Friday, 25 November 2011

A rare glimpse - Aldwych tube station tour, 25th November 2011

I was lucky enough to get a ticket for one of the London Transport Museum's rare tours of the former Aldwych Tube station, which began today (Friday 25th November).  Located on the Strand near St Clement Danes church, Aldwych stands out with its distinctive Leslie Green frontage of dark red tiles.

When it first opened in 1907, Strand Station (it was renamed Aldwych in 1915) was the terminus of a short branch of the Piccadilly Line from Holborn.  The 1951 Central London Tube map shown below illustrates where Aldwych lies on the network, showing its relative isolation.

Cropped from a map found at a wonderful archive of old Tube maps
As a result of being at the end of a short branch that, despite a number of plans to extend it to other stations such as Waterloo, terminated in an area already well-served by public transport, Aldwych was never a particularly busy station and within a decade of it opening one of its two platforms was closed to the public.  This disused platform, which shut in 1917, immediately gained another use - housing 300 paintings from the National Gallery that were being kept safe from German Zeppelin raids.  More about the disused platform in a moment.

Moving back to the present day, upon arriving for the tour our group were ushered into the old ticket hall.

Like other Leslie Green-designed Tube stations, the ticket hall is adorned with distinctive green tiles.  As it was always a quiet station, Aldwych's ticket hall is small and to keep costs down very few staff manned the station - in 1922 the ticket booths were taken out of use and the person manning the lifts also sold the tickets, making Aldwych effectively able to remain open with just one staff member on site (cuts to staff on the Underground network, therefore, are certainly not a new concept).  In the 1980s, a ticket machine was installed.

Aldwych remained open for many years despite its small footfall.  It was considered for closure on a number of occasions but continued to run a peak time only shuttle service from Holborn (this shuttle service was sometimes as small as just one carriage long).  It is estimated that at the time of its closure in 1994 it was serving just 450 passengers per day.  However, its closure was not primarily down to lack of use - by the early 1990s its lifts were approaching 80 years old and were in desperate need of replacement.  This would have cost millions of pounds and it was judged to not be worth it due to small passenger numbers, so the station was closed.

"Disused" is not the word to describe Aldwych, however - although it is no longer a functioning Tube station, it is regularly used by London Underground for training exercises and testing, and also - more famously - as a film set.

The ticket booth pictured above is not original, neither are the suspiciously pristine tiles - it is a replica that was put in for the purposes of filming.  Many films and television programmes have used Aldwych for filming, including the most recent James Bond film Quantum of Solace, The Battle of Britain, Atonement, 28 Weeks Later and V for Vendetta.  Because the station lies on a short, unused branch it is possible for realistic tube station scenes to be filmed without any disruption to the public transport network.

Natalie Portman as Evey Hammond in V for Vendetta - with the platform at Aldwych as the location for a disused Victoria underground station
We were led down a set of spiral stairs, similar to those you might come across at stations like Covent Garden and Gloucester Road.  There are 160 steps down to platform level and after a while I experienced the strange sensation of having to concentrate intensely to remember how to walk down stairs - possibly  a form of vertigo.

Once we'd reached the bottom of the stairs, we were led through a fairly well-kept, twisting tunnel to the first platform.

We were directed onto the platform that was used for Piccadilly Line shuttle services until the station closed in 1994.  Our guides led us to one end of the platform, where a volunteer was waiting to tell us more about the history of the station and the trains that served it.

The posters behind the volunteer are not original, but like the replica ticket booth pictured earlier are copies produced for the platform's use as a film set.

The silver train pictured above is a former Northern Line train that is now based at the station.  As well as for filming purposes, this train is used by London Underground for testing and also emergency drills - as this platform is relatively intact it provides an excellent location for staff training exercises that can take place without having to necessitate closures or disruptions on the main Tube network or having to build an expensive simulated station facility.

The tunnel to Holborn is still operational and electrified, allowing the old train to be moved out of the station if necessary.

During the Second World War this platform was used as an air raid shelter.  Once again the nature and location of Aldwych made it easily adaptible for other uses - the station was closed to trains in September 1940 and despite it not being located in a residential area, it proved popular as a shelter as it was deep underground.  As its popularity grew it was installed with proper flushing toilets, a canteen and a library, but all the same with up to 3,000 people sheltering there it cannot have been a pleasant, comfortable or sanitary place to hide from the bombs.

The disused platform is a completely different story.  Unlike the easy route to the first platform, the path to the second platform was uneven and damp, with little stalactites dripping from the ceiling.

After its closure in 1917, the tunnels at either end of this platform were bricked up, as illustrated above.  Like other disused tube stations, this platform was used for storage.  Probably the most illustrious items stored down here were the Elgin Marbles, which were kept safely guarded underground along with many other treasures from the British Museum in case the museum was hit by bombs.

A section of track remains alongside this platform and, as it dates from the station's opening in 1907, is the only remaining example of tube tracks from this period.

This long disused platform shows the signs of many experiments by London Underground over the years - it provided an ideal blank canvas to test out new ideas and materials.  As a result, most of the original Leslie Green tiling is gone, although some of it remains under the many posters that cover the wall.

There are also examples of newer tiles being tested on the platform's wall - the red tiles pictured below look as though they were perhaps destined for the Central line.

There are a large number of posters dating from the late 1960s or early 1970s on the platform - these were not put in place for filming purposes but to test a new kind of glue for attaching advertisements to the wall in tube stations.  Given that the posters are still here 40 years later, I'd hazard a guess at the glue being a success.

The last part of our tour concerned those pesky lifts, the eventual cause of Aldwych's closure.  The lifts are now the only remaining example of very early lifts from the turn of the century.  There are two lift shafts at Aldwych, but only one was ever used - the way the lifts were designed meant that two lifts shared one shaft.

The two lift door frames can clearly be seen on the other side of this lift shaft.  The design of the lifts - two next to each other - was clever as the two lifts had an interconnecting door, which could be utilised in case of an emergency.  If one lift broke down, the second lift could be sent down until it was level with the stricken one, and the door could be opened to allow trapped passengers to transfer to the functioning lift.

Back at surface level, we were allowed a quick look around the lifts, which are now permanently parked at surface level.  Apart from the interconnecting doors, they are very similar to the big lifts you see at stations like Goodge Street and Covent Garden.

Through the lifts was our exit - we were quickly ushered out to make way for the next tour group.

If I'm to be critical, it would be to say that both myself and the friend I went with found the tour to be a bit rushed and short, making the ticket price of £20 seem a bit steep.  We were constantly being hurried along by staff, with little time to ask the volunteers questions, and considering that most of the people on the tour were taking pictures (it's worth mentioning to anyone coming on the tour that DSLR cameras are not permitted), this was a little frustrating.  However, I hope that the large number of tours was down to it being so rare that Aldwych is open to the public, and down to the desire to give as many people as possible the opportunity to visit the station.  It was certainly a treat to get to see it and the volunteers were all friendly and informative.  If you're one of the lucky people to get tickets to go on a tour round the station - enjoy it!

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Quick snapshot: ghosts of the Second World War (part 1)

Like so many little bits of history, the ghost sign pictured below is something that is so easily overlooked.  It can be found on Carlisle Place, SW1, a quiet street close to London's Victoria Station.  But you'll have to look carefully.

This sign, quite high up on the wall of a mansion block, directs people to the nearest bomb shelter, under the pavements of the street itself.  One cannot imagine such a shelter would have survived a direct hit, but given how badly the Westminster and Pimlico neighbourhoods suffered during the Blitz, it would have provided a safer alternative to staying in one's own home.  The sign's an unlikely survivor of the war - the mansion block it's painted on to is exceptionally well kept and the sign does look as though efforts have previously been made to remove it.

Many of the residential buildings in SW1 have vaults under the pavement.  The house I currently live in has three - they have a curved ceiling and were primarily designed for storage, although in some houses and flat conversions nowadays you'll see them converted into extra rooms or even wine cellars.  One of the vaults in my own home houses the washing machine, tumble dryer and a freezer.  As bomb shelters they would have afforded protection from anything but a direct hit or a large quantity of falling masonry.  SW1 also has a distinct lack of green space, with many houses and mansion blocks not having gardens, so the vaults took the place of Anderson shelters.

Carlisle Place is one of those typically contradictory streets often found in London - it's a combination of million pound flats in smart mansion blocks, expensive cars parked outside, and a homeless centre with tramps and beggars congregating nearby.  Perhaps during the Blitz rich and poor were similarly huddled together in the vaults, seeking shelter from the Luftwaffe's indiscriminate bombs.

Monday, 7 November 2011

A Victorian Gothic Graveyard: West Norwood

Thank you for all the kind responses and comments to the previous post about Nunhead.  As it turns out, I enjoyed my trip to Nunhead so much that I've decided to make a bit of a series of London's Magnificent Seven graveyards.  Over the next few months I'm planning to visit the rest of them and report back here - they all seem incredibly different from each other despite being created with the same purpose in mind.

Don't blink.
The subject of today's blog is West Norwood, which like Nunhead is in South East London, close to Crystal Palace.  The cemetery is situated on a hillside - thought to be healthier - and these days overlooks the big transmitters at Crystal Palace, and a number of people were buried there specifically because they had been involved in the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the graveyard overlooked the relocated Crystal Palace until its destruction by fire in 1936.

Unfortunately for me, the tours of West Norwood's cemetery take place earlier in the winter months and I was dependent on catching the 10.24 from Victoria to get to West Norwood in time.  I missed this train by less than a minute so instead took a train to Croydon and changed there.  I was far too late for the guided tour by the time I arrived in West Norwood.  The cemetery is a very short distance from the station - there is only one entrance these days, as the previous gates have been out of use for many years.

Not to be deterred by missing out on the tour, I set off around the cemetery.  Unlike Nunhead, West Norwood did not suffer quite the same levels of neglect and most of the area is free of trees and overgrown brambles and weeds.  One of the first monuments that stands out upon entering the cemetery is the Gothic spire pictured above, a monument to James William Gilbart, a banker and influential author who died in 1863.

Gothic architecture is a recurring feature throughout the cemetery.  West Norwood was consecrated as a burial ground in 1837 - making it the second of the Magnificent Seven to be opened after Kensal Green opened in 1832.  William Tite, designer of London's Royal Exchange and numerous railway stations across Britain, was charged with designing the new cemetery's layout and he incorporated the design ideals of the Gothic Revival into the cemtery's landscape.  The two chapels on the site - Anglican and Non-Conformist - were both of a Gothic design, as are many of the grand monuments.  This was a departure from convention - previously, large new cemeteries that were planned (as opposed to growing haphazardly around churches) had been based on Classical styling.  Tite later went on to lay out the designs for the huge new cemetery built by the London Necropolis Company at Brookwood in Surrey in the 1850s.

William Tite (image borrowed from National Portrait Gallery's website)

Sadly, neither of the Gothic chapels at West Norwood remain today.  The chapel in the cemetery is a modern rebuild of the Non-Conformist chapel and incorporates a crematorium which is still in use today.  The Anglican chapel was the victim of a V1 flying "doodlebug" bomb during the Second World War and has not survived, although the catacombs beneath it remain, though they are not particularly safe and therefore rarely available for viewing by the public.

Similar to other Victorian burial grounds, West Norwood fell into decline after the Second World War and was subject to a compulsory purchase order by Lambeth Council in 1965 after the company that owned the cemetery ran into financial difficulties due to attempts to repair WWII bomb damage.  The council then bulldozed a large number of monuments - estimated to be around 40% - and many graves were opened and reused (this was later ruled to be illegal and has now stopped).  This explains why many modern graves can be found nestled in amongst monuments from the 19th century.  Poignantly, rather a large number of these more recent burials are little graves of babies - there is something horribly sobering about seeing the grave of a baby born in the same year as oneself.


The second of the above pictures showing new graves alongside old ones also includes an example of Victorian funerary symbolism - the clasped hands (in white, slightly damaged, on the headstone on the right).  Meaning "farewell", this symbol is commonly found on gravestones from the Victorian period.  Another symbol of death, the upside down torch ("life extinguished"), is visible on the monument pictured below - look at the square columns at each corner.

Another symbol that crops up in Victorian cemeteries is that of the broken pillar, which represented the loss of the head of a family.  The first image below is properly broken - it has lost its grave, but is an ornate and attractive example of this type of gravestone design.  The second picture shows what the broken pillar design looks like when complete.

West Norwood has its fair share of illustrious inhabitants.  Mrs Beeton is one famous burial at the cemetery, but due to missing the start of the guided tour I didn't manage to locate her grave.  However, shortly after finding and photographing the two broken column monuments, I ran into the tour group and was able to join them for the remainder of the cemetery tour.

The monument above isn't an example of the broken column design - its column was once topped by a draped urn, which due to the passing of time was worn down and eventually fell off, and reattaching it is impossible without causing significant damage to the column.  This monument marks the grave of William Marsden, a surgeon who founded the Royal Free Hospital which, as its name suggests, was to provide free healthcare for the poor of London.  After his first wife (buried here too) died of cancer, he also founded what was to become the Royal Marsden Hospital on the Fulham Road, a specialist facility for cancer sufferers.

This rather overgrown tomb marks the resting place of Thomas Cubitt and many of his family members.  Cubitt is responsible for many of the grand white stucco houses that are found in Belgravia and Pimlico in central London (there is a monument to Cubitt at the bottom of Denbigh Street in Pimlico) and died a very rich man.  The marble slab over his family tomb is reputedly a foot thick and must have been exceptionally cumbersome to transport to the cemetery.  Despite Cubitt's vast wealth, his family were still subject to the sad realities of life in Victorian Britain and the grave contains the remains of a number of children who died young, including two who died within two days of each other.

This beautifully sculpted angel is part of Sir Henry Doulton's mausoleum.  Sir Henry was born into a family prominent in the pottery business, and went on to be extremely successful in his own right, overseeing the manufacture of drain pipes and other items intended to improve sanitation as well more artistic items.  The tiles and bricks that make up his tomb came from a Doulton factory, and the monument is Grade II listed.

Another red coloured mausoleum is the tomb of Henry Tate, well known both for being a major figure in the sugar trade and, an avid collector of artworks, also the founder of the Tate Gallery in London.  In both his tomb and that of Doulton, the remains of these two men and their families have now been reburied underground as both monuments have been extensively restored.

As well as the destructive actions of Lambeth Council, vandalism and the natural shifting of the ground within the graveyard have claimed many monuments.  Some of these have been restored or made safe, and we came across one such monument that was in imminent danger of collapsing and is now being restored.

One grave which has proved to be an unlikely tourist attraction is that of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, a name that will be familiar to followers of the Baptist church.  He was the founder of the Metropolitan Tabernacle at the Elephant & Castle and his sermons, all of which he wrote down and many of which are still available to buy in printed format, were enormously popular and drew huge crowds.  His burial in 1892 also drew huge crowds.  His tomb, pictured below, still attracts coachloads of tourists, mainly from America.

Next to Spurgeon's tomb is another impressive monument - to the inventor of Bovril.  John Lawson Johnston invented a beef based beverage as part of a contract to feed French troops and Bovril made him an extremely rich man, and he died on his yacht in the south of France in 1900.  His tomb was damaged by a bomb during WWII, but still remains an imposing monument today (pictured below).

I've provided a far from exhaustive list of illustrious persons buried at West Norwood -the cemetery is the final resting place of many politicians, engineers, inventors, philanthropists and other notable people.  The Friends of Norwood Cemetery offer a booklet contianing short biographies of "Norwood Notables" which includes a map to make locating each grave easier (it would have been useful I had bought this before I started wandering around!)

One part of the cemetery offers a departure from the usual Victorian graves and memorials - the Greek Cemetery.  A community of Greeks grew up in the City and Bayswater during the nineteenth century and many of the families became wealthy through the shipping business.  Although they did not really have a connection to south east London, the community bought a large plot at West Norwood for the burial of their relatives and many impressive memorials can be found in this section of the cemetery.

As the above photograph demonstrates, the architecture in the Greek cemetery is markedly different to most of that in the regular cemetery, with - understandably - mostly Classical influences.

However, as this man's memorial clearly shows, many of the tombs also incorporated Ancient Egyptian designs.  The Greek cemetery is very easy to find as its monuments are much larger than those surrounding it, and many of the inscriptions on tombs are in Greek rather than English.


A few more photographs from the cemetery...

With any luck, this isn't the last this blog will see of West Norwood.  I enquired about tours of the catacombs at the cemetery and have joined the Friends of West Norwood Cemetery so that I'll be able to visit the catacombs (Lambeth Council restrict access quite severely due to health and safety issues) some time next year.

The Friends of West Norwood Cemetery have a website at

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

All Hallows Day Special: Nunhead Cemetery

Nunhead is arguably the least well known of London's "Magnificent Seven" Victorian cemeteries.  Like many of South East London's interesting old sites, it often gets overlooked due to its lack of a nearby Tube station, although it's actually a short walk from Nunhead Rail station, which is three stops from London Victoria.

The Linden Grove entrance.
Nunhead Cemetery is full of powerful symbolism.  The above picture of the entrance gates on the cemetery's north side shows two common symbols of death that were used in the Victorian period - the upturned torch, signifying life extinguished, and the snake devouring its tail, a symbol of eternity.  The snake in particular is a fairly common sight within the cemetery.

Nunhead is one of the "Magnificent Seven", huge cemeteries opened between 1832 and 1841 to relieve London's choked, unsanitary churchyards - the other six are Kensal Green, Highgate, Abney Park, Brompton, West Norwood and Tower Hamlets.  These new cemeteries would provide plentiful space for the dead to be buried with dignity, a huge contrast to the inner city churchyards where there was no room left to bury bodies and where soil was simply piled over corpses (churchyards in central London are often several feet higher than the surrounding street level).  The new cemeteries were ventures funded by private businessmen, who saw a proft to be made in the inevitability of death as London's growing population made the old ways of burying the dead in the churchyard close to their homes impossible.  The new cemeteries were also to be thoughtfully landscaped, providing a pleasant green space for the people of London to enjoy - this, of course, was the period when public parks and the idea of creating "lungs" for large towns became popular due to the alarmingly high rates of disease in growing industrial cities. 

Nunhead Cemetery was opened in 1840, eleven years before the Burials Act of 1851 closed inner city burial grounds for good.  Unlike the other Magnificent Seven cemeteries, it does not have an overarching architectural theme - the Linden Grove gates have a Classical influence, but the Anglican chapel, visible further up the hill as you enter the cemetery from Linden Grove has its architectural roots in the Gothic Revival.

Although the new cemeteries were privately owned, the church remainined an important part of the funerary ritual and each new cemetery had two chapels - a grand Anglican one and a more austere chapel for the Non-Conformists (there were also separate Anglican and Non-Confirmist areas for burials).  Sadly, today the strikingly beautiful High Gothic Angican chapel pictured is a now ruin - Nunhead fell into disuse after the Second World War (having suffered some bomb damage during the Blitz) and many of its monuments were damaged, defaced and destroyed by vandals.  The Friends of Nunhead Cemetery, who provide guided tours of the site, have worked hard to restore and make safe damaged monuments.  There is, however, no trace remaining of Nunhead's Non-Conformist chapel - it is believed that it suffered a direct hit by a German bomb during the WWII and was demolished soon after.

A side view of the Anglican chapel - missing its roof.
The chapel's disproportionately large porch was designed to be just so - it provided a shelter for the carriages carrying the coffins to the chapel for the funeral service.  The areas closest to the chapel were prime spots for burial, and many grand monuments can be found here.

The monuments pictured above show a variety of popular Victorian funerary symbols and fashions.  The monument on the left shows the image of two hands clasped together - meant to symbolise farewell to this life.  The pinkish monument is topped with a draped urn - a particularly common sight at Nunhead and a very popular symbol used in the Victorian period.  The urn hearkened back to the Roman practice of cremating the dead and placing the ashes in an urn, with the drapery symbolising mourning.  The pointed monument in the centre is an example of a Gothic design - the Gothic Revival was rooted in medieval religious imagery and architecture.

The ornate memorials clustered around the chapel also embodied the Victorian entrepeneurial spirit - the elaborate one pictured above is the grave of members of the Daniel family, who ran a successful business creating tombstones for London's cemeteries - so as well as being a tribute to the Daniel family's deceased members, this stone served as an excellent advertisement for the wares of the family business.

Beneath the chapel was a crypt.  Burial in a crypt was less popular by the mid-Victorian era - one particularly gruesome scandal that had preceded the call to move burials away from the old churchyards involved the discovery of hundreds of rotting corpses piled underneath the floor of an old church that had been converted into a dance hall.  Those resting in Nunhead's crypt were granted a more dignified resting place, but they fell victim to the post war vandals and when Southwark Council took the cemetery over in the 1970s, the crypt entrance was blocked up with rubble to prevent any further disturbance and vandalism.

Today, the crypt entrance has been restored with the help of Lottery Funding, and its inhabitants have been given a dignified reburial.

Another victim of the vandals at Nunhead was a memorial to the nine Boy Scouts who drowned in a boating accident in 1912.  The grand memorial had featured a statue of a Boy Scout with his head bowed, but he, along with the rest of the memorial, is now gone.  War Graves of Canadian and New Zealand troops are close by.

Due to its long period of postwar neglect, Nunhead is today a mostly forested area and many of its headstones are surrounded by trees and deep undergrowth.  Because of this, it is now designated as a secondary forest area and is in fact the largest forest in inner London.  Only areas used for more recent burials are kept free of trees and marauding brambles.

The effect of nature being allowed to take over the graveyard is quite eerie - although against a backdrop of beautiful autumn colours, with leaves falling softly all around us, I found it a peaceful, if sad, space.

Unlike some of its more famous sisters, Nunhead is not home to a large number of famous residents.  It does have it fair share of impressive monuments, though.  The Classical-inspired memorial above lies over the resting place of Vincent Figgins, a successful typesetter.  They grey memorial partly obscured by trees on the left of the photograph is that of a successful businessman whose son based the design of the tomb on an ancient tomb from the Middle East on display at the British Museum.  These impressive memorials are reflective of the Victorian trend to immortalise one's success in grand monuments.

Like all cemeteries, Nunhead's gravestones tell many sad and tragic stories...

The grave of four children, none over the age of 4, all lost to the same family between 1849 and 1852.  "Deeply regretted" is a common phrase on Victorian graves, particularly the graves of those who died young.
This grave, one of those painstakingly restored by the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery, is the resting place of two sisters in their nineties who died within 48 hours of each other in December 1887.

The youngest Commonwealth soldier buried here was only 18 years old when he died.

To conclude, Nunhead is well worth a visit - as well as being home to many interesting old graves, it's a pleasant space to walk around and is popular with local families and dog walkers.  It also provides impressive views over central London on a clear day.  When walking round the cemetery on my own to take pictures after the guided tour had finished, I did feel a little uneasy - because a lot of it is so overgrown it's not a very open place and rather quiet so perhaps best explored with a friend or in a group.  It's a sad old place, but it's also beautiful, peaceful and atmospheric.   The Friends of Nunhead Cemetery offer a fascinating free guided tour on the last Sunday of every month - more details can be found at

A few more pictures:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...