London’s Underground subway network is celebrating its 150th year of operation this year, but as with any old institution there are a few skeletons in its closet. Despite the Underground map drawn up by electrical draughtsman Harry Beck being a (relatively) cogent series of equally-spaced stations, the reality of the rail system is somewhat more chaotic.
Beck’s 1933 map, a version of which is still used today, is highly stylised, taking elements of the electrical circuit drawings that he was confronted with in his day-to-day work and presenting it in a tidy, easily understandable package. But the development of the Underground network was not so neat, with different companies operating competing lines in a land grabbing free-for-all for many of the network’s first decades. They criss-crossed each other deep under the streets of London, with some areas overserved by stations while other areas of the UK capital went begging for a train line.
All this chaos—and the Underground’s sheer age—has led to a series of stations being abandoned to history. Some were abandoned before they opened, and remain ghosts on the line, overlooked and inaccessible to all but the most committed urban explorer.
1. Down Street – the wartime bunker
The two-platform Down Street station was part of the Piccadilly Line almost from that route’s inception in 1907. The company that initially commissioned the station had neglected to consider that the residents of the surrounding area, London’s posh Mayfair district, were a little too rich to slum it on the downmarket Underground. (People have become less snooty since then.) According to J. E. Connor's book, London's Disused Underground Stations, Down Street struggled on for a quarter century before it was closed in 1932, though it was not demolished. That came in handy seven years later when war broke out. Waiting for his Cabinet War Rooms to be built in Westminster, Prime Minister Winston Churchill used the reinforced safety of Down Street station as an underground refuge from World War II.
2. British Museum – too much competition
A perfect example of the problem of a plurality of service providers on the Underground is British Museum station, now in its 80th year of disuse. The station was opened by Central London Railway in 1900. Six years later, a competing provider opened Holborn station less than 100 yards away. The young whippersnapper proved more popular than the older station, and with the ax looming for 20 years or more, once Holborn station was given a sprucing up in the early 1930s (including modern escalators to ground level instead of clunking elevators), British Museum shut up shop.
3. North End/Bull & Bush – the one that never opened
In 1903, the then-operators of what is now the Northern Underground line applied to open a station variously called North End and Bull & Bush. It was to be an engineering marvel, the deepest station below the surface on the Underground network. Tunnels were dug and the station was whittled out of the subsurface rock, ready for tiling and the final touches that make an Underground station useable. Yet it was never completed, and until the 1950s there was no way to access it from the surface. Potential passenger numbers were judged too low to risk the investment of finishing up the station, and so it never opened to the public.
4. Aldwych/Strand – the cultural hub
In 1994, Aldwych station, originally opened as Strand, shut forever. The station had been operating at high-traffic times only for three decades, but it was still a sad sight for the 450 people who used the station daily. It was also a sad occasion for culture vultures, who had Aldwych/Strand to thank for the survival of many pieces of precious art. London’s art galleries and museums used the station’s tunnels as a safe haven for priceless artifacts during both World Wars. Its cultural heritage lives on, though: Now disused but modern enough to pass for a present-day station, it has become a set for movies and TV shows.
5. York Road – the one that could come back
York Road was never the busiest Underground station. Being just a stone’s throw away from Kings Cross, the main terminus for the national rail network as well as the Underground, was always going to stunt its growth. It lasted 25 years from its opening in 1906 (albeit without Sunday service for more than half its existence), but has been closed for the best part of 80 years. It keeps threatening to come back to life, however. Transport for London (TfL), the company that runs the Underground, studied in 2005 whether York Road could reopen to alleviate strain on the system. It was too expensive then—but hope remains that York Road’s overhead lines could power up once more.