Every now and again, TfL dust off the disused Aldwych tube station and throw open the doors for guided tours. I was lucky enough to find out about it in time to grab some tickets. It’s a not-to-be-missed and rare opportunity to see a bit of London that you would never normally get to visit so needless to say, the tickets sold out pretty quickly.
It wasn’t the first time I’d been to Aldwych – last year the station was opened up as part of a series of events across London commemorating the Blitz and we got a chance to experience a taste of what it must have been like for people who used tube stations and tunnels as shelters during air raids.
First opened to passengers in 1907, Aldwych never received the volume of traffic expected to use it. As a branch station, trains were infrequent and the proximity of busier Holborn station meant people shunned poor old Aldwych. Services changed to peak hours only, then the station finally closed its doors in 1994. During its 87-year history, it saw service as an air raid shelter (as mentioned above) and safe storage for treasures from the British Museum. There are tons of websites going into way more detail than I’m prepared to so I won’t bore readers with it all. Aldwych does remain a popular filming location – scenes from Atonement, Die Another Day and Neil Gaiman’s fantastic Neverwhere were filmed here, as was Prodigy’s Firestarter video.
What’s wrong with the tour?
Other bloggers have complained that the tour, which is operated by the London Transport Museum, is excessively concerned with imparting H&S rules and bans on digital SLR cameras. I went armed with a compact camera rather than my SLR and the lighting conditions are obviously not ideal so my photos were a bit disappointing but hopefully enough to give readers an idea of what the station is like.
After having our bags searched, we were shepherded into the ticket hall where we were welcomed by a staff member from the museum. The talk was primarily about health and safety, the reasons why visitors aren’t allowed to wear open-toed shoes or high heels (in case an evacuation requires us to walk down the tracks to Holborn) and pointing out the fact that there are 160 steps down to the platforms and 160 steps back up. On the eastern platform we were chivvied rather annoyingly along to listen to a talk about the station’s history before being given three minutes to take pictures – yes, we were told three minutes. A staff member then walked up the lovely, empty platform, thus ruining any shots we might have liked to take of it curving away into the distance. In fact, throughout the tour, staff managed to position themselves in the most obstructive and inconvenient places possible between bouts of pushing us along like recalcitrant schoolchidren, also ensuring we didn’t get nearly enough time to take decent pictures or fiddle with camera settings.
Given that the majority of people who would visit a disused tube station are going to be tube geeks, London bloggers like me, transport bloggers and history buffs, it should be fairly obvious that we’d want to take as many photos as we could. The ban on SLRs is irritating but understandable as it’s for commercial reasons, but then making it awkward to even use a compact is ridiculous. A prime example of this was on the western platform where an old Northern line train was sitting (unfortunately closed so we couldn’t fling ourselves onto the seats). They had put up a barrier just a few feet from the front of the train, presumably to prevent us launching ourselves onto the tracks enthusiastically and with wanton disregard for the gods of H&S. Not only was there a barrier but a man guarding the barrier which meant we couldn’t take pictures of the front of the train. This is just infuriatingly niggardly. We asked if we could go through the barrier just to take one picture and the staff member refused, though did take a picture for us with our camera.
The whole thing felt rushed and for £20 per ticket I expected it to be better. Even allowing an extra 15-30 minutes per tour would have made it better. Although it was great to see both platforms, the Blitz tour was fascinating, colourful and informative whereas this tour was lifeless and hurried.
If you missed out this time, keep an eye on the London Transport Museum’s website for future tours. Londonist also have a video from when Aldwych was a working station, complete with LU staff blithely ignoring H&S rules to jump onto the track.
See all my Aldwych photos on Flickr. I’ve also included some from the Blitz tour.