If you'd wanted to visit Aldwych tube station 20 years ago it would have cost less than a quid. Over this weekend, and over next, it costs twenty. But then if you'd have been at Aldwych station twenty years ago you'd have been one of a handful of passengers, whereas this weekend there were hundreds of people trying to get in, and queues outside on the pavement. That's what happens when you close down a station - initially nobody cares, and then people start clamouring to get back inside to see what they've been missing. Aldwych has been firmly closed since 1994... apart from all sorts of filming down on the disused platforms, and staff training, and a surprising amount of other stuff for a mothballed station. And suddenly the London Transport Museum have flung wide the doors to let people inside, just for a fortnight, no gimmicks, to experience this most peculiar station for themselves.
You'll know the story of Aldwych, if you're interested, and if you don't then it's well documented here, here (four pages) and here (three). Opened 1907, originally planned as the southern terminus of a line down from Wood Green, but cruelly bypassed when two tube projects were merged and the Piccadilly line was born. Aldwych had been intended to be an important interchange station, but withered when the theatre traffic it was built to serve dried up. Two platforms were built, but the second was in service for only ten years before being mothballed. Soon the shuttle service to Holborn was cut on Sundays, later on Saturdays too, then restricted to weekday peak times only. Eventually it was the ancient lifts that killed the branch line off. Replacing the 1907 originals would have been too expensive, so a closure notice was served and the station closed on 30 September 1994.
This weekend and next, a series of six Open Days has opened the place up. Don't go looking for tickets, they sold out weeks ago, but those of us fortunate to have one duly assembled at the top of Surrey Street for our subterranean treat. The queuing system confused almost everyone, because there wasn't a back to the line, only a front-entry corral. Museum staff mumbled something about DSLR cameras being banned, although it was impossible to hear over the peal of Aldwych bells. Bags were searched, tickets were torn, smiles were exchanged, and in we went. Ooh, the Leslie Green ticket hall, and... oh, hang on, Health and Safety. There were a lot of Health and Safety messages, some would say too many, as our chief guide reiterated stuff we'd already been told about high-heeled shoes, trip hazards and how anyone unable to walk up 160 stairs should back out now. Peter, who's a City of Westminster Tour Guide, was desperately unimpressed by the patronising spiel and the endless nannying he endured underground. It wasn't quite so bad on my tour, thankfully, but I guess it's only thanks to draconian health and safety procedures that we were allowed down below in the first place.
Ooh, the lifts. Two are visible up top, each large enough for 45 passengers, although 45 passengers rarely materialised. Each has an ornate Art Nouveau flourish above the doors, because back then beauty was an important part of London Underground design. We heard an anecdote about a bell the driver at Holborn used to ring to summon the lift, and then we heard the same anecdote later in the tour, which is one of the perils of a multi-guide presentational experience. And then we set off down the stairs. Twelve straight to begin with, then the spiral staircase of 119 (someone's chalked "½-way" on the wall, at a point which isn't). These emerge opposite the lifts, and it's a surprise to see how many there are. Three lift shafts in total, each with space for two lifts, although only one of the three shafts reaches the surface. The ticket office was built on top of the other two, once it was apparent customer throughflow would never merit sextuple vertical elevation. The empty columns are massive, as I guess lift shafts have to be, and would make a fantastic hideaway lair if any London-based archcriminals or superheroes are reading.
But what everyone really wanted to see was the platforms. Access is down a long white-tiledpassage, then 21 more steps to the trains (wherever the "there are 160 steps" fact in the Health and Safety briefing came from, heaven knows). Platform 1 was the platform used by timetabled Piccadilly line services. A long curved space with hooped ceiling, stuck in a timewarp pre-Metronet, pre-Tube Lines, pre-PPP initiative. It could almost still be 1994 down here, apart from a few telltale signs that it isn't. The posters on the walls look proper vintage, except they're all recentfakes pasted on for filming or event purposes. And there are loudspeakers equally spaced all the way along the ceiling, of the kind that didn't appear in other stations until the 21st century, because Aldwych is often used as a testing ground for TfL staff. They drive trains in, they parade up and down the platforms, all in a safe bubble disconnected from the rest of the system. Someone had driven a 1972 train into the platform to give us something to look at, which was nice, and there were also two museum volunteers ready to impart their Aldwych knowledge. We listened to one volunteer up one end, and the other up the other, and were then told we had five minutes to take photos. Off we trooped, non-DSLRs at the ready, only to be summoned back after two minutes and ordered off on the next stage of our tour. Muted disgruntlement ensued. Maybe staff will have the timings a little better sorted by weekend two, or maybe they'll be able to explain what's going on a little more clearly without being openly misleading. [photo: platform 1]
Platform 2 is very different, and the chance to visit was a rare opportunity. The last train left here in 1917, and the tunnel walls at each end have since been brickedup. Those aren't modern railway tracks down there, and you don't get wide sleepers like that these days either. A fragment of the original Edwardian tiling can be seen, from the days when the station was called Strand rather than Aldwych, although covered over by more recent designs trialled here before being rolled out elsewhere. Down one end is a multicolour curve, Piccadilly Circus style, although we weren't allowed quite that far down. And the adverts here are the genuine article, not 1917 vintage but pasted up in the 1970s, featuring such delights as Heals department store and the National Exhibition of Gardening at Syon House. One particularly trippy illustration for Madame Tussauds and the Planetarium could only have been printed at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. But overall this was a darkaustere place, never wholly coherent, never quite complete. We had plenty of time to explore here before it was time to ascend less-than-160 steps to the surface. [photo: platform 2]
By the time these two special weekends are finished, more than 2500 fortunate souls will have had the chance to venture into Aldwych's seldom seen depths. That's £50000 for the Transport Museum's coffers, minus staff and organisational costs, which sounds like a nice little earner. It could have been organised better, to be frank, but then opportunities like this don't come round very often. If nothing else the internet is now chockful of photographs of Aldwych station, from every internal angle, so if you never made it, at least you can now peruse precisely what you missed.