As if there wasn’t enough to see above ground in London! Last Saturday, I had the opportunity, along with the other London Study Ambassadors, to delve deep into a disused Underground station, led by David Leboff, a Tube enthusiast who has written several books about the London Underground.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to take any photos once we were actually down there, and even if I had, most of them wouldn’t have turned out since it was dark and scaaaaaary. But here are several observations from the experience:
1. Property in central London really is that precious. You see, when this Tube station was closed in the 1930s, it wasn’t just left idle. For, even though it was under central London, it was still prime real estate! So, it was converted to a wartime committee office. On the one hand, it seems you might start to go a bit crazy if you spent your entire day underground, five days a week. But I suppose it’s not really that different from sitting in a cubicle that’s not near a window all day. And, of course, the other advantage was being relatively sheltered from the blitzkrieg
2. There is some deeply mystical human fascination with the underground. It is both the ominous netherworld into which the likes of Theseus and Hercules descended to conquer villainous foes and it is a place of refuge: 2nd century Christians faced with Roman persecution submerged into the Catacombs. Valjean crawled through the sewers of Paris to escape with Marius in tow. I myself couldn’t resist frequently venturing, as an undergraduate, into a network of underground storm drains once I discovered that there was an entrepôt on the edge of campus.
No wonder that, when faced with growing congestion problems, 1860s London looked below ground for a solution. By now, going underground to catch the train has become so commonplace in many major cities that perhaps we’ve ceased to recognise how far down we really are. But seeing a disused station, stripped of most of the lighting, decoration and other accoutrements that adorn active Tube stations, was a reminder of what a strange and — dare I say it? — otherworldly place we so often traverse.
3. The US lost its best public transport planners to London! Public transportation in most of the US is something of a joke. Obviously we have the lobbying of the automobile companies to blame for that. But apparently there’s another culprit: During our talk on the history of the Underground with David Leboff, we learned of Charles Tyson Yerkes — a checkered character if ever there was one! His legacy in the US includes “The Loop” in downtown Chicago. But he left the US to come to London, where he played a major role in consolidating and coordinating the then-disparate and separately-run underground lines in London (using complex and questionable financial tactics). Even Lord Ashfield — that great manager of the Underground who saved the system from financial ruin (twice!) and dramatically improved and expanded the Underground lines — came to London only after managing the tram system in New Jersey. We could have used those blokes further west! It’s brain drain I tell you!!!