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This train ain’t going nowhere: A visit to London’s lost tube station Aldwych

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The eastern platform at Aldwych station, which was taken out of use in August 1917

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Gone, but not forgotten: Aldwych sign

I have always been fascinated with derelict and abandoned places since I was a child. It was probably the result of reading too many Enid Blyton books and dreaming of being an explorer. Growing up in London, I have seen a few stations renamed or cease to exist over the years – such as the King’s Cross Thameslink station where I used to pass through on my way to work in the early Noughties or the Jubilee line platforms at Charing Cross. I had read about the disused underground station Aldwych online – and passed the familiar red tilework of its former entrance on The Strand many times and found there were rare opportunities to actually visit it.

After ages of keeping my eyes peeled for a potential chance to visit, the London Transport Museum occasionally opens the doors for its Hidden London tours of Aldwych for a limited time only so a friend and I jumped at the chance to go. The one hour tour was arranged by the London Transport Museum with volunteers generously providing their time to share their knowledge of the history of the Grade II-listed building.

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The original Edwardian booking office, which was closed in 1922

Finding out the history of Aldwych – a station just a stone’s throw away from Temple – could easily make you question why it was even opened in the first place. Owners knew it wouldn’t be a busy station and despite building three lift shafts – which could hold six lifts – only one was ever used. It was the lifts which prompted the final closure of the station in 1994 because the expense of fixing them could not be justified for such a lightly used station.

Aldwych station was originally conceived as the southern terminus for a new underground railway line owned by Great Northern and Strand Railway in the late 1800s. However when the tube project merged with another – becoming the Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway – the Piccadilly line was born, with Strand station – as it was known in the early parts of its life – becoming a branch off the main line.

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Remnants of Aldwych’s former name: The station was called Strand – with some of the tiling still visible on the eastern platform – until 1915

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Short section of original track and the bricked up tunnel on the long-abandoned eastern platform

After the demolition of the Royal Strand Theatre on the site, construction of The Strand station started in October 1905 and was opened in November 1907. The design followed that of architect Leslie Green‘s standard station design – distinct dark red glazed brick on street level, with platform walls tiled in cream and green. Above the entrance, featured arched windows with office space. Green also designed Oxford Circus, Elephant & Castle and Leicester Square stations, among others. Strand station was a L shaped building with entrances and exits on The Strand and Surrey Street – which can still be seen today.
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Holding Out For A Hero: A monument to heroes at Postman’s Park

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Postman’s Park in the City of London

The word ‘hero’ can often be overused, for example as an alternative for describing someone you love or a favourite celebrity. When we come to think of true heroes, this summer we have may used the word (quite rightly) to describe the Olympians and Paralympians who performed feats we could never have dreamed possible. Then of course, there are the staff of the emergency services and Armed Forces, who put their lives on the line for others on a daily basis.

Sadly, not every hero gets the chance to revel in their glory as many have lost their life in the act of trying to save someone. While newspapers can pay tribute for one day only, one Victorian gentleman made sure the heroes in his lifetime were given a lasting, public memorial.

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In memoriam: The loggia containing George Frederic Watts’ Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice

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The story behind the monument

Those who work in the City of London may well have passed by Postman’s Park, a quaint park sandwiched in between the modern concrete buildings that stand on King Edward Street and St Martin Le Grand. Although relatively small, it’s actually one of the largest parks in the City of London. Situated just north of St Paul’s tube station, the head office of  the General Post Office (GPO) used to stand nearby, hence the name Postman’s Park.

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Detail: Doulton Lambeth written subtly in the corner of one tile

The park is essentially the former burial ground for the Grade I-listed St Botolph’s Aldersgate Church (which still stands in the park grounds) and the former Christ Church Greyfriars (which was largely destroyed by bombs in World War II) nearby, with old grave stones lined up against the modern buildings bordering the park. In the North corner of the park stands George Frederic Watts’ Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice – the main reason I come to the park. As I have never worked in the City, I hadn’t heard of the park until I read the Audrey Niffenegger novel Her Fearful Symmetry last year, which featured some of the characters visit Postman’s Park. I thought it sounded intriguing and was pleased to read it was real when I Googled it. The park also appears in opening sequence of the 2004 film Closer, with Natalie Portman’s character Jane adopts the pseudonym Alice after reading one of the plaques dedicated to one Alice Ayres, who died saving children from a house fire in 1885.

The main draw is a Victorian memorial to people who have died in heroic circumstances. Under a wooden loggia stand rows of ceramic tiles depicting names, dates and details of the tragedies. Victorian painter George Frederic Watts proposed the idea in 1887 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, but it wasn’t unveiled until 1900. Although it had place for up to 120 plaques, only four were in place at the opening. When Watts died in 1904, his widow Mary pledged to continue what her husband started and added more tiles.

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William De Morgan’s tiles (top row) were handpainted and included green and flaming torch details, while the later Royal Doulton tiles (bottom row) included purple flowers and were significantly different, to the disdain of Mary Watts

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Sad: Compositor Ernest Benning drowned near Pimlico Pier in 1883

Visitors to the Memorial will notice a big difference between the two styles of tile. The earlier style was designed by Watts’ associate William De Morgan and included handwritten tributes and flaming torches, while the latter was by manufacturer Royal Doulton and included purple flowers. Although Mary hoped to fill in all 120 spaces, she eventually had to withdraw from the project in 1910 due to other interests.

Over the years, the memorial wasn’t expanded, despite the empty spaces. Today, the memorial mostly reads tragic stories of children and adults who died in circumstances that may well have been common in Victorian Britain. The only modern addition is a tile dedicated to Leigh Pitt, a print technician from Surrey, who died saving a young boy from the canal in Thamesmead in 2007.

  • Postman’s Park has entrances on King Edward Street or St-Martin’s-Le-Grand in the City of London, EC1. Nearest tube: St Paul’s.
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A Croydon hero: Police constable Robert Wright died in 1893 saving a woman from a house fire

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The only modern addition: A monument to Leigh Pitt, who died in 2007


For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.