Vicky Baker discovers hints of yesteryear above and below the London streets, from a 2005 article in the Overseas journal.
Next time you board the Piccadilly line southbound at Green Park, take a moment to look up from the pages of your book or newspaper and look out of the window. You are passing right by a piece of history. As you approach Hyde Park Corner, look closely and you'll notice how the tunnel wall changes - cast iron tubing one minute, bricks the next. It is at this point that you pass through Down Street, a tube station where no passenger has alighted since 1932. This forgotten segment of the London Underground was used by Winston Churchill as a secret venue for cabinet meetings during the Second World War. Unknowingly, hundreds of commuters pass it every day.
Down Street is one of around 40 'ghost stations' on the Underground's 253 mile-long network. Between Tottenham Court Road and Holborn on the Central Line, you pass the old British Museum station, also closed in 1932. Another, York Road, used to break up the uncommonly long stretch between Kings Cross and Caledonian Road. Amongst Londoners, Aldwych is perhaps the best-known disused station. It shut its ticket gates decades ago but the crimson entrance on the Strand is still visible and it is now often used as a film set.
Further out of town, North London's Parkland Walk traces old railway lines from Finsbury Park (just 15 minutes from Green Park on the Victoria Line) to Alexandra Palace. It may not be as eerier as the underground sections, bu there are plenty of hints of yesteryear, including old platforms at Crouch End.
The route, known as the 'Northern Heights', was built for stream trains, but, in the 1930s, London Underground unveiled plans for the electrifications of the tracks as part of a Northern Line extension. The Second World War disrupted the project and it was subsequently abandoned. The tracks have now been ripped up and paved over, creating a path perfect for walks, joggers and cyclists. In 1990, Parkland Walk was declared a nature reserve and, at five miles long, it one of the longest in the capital.
Since the last trains departed (the passenger trains in 1954, the freight trains in 1971), the wildlife has settled in. There are now over 300 species of wild flower, 22 types of butterfly, 60 species of bird and an abundance of mammals, including foxes and muntjac deer.
So what is the appeal of disused stations and tracks? Why are people interested? Perhaps it's because many of us are so familiar with our daily routes that we almost function on autopilot, especially on the tube. You pass the same Standard vendors every day, hear the same buskers; the most excitement occurs when, every few weeks, an advert changes. To stop and think what lies beyond these well-known realms is fascinating, to think that platforms once packed with commuters now lie empty. Next time you sit bored on the tube, just imagine is the walls could talk...