A few yards up the Kingsway from Holborn tube station lies a strange strip of road that seems to belong to an earlier time era. As you peer through the railings of the now permanently locked gates, you will see a strip of cobbled roadway leading down to a dark and seemingly disused tunnel. But what's most striking about this road is not the cobbles - it's the railway that shares the road space. Closer examination will show that between the rails lies a conduit, which was originally used to supply power to the trams that originally used this roadway.
The original platform area at Holborn
When the Kingsway was first built, the tunnel was also excavated beneath it using the cut and cover technique and its role was to form a link between the blossoming tram networks north and south of the Kingsway area and during its flourishing years, when the London Tram network formed an essential and vital part of the transportation network the underpass did indeed form an important part of the system.
The subway was closed briefly in the early '30s so that the original arched roofs could be removed and the roadway dropped to accommodate double-decker trams and was re-opened in 1931 by the King.
With the increase in use of the car in the late 1940s and 1950s the popularity of the tram system rapidly waned and over small number of years in the 1950s virtually the whole network was disbanded, with the last tram leaving Kingsway tunnel itself on the 5th July 1952.
A tram taking a "dive" down the steep ramp into the underpass, circa 1952
The tram underpass originally ran from the Holborn entrance, though a subterranean station at Holborn and then down the length of the Kingsway, passing through another station at Aldwych before finally emerging to the surface immediately under Waterloo Bridge.
In the mid '70s, a large section of the tunnelling was converted for use as a road tunnel with a new entrance at Waterloo and a new ramp way just south of Holborn. During this conversion the Aldwych station was lost, however the stretch north of the new ramp to the old exit just north of Holborn remains intact and undisturbed, with the subterranean Holborn station still there today almost as it was the day it closed, just beyond the shut tunnel gates.
The entrance to Kingsway Tram Underpass as it appears today
A recent and entertaining use for the erstwhile tunnel entrance was on the recent movie The Avengers where it was portrayed as an entrance to a secret bunker under the Thames. Clever use of matting technology however meant that the location of the tunnel was transformed much closer to the Thames itself changing completely the buildings and structures that surround it today.
Site Visit, 29th November 2003
On the 29th November 2003, a special opportunity to visit the Kingasway Tram Tunnel was made possible by Subterranea Britannica. As it turns out, this is the last opportunity anyone will get to see this tunnel in its current form, as it is soon going to be redeveloped and many of the original features that were left after the tunnel closed will be lost.
We first congregated in a nearby grassy square as there were far too many people in the group that could safely gather next to the tunnel entrance itself. In fact, this is by far and away the biggest group I've been part of for a site visit as there were in excess of 70 people there! Before this visit, the biggest group I'd been part of was 20, for Aldwych.
Once everyone had arrived, we then proceeded to the tunnel and descended the cobbled ramp down to the mouth of the tunnel.
As we entered the tunnel, I was immediately struck by its extent. I had previously thought that the tunnel only went just as far as Aldwych and would presumably stop with a brick wall, but looking down its length, it was obvious that the tunnel went much further!
On the tunnel's floor, the original tram rails and electrical conduits could clearly be seen leading towards the tunnel's Aldwych station. On the right hand side of the tunnel, the council was storing road construction material. Indeed, throughout the length of the tunnel, its current use was obvious - as a storage area for Camden council's roads department.
As we arrived at the location of the first station, the tunnel widened slightly to accommodate the platform area between the two sets of tracks. The walls had been tiled, with empty frames visible, where advertisement posters would have originally been placed. Since closing however, virtually all trace of the advertisements had been erased. Between one of the poster frames, there was distinct evidence of where a London Transport roundel had once been.
In one place, some advertisements which seemed to date from the Second World War were visible, however these were left on the walls after some filming for a mini-series shown on Sky Television a few years ago.
Part of the Holborn tram stop had been converted for use as London's flood control centre in 1974, which was in use until the Thames Flood barrier was installed and commissioned in 1984. Each London borough council would had their own flood control centre which would have reported to the headquarters at Holborn. The prefabricated structure that was used for this purpose was still there and bore much evidence of its original use, including signs that designated some of the original uses of the rooms including a radio communications room and a conference room.
The "outside" of the prefabricated building and inside, some status charts on the wall.
Some of the signs inside the flood control centre
It was clear to me by now that I had discovered the place where all road signs go when they die - sign heaven, otherwise known as the Kingsway Tram Subway! The whole place was littered by literally hundreds of signs! Anything from "Road Closed" signs to no entry signs, roundabout signs, diversion signs, traffic cones (thousands of them!) street names and even directions to notable Camden locations could be found here. I wasn't sure why quite so many signs needed to be kept here - some hadn't even been removed from their bubble-wrap, while others were clearly showing the wear and tear of time.
There was another room much bigger than this one whose walls was heaving with signs. However, by the time I went to photograph it, the lights had been turned out and there was an acrid smell in the room - one of the light fittings had taken up the bad habit of smoking...
Back outside the prefabricated building, as well as many more signs, the original tram stop's entrance staircases could be seen. These had now been grilled off at their top so that the public could no longer use them. There was a thick carpet of leaves that had been deposited over the years, making the stairs very slippery.
Beyond the Holborn tram stop, the tunnel continued on under the Kingsway. All along the right hand side of the wall, throughout the tunnel, various road construction materials were being stored along with even more signs, bollards and temporary fencing. The tracks and conduit continued, and even a set of crossover points were left intact immediately south of the Aldwych station.
At a couple of places along the length of the tunnel, large piles of leaves had gathered. I was at first puzzled as to why leaves had gathered at these locations, but looking up at the roof gave the answer - there were small ventilation grilles on the roof which had allowed leaves to drift in over the years.
Further down, a ladder had been fixed to the wall, which lead to the roof. There, another slightly larger grille was seen which lead to the surface just before the start of the ramp down to the modern car underpass.
Near to this ladder was a sign pointing the way to a Cafe which seemed to sell tasty food!! Sadly for my rumbling stomach, this was yet another sign that had made its way to the sign graveyard and was now languishing in this dank tunnel, awaiting its final fate.
At this point the tunnel changed in character. All the way through to this location we had been following the tracks of the old tramway. At this point, the tracks ended abruptly and the lamps which had been with us all through the tunnel finished - time to turn on my torch. There was small brick structure which housed some electrical equipment and then we could see ahead of us the start of the ramp for the modern road underpass.
Up until now, apart from what could be seen through the grilles at the station and ladder, there was little sign of the traffic that was running above us - but here, vehicles could clearly be heard running overhead. This side of the ramp consisted of a slowly decreasing ceiling height, with a set of supports in the middle of the tunnel. It was here also that we encountered our first serious pools of water!
The ceiling height decreased at a steady rate until it was too low to walk. Immediately ahead, we could see that the ceiling met the floor - the end of the tunnel... or so it seemed.
Immediately before the roof lowered to a level that made any further exploration impossible, two small openings were visible on either side of the tunnel where one could duck down and go through. Beyond this opening was something completely unexpected!
Once through the small opening, it was possible to stand upright once again. Indeed, the roof was as high as the original tunnel. In fact, we were actually standing inside the original tunnel! The road underpass at this stage had been built within the confines of the original tram tunnel!
What's more, it was obvious that we were standing in what was originally the Aldwych tram station, something I'd assumed had been obliterated when the road tunnel was built. The outer wall had the same tiled appearance that the Holborn station had, it had the same poster frames - and there was an even clearer roundel impression than the one seen at the Holborn end! In one of the advertisement frames, a tiny section of a poster could still be seen.
In this narrow passageway, we could clearly hear the rumble and clatter of traffic passing immediately on the other side of the wall. As the passage progressed, we encountered water, which slowly got deeper until it I was unable to continue. Several in the group however had come prepared!
Ahead, it could be seen that the passage was curving to the right. This is the curve where the tunnel turns westwards at Aldwych to accommodate the turn in the road. The intrepid explorers who went on ahead said that the tunnel comes to an end just after the curve where the tram stop ends and the original tram tunnel narrows.
There was apparently a small crawl space at roof level that went on a little further and a couple of people in the group had commandeered a ladder to investigate further. Unfortunately, as yet, I don't know what they discovered.
And that was it - we'd walked the entire length of the tunnel. All that remained was to walk back (continuing to investigate further of course!) and come to the surface and leave through the leaves...
Thanks go to Subterranea Britanica and to Camden council for making the visit possible.
The tunnel since the visit
We were told at the start of our visit that the tunnel was about to be re-developed into an art gallery and that our visit was the last opportunity anyone would get to see the tunnel in its current form. However, at the end of March 2004, an art exhibition took place in the tunnel based on George Orwell's 1984, ending on the 29th (situated just beyond the Holborn station). I'm told that the tunnel had changed little since my visit at the end of 1993. Since then however, some serious looking construction equipment has been seen going down the ramp so re-development does now seem to be taking place.
Last Modified: November 30th 2003
The first two photographs on this page were taken by and are © Dewi Williams and are used with permission. The third photograph was taken by myself on 5th May 2000.
All site vist photographs were taken on 29th November 2003.
All material on this page is © 2001-2003 Hywel Williams unless otherwise noted.