The latest exhibition at the London Transport Museum is called Hidden London. It's in the same two-floor gallery at the back where special exhibitions are usually held, but dressed up ratherbetter than most. Wander up close to what looks like a boarded up station entrance and the automatic doors magically open, and in you go.
First up, impressively, is Aldwych station. It even looks like it might be Aldwych station, with an original ticket window, what might be tiles and a poster announcing the termination of service. Robert Elms is busy interviewing one of the last members of staff, or at least his disembodied voice is, and plans for station construction are displayed in the corner. It sets a high bar. My favourite factoid is that London Underground went to the expense of installing electronic gates and a new ticket office in the late 1980s, only to close the station permanently a few years later.
Step through to discover King William Street, one of the first deep level tube stations and one of the very first to become disused. A solitary glass insulator block on the wall is a reminder that what's left of the station, platforms and all, has recently been sacrificed as part of the Bank upgrade (19th century passageways repurposed for 21st century commuters). Where else can we head? Ongar, with its zero point and "tidiness" certificate. Highgate, with its never-used waiting rooms and bat boxes. South Kentish Town, whose ticket hall is now a Cash Converters. And Down Street, where a commercial development opportunity alas led to "no viable applications".
The Underground was first used for filming in the 1920s, and by the 1960s Aldwych (closed weekends) was the premier shooting location. Take a seat and you can watch clips from a medley of movies filmed underground, including the chirpy wartime kneesup Gert and Daisy's Weekend, the gruesome Death Line and the frankly astonishing The Boy Who Turned Yellow (rarely has the Children's Film Foundation been so jaundiced).
The spiral staircase between floors has been cunningly integrated into the exhibition so it almost feels like you're descending into the depths. Down below you'll find Down Street proper, or at least a military telephone that won't shut up and a room set out like an austere canteen watched over by a virtual waiter. The ground floor is almost all wartime related, following up with the Plessey factory on the as-yet-unopened Central line and everything you ever needed to know about floodgates under the Thames. A significant chunk of space is given over to wartime shelters, like those at Clapham South, and there's even mention of how unopened North End station beneath Hampstead Heath was set aside to be used as a civil defence location in case of nuclear war.
In case you hadn't twigged, the Hidden London exhibition is actually a huge unspoken plug for the museum's Hidden London tours, now available in several locations... at a price. Descent into Clapham South will set you back £35, trips round the lesser known passages of Euston and Piccadilly Circus £41.50, and the grand prize of Down Street a massive £85. Aldwych is sold out, sorry. You do get half price admission to the London Transport Museum for your trouble, where you can enjoy the Hidden London exhibition for nothing, but I remain unconvinced the package is worth the dosh. A lottery ticket gets you inside the exhibition for free today and tomorrow, or come explore any time before February 2021.
I hadn't been to the London Transport Museum in ages because the high cost of entry (£18 on the door) always puts me off. Wandering round I was reminded how really very good it is, jam packed with interesting stuff and backed up with fascinating in depth information on the walls. But I also noticed that little had changed since my last visit in 2011, other than a fresh Thameslink subsection, a careers guide aimed at kids and a Crossrail 2 display on the way out. All the rest I'd read before, indeed some of the text dating back to the museum's 2007 refresh was already out of date (cough, "Ninety percent of bus journeys are made in suburban areas so Transport for London produces a large number of local guides", cough).
Which begs the question, what is the optimum period for returning to a museum with a steep entrance price? Eight years for the LTM felt about right, plus there was the Hidden London exhibition as a bonus. My trip to Kew Gardens this week came seven years after my last in 2012, which in turn was seven years since 2005. How long does it take to 'forget' enough about a place to be able to enjoy it enough on a next visit... or is it only favourite museums we happily return to again and again? Whatever, I'll probably pencil in another visit around 2026 (or the next time there's a very special offer and admission's unexpectedly free).