Blog : Posts tagged with 'tunnel'

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Express

In which we look at some underground history


Talking of search hits: recently, quite a few people have been searching for “secret tunnels under london” and finding this place. I’m not completely sure why, to be honest. I don’t know of any truly secret tunnels under London. I do know of a few lesser-known ones, though – the Tower Subway, for example, near City Hall; or the nearby remains of King William Street station.

It got me thinking, though, about Crossrail. It was in the news a lot a few weeks back, because the government finally decided to commit to building it; after fifteen years or so of back-and-forth dithering,* differing plans, and a very small part of it already built.** Just don’t mention the Chelsea-Hackney tube line, which has been on the planning books for even longer.

Crossrail is, essentially, to be an east-west express metro for London. It’s not the first express metro plan London’s had, though, and it’s not even the closest to completion. For that, you have to look at some more of the lesser-known tunnels under the city.

Back in the 1930s, the newly-created London Underground was in an expansionist mood, helped by government job-generation grants. It unified two separate routes to create the Northern Line; extended the Central Line westwards with help from the Great Western Railway; got the LMS Railway to give the District Line’s Southend trains separate tracks as far as Upminster; and planned to take over the LNER’s lines from Finsbury Park to High Barnet, Alexandra Palace and Edgware, and from Leytonstone to Hainault and Ongar, and extend the Central line eastwards from Liverpool Street to connect up with the latter. Those plans were well under construction in 1939, when, of course, building stopped.

Before the war started, it was well known that “air war” would be a major tactic. People had seen the effects of the Gernika raid*** a couple of years before, and there were widespread worries that the country was unprepared for air attack.**** So, in 1940, the government started to build mass air-raid shelters underneath existing Underground stations, with the plan being that they would be dual-use: after the war ended, they would become part of a new Express Northern Line beneath the existing one.

Several of the shelters were never used for their original purpose at all; those that did open, were not used until the V-weapon attacks towards the end of the war. Others were used to billet British troops, and for British government and American army offices. As for the express line that London Underground had been promised, it never did appear, and there was never even any serious attempt to build it. It seems more to have been a sweetener for London Underground, who at the start of the war were very reluctant to allow people to shelter in their stations rather than in the official ARP public shelters. Some of their worries were justified – in 1943, 104 adults and 69 children died in a crush accident at Bethnal Green; it remains the worst accident in London Underground’s history.***** It’s interesting to wonder what might have happened, though, if it had been built. London’s own RER, in the 1950s.

The tunnels are all still there, of course, underneath the active stations. The most visible is Stockwell – the brightly-painted structure north of the station, on the other side of the road, was the deep shelter’s entrance. Most are more anonymous, but all are still there, lying quiet underneath you. Secretly.

More on these shelters can be found at Subterranea Brittannica

* over several different governments, of course.

** a ventilation shaft to nowhere, near Moorgate.

*** Spelling pedants: that’s its official modern spelling.

**** See: Nevil Shute’s 1938 novel What Happened To The Corbetts. Shute was still a professional aircraft designer at the time, and his company had been asked to supply aircraft to the Abyssinians following the Italian invasion, so he was probably more aware than most of the threat that aerial bombing presented.

***** It’s a slight irony that the worst accident on London Underground was at an unopened station, on a line under construction – Bethnal Green is on the Central Line extension mentioned above.

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The labyrinthine depths

In which we think about secret tunnels and the literature surrounding them


There are plenty of stories in literature about the nameless horrors that lurk deep within the bowels of the London Underground. It’s popped up in TV, too – on both Quatermass and Doctor Who in the 1960s – and in film. In books, the first example that comes to the top of my head is a short story by Jeremy Dyson, but there are certainly many more. There are stories of secret tunnels and secret trains, lines disappearing into disused stations and abandoned passages.

Indeed, there are plenty of abandoned stations underneath London. There’s Down Street, for example, which was used as a set in Neverwhere.* There’s an entire disused railway, the Post Office Railway, running from Paddington to Whitechapel.** Not much is visible, though. The Post Office Railway was never open to the public, and disused parts of the Underground are generally very hard to see from passing trains. The occasional void, or brick wall, but that’s all.***

Paris, though. Paris is different. The Paris metro is full of secret passages. Every few hundred metres, there will be a mysterious junction. Lines will branch off into side tunnels, or delve between the other tracks, or disappear behind mysterious roller shutters in the tunnel walls. There are walkways and passageways, tracks that your train will never use, sidings deep under the city centre. In London the only place you’ll see trains parked underground is Triangle Sidings, between Earls Court and Gloucester Road; and that started out as an above-ground depot which disappeared under buildings in the 1960s. In Paris, there are trains parked all over the network, in single sidings, between stations. There’s so much to see if you look out of the window.

But does the Paris Metro have similar literature to the London Underground? Are there stories of monsters hiding in the Metro’s depths, or ghost trains rattling off down secret tracks, or secret government laboratories behind the roller-shuttered sidings? London has the literature, but Paris has the labyrinth visible from the train window.

* The “Down Street” in Neverwhere isn’t the real Down Street – but the real Down Street was also used for filming. If you’ve seen it: the dinner with Serpentine was shot on the remains of its station platforms, during normal service, with trains passing in the background.

** Which was also used as a filming location for Neverwhere, and also crops up in the dire Bruce Willis comedy Hudson Hawk.

*** During the war most of the disused stations were converted into government offices – including the platforms, several of which had the platforms removed and brick walls built to partition the usable space off from the running lines. So if you’re deep under London and suddenly see a brick wall by your carriage window for a few seconds, it’s probably a disused station.

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Underground

In which we’re puzzled over Tintagel and an archaeological definition


If you looked at yesterday’s photos of Tintagel, and read all the tooltip captions, you might have noticed that I described one of them as showing a souterrain; or, at least, a souterrain-ish thing. Noone, as far as I know, calls it a souterrain; and I’m not entirely sure why.

I could be wrong here. I don’t have access to an academic library, or a big pile of archaeological literature on the place. So I’m not sure that noone, ever, has said there’s a souterrain at Tintagel. I haven’t found anything yet, though.*

A souterrain is a fairly common thing in British and French archeology. It’s an underground passage, with a bend in the middle. They’re generally found in France, Cornwall, and north-east Scotland; although in Cornwall they’re called fogous; and there are examples elsewhere as well. Noone really knows what they’re for. There are plenty of ideas, but all of the ideas have flaws. You could store food there, but it probably wouldn’t keep well, as souterrains don’t have great drainage. Animals: the same problem, and they’d be too awkward for anything other than poultry or sheep to go in and out of. You could hide in it – but attackers would be pretty stupid to go away without checking the big hole in the ground coming out twenty yards from your house. So, noone really knows what they’re for. We could go back to the standard archaeological “I don’t know why this is here” standby – “it had a ritual purpose” – but frankly, we may as well just admit that we don’t know what they were for.

The thing that British souterrains generally have in common, though, is that they were dug in earth. Some may have had above-ground roofs at some point. Most probably had multiple phases of building and rebuilding;** and most were stone-lined at some point in their lives. They had corbelled roofs. A corbelled vault is a bit like an arched vault, but is less sophisticated, and a lot less stable.***

The Tintagel passage, though, isn’t dug into earth. It’s tunnelled through bedrock, with metal-edged tools – which fits the presumed dates of the other souterrains and fogous out there. It has a similar profile to a corbelled vault, but it isn’t one. It’s the right sort of size, though, and it has the characteristic bend in the middle. The bedrock, though, is so far as I can see the only “not a souterrain” factor to it. It’s in the middle of a medieval castle – but a medieval castle built on a site that had been occupied for hundreds of years previously. It’s on top of a rocky headland – if you did want to build a classic earth-dug souterrain, you’d be a bit stuffed, because there isn’t enough depth of earth to tunnel into. Nevertheless, to my eye, it looks just like it should be listed as one, even though the local materials and circumstances were different. Archaeology can be a strange thing, sometimes.

* If you search the web for the phrase tintagel souterrain, yesterday’s post is the top hit already.

** but what long-use buildings don’t?

*** Which is why they’re not used any more. It looks a bit like an arch, but solely with horizontal courses of stone. Wikipedia has some explanatory diagrams.

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Arthurian

In which we visit Cornwall


This June was originally going to be Photo Month on this site, given the oodles of photos I took on holiday. Unfortunately, I took so many photos on holiday,* I still haven’t managed to sort through them all yet.

Here’s a few, to be going on with. The Tintagel area. I have more to write about Tintagel.

Medieval arch, Tintagel Souterrain-like tunnel, Tintagel Beach, Tintagel
Beach, Tintagel Church, Tintagel

* 803 in total

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