As you may have seen elsewhere, Aldwych Tube station – closed since 1994 – is open again this weekend for an exhibition about Londoners’ lives during the Blitz, when many stations were used as shelters. The entire Aldwych-Holborn branch was closed and used for storage during World War II, with its terminal station used as a shelter for 1,500 people. I went on one of the first public tours this morning, and what struck me was the huge number of people queueing up off the Strand – events like this will always pull in Underground enthusiasts, but these wasn’t the sandwich and weak lemon drink crowd. Many had taken an hour or so off work to sneak down into the depths.
The tours sold out long ago, but you can take a free look at a wonderful old bus parked outside the station – shipped back to the UK after being discovered in the USA, and looking gleaming after a huge restoration job. The Aldwych open weekend is its first public outing.
Inside, the station has been dressed with replica posters from 70 years ago, imploring Londoners to observe the blackouts and work for victory over the Jerries. Meanwhile, actors recreate the characters that lived beneath the capital’s streets – the ARP wardens, the spiv, the knitting gossip. Be prepared – there’s a lot of toilet humour (“put some sawdust in your bucket, that way nobody will hear you go…”)
Down on the station’s platform, the London Transport Museum’s trusty 1938 stock train – usually decked out as it would have looked in the 1960s – looks as it would have done brand new, gleaming and full of more wartime posters.
The station’s other platform, which hasn’t seen a passenger in 93 years, remains out of bounds – like last year’s art installation in the nearby Kingsway tram subway, this is strictly a show about the war, not about a disused station. You won’t get much time to take a shot down the tunnel, or peer down abandoned lift shafts. But that’s not the point. This exhibition commemorates the sacrifices shown during the war; when 5,000 Londoners perished. With an audio-visual display at the end, it’s very effective. I was left wondering why this hadn’t been done before – it’d be a great venue for schools to visit.
Peter Watts went on a press preview, and reports that the London Transport Musuem is thinking of opening up Aldwych on a regular basis once again. It’d be a wonderful idea, although booking hall aside, there’s not that much to see down there – the creaky old lift was the most exciting thing about it when it was open and that’s what saw it close. It’s pretty bare down there, kept that way for film crews (a more recent Tube train is usually kept down there too). Getting access into other, murkier stations is problematic since they’re on “live” lines, and the fact they are murky and unaccessible is precisely what makes them fascinating – I was lucky enough to visit Down Street a few years ago and it remains one of the eeriest experiences of my life.
But hopefully the LTM will be able to make more of Aldwych – as an educational tool it could be hugely valuable, and financially, it could be worth their while to satisfy Londoners’ curiosity about the lost world beneath their feet.