Soapbox – Underground

Dan Cruickshank Goes Underground

I love to go underground in London. Beneath our feet, as we rush about out daily lives, is another, ancient and seemingly unchanging world. A world that lives, perhaps, more in the imagination than in stark reality, a world that feeds the fancy but which can be, at certain times, offer stunningly powerful portals to the past.

Different parts of London have different things to offer, both in quantity and quality of underground experiences. Clerkenwell is good. Beneath the Karl Mark Memorial Library on Clerkenwell Green, housed in a building that dates from the 1730s, is a network of far older brick vaults – the memorial perhaps of a now long forgotten Tudor mansion. Nearby, beneath a late 19th century school, just next to Corporation Row, is a complex of late 18th century subterranean cells and rooms from the House of Correction that once stood on the site. More amazing still, on nearby St. John’s Square, beneath an 18th century building on the corner with Jerusalem Passage, is the late medieval undercroft of the Great Chamber belonging to the Knights Hospitallers – otherwise known of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem. They were a military Order – that is fighting monks – founded in the very early 12th century to offer protection and sustenance to those making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. This was the site, until the 1540s, of one of their main London priories and – to make things more exciting – the 12th century crypt of the church survives, an architectural wonder from a lost world now unknown to most Londoners.

Equally arresting is the well preserved and extensive remains of the Roman bath complex that was discovered in 1848 and now lies hidden in the basement of a 1970s office block on Upper Thames Street in the City.

But, I suppose, most dramatic and moving are London’s long closed and abandoned underground stations. There are more than a dozen good examples. Some are well known – like Aldwych and Down Street on Mayfair that closed before the war and in 1940 was used by Churchill and his cabinet as a bunker. Little known, and utterly amazing, are the remains of St. Mary’s Station in Whitechapel. It was opened in 1884, closed in 1938 and in 1940 converted into a public air-raid shelter. Very few people go there now and its entrance is hidden and anonymous. But I recently managed to get inside and discovered a magical world, the past preserved in bizarre and gripping detail. It’s a cavernous grotto of a place, tall iron columns supporting high brick vaults and, in one corner, an air-raid shelter, benches still in place, rusting ventilation equipment still installed. If not for the decades of grime you could image the shelterers had just got up and left. Some of these places are open to the public, most are not but all can be penetrated if you make the effort. Do, for this twilight world will not last long and is much threatened – if only by neglect or change – so see it while you can.

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