Piccadilly Tim: Exploring Hidden London
My birthday treat this year was a Hidden London tour of Piccadilly Circus. Most conversations in the shop about tunnels go strangely wrong (somehow they all end up involving Hitler) but everyone's a sucker for 'lost' or 'abandoned' tunnels, and I'm no exception.
In fact the tunnels at Piccadilly Circus are far from abandoned, filling the prosaic functions of additional storage space and ventilation, but the public have not been down there in decades, and that's good enough for me. Gavin Dunn's 1989 cut-away view already looks 'vintage' with its illuminated hoardings advertising Foster 's lager and Kodak cameras, but although for reasons of clarity he doesn't show the disused tunnels he does show the central staircase where we began our journey.
It was used in the construction of the station, and it originally housed the lifts, which were state-of-the-art technology when the station first opened in 1906, and the only way in and out for passengers. Leslie Green's design was perfectly successful elsewhere, and lifts are still adequate at stations such as Russell Square and Regent's Park. But if Green knew the phrase "it's like Piccadilly Circus" (earliest use I have found is 1915) he didn't heed it, and by the 1920s the lift capacity was overwhelmed by passenger numbers. A bold new modernist design by Charles Holden was constructed in the late 1920s, based around escalators to keep passengers moving, and that's when some of the Edwardian tunnels were closed off. They were briefly re-opened during the war, used for shelter of both people and works of art, and then hidden from public view again.
That's the main draw for this tour, then, a chance to see Leslie Green's original tiling scheme, rather battered but unrestored and unaltered. Each station had its own geometric patterns and colour scheme which was instantly recognisable for regular passengers. The suggestion that this was to help the illiterate has always struck me as a bit glib as the UK had achieved near universal literacy by Green's day. Colour coding really helps everyone – just look at the current station interiors, which still mix distinctive line colours with motifs tailored to individual locations.
The tiles immortalising manufacturer WB Simpson & Sons were a nice touch. I sometimes wonder if this sort of advertising works. Has any member of the public ever dialled the phone number which is cast in the stair nosing to be seen on every step on the Underground? Maybe not, but it clearly did the trick for WB Simpson as the firm is still on the go, supplying museums, airports, hotels and, yes, the Underground. Enough people with a large industrial building to fit out really must walk past.
Back upstairs in the familiar surroundings of Holden’s circular booking hall the wonderful world time clock is out of order again. It’s one of my favourite features, original to the station’s refurbishment in the 1920s, and I do wish TfL would have it restored. In theory the central band moves across the map at the same pace as the earth’s rotation – perfect for seeing (roughly) what the time is in Leningrad.
Hidden London tours often sell out quickly, but it's worth persevering until you get lucky. It's always a treat to snoop behind the scenes, and you'll be in good company with other Tube enthusiasts. No-one will judge you.