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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.”
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.