One of London’s hidden rivers is flowing through one of the capital’s busy tube stations.
London is home to many ‘hidden’ rivers. Many of these became subterranean in the 19th century as the capital’s population boomed. A host of tributaries of the River Thames and River Lea have been forced underground and now exist in pipes. While most of the secret rivers aren’t visible to most Londoners today, there is one river you can see (sort of).
The River Westbourne was originally named Kilburn – originating from ‘Cye Bourne’, which means ‘royal stream’. It rises in the Whitestone Pond in Hampstead and flows south through Kilburn, Bayswater, Hyde Park and Chelsea, before discharging in the River Thames near Chelsea Bridge. One of the crossings over the Westbourne was the Knights’ Bridge, a name dating back to at least the 11th century. Although the bridge is long gone, its name lives on in the district of Knightsbridge. There was another bridge crossing the Westbourne in the Sloane Square area named Blandel Bridge, later being renamed as Grosvenor Bridge.
The Serpentine lake in Hyde Park was formed in 1730 when King George II’s wife Queen Caroline (1683-1737) ordered the damning of the Westbourne. The river continued to supply the Serpentine until 1834, when it was deemed too polluted, so Thames water was used instead.
London’s population boom in the 19th century prompted widespread development. Increased residential dwellings popping up in the areas surrounding the Westbourne in Paddington, Chelsea and Belgravia, led to the decision to drive the Westbourne underground. The water was directed into pipes in the early part of the 19th century.
Today, commuters who use Sloane Square tube station can see the River Westbourne crossing the platform and tracks in a pipe. A large iron pipe suspended from girders carries the Westbourne through Sloane Square station, which was opened in December 1868. The pipe is the original one from the 19th century and managed to escape damage when the station was bombed during World War II in November 1940.
- Sloane Square tube station, Chelsea, SW1W 8BB. Nearest station: Sloane Square (obviously!).
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When commuting in the capital, it’s easy to ignore our surroundings and focus on the task at hand – getting from A to B with your sanity intact. However, next time you find yourself waiting a few minutes for your next tube, why not look around you. Art on the Underground, funded by Transport for London, has been bringing art to the tube for over 15 years. As 2018 is the centenary of women’s suffrage, this year’s programme will feature exclusively female artists.
In June 2018, a new art installation was unveiled at Gloucester Road station. Situated on the disused platform by the Circle and District lines is ‘My Name is Lettie Eggysrub’ by London artist Heather Phillipson. One of her pieces, entitled ‘The End’, has been chosen for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, which will be unveiled in 2020.
The 80-metre long platform features two 4-metre high 3D fried egg sculptures, a giant automated whisk, a dozen 65-inch screens and oversized prints. The surreal piece explores the dual role of the egg as food and part of the biological process. Among the imagery includes custard tarts, tomato ketchup, egg sandwiches and diagrams of chicken foetuses.
- ‘My name is lettie eggysrub’ by Heather Phillipson is on at Gloucester Road tube station until June 2019. Nearest station: Gloucester Road. For more information, visit the Art on the Underground website.
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Victorian cricketer John Wisden’s business has been immortalised on the Leslie Green-designed London Underground station.
The architecture of London’s tube stations vary wildly, from Victorian façades to modern 21st century designs. However, the exteriors’ designs tend to be exclusively for Transport for London. However, there is an exception to this, where a separate business has been immortalised in the iconic ox blood-red tiling of Leicester Square station. If you look at the Cranbourn Street exit, you’ll see a set of cricket stumps, a ball and a pair of bats along with the words ‘J Wisden & Compy No.21′.
Long before Leicester Square station was built, there was a Victorian cricketer named John Wisden (1826-1884), who played for Kent, Middlesex and Sussex over a career that spanned 18 years. However, it was his ventures off the field that he is mostly remembered for today. While still playing, he teamed up with sports outfitter Fred Lillywhite(1829-1866) in 1855 to create a side business. The pair opened a cricket and cigar shop at 2 New Coventry Street, just off Leicester Square. However, their partnership was dissolved in January 1859 with Lillywhite handing over the business to Wisden. In the 1861 census, he is listed as living above the shop with his sister, his teenage cousin and a porter, Joseph Williams. In addition to being a good cricketer, it appears Wisden was a successful businessman and expanded into publishing following early retirement. In 1863, Wisden hung up his bat at the age of 37 because of his rheumatism. The following year, he launched the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, a reference book of the sport published annually. Wisden wanted the book to compete with his former business partner-turned-rival Lillywhite’s The Guide To Cricketers.
By 1872, he moved his shop to the other side of Leicester Square at 21 Cranbourn Street. At the time, Cranbourn Street connected St Martin’s Lane to Leicester Square, as Charing Cross Road did not exist until 1886. He expanded his business into manufacturing and retailing other sports equipment, as well as cricket. In April 1884, Wisden died of cancer in his flat above the shop aged 55. He passed away unmarried and childless, so his estate went to his sister. She sold the company to Wisden’s general manager Henry Luff (1856-1910), who went on to open a second store in Great Newport Street – just a few minutes walk away – in 1896.
Luff died in 1910 – the year Leicester Square tube station opened. Three houses on Cranbourn Street were compulsory purchased by tube bosses and demolished to make way for the new transport. The new station, which serviced the Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway, was designed by architect Leslie Green (1875-1908), known for his signature style of ox-blood red tiling and semi-circular first-floor windows. Following the opening of the tube, the Wisden store was relocated in the new station. As a sign of Wisden’s respected reputation and standing, Green had incorporated Wisden signage into his iconic red tiling.
The Wisden store was subsequently run by Luff’s son Ernest and it received the royal warrant for their “appointment as Athletic Outfitters to the King”, George V, in 1911. Despite this honour, the station shop went on to close in 1928, with the nearby Great Newport Street branch hanging on longer until 1961. While the shops are long gone, Wisden’s publishing company still continues today and is now an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing. The Almanack is still published annually today and remains popular with cricket fans around the world.
- The Wisden sign can be seen on the exterior of Exit 4 of Leicester Square tube station. Above Wok To Walk, 21 Cranbourn Street, Westminster, WC2H 7AA. Nearest station: Leicester Square.
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The history of the ‘Thin House’ in South Kensington.
Standing in a quiet square sandwiched between South Kensington tube station and the Victoria & Albert Museum is a rather unusual block of flats. No.5 Thurloe Square, nicknamed ‘the Thin House’, is thought to be one of the narrowest homes in the capital. Looking at the block from the south-west corner of the square, the house looks ridiculously narrow. However, it’s somewhat of an optical illusion as the building is actually triangular, which widens as you move further east.
Thurloe Square was built in 1840-1846 on land belonging to the Alexander Estate. The square was named after the Thurloe family – from which brothers John and James Alexander inherited the land following the death of their great-grandmother Anna Maria Harris’ son from her second marriage. Anna Maria, who inherited the estate in the early 18th century, was left widowed from her first marriage to John Browne (the Alexanders’ great-grandfather), and remarried John Thurloe Brace – grandson of the Puritan statesman John Thurloe (1616-1668). Their son Harris Thurloe Brace died without an heir in 1799, so the estate passed on to his mother’s family from her first marriage.
Most of the houses in Thurloe Square were designed by London-born architect George Basevi (1794-1845), a student of Sir John Soane and a cousin of Benjamin Disraeli. The terraces were designed in his signature neo-classical style with Doric columned porches at the front doors. This entrance feature is now a signature design of mid-Victorian terraces in the area. However, just two decades later, 23 houses in Thurloe Square were designated to be handed over to the Metropolitan District Railway, who were working on a new transport advancement, now known affectionately as ‘the tube‘. Landowner at the time, H.B. Alexander was thoroughly unimpressed and fought against the plans, but the Government overruled him. Mr Alexander could only be grateful that the Government banned the railways from erecting an entrance to South Kensington station in Thurloe Square as it would have ruined the amenities and character. The railways bought Nos. 1-11 Thurloe Square for £3,000, but in the end, only five houses (Nos. 1-5) on Thurloe Square were demolished in 1867. The company had bought a total of 42 houses from the Alexander Estate over various roads, but only destroyed 19. Some of the surviving buildings had their back gardens dramatically reduced. In 1868, South Kensington station opened, providing services on the Metropolitan and the Metropolitan District Railway lines.
By the late 19th century, Kensington and Chelsea were world-renowned as a hub for art. Flocks of artists built studios in the area, many of which still exist today. Two Victorian artists’ homes Leighton House Museum and 18 Stafford Terrace are currently open as museums. With the railway lines just a few feet away from the south side of Thurloe Square, the triangular site of former Nos.1-5, remained vacant for many years. However, prolific local builder William Douglas saw its potential for seven artists’ studios. The wedge-shaped red brick block was built between 1885-1887. The large north-facing windows are perfect for letting in lots of light for the artists to work in. Building plans were submitted to the Metropolitan Board of Works by surveyor C.W. Stephenson on behalf of Douglas, suggesting he may have been the architect. At its narrowest point, the building is said to be 6ft wide, spanning to 34ft at its largest. The building proved popular with artists. The 1911 census showed a landscape painter named Arthur Johnson Ryle (1857-1915) was living in studio 3.
In 1899, Thurloe Square was surveyed by Charles Booth for his poverty map. Notably, the houses on the south of the Square overlooking the railway were labelled ‘middle class’, while the remaining residences were ‘upper middle and upper class, wealthy’. Today, Kensington remains an area with some of the most expensive houses in the country. Most of the original Basevi terraces are Grade II listed, as is South Kensington station. While not listed, the artists’ studios are an impressive piece of real estate today. In 2016, a top floor artist studio apartment covering just 600 square foot in 5 Thurloe Square went up for sale for £895.000.
- ‘The Thin House’, 5 Thurloe Square, Kensington, SW7. Nearest station: South Kensington. NB: This building contains private residences and are not open to the public.
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Review: Dining in an old tube train in Walthamstow.
I love the concept of supper clubs, although I haven’t been to as many as I should due to the advance planning required for many of them. However, as a lover of quirky and unusual London events, when I heard about Basement Galley’s Underground Supper Club, I was eager to experience it.
Basement Galley originally started in a Brixton flat run by two friends Tom Fothergill and chef Alex Cooper in 2011. However, it is now an established catering company who host supper clubs on a decommissioned 1969 London Underground carriage in Walthamstow… which, obviously, belonged to the Victoria line. The carriage is now on street level and sits in the grounds of the Walthamstow Pump House Museum. Having huge success with their evening supper clubs on the tube, they recently expanded to offering brunch – one of the most popular weekend activities for many Londoners.
I visited recently for a Saturday brunch with my boyfriend. When booking, you have several options depending on how intimate you want your experience or size of your party. In the traditional Supper Club spirit, we were happy to join a communal table so we were seated in a typical row of tube seating with a table in the standing area for £39pp. However, there are also two and four people seating options if your party wants more privacy. Arriving at the yard, we were greeted with a welcome shot of Bloody Caesars with Smoked Vodka, which certainly woke us up. We entered the tube through the driver’s carriage which was fascinating getting to see the old signage and various controls.
Admittedly, we were initially rather distracted by the details of the vintage carriage to look at the menu. As someone who has grown up with Brixton as my closest tube station, I have a particular affection for the Victoria line and had ridden this particular tube stock for most of my life until they were decommissioned in 2011.
The set menu changes seasonally and includes three courses with bottomless tea or coffee, with options to order Prosecco or G ‘n’ Ts. To start with, we snacked on picked crudités and sipped orange juice and tea/coffee while getting acquainted with our fellow table guests, a friendly and jovial mix of mostly professional 20-30 somethings. Our first course were Cauliflower Fritters with an Avocado Dip. I really enjoyed the contrast of the crispy fritters with the smooth dip and it didn’t spend long on my plate. For mains, was an Irish treat of Colcannon Mash, Poached Egg and Pancetta Crisp, which was really delicious, but not so photogenic as the other courses (hence the lack of image in this piece!). Admittedly, I felt rather full afterwards, but just about managed to find room for the very naughty Caramelised Banana Brioche and Peanut Ice Cream, which was tasty, but very sweet.
Overall, it was a great brunch experience. The food was brilliant, the service was attentive and friendly and the setting which was pretty special. I highly recommend for any Londoners looking to spice up their usual weekend brunch routine with something a little different.
- The Basement Galley Supper Club takes place at the Walthamstow Pump House Museum, 10 S Access Road, Walthamstow, E17 8AX. Nearest station: St James Street. For booking, visit the Basement Galley website.
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The history of the World War II shelter underneath Clapham South tube station.
Last month, I was fortunate enough to have a peek of one of London’s secret subterranean treasures. As part of their Hidden London series, the London Transport Museum were running tours to visit the Clapham South Deep-Level Shelter, one of the only purpose-built World War II shelters that is still accessible to the public, albeit rarely.
Following the outbreak of World War II and the subsequent Blitz, many Londoners were using tube stations as shelters from the Nazi bombing. However, many civilians were concerned the stations weren’t adequate protection, which was confirmed in October 1940 when a bomb hit the road above the north end of Balham underground station. Water from the burst sewers above and earth filled the southbound tunnel, killing 66 people who were sheltering there at the time. Three months later, a further 111 civilians were killed when a bomb hit Bank station.
The same month of the Balham disaster, the Government started making plans to build deep-level shelter accommodation for 100,000 people. Having lots of experience of building underground, it made sense for the Government to enlist London Transport to co-ordinate the project within the swiftest time possible. With Londoners frequently dying in bomb attacks by the Nazis, time was of the essence. It was decided it would be easiest and quickest to create shelters below existing tube stations, specifically the Northern and Central lines. Originally the plan was for 10 shelters to be built, however ones at St Paul’s and Oval were abandoned during construction due to concerns over being too close to the Cathedral and unsatisfactory ground quality respectively.
Construction – by hand – began on the tunnels in 1941, with final eight complete in 1942. Situated 30 metres (just under 100 foot) below ground level, the tunnels were built from either end using two vertical shafts. When they were complete, each shelter consisted of two parallel tunnels around 400 metres long divided into upper and lower floors. The tunnels at Clapham South were divided further into 16 sub-shelters with each named alphabetically after a senior British naval officer. The sub-shelters at Clapham South were named Anson, Beatty, Collingwood, Drake, Evans, Freemantle, Grenville, Hardy, Inglefield, Jelicoe, Kepple, Ley, Madden, Nelson, Oldam and Party. Each sub-shelter featured triple-tier bunk beds and some wider bunks for mothers with young children, bringing the total number of bunks to 7,952.
By the time the shelters were ready for action so to speak, the Nazi bombing campaign on Britain had eased off. The Government ended up letting the American military use half of the Goodge Street shelter. By June 1944, Hitler’s armies had set their sights on destroying London again – albeit this time with V-1 flying bombs, followed by V-2 later that year. Finally, the shelters could be used for the purpose they were intended for.
I’m always on a lookout for a bar with a difference and unlike the other themed drinking establishments in the capital, Soho‘s newest nightspot celebrates one of my favourite things – London itself. Playing up to the building’s history as a former World War II shelter, Cahoots is an underground basement bar which takes guests back in time to the 1940s. Located in Soho, Cahoots has been styled as an abandoned underground station in post-war London, where those in the know come to party.
I was lucky enough to be invited to the bar’s launch party recently as the premise really excited me. My blogging name is Metro Girl… the bar is underground themed.. surely it’s got to be a match made in heaven? The bar’s entrance is subtle from the street, but once entering and heading down the wooden escalator-style steps (which prompted flashback to riding the tube as a child in the ’80s) we were greeted by a doorman (who in character and in a rather spiffing accent, old chum), told us the station was ‘closed’. We played up to it and said ‘we had an appointment’ and were shown the way in. The interior of the bar is pretty amazing – along with a recreated tube carriage (where we subsequently ended up sitting in most of the night), there were vintage-style signs from both the London Underground and the post-war years. Sandbags, bunting, and waiters dressed in vintage clothing furthering the vibe. We parked ourselves in the carriage with our drinks resting on an old suitcase which doubled as a table. The theme continued through to the toilets, with 1940s street sound effects adding to the atmosphere.
The cocktail menu is extensive and unique, with influences from popular drinks from the 1940s, as well as unusual ingredients such as tea leaves, beetroot and Oxo cubes. Cocktails are served in a variety of vessels, such as tin cans, Thermos flasks and milk bottles, ranging from £7-£9. I tried quite a few cocktails, but my favourite was a ‘Vera Lynn’, a fruity gin concontion which came served in a lovely green china version of the wartime dame in her heyday. There’s also an impressive sharing cocktail for groups, the Tanqueray No.10 Station Clock, where you dish out your booze from a giant hollow clock.
As well as the interiors and cocktails, there is also great entertainment with swing bands and dancers performing on many evenings. We were encouraged to try a bit of dancing, but I politely declined over fears of making a fool of myself, but some fellow guests were game and did a good job. The music was a mix of jazz, swing and lindy-hop, so you really feel like you’ve stepped in a time machine. Although this may seem like an immersive experience, we enjoyed ourselves so much I could see Cahoots becoming a regular drinking den for me and my pals. For those looking for something a bit different for a night out, I can highly recommend Cahoots. As long as you’re looking for adventure and are open to embracing the strong theme, head underground. Just don’t tell everyone…
- Cahoots, 13 Kingly Court, Soho, W1B 5PW. Nearest tube [apart from Cahoots obviously… ;-)]: Oxford Circus. For more information, visit the Cahoots website.
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A rare walk through Brunel’s Thames Tunnel at Rotherhithe.
The Thames Tunnel, once one of Victorian London’s greatest attractions, hasn’t been open to the public for nearly 150 years. While thousands pass through it every day on a London Overground train, many wouldn’t be aware they are travelling through an impressive feat of engineering. In May 2014, the London Transport Museum hosted special tours for people to follow in the footsteps of Victorian Londoners by walking the tunnel as it was originally used for.
As you may have noticed, after Tower Bridge going east there is no bridge crossing the River Thames until you reach the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge at Dartford, Kent. In Victorian London, with the industrial revolution in full swing, the docks and factories east of the city were booming and it became apparent of a growing need for a river connection between docks on north and south of the river. Various ideas were considered over the years, but it wasn’t until 1823, Anglo-French engineer Marc Isambard Brunel (1769-1849) produced a plan for an underwater tunnel between Rotherhithe and Wapping using his and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s (1806-1859) new tunnelling shield patent, which revolutionised tunnel building.
With the tunnel originally planned for use by horse-drawn carriages, Marc found funding from the Duke Of Wellington, among others, and construction began in February 1825. Brunel’s team started building a shaft at Rotherhithe – which is still there today and forms part of the Brunel Museum – which is where pedestrians and (ideally) horse and carriages would enter the tunnel. In November 1825, the shaft was complete so the tunnelling could begin. Using the Brunels’ tunnelling shield, work progressed slowly, with only about 8-12 foot of tunnel being built a week. Conditions were horrible, with many workers falling ill from the sewage strewn water seeping into the tunnel. Marc’s son Isambard ended up taking over the project at just 20 years old when resident engineer William Armstrong fell ill in 1826. At one point, they started allowing visitors in to see the shield in action, charging a shilling each, to boost the spiralling budget.
In November 1827 – while the tunnel was still being built – the Brunels hosted a banquet in the tunnel for 50 guests with music provided by the Coldstream Guards. In May 1827 and January 1828, the tunnel flooded, with the later incident resulting in the loss of six men and Isambard himself narrowly escaping death. Following this, there was loss of confidence in the project and it was put on hold for seven years. However, by December 1834, Marc managed to raise enough money – including a loan from the Treasury – to resume the project. Despite more floods, fires and gas leaks, construction was finally completed in November 1841. It measured 35 feet wide, by 20 feet high and 1,300 feet long, at 75 feet below the Thames surface. It was swiftly fitted out with lighting, staircases and roadways. An engine house was built next to the shaft for machinery used to drain the tunnel, which can now be visited as the Brunel Museum. The tunnel had taken so long to build, there was no money left to construct two further shafts to transport the horse and carriages down to tunnel level. So with the original design brief unfulfilled, it was opened to pedestrians in March 1843, who entered via the Grand Entrance Halls in the shafts using spiral staircases.
After hearing so long about the delays and dramas of the tunnel construction, unsurprisingly Londoners and those from further afield were curious to see the engineering wonder. It was initially hugely popular with tourists, with 50,000 people visiting on opening day, with a total of 1 million visiting in the first three months – equivalent to half the population of London at the time. Billed as ‘the eighth wonder of the world’, visitors paid a penny to pass through the tunnel and soon found plenty of occupy them as stalls were erected in the arches between the adjoining east and west tunnels. Among the products on sale included snuff boxes, paper weights and gin flasks. In 1852, organisers hosted the Fancy Fair, the world’s first underwater fair, featuring entertainment such as tightrope artists, fire-eaters, sword swallowers and magicians. Despite the initial popularity, the novelty soon wore off and 10 years after opening, the tunnel was home to some very unsavoury characters, including thieves and prostitutes.
Investors were relieved when the East London Railway Company purchased the tunnel in 1865, with trains eventually running through it four years later after they had extended it further south. In 1884, a disused shaft was used to create Wapping station. Eventually the line came into ownership of London Underground for the East London Line and then in 2010, became a line used by London Overground.
- The London Transport Museum very rarely conducts tours to the Thames Tunnel, but keep an eye out on their events page for further openings. The Brunel Museum is open all year round, with regular tours to visit the Grand Entrance Hall. Brunel Museum, Railway Ave, Rotherhithe, SE16 4LF. Nearest Overground: Rotherhithe. For more information, visit the Brunel Museum website.
Metro Girl Likes: When you’re in the area, check out the nearby 17th century Mayflower pub with a deck overlooking the River Thames.
To read about Metro Girl’s visit to the disused Aldwych tube station, click here.
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The history of the disused London Underground station Aldwych.
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.
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.
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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