Side Tracked: Aldwych Station Tour

This December I was lucky enough to get some tickets to visit the ‘abandoned’ Aldwych Tube Station. – Abandoned is a lose term as it is still frequently used as a test facility and film set. It is not on the same par of Abandoned as say, Museum or Brompton Road but it hasn’t seen active service since 1994 and even before then parts of the station had been closed since the early part of the 20th century.

It isn’t my intention to give you a full history lesson on the station, there are better and more established sites for that. There are no shortage of bloggers either who have already visited and catalogued this unique urban experience but, I am as an enthusiast of such things, duty bound to add my experience too.

Aldywch station is somewhat of an anomaly. The original Piccadilly Line on which it was located was born from two separate Tube routes. A north-south route: Finsbury Park – Aldwych and an east-west route: Piccadilly towards Kensington. It was realised that it would be efficient to amalgamate these two routes to form one continuous service at Holborn. Construction of Aldwych had however already begun. This left it at the end of a rather out of place single station branch line. It’s close proximity to both Holborn and Temple meant patronage never picked up – dealing it’s fate very early on in it’s existence. It is evident in the following article that the size of Aldwych originally intended to handle many more passengers than it ever did.

Ticket Office

Let’s start in the ticket office (click to enlarge images)…

The station opened as ‘Strand’ in 1907 and is a product of architect Leslie Green who was responsible for the uniformly designed red terracota tube stations of the time. The ticket hall in the above gallery and many of it’s original Leslie Green tiling and embellishment features have been refurbished for the purpose of filming.

The ticket office feels spacious but largely empty. After all, we’re not used to seeing tube stations without gatelines, copious posters and information signage adorning every space.

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Lifts and Closure

Ultimately the reason the station closed in 1994 was down to these original Otis lifts. To bring them in line with modern safety regulations they needed to be refurbished to the tune of £3m. This cost far outstripped the mere 450 passengers using the station daily. As a result Aldwych closed on the 30th September of that year. In fact, if Aldwych was open now it would be the least used station on the Underground network just above Roding Valley (570 people per day). Ironically Aldwych wasn’t the least used station in 1994. This accolade went to both Ongar and North Weald who collectively only managed 100 daily passengers. They also closed on the same day.

The lifts have been wonderfully preserved although they are no longer operational – being fixed in their place at street level. Originally Aldwych was to have 6 lifts: 2 lifts in each of 3 shafts. From the off passenger levels were predicted to be low so only 1 shaft was fitted out. Notice the secret trap door which enabled emergency evacuation to the other lift should one fail. This was a common feature of lift designs in tube stations of the time. In 1922 the tickets were issued by the lift operator following the closure of the ticket office. A bell would be rung when a train left Holborn alerting the lift operator to the approaching service. Also note the numbers above the lift which would rise and fall in relation to where the lift was in the shaft.

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Lower Level

Descending the stairs to reach platform level we arrive at the lower end of the lift shafts. Apparently ‘Mr Selfridge’ had used the station as a set hence the sign pointing towards the ‘Bakerloo Line.’ It is often easy to forget in operational tube stations the embellishments left by architect Leslie Green, in this environment they jump out at you albeit in a decaying way.

Shuttle services would depart Aldwych’s two Platforms bound for a either the bay platform or through platform at Holborn. In it’s early days a through train would operate for late night theatre goers. This however was discontinued and the eastern platform was taken out of use just 7 years after opening in 1914. It was then closed off and sealed behind a maintenance door. It would not see action again until it was used as a museum store and later an air raid shelter in WWII.

*     *     *

Western Platform

The station was mooted for closure as early as the late 1920’s but managed to hobble along with a skeleton service for another 65 years. This platform remained in use for shuttle services from Holborn until 1994. On construction only half the platform decoration was completed as it was only ever served by short 2 car trains. It is quite clear to see the point where the decoration finishes and the bare tunnel begins. The line and junction with the Piccadilly main line remains opperational and trains can still enter this platform for the purpose of filming, and normally a 1967 stock train is stored somewhere in the tunnel between here and Holborn. The station roundel, although convincing, was actually part of a cheaply installed film set. Presumably the station was being portrayed sometime after it had it’s name changed in 1915. Most of this platform is in decent condition but it is hard to tell if damage and apparent decay is real or part of a film set. It has been used in the past as a location in Creep, V for Vendetta and 28 Weeks Later to name but a few.

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Eastern Platform

Closed to passenger use in just 1914 the Eastern Platform definitely is in a worse condition. This part of the station I felt is what people had come to see. The Western Platform is kept in a faux state of good repair for it’s film usage and as a result doesn’t quite have that ‘abandoned’ quality I know many seek to experience. The Eastern Platform is as close as you are going to get to a Ghost Station in decay without visiting the likes of Museum, Brompton Road or Down Street. This is the real Aldwych.

Although.. look closer and parts of it aren’t Aldwych at all! Tiling experiments for other stations appear sporadically along the tunnel walls. Quite a large mock up of Piccadilly Circus’ tiling adorns the far corner next to some light blue ones presumably from a suburban Victoria Line Station. Elements from Charing Cross appear in the stair way along with Bond Street which has been chipped away to reveal the original Leslie Green ‘Strand’ motif and pattern. Along with many test posters from many eras this mutation of very new on very old element to this platform is quite bizarre, but quite accurately mimics what would happen if you strip away the modern coating on many tube stations in operation today.

At one end of the station the trackbed has been paved over. This was to accommodate museum artefacts and later people during the WWII Blitz. At the other end the overrun tunnel can be seen with a chair and wheelbarrow dumped and forgotten about in the mists of time. Genuine original Leslie Green tiling can also be seen next to an unfinished staircase leading back to the lifts.

The track here is the original 1907 installation and is actually listed along with the unusually square conductor rail insulators! Notice there were no ‘suicide pits’ at the time.

*     *     *

Posters

None of the posters in the station are originals. Most on the Western Platform have been carefully chosen to depict whichever era is relevant for the film set (in this case quite obviously WWII!). Those in the Eastern Platform are a mismatch from various times and have been used as tests for new glues and adhesives. It’s quite odd to see a poster for Britain joining the European Common Market on a platform clearly closed at a time when that dream was far from reality. Almost as if you are time travelling whilst walking down the platform.

*     *     *

Unfinished

Finally we were lead into a truly abandoned part of the station. Originally the station was designed to have two routes from the lift shafts to platform level. Passengers would enter through one side of the lifts and exit through the other. This was designed to regulate the flow of passengers in one direction only, much like Covent Garden is today. Due to the low usage it was deemed safe enough for everyone to enter and exit the lift at platform level through the same doors. The rest of the infrastructure was therefore never completed and never opened at all. The Museum and TfL rarely open this part of the station up so we were lucky to get a peak inside.

This area was very dark and very eerie. Some salty residue dripped from the ceiling which reminded my friend about a rather terrifying episode of Dr. Who he’d watched as a kid with killer foam filling the tunnels on the Underground.

What If?…

It’s somewhat of a mystery why Aldwych was ever completed at all, and at times even more amazing it survived for so long. Perhaps other opportunities were missed in improving Aldwych’s fortunes, such as why was an underground link not provided with nearby Temple? This may have improved the stations footfall as an interchange facility. Why was Holborn constructed in such a way with only 1 through platform provided? This surely scuppered any future suggestions of southern extensions.

Future of Aldwych

So now we come to the end of our visit to Aldwych, at least for now. Throughout it’s history numerous suggestions were made for alternative uses for the station. Many suggestions of an extension southwards to Waterloo never materialised. Probably due to the Northern Line providing this function and the need to rebuild Holborn to accommodate a full two way service.

More recent suggestions include using the shell of the building to form part of a DLR extension from bank towards Trafalgar Square. Although the platforms wouldn’t be used, overrun tunnels from the nearby ex-Jubilee Line platforms at Charing Cross would be utilised.

His Borisness has also hinted towards selling off London’s unused Underground spaces. In fact this has already happened at Brompton Road. Similar to the New York Transit Museum, which is located in an almost identical single station branch line arrangement, Aldwych could be opened up as a dedicated museum piece. The New York counterpart is able to showcase more rolling stock at a platform level than the current Transport Museum can accommodate in Covent Garden which would be a nice positive. However, it is my belief that Aldwych should be left alone, only to be opened up as it is – rarely, so the public can benefit from the more authentic ghost station feel and to see some of it’s original untampered with features.

In time however it is only inevitable that it will fall into such decay that maintenance to make it safe, for filming, for testing, for public viewings or even as a museum piece would need to be carried out. But for the time being whilst it’s in such a historic state, I implore you to get on a tour next year! You won’t regret it.

Holborn

Holborn Abandoned Platform

Image by ‘PaulN

It’s easy to forget that Aldwych is only half the story! Although this was not part of the tour, there are two unused Platforms at Holborn which often get forgotten in the Aldwych tale. One of which remains in very good condition with excellent examples of original Leslie Green tiling work. It also survives as a testing and filming facility.

Thanks

A big thanks to the staff of the Transport Museum for a splendid and knowledgeable tour.

Also huge plaudits to my colleague, friend and cameraman Danny Cox who took the images you have seen.

Andy Carter
(All Images by Danny Cox and Andy Carter
with exception to Holborn by ‘PaulN’)

8 thoughts on “Side Tracked: Aldwych Station Tour

  1. Glad you had a fascinating tour! Your colleague has taken some great photos, even one at track level. Would make a great article in one of the railway magazines.
    Dad.

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