Underground and Overground in the City of London

Despite being only a short journey away (made even shorter by the new railway station that appeared near by house last year), I rarely find myself in London. But once in a while a week comes along when I feel like I’m there all the time.

British Rail branded poster from an abandoned tunnel under Euston Station, circa 1960s.
Bargain travel to London from the station around the corner! Don’t think this poster is up-to-date, though.

On Friday of last week, Ruth, JTA and I took one of the London Transport Museum‘s Hidden London tours. Back in 2011 we took a tour of Aldwych Tube Station, probably the most well-known of the London Underground’s disused stations, and it was fantastic, so we were very excited to be returning for another of their events. This time around, we were visiting Euston Station.

Our tour group gathers around the corner from Euston Station.
Stylish hi-vis jackets for everybody!

But wait, you might-well say: Euston station isn’t hidden nor disused! And you’d be right. But Euston’s got a long and convoluted history, and it used to consist of not one but three stations: the mainline station and two independent underground stations run by competing operators. The stations all gradually got connected with tunnels, and then with a whole different set of tunnels as part of the redevelopment in advance of the station’s reopening in 1968. But to this day, there’s still a whole network of tunnels underneath Euston station, inaccessible to the public, that are either disused or else used only as storage, air vents, or cable runs.

Disused lift shaft under Euston Station.
This lift shaft used to transport passengers between what are now the Northern and Victoria lines. Now it’s just a big hole.

A particular highlight was getting to walk through the ventilation shaft that draws all of the hot air out of the Victoria Line platforms. When you stand and wait for your train you don’t tend to think about the network of tunnels that snake around the one you’re in, hidden just beyond the grills in the ceiling or through the doors at the end of the platforms. I shot a video (below) from the shaft, periodically looking down on the trains pulling in and out below us.

No sooner were we back than I was away again. Last Saturday, I made my way back to London to visit Twitter’s UK headquarters in Soho to help the fantastic Code First: Girls team to make some improvements to the way they organise and deliver their Javascript, Python and Ruby curricula. I first came across Code First: Girls through Beverley, one of Three Rings‘ volunteers who happens to work for them, and I’ve become a fan of their work. Unfortunatley my calendar’s too packed to be able to volunteer as one of their instructors (which I totally would if it weren’t for work, and study, and existing volunteering, and things), but I thought this would be a good opportunity to be helpful while I had a nominally-“spare” day.

The coffee lounge on the administration/marketing floor of Twitter's offices in Soho.
Twitter’s offices, by the way, are exactly as beautiful as you’d hope that they might be.

Our host tried to win me over on the merits of working for Twitter (they’re recruiting heavily in the UK, right now), and you know what – if I were inclined towards a commute as far as London (and I didn’t love the work I do so much) – I’d totally give that a go. And not just because I enjoyed telling an iPad what I wanted to drink and then having it dispensed minutes later by a magical automated hot-and-cold-running-drinks tap nearby.

Twitter's reception with its "tweet wall" sculpture.
I’m not sure I ‘get’ the idea of a sculpture of tweets, though. Wouldn’t a “live display” have been more-thematic?

And that’s not even all of it. This coming Thursday, I’m back in London again, this time to meet representatives from a couple of charities who’re looking at rolling out Three Rings. In short: having a direct line to London on my doorstep turns out to be pretty useful.

The Old Asylum

I’ve always been enamoured with the concept of urban exploration: that is, the infiltration and examination of abandoned human structures. I was reminded of this recently, when Ruth, JTA and I got the chance to go on an (organised) tour of long-abandoned Aldwych Tube Station in London.

The Eastern platform at Aldwych. Closed in 1914, we missed the last train by almost a hundred years.

I think for me the appeal comes from the same place as it does when I’m looking around, for example, the ruin of a castle or the wreck of a ship. As opposed to the exploration of the natural world, looking around a man-made thing really gives you the feeling that you’re uncovering the long-lost purpose of the place. This place you are was designed and built to fill a particular need and, for whatever reason, it’s now left to rot and decay. And you – the amateur urban archaeologist, are the link that connects this abandoned world with the present.

I’ve been thinking about some of the places I’ve explored – sewer tunnels underneath what is now Deepdale Retail Park, waterlogged WWII bunkers occupied by squatters, disused railway lines and railyards, roofs of semi-accessible castles, and the (then-disused) wreck that was Aberystwyth’s Alexandra Hall, back when tragically-empty buildings was part of the quirky charm of the place, before they transformed into being a symptom of its downfall. I wanted to share with you a story or two. But instead of any of these, I’ve picked a place that none of you are likely to have heard about:

Wittingham Hospital

Wittingham Hospital, near Goosnargh, Lancashire - perhaps my earliest illicit expedition.

In the mid-19th century, the lunatic asylums of Lancashire and Merseyside were overflowing, and Wittingham Mental Hospital was built to replace them. Originally built to hold 1000 patients, it held over 3,500 by the outbreak of the second world war, making it the largest mental hospital in the country. The mental health reforms of the 1960s (and an inquiry into patient abuse), and new drugs and treatments in the 1970s and 1980s, led to it being gradually emptied and, in 1995, closing for good.

I was still at school when word got around about the closure and a couple of friends and I decided to cycle up to the old hospital and explore it, because there’s nothing like schoolboys egging one another on to give you the courage to “break into the old asylum”. Apparently when I was a kid, I didn’t watch enough horror films about haunted old buildings or about murderous psychopaths, because it seemed like a perfectly reasonable suggestion to me. The council have since put up secure fences and begun demolition, but back then it didn’t take more than a little bit of climbing to gain access to the abandoned complex.

A contemporary (2010) photo from inside the hospital by urban explorer "Infiltrator". Click on the photo for his full report and more photos. It's degraded a lot since I visited.

There was a deathly quiet inside the buildings. The distance from the nearest road and the surrounding woodlands muffled the distant sounds of the outside world to less than a whisper, and as the three of us split up and spread out, it was very easy to feel completely alone. The silence was more comforting, though, than eerie: on the hard tile floors and in the big, empty rooms, it’d be impossible to catch anybody unawares, no matter how fleet of foot you might be.

I was surprised to see quite how much furniture and equipment had been simply left: it was almost as if the buildings had been evacuated in a panic, rather than undergoing a controlled, phased closure. Filing cabinets remained, stuffed with papers, in a room with net curtains and a carpet. An upright piano, only slightly out-of-tune, remained in an otherwise empty ward. Beds, operating tables, and cupboards stood exactly as they had when the hospital was still alive.

An old leaflet, discovered on a 2009 expedition by urban explorer "BA". Click on the image for his full story. Apart from looking a little more weathered for the 13 years between my visit and his, this looks exactly like the kinds of things I saw.

I couldn’t understand how a place could be abandoned in this way. It’s as if the place itself had died and, instead of being buried, had just been left to decompose in the open air. It seemed – at the least – irresponsible: a friend of mine even came across surgical supplies and syringes, simply left in a cupboard… but more than that, it seemed disrespectful to the building to leave it responsible for looking after these memories of its old self: things which no longer have any purpose, of which it was the custodian, unwilling and unthanked.

We didn’t take any photos – I’m not sure that any of us owned a camera, back then – and we didn’t liberate any of the paperwork (tempting though it was). I’m pretty sure that not one of the three felt that our parents would have approved of us illicitly gaining access to a disused medical facility, so any evidence of our presence was to be avoided! But there was more than that at stake: spending an hour or two wandering around these forgotten corridors, I felt more like a ghost than like a person. We crept about in silence, not saying a word to one another until we’d all reached perimeter once more. It wasn’t our place to interact with this building: all we were there to do was to observe, impotently: to see the beginning of its long decay, that’s since been documented by so many others. That was enough.

I’ll tell you what, though: that early experience? I totally hold it responsible for my subsequent interest in abandoned places.

Dave!!! Highlights From Robin’s Birthday

Right now, I’m out in Oxfordshire for this a “code week” – a get-together for the purpose of hacking some code together – for the Three Rings project. That’s got nothing to do with this post, but helps to offer a framing device by which I can explain why I was in such proximity to London in the first place.

JTA at the Ops Room table

Last night, y’see, Ruth and I hopped on the bus down to London to meet up with Robin, her brother, for his 21st birthday. Starting out at The Dove in Broadway Market, we began an adventure of epic proportions, backed up by some of the least-consistent planning ever encountered in a pub crawl. At times, the revellers and I were as one unit, moving together through the capital, shouting “Dave!” in unison. Other times, keeping the group together and headed in the same direction was a little like trying to herd cats.

But progress was made, and a milestone birthday was celebrated. Highlights included:

Pub Jenga

Pub Monopoly is so last week: Pub Jenga is the new hotness. At each bar, we brought out a set of Jenga, the bricks of which had each been emblazoned – using a marker pen – with the names of diferent areas of London. When the tower collapsed, the brick responsible dictated where we would go to next.

Pub Jenga - The Next Big Thing

The person responsible for the destruction of the tower was required to drink a penalty shot of Jägermeister and be the bearer of the Jenga set and The Trowel until the next pub. Oh yeah, The Trowel. Robin’s plan was that, at the end of the night, the Jenga set would be buried forever at a secret location. As we’d left before this point to catch the bus back to Oxford, I’ve no idea whether or not this actually happened.

Another gripping turn of Pub Jenga

Mystery Pockets

Ruth and Robin’s older brother, Owen, had come prepared: having numbered each of his eight pockets and placed a mystery item in each, Robin was periodically charged with picking a number, at which point the contents of the pocket were revealed and used. Some of the items revealed were:

Face Paints


One of the first Mystery Pockets contained red and green face paints, with inevitable results. Also, I’m not sure what was in them, but quite a lot of people at the table started itching quite a lot after they were applied: whoops! Click the thumbnails for bigger pictures.

Party Poppers

After these were chosen, everybody managed to get ahead of Robin by sprinting down a tube station fire escape staircase, and hiding around the corner at the bottom. Which might have been more effective if not for the fact that it’s quite hard to hide a dozen people in a tight stairwell. Also, that Robin had decided by this point to “fall” down the staircase.

Silly String!

Silly string! It's so silly!

It’s silly. ‘Nuff said.

People Of London

Our travels put us into contact with a variety of people from around the city, like:

The Moon Man

In Covent Garden, we got a small audience as a result of our various exploits, but this one – persuading a random stranger to bare his colourful underwear to the world, might be the best. In the background, you can just make out an unrelated group of partygoers, about to tie themselves together with a long rope left lying around by a street performer.

The Moon Man pulls his trousers down

Owen’s Fans

The two women at the next table from us in a bar in Oxford Circus, who seemed quite pleased and impressed when Owen tore his shirt in half in a show of manliness. I’m pretty sure that if he’d have asked, they’d have paid to see more.

Jamaican Me Crazy

A busker with drums who we persuaded to play the most reggae interpretation of Happy Birthday To You that has ever been heard.

Lay down some beats! Dancing might have been involved on my part.

Dave!!!

I can’t even remember how, but it quickly became our callsign that – in order to make sure that everybody was together (at least, after we’d lost the enormous Papa-Smurf-penis-styled balloon, fresh from Owen’s mystery pockets, that had previouly been our beacon), we’d all shout “Dave!!!”, as if we’d lost somebody by that name. No, I can’t explain it either.

But... where's Dave? DAVE? DAVE!!!

A Cornish-Pasty Themed Pub

Seriously, such a thing exists. We almost gave this one a missing, mistaking it for merely being a late-night Cornish Pasty Shop (yes, that was more believable to us at this point), before we noticed that it had a bouncer. “What kind of bakery needs security?” “Ohhhhh.”

Playing Jenga In Unusual Places

Like the game on the steps of St. Paul’s Church.

I'm still amazed that we didn't attract a larger audience than we did, playing Jenga in this famous spot for street entertainers.

Racing Around The Transport Network

You know all of those signs about not playing on the escalators, not running up the escalators: all that jazz. Apparently some of the group didn’t think that they applied to them, with hilarious consequences. Honestly, I’ve never seen somebody slide all the way down the central reservation of a 100-foot escaltor before, “bouncing” over every sign and emergency-stop-button as they rocketed down along the polished steel. And if I never do again, that’ll be fine, because I’ve seen it now.


Meeting Some Fabulous People

Turns out, everybody who came along to Robin’s birthday – most of whom I hadn’t previously met – were all awesome in their own unique ways. It’s been a long time since I’ve hung out in the company of such a lively crowd. Thanks to you all for a fantastic night out.