diamond geezer

 Friday, November 17, 2023

One thing every underground railway needs is ventilation and the Victoria line needs it more than most. It runs fully underground from end to end and has lengthy distances between stations, so without atmospheric release would soon come unstuck. Engineers therefore had to include air vents at regular intervals along the line, squeezing them into gaps on the surface wherever they fitted best, sometimes adding a disguise so they didn't appear too intrusive.

I thought I'd hunt down the Victoria line vents between King's Cross St Pancras and Finsbury Park, a stretch which includes two of the longest inter-station gaps. How to track them down wasn't obvious, given that the last time someone submitted an FoI request TfL refused, claiming that releasing a full list of shafts would be "prejudicial to national security and public safety". Instead I've done my usual thing and resorted to OpenStreetMap, which it turns out has a specific dataset called London Underground Vent Shafts where over 200 sites are highlighted in red. Zoom in and you can follow the Jubilee line across south London, the Northern line through Clapham or the Piccadilly under Heathrow. I zoomed in on Islington.

I skipped the vent shafts outside King's Cross station because I'm focusing on Islington and they're marginally in Camden. But yes, the two circular-ish eruptions on the outdoor concourse, one of which serves coffee, are actually vents aerating the tube station below.

Shaft 1: Cloudesley Road

The first time the Victoria line comes up for air is amid the desirable Regency terraces of Barnsbury, not far from the back of the Business Design Centre. It's not the only tunnel in the immediate vicinity, the Regent's Canal also passes under the heart of the Angel at some depth. The 'obvious' place for a vent shaft would have been Barnard Park, a large postwar greenspace where a squat tower would have had minimal impact. Instead a substation was shoehorned into a small yard behind Cloudesley Road, then known as Islington Place, and an air vent incorporated at the heart of the building.

The terrace now breaks abruptly between numbers 21 and 35, squeezing a huge brick cuboid into a gap that might have been £10m of real estate. Its drab frontage is devoid of clues, other than a large shuttered door for vehicular access, and only if you peer up the side will you spot telltale TfL signage at the top of a short set of steps. The substation also shields two very short, very private cul-de-sacs (one still Islington Place, the other Elystan Walk) forming a jarring gated bubble amid what's otherwise a charming conservation area.

Shaft 2: Gibson Square

As quadrilaterals go Gibson Square's more oblong, with two rows of prime Regency terraces facing off across a central rectangular garden. The square ticks every estate agent's box, from 'original internal features' to 'a very short walk to Upper Street'. It's also the finishing point of the very first route taxi drivers have to learn for The Knowledge, not that I saw any black cabs on my visit. And in the 1960s it was home to some particularly well-organised NIMBYs who totally didn't want a 15m ventilation shaft disfiguring their locale. The vent still needed to be built, but their protest (egged on by none other than Sir Basil Spence) led to a significant redesign and the creation of this smaller, squatter beauty.

The new design swapped height for cross section, enabling it to be much shorter. It was also dressed as a neoclassical temple, with a pediment on one side and three symmetrical recesses below, plus a band of decorated plasterwork beneath the upper rim. The rear has two false windows, but the main dazzle comes from the front when viewed across the rose garden. What's missing is a roof, in its place a wire mesh (with a nod to an aviary) through which the Victoria line's unwanted air escapes. It doesn't do this unaided, indeed the background whirr of fans is a permanent curse, but if you cover your ears and open your eyes it's a little marvel.

The architects were Raymond Erith and Quinlan Terry and they called their chunk of misdirection the Tower of the Winds. It seems to have assuaged the snootiest of neighbours, despite being the very embodiment of 'hiding in plain sight'. The local pigeons certainly love it, using every niche and classical protrusion as somewhere to perch. Again the sole visible clue to its true function is a red TfL warning sign on a door at the side saying 'No unauthorised access'. For those wishing to admire this unique ventilation shaft in person there are memorial benches to either side where you can rest awhile and listen to the hum. Just don't try to come by tube, any cabbie will know exactly where this is.

Shaft 3: Highbury Fields

We're now (just) north of Highbury and Islington station, where the arboreal grandeur of Highbury Fields was a shoo-in for the site of another air vent. Highbury Fields is Islington's largest park, a blank slate in what's otherwise a very densely populated borough. The engineers were careful this time and chose a central site away from houses, just beyond the swimming pool, part hidden behind the wall of a children's playground. That open air pool has since become Highbury Leisure Centre and the playground has been enlarged and swallowed the vent site whole. At first I thought it might have been the raised mound with the slide, acting as some kind of Victoria volcano, but instead it turned out to be the circular building on the right.

This one-storey doughnut has a circular vent in the centre, belching upwards, and a ring of storerooms and offices around the outside. Here the staff overseeing the Highbury Play Park can co-ordinate activities, stash supplies for the sandpit and retire for a cuppa. Around the exterior are pinned-up notices, a couple of mythical murals, plus what might have been a nice mosaic except half of it appears to have fallen off. There are also toilets, which are very much a rarity on the Victoria line although of no use to the passengers shuttling obliviously down below. If you plan to visit this one, best bring a child with you.

Shaft 4: Drayton Park station

Drayton Park is the outdoor halt on the Northern City line, where engineers saw the opportunity to plant a substation to power the new tube line running underneath. This lurks across the tracks at the 'staircase' end of the station, on the site of a former carriage shed, and is easily seen as a brick shed with a part-corrugated roof.

The surrounding area is now autumnal scrubby nomansland on the edge of the Emirates Stadium empire, but maintenance crews must have a way in and graffiti artists called Fatso and Jason have also gained access. According to OpenStreetMap the substation incorporates a ventilation shaft but I confess I couldn't see it, either in real life or on satellite view, so take this one with a pinch of salt.

Shaft 5: Drayton Park

This is more like it, a proper grey chimney poking out of a drab brick box. This is the kind of intrusion the residents of Gibson Square feared, and avoided. Instead the residents of Drayton Park were lumbered, this view in total contrast to their Victorian terraces opposite. They are totally used to disruption round here though, generally of the football supporter variety, because this is Highbury and very much Arsenal territory. Their old rectangular stadium was a few streets back and their new elliptical monster is just across the tracks. It's so close that part of the 2006 development immediately abuts the vent, this the coppery office block of Highbury House where the team's admin is based. I trust the windows on that side don't open.

Millions of matchgoers will have walked past this air vent without clocking its true function, perhaps on their way from Arsenal tube which is just round the corner. Again TfL have left no sign that the building's one of theirs, the nearest embellishment being a Gunners shield high on an adjacent wall. A pair of mighty crowd-resistant staircases then lead up and under towards the stadium, and only a little further down is the Matchday Store where devoted fans are readily parted from their money. It's all going on round here, not just in red and white but also in grey, exhaling high above everyone's heads.

Shaft 6: Ashburton Triangle

The map shows this as a small highlighted square within the railway wastes on the approach to Finsbury Park, where multiple tracks from Kings Cross and Moorgate merge. The apex of the Ashburton Triangle, Arsenal's associated highrise development, is very close. But nowhere here has public access so I decided the only thing to do was catch a Great Northern train south and see if I could glimpse it on the bend. My photo, of what might have been a brick tower shrouded in foliage, was a total blur. I then went the extra mile and walked round to the Gillespie Road Nature Reserve to see if it was visible through the fence.

A gap in the fence by the Ecology Centre provided the optimum viewpoint, which remained very poor indeed, but I think I can confirm there really is a tall rectangular object where OpenStreetMap says it ought to be. Older maps, however, confirm there's been an air shaft here long before the Victoria line was built. It was probably originally added to ventilate either the Piccadilly or Northern City lines, but given the amount of tunnel-repurposing that's taken place here who's to say it isn't also now Victoria-n too?

Shaft 7: Isledon Road

In good news we finish with a blatant presence, not a dubious mirage. This shaft backs onto the railway just to the south of Finsbury Park station on the outside of the first bend down Isledon Road. If you know the old Astoria/Odeon/Rainbow, now the UCKG's evangelical hub, it's down the side of that. There's always been a gap between the terraced houses here, it's just that one of those terraces has since metamorphosed into a Travelodge and a swooshing student accommodation block. An L-shaped tower has been built in the interstitial space, again made of brick because that was the 1960s vent material of choice, and rises to the level of the adjacent third floor windows.

It's well protected behind an original fence and a new higher fence with barbed wire on top, lest agents prejudicial to national security and public safety gain access. This time TfL have hidden all their signage out of sight, indeed everything bar a couple of bins and a roll of cable, so only those in the know would guess the tower's true purpose. It is at least a reminder that not everything in London can be flats, because the dull but crucial infrastructure has to go somewhere too. And most passengers on the Victoria line have absolutely no idea it's there, although they'd moan even more about temperatures in the summer if it wasn't.

It's a shame the next vent behind the tennis courts in Finsbury Park is officially in Haringey. From one side it looks like a graffitied park shelter, but round the back is a horizontal vent expelling air into a fenced-off compound overrun with evergreens, but because it's not in Islington I can't include it here.

<< click for Newer posts

click for Older Posts >>

click to return to the main page

...or read more in my monthly archives
Jan23  Feb23  Mar23  Apr23  May23  Jun23  Jul23  Aug23  Sep23  Oct23  Nov23  Dec23
Jan22  Feb22  Mar22  Apr22  May22  Jun22  Jul22  Aug22  Sep22  Oct22  Nov22  Dec22
Jan21  Feb21  Mar21  Apr21  May21  Jun21  Jul21  Aug21  Sep21  Oct21  Nov21  Dec21
Jan20  Feb20  Mar20  Apr20  May20  Jun20  Jul20  Aug20  Sep20  Oct20  Nov20  Dec20
Jan19  Feb19  Mar19  Apr19  May19  Jun19  Jul19  Aug19  Sep19  Oct19  Nov19  Dec19
Jan18  Feb18  Mar18  Apr18  May18  Jun18  Jul18  Aug18  Sep18  Oct18  Nov18  Dec18
Jan17  Feb17  Mar17  Apr17  May17  Jun17  Jul17  Aug17  Sep17  Oct17  Nov17  Dec17
Jan16  Feb16  Mar16  Apr16  May16  Jun16  Jul16  Aug16  Sep16  Oct16  Nov16  Dec16
Jan15  Feb15  Mar15  Apr15  May15  Jun15  Jul15  Aug15  Sep15  Oct15  Nov15  Dec15
Jan14  Feb14  Mar14  Apr14  May14  Jun14  Jul14  Aug14  Sep14  Oct14  Nov14  Dec14
Jan13  Feb13  Mar13  Apr13  May13  Jun13  Jul13  Aug13  Sep13  Oct13  Nov13  Dec13
Jan12  Feb12  Mar12  Apr12  May12  Jun12  Jul12  Aug12  Sep12  Oct12  Nov12  Dec12
Jan11  Feb11  Mar11  Apr11  May11  Jun11  Jul11  Aug11  Sep11  Oct11  Nov11  Dec11
Jan10  Feb10  Mar10  Apr10  May10  Jun10  Jul10  Aug10  Sep10  Oct10  Nov10  Dec10 
Jan09  Feb09  Mar09  Apr09  May09  Jun09  Jul09  Aug09  Sep09  Oct09  Nov09  Dec09
Jan08  Feb08  Mar08  Apr08  May08  Jun08  Jul08  Aug08  Sep08  Oct08  Nov08  Dec08
Jan07  Feb07  Mar07  Apr07  May07  Jun07  Jul07  Aug07  Sep07  Oct07  Nov07  Dec07
Jan06  Feb06  Mar06  Apr06  May06  Jun06  Jul06  Aug06  Sep06  Oct06  Nov06  Dec06
Jan05  Feb05  Mar05  Apr05  May05  Jun05  Jul05  Aug05  Sep05  Oct05  Nov05  Dec05
Jan04  Feb04  Mar04  Apr04  May04  Jun04  Jul04  Aug04  Sep04  Oct04  Nov04  Dec04
Jan03  Feb03  Mar03  Apr03  May03  Jun03  Jul03  Aug03  Sep03  Oct03  Nov03  Dec03
 Jan02  Feb02  Mar02  Apr02  May02  Jun02  Jul02 Aug02  Sep02  Oct02  Nov02  Dec02 

jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

» email me
» follow me on twitter
» follow the blog on Twitter
» follow the blog on RSS

» my flickr photostream

twenty blogs
our bow
ian visits
broken tv
blue witch
on london
the great wen
edith's streets
spitalfields life
round the island
wanstead meteo
christopher fowler
the greenwich wire
bus and train user
ruth's coastal walk
round the rails we go
london reconnections
from the murky depths

quick reference features
Things to do in Outer London
Things to do outside London
Inner London toilet map
20 years of blog series
The DG Tour of Britain
London's most...

read the archive
Dec23  Nov23  Oct23  Sep23
Aug23  Jul23  Jun23  May23
Apr23  Mar23  Feb23  Jan23
Dec22  Nov22  Oct22  Sep22
Aug22  Jul22  Jun22  May22
Apr22  Mar22  Feb22  Jan22
Dec21  Nov21  Oct21  Sep21
Aug21  Jul21  Jun21  May21
Apr21  Mar21  Feb21  Jan21
Dec20  Nov20  Oct20  Sep20
Aug20  Jul20  Jun20  May20
Apr20  Mar20  Feb20  Jan20
Dec19  Nov19  Oct19  Sep19
Aug19  Jul19  Jun19  May19
Apr19  Mar19  Feb19  Jan19
Dec18  Nov18  Oct18  Sep18
Aug18  Jul18  Jun18  May18
Apr18  Mar18  Feb18  Jan18
Dec17  Nov17  Oct17  Sep17
Aug17  Jul17  Jun17  May17
Apr17  Mar17  Feb17  Jan17
Dec16  Nov16  Oct16  Sep16
Aug16  Jul16  Jun16  May16
Apr16  Mar16  Feb16  Jan16
Dec15  Nov15  Oct15  Sep15
Aug15  Jul15  Jun15  May15
Apr15  Mar15  Feb15  Jan15
Dec14  Nov14  Oct14  Sep14
Aug14  Jul14  Jun14  May14
Apr14  Mar14  Feb14  Jan14
Dec13  Nov13  Oct13  Sep13
Aug13  Jul13  Jun13  May13
Apr13  Mar13  Feb13  Jan13
Dec12  Nov12  Oct12  Sep12
Aug12  Jul12  Jun12  May12
Apr12  Mar12  Feb12  Jan12
Dec11  Nov11  Oct11  Sep11
Aug11  Jul11  Jun11  May11
Apr11  Mar11  Feb11  Jan11
Dec10  Nov10  Oct10  Sep10
Aug10  Jul10  Jun10  May10
Apr10  Mar10  Feb10  Jan10
Dec09  Nov09  Oct09  Sep09
Aug09  Jul09  Jun09  May09
Apr09  Mar09  Feb09  Jan09
Dec08  Nov08  Oct08  Sep08
Aug08  Jul08  Jun08  May08
Apr08  Mar08  Feb08  Jan08
Dec07  Nov07  Oct07  Sep07
Aug07  Jul07  Jun07  May07
Apr07  Mar07  Feb07  Jan07
Dec06  Nov06  Oct06  Sep06
Aug06  Jul06  Jun06  May06
Apr06  Mar06  Feb06  Jan06
Dec05  Nov05  Oct05  Sep05
Aug05  Jul05  Jun05  May05
Apr05  Mar05  Feb05  Jan05
Dec04  Nov04  Oct04  Sep04
Aug04  Jul04  Jun04  May04
Apr04  Mar04  Feb04  Jan04
Dec03  Nov03  Oct03  Sep03
Aug03  Jul03  Jun03  May03
Apr03  Mar03  Feb03  Jan03
Dec02  Nov02  Oct02  Sep02
back to main page

the diamond geezer index
2021 2020 2019 2018 2017
2016 2015 2014 2013 2012
2011 2010 2009 2008 2007
2006 2005 2004 2003 2002

my special London features
a-z of london museums
E3 - local history month
greenwich meridian (N)
greenwich meridian (S)
the real eastenders
london's lost rivers
olympic park 2007
great british roads
oranges & lemons
random boroughs
bow road station
high street 2012
river westbourne
trafalgar square
capital numbers
east london line
lea valley walk
olympics 2005
regent's canal
square routes
silver jubilee
unlost rivers
cube routes
Herbert Dip
capital ring
river fleet

ten of my favourite posts
the seven ages of blog
my new Z470xi mobile
five equations of blog
the dome of doom
chemical attraction
quality & risk
london 2102
single life
april fool

ten sets of lovely photos
my "most interesting" photos
london 2012 olympic zone
harris and the hebrides
betjeman's metro-land
marking the meridian
tracing the river fleet
london's lost rivers
inside the gherkin
seven sisters

just surfed in?
here's where to find...
diamond geezers
flash mob #1  #2  #3  #4
ben schott's miscellany
london underground
watch with mother
cigarette warnings
digital time delay
wheelie suitcases
war of the worlds
transit of venus
top of the pops
old buckenham
ladybird books
acorn antiques
digital watches
outer hebrides
olympics 2012
school dinners
pet shop boys
west wycombe
bletchley park
george orwell
big breakfast
clapton pond
san francisco
children's tv
east enders
trunk roads
little britain
credit cards
jury service
big brother
jubilee line
number 1s
titan arum
doctor who
blue peter
peter pan
feng shui
leap year
bbc three
vision on
ID cards