Travel: What lies beneath the streets of London

Travel: What lies beneath the streets of London

Pauline Webber | Fairfax Media | September 3 2017

In 1849, workmen digging a new sewer at Smithfield in London uncovered a great pile of ash and human bones.

They'd stumbled across the site where, in the 16th century, a group of religious martyrs had met their grisly end. No one at the time thought the place worth protecting. Like hundreds of other historic sites before and after, this one was swiftly swallowed by the relentless passage of progress.

Even today, turning up archaeological treasures is an occupational hazard for London's builders. After all, they're drilling into two millennia of human habitation. There's another London under London, a hidden metropolis, descending in layers through geological time to prehistory. All over the city there are secret and not-so-secret entrances to this separate subterranean world. Stepping through a few of them will give you a whole new take on the UK capital. 

The London Silver Vaults

Through a door off Chancery Lane, you'll find a vast underground market place, a series of vaults and more than 40 shops crammed with ornaments and jewellery, all made of silver. In 1885, the city's silver dealers set up these strongrooms so they could store and trade their goods in safety. During World War II, a bomb completely destroyed the building at street level but the sturdy vaults were undamaged. For more details, see silvervaultslondon.com.

Thames tunnels

There are more tunnels under the Thames than there are bridges that cross it. Marc Brunel, engineer father of the more famous Isambard Kingdom Brunel, was the first to build a tunnel to carry traffic beneath the busy waterway. Brunel's Thames Tunnel, which connects Rotherhithe and Wapping and opened in 1843, now forms part of the rail network, with little to remind us of the sudden floods and poisonous gases that cost so many tunnel workers, known in the 19th century as mole men, their lives.

You can also walk under the river via two foot tunnels. The Greenwich foot tunnel, built in 1902 and 370 metres long, runs from the Isle of Dogs to Greenwich. A few kilometres east, the entrances to the 504-metre Woolwich tunnel are located in two marvellously ornate heritage-listed buildings.

Churchill War Rooms

The British government co-ordinated the war effort from this warren of bunkers under Whitehall. In 1945 they simply switched out the lights and left, preserving everything as it was. The wall maps with pins, old-style phones etc are all still in place, so this museum really does feel like you've stepped back in time. See iwm.org.uk/visits/churchillwar-rooms for more information.

Caves and catacombs

When you're wandering around Camden Markets, you're standing above a web of vaults and passageways known as the Camden Catacombs, built in the 19th century as stabling for the pit ponies that serviced the railway/canal interchange. The catacombs are rarely open to the public but you can catch glimpses from the Camden Stables Market.

Located in Kent, on the outskirts of London, Chislehurst Caves are a series of intersecting tunnels some 35 kilometres long, created by miners digging out flint and chalk going back at least as far as the 12th century. For tour times, see chislehurst-caves.co.uk.

Exploring the Tube

For a long time, a poster of the map of the London Underground was quite the thing to add a cosmopolitan air to your apartment, and its logo is as famous a symbol of London as Big Ben or St Pauls. The Tube incorporates 11 lines, 270 stations and 402 kilometres of track, and while much of it is actually above ground, Hampstead station is an impressive 58.5 metres deep. The London Transport Museum (ltmuseum.co.uk) organises occasional tours exploring the eerie ghost stations and abandoned tunnels in the network.

Just as fascinating is the Mail Rail, a 90-year-old narrow-gauge railway network far below the surface. From 1927 until 2003, the Royal Mail ran automated trains zipping letters and billets-doux between sorting offices. Go to postalmuseum.org for opening times.

Bars and cafes

A set of wooden steps at Villiers Street takes you down to the vaulted, candle-lit cellar that's become one of London's most famous watering holes. Gordon's Wine Bar (gordonswinebar.com) opened in 1890, making it the oldest such establishment in the city. It's steeped in atmosphere and, as a bonus, Rudyard Kipling and Samuel Pepys lived in the building above.

The cafe in the crypt of St Martinin-the-Fields church makes a perfect retreat from the daytime crowds in Trafalgar Square. Or come in the evening to catch the regular Jazz Night gigs. See stmartin-in-the-fields.org

Main image by Michaelpuche

 

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