diamond geezer

 Thursday, August 26, 2004

Famous places down the street where I work
Down Street station (Down Street)

Which brings us to the disused Underground station. There used to be four tube stations down Piccadilly - Piccadilly Circus and Hyde Park Corner at each end and Dover Street and Down Street inbetween. All were constructed in 1906 for the Great Northern, Piccadilly & Brompton Railway (later the Piccadilly line) although Down Street opened a year later than the rest. Dover Street later became Green Park, its entrance shifted two streets to the west when a set of new escalators replaced the lifts in 1933. Down Street, however, didn't manage to stay open that long.

Down Street was built just a little to close too its neighbouring stations, just quarter a mile from each, so passenger traffic was never heavy. This is also a poor location for a station with most of the local residents happy to drive everywhere, or more likely be driven. Within two years some trains were passing through the station without stopping and in 1918 Sunday services were withdrawn altogether. Down Street limped on before closing completely in 1932 so that a new siding could be built in the tunnels instead, leaving the station conveniently empty a few years later when war broke out.

Down Street underwent a wartime metamorphosis so that government committees could hold their meetings here in complete safety. The premises were made bomb-proof, the platform edges were bricked off, a small telephone exchange was installed and one of the passageways was converted into a small meeting room. Gas-tight doors were installed, two bathrooms were plumbed in and a typing pool was set up at the foot of the spiral staircase. Some of the UK's first air-conditioning was installed, as well as a tiny lift that could accommodate only two people. The Railway Executive Committee met at Down Street on a regular basis, and sometimes Winston Churchill would hold meetings of the War Cabinet here. Underground access was still available from the driver's cab of any passing train. Above ground nobody passing by would have had any idea that decisions crucial to the outcome of the war were being taken in the tunnels 20 yards beneath their feet.

After the war Down Street was again deserted, with lighting and staircases maintained just in case they were ever needed as an emergency exit from the tunnels below. The ticket hall was converted into a shop and the station was forgotten. All was quiet until the 1990s when the London Transport Museum started arranging tours which a select few (and their cameras) were lucky enough to attend. Everyone reported on the unexpected blast of air up through the stairwell as trains whooshed through the platforms beneath, and all agreed that there was the most appalling stench coming from the corridor just past the furthest bathroom. Much of the original signage was still visible, both train and wartime related, as well as the corridor where the committee room used to be. The tours were vastly over-subscribed, but unfortunately insurance costs were too high and the subterranean visits ceased a few years ago.

Neil Gaiman's excellent (but rather weird) TV drama Neverwhere includes a cliffhanging visit to a fictional Down Street. Neverwhere is the wildly imaginative tale of London Below, into which falls the innocent Richard Mayhew. He meets an Angel called Islington, a girl called Door and the very evil Mr Vandemar and Mr Croup. Episode 1 opens with a chase filmed on the rickety old spiral staircase at Down Street, and later there are shots of a banquet filmed on what's left of the platform with real trains rushing past in the background. The BBC only ever screened the series once but thankfully it is available on video (and on DVD in America, where it's been an unexpectedly big seller). Highly recommended.

Visit Down Street (the street) today and the characteristic ox-blood design of a Leslie Green station is immediately apparent. A small locked door in the fa├žade leads to the station itself, while the main ticket hall entrance is now occupied by the Mayfair Mini Mart. This tiny newsagents scrapes a living off the local hotel workers, embassy staff and tourists. It sells the usual magazines and confectionery, plus a range of chilled food, a grim selection of greetings cards and about five different types of manilla envelope. I popped in for a bar of chocolate, which alas is about as close as I'm ever going to get to journeying into the historic depths of this most fascinating of tube stations.

Down Street tours (absolutely marvellous links - go click)
Subterranea Britannica (3 detailed pages + photos)
Hywel Williams (2 detailed pages + photos)
Jonathan Halls' virtual tour (38 photos)
Abandoned tube stations
Down Street signs

Neverwhere
Neil FAQ plot interview Annie h2g2 Amazon


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