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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.