All the walls had very recently been painted white (you could still smell the emulsion paint) and newly installed fluorescent lighting brightly lit the corridor.
Moving on from this new section was like instantly stepping 50 years back in time. The transformation from the new brightly lit corridor to the dimly lit brickwork beyond was astonishing. The corridor ahead was now very narrow, only just wide enough to accommodate a single person. The masonry could clearly be seen in places behind the brown crumbling plaster on the walls. Six or seven doors bearing painted numbers punctuated the walls regularly to our left and right leading into small, unlit rooms.
These, we were told, were used as offices during the Second World War but now there was little evidence left of their exact use. Some of the rooms to the left had a couple of stairs leading down to the floor which was down at the level where the railway would have originally been, but others had been filled in to bring the floor up to platform level. The lip of the platform could still be seen on the floor at each door.
Examination of the rooms to our right revealed some of the original platform decoration. The tiled pattern of green and cream tiles could clearly be seen on the wall opposite the door and in one room part of the station name was visible in a yellow and brown painted sign about 10 inches high reading Holbo-, with the rest disappearing into a wall. One door bore the words Model Railway Club indicating that the place had possibly had a more recent use.
Legacies of previous uses
This photograph clearly shows how the offices were incorporated into the old platform area.
Through the last door to our left at the end of this claustrophobic corridor could be seen a narrow staircase leading up to the dormitories which housed the people who worked in these offices. I find it hard to believe that people actually lived and worked in these cramped conditions but things were very different during the war where the depth quite possibly provided a sense of security during the blitz.
The Dormitory area, located up stairs above the office area
The corridor then opened up into a chamber as wide as the whole platform and rail area, with the rail section filled up to platform level making an even floor. This I was told was used as the dining area for the people who worked there. At one point in the wall just ahead was a hatchway through which the food would presumably have been served. Again, the green and cream tiles from the original platform were visible on the arched walls and roof.
Looking back towards the "canteen" area
We then moved on into a narrower tunnel and down a large step which was covered by a substantial amount of loose electrical wiring, ramped by an old door taken from the dorm area to make climbing down easier but still treacherous! This was the end of the platform and we were now in the train tunnel itself. Continuing down here for a few metres lead to a large padlocked metal door, which presumably was designed to restrain floodwater, should the tunnels ever get breached (similar gates can be seen above the escalators). On opening this we found ourselves in a small fenced area out in the main tunnel. To our left was the railway itself and ahead we could see the lit tunnel running into the distance all the way to Aldwych.
The cross over area - with and without a train parked there.
The view looking back towards Holborn, which can be seen in the distance of the right hand tunnel. The locked doorway to the left leads straight into the "Hostel" area.
The platform area we had just walked down was the western platform, the eastern platform being the one that was in every day use when the line was still in service. At the point we were standing however, we could see just ahead that the railway crossed over from the eastern platform to use the western tunnel. Originally, when this branch was first opened, the Underground ran trains along both tunnels and there was a junction at this point to allow trains to cross over from one track to the other but since the line was never very busy it quickly became a single train shuttle service and the second tunnel was closed, the track since been removed.
Ahead of us we could see the mouth of the second tunnel, now bricked up with a small doorway in its middle. Even after being closed the tunnel still has had its uses - during the Second World War exhibits from the nearby British Museum including the Elgin Marbles were stored there to protect them from possible bomb damage.
This was as far as we were able to go, short of a 20 minute walk down track to Aldwych. Even this far in there were constant reminders that not too far away, there was still a working underground railway system - the drafts and distant rumbling of trains could still intermittently be heard trundling down the Piccadilly line oblivious to this forgotten corner of London.
Station staff know this area as "The Hostel", because it was used during the 1950s to house immigrant workers. It is also alleged to be haunted...
Please note that since this visit, the hostel area has changed beyond all recognition. Most of the original features described in this article have been removed and a new partition wall has been built for much of the length of the platform to form new office or storage space. Air conditioning has also been provided to the new rooms that this construction has created.
Pictures of the area as it now exists can be found here.
Last Updated: October 15th 2008
The Scrap Book contains some more photographs taken on Holborn's fifth platform.
All images and diagrams on this page are © 2000 Hywel Williams apart from the image of the cross over area without the train, which is used with permission.
All material on this page is © 2001 Hywel Williams unless otherwise noted.