Blog : Posts tagged with 'underground' : Page 1

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Secret Passage

In which we look for some Parisian history


Every so often, search requests come in for things like “disused stations on the Paris Metro”. I’mk not entirely sure why, because this site doesn’t have very much content at all on that topic. All there is, in fact, is this post from a few years ago, which wasn’t really about disused Paris metro stations at all: it was more about all the various interconnection lines and mysterious secret underground depots that you can see from a passing train.

When I was in Paris the other week, though, I kept an eye out. Because there are the odd one or two disused stations on the Metro, even if there are fewer than on the London Underground. I kept my eyes open, and I spotted a couple.

Firstly, if you head north along Line 5, across the Seine and through Quai de la Rapée station, you will find that the line quickly disappears underground on its way to Bastille station.* Once in the tunnel, well-lit and easily spotted, there is a stretch of broad station tunnel, heavily graffitied like almost everything on the Paris metro. This is the remains of Arsenal station: off the top of my head, the only Paris Metro station to share a name with one on the London Underground.

Secondly, turn around back to Gare d’Austerlitz, then head westward on Line 10. Past Odéon, there’s a complex network of underground tunnels linking Line 10 to various other routes; the modern line has a complex history. And somewhere in-between all the various connections, past Mabillon station, there is another secret. Croix Rouge station, originally the terminus of the line. It’s harder to spot than Arsenal, but it is there.

Hopefully, then, if people come here looking to spot disused Parisian underground stations, here are a couple of hints. If you want to see what they look like inside, there are photos on the web, of course: where doesn’t have photos on the web nowadays? Alternatively, you might prefer it the other way: sit on the Metro, ignore the buskers and the beggars, and look out the window for a flash of abandoned platforms.

* incidentally, foundations of the original Bastille fortress are visible on the Line 5 platforms at that station.

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In darkness

In which we find art in a cave


One of the things I like, about living in this city, is the randomness of things one comes across. One will turn a corner and find something new happening, something unexpected, something undreamt.

We were ambling around the harbourside, at the weekend, along the stretch that is overlooked by red sandstone cliffs. There are caves dug into the cliffs there, gated and walled off now; but as we walked along the quayside we noticed that one of the gates was open, with a sign outside it: “photography exhibition, this weekend only”.

We looked closer; and saw a brick archway let into the cliff, with darkness inside it, no sign of anybody about. Tentatively, we stepped inside; the brick walls gave way to rough stone, and a sign warned of falling rocks. And, inside, in the darkness, we found: a photography exhibition.

It turned out to be by a local photographer, Jesse Alexander,* who has taken long-exposure natural-light photographs of various underground locations. Caves, cellars, underground reservoirs, and so on. When I say “long exposure” I don’t mean “get the tripod out”, I mean “get the tripod out, set the camera up, then come back a week later”.** To show them in a suitable location, he’d found an unlit cave, printed transparencies of his work, and mounted it up on individual lightboxes. The whole installation he called “Threshold Zone”.***

It was an interesting and unusual concept. Printed normally, set up in a gallery, the prints would have been examples of technically good and well-composed photography, but without anything particularly distinguished about them. Mounted there, in a dark, quiet cave, they took on something special.

* not to be confused with Jesse Armstrong, who isn’t a photographer but a comedy writer.

** although he loses out slightly, in the long-exposure stakes, to Justin Quinnell’s six-month pinhole camera exposures

*** If you go to his website, you can apparently download a PDF about the work. Whether you can read it is another thing; I can’t get it to open. But it might be worth a try.

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Goose chase

In which we get pessimistic about self-expression


Have spent today on a wild goose chase around the county. In one sense: a bad thing, because nothing productive at all got done. In another: a good thing, noone could bother me,* so I had some time to think to myself, and plot things. I started writing a film treatment in my head; the challenge will be to get it on paper in some way that resembles my mind’s-eye view. Which is hard. It reminds me of a passage on writing by Tibor Fischer:

The ideas, the visions that turned his ignition were exciting but it was like taking a pebble out of a river where it gleamed and watching it became matt and boring. Pataki tried to splash with ink the invisible men that only he could see, so that others could detect their outlines, but he always missed and was merely left with a mess

(from Under The Frog, p32 in the Penguin edition)

Someone recently searched for: “how to build a souterrain”. Which is an interesting idea. As far as I know, noone’s tried to build a souterrain for a millennium or two, but that’s no reason why you shouldn’t give it a go, if you have enough land. You can go for cut-and-cover fairly easily: dig a banana-shaped trench, maybe about twenty or thirty feet long, down to about eight feet or so in depth,** and pop a roof of some kind, probably turf or thatch, over the top. In soil it’s probably a lot safer than a shallow tunnel, unless you really know what you’re up to. In rock, it’s a lot of work.

Another thing that’s been searched for recently: “feeling absolutely drained of all energy”. I couldn’t agree more. And so to bed.

* “Sorry, the battery on my hands-free headset has run out”

** I hope you realise I’m pulling these measurements off the top of my head, rather than looking up archaeological reports and so on.

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Readers’ letters

In which the readers speak up and demand photos


Here at Symbolic Towers, we pay attention to our readers. If they send in tips, we pass them on. Mr E Shrdlu of Clacton writes…

The Plain People of the Internet: You say what? You had a letter? From a reader? Whose name is E Shrdlu? Honestly?

Me: Shush there. Be quiet and listen.

The Plain People of the Internet: If you say so. But don’t expect us to believe it.

… E Shrdlu of Clacton, who writes:

People who liked Friday’s post may be interested in…

The Plain People of the Internet: You mean, people who like long posts about the history of the London Underground? When posts like yesterday’s get a much better reader reaction? What are you thinking about?

Me: Come on there, stop interrupting. And since when have I been bothered about reader reaction, in any case?

The Plain People of the Internet: We’re only saying. Offering a tidbit ourselves, you could say.

… may be interested in the book London’s Secret Tubes by Emmerson and Beard, which goes into all that stuff. At book length.

The Plain People of the Internet: Now, we wouldn’t mind seeing photos of that beautiful Yorkshire scenery you were wittering on about. That “unutterable beauty” stuff.

Me: It was “unassuming beauty”. And I don’t have any – the car would have rolled down the hill. Carnage.

The Plain People of the Internet: My god, that’s terrible. The joke, we mean.

Me: If you’re so plural, shouldn’t that be “our god?”. The best I can do is photos of trains down in the mist-filled dale. And why shouldn’t there be real people called E Shrdlu, from Clacton?

The Plain People of the Internet: Flann O’Brien would sue, were he still alive.

Grosmont station Grosmont loco yard Inside Deviation shed, Grosmont Train passing Grosmont yard

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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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The Diagram

In which we study some design history


I’ve recently been reading a book about design history, about the design of an icon. Mr Beck’s Underground Map, by Ken Garland. It is, as you might imagine, about the London Underground Map, concentrating on the period from the 1930s to the 1950s when it was designed by Harry Beck. In many ways it’s a sad story – Beck, throughout his life, felt that he had paternalistic rights over his map;* London Transport disagreed, treating the map as its own property. Which, of course, it was. In the 1960s, when London Transport turned to alternative designers, he became obsessed with producing his own versions, in the hope that London Transport would take his design up again.

Nowadays, Beck is always remembered as the map’s creator; his map was the first in Britain to abstract the network and present it topologically. The modern map, though, isn’t really based on his. It’s based on one of its 1960s successors, by Paul Garbutt; it was Garbutt’s first design that settled on black-and-white interchange symbols, and the modern proportions of the lines.

Design archaeology is hard, sometimes. There aren’t any old underground maps on display at stations, because they’re all outdated. Sometimes, though, you can spot things still lurking from days past. Some of the Phase One Victoria Line stations still have signs unchanged since they opened, in the days of the first Garbutt map. The northbound platform at Green Park, for example, has what looks like an original line diagram on the wall: it has a dotted-circle for National Rail interchanges, a characteristic of that time;** and Highbury and Islington is shown as a Northern Line interchange. It’s interesting to see. There aren’t any Beck-era signs anywhere on the underground, as far as I know, which is something of a shame; but it’s good that there are still examples of old designs surviving. It’s good to have history around us.

* or “The Diagram” as the book calls it throughout.

** The modern double-arrow “main line railway” symbol was introduced in 1964, off the top of my head, but didn’t become widespread for a few years

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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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A subtle shift in gravity

In which we visit London


Or, photo-post of the week.

I had to go out shopping for new trainers on Sunday. I took the camera along too, though, which meant I went on a bit of a detour.

Arnos Grove station North Woolwich ferry terminal Clouds over London Fire Exit

I like the third one best – the thumbnail doesn’t do it justice.

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Neverwhere

In which we have a day out


On a hot summer day, there’s only one thing to, really: find somewhere dark to hide from it. So, I spent yesterday in the depths of London Below, or as close at least I’ve ever come to it. I was in the catacombs beneath London Bridge station, at a kind of floating market.*

It wasn’t really underground, of course. When the first railway into London was built, it was built as an elevated railway, entirely on a viaduct. Ever since, the arches and voids beneath the track have been rented out by the railway company, to dodgy car mechanics, mysterious fly-by-night businesses,** and nightclubs and event venues such as the one I visited yesterday, which was full of interesting-looking people selling interesting items, and giving talks on health and safety.

If there’s one thing that shocks and disgusts me, incidentally, it’s the prices in London nightclubs. The venue security staff did very thorough bag searches – not for security, though, but to prevent anyone bringing their own drinks in. Not just booze, but anything – they slowly built up a big pile of confiscated water bottles, bought as advised by constant announcements on every Tube station. Because otherwise, they would never have been able to sell 330ml bottles of water for a ridiculous £2.50. We sneaked out quickly to a nearby Starbucks whenever we wanted a drink – and nicked the Starbucks ashtrays to bring back with us, too, because the club didn’t have any of those either.

* It wasn’t actually bobbing up and down, of course. This paragraph will make more sense if you’ve ever read Neil Gaiman‘s Neverwhere.

** When the railway was first built the company tried to rent some out as houses, before discovering that nobody wanted to live in them.

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