If you’ve walked around Mayfair recently, chances are you never even noticed the non-descript grey door tucked away on Down Street, a quiet thoroughfare between Green Park and Hyde Park Corner stations. But hidden behind there is Down Street station, a central tube stop that closed down in the Thirties, before going on to play a vital role in Second World War operations and becoming a favoured refuge spots for Winston Churchill during the Blitz. Now, London Transport Museum is opening a series of tours which means you can go and explore the clandestine subterranean space for yourself.
The station first opened in 1907, but closed fairly shortly just 25 years later in 1932 after being under-used, in spite of its central location. But it was seven years after closing that it was to serve its most important purpose, acting as a top-secret government headquarters for Second World War operations and housing up to 40 people at a time to become the Railway Executive Committee’s bomb-proof headquarters from 1939 to 1947.
Perhaps most extraordinarily, the abandoned station went on to be favoured by then prime minister Winston Churchill, who chose it as a place to shelter during the height of the Blitz and while his Downing Street residences were being reinforced. Nicknamed ‘The Burrow’ by the PM, it is said Churchill managed to enjoy fine wine, cigars, caviar, vintage champagne and brandy supplied by nearby railway hotels while he took cover there, in spite of the nationwide rationing rules at the time.
Now, members of the public are being given the chance to explore this intriguing underground space as part of a series of ‘Hidden London’ tours hosted by the London Transport Museum, which will be resuming in January 2022 with tickets going on sale on Friday 3 December. Venturing through unassuming doorways, visitors will be given an intimate peek at the disused station and experience a guided tour through the rabbit warren of narrow tunnels, which starts by walking down a spiral staircase that ends 72ft below street level.
Once there you will find the remains of bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens and meeting rooms, all used by the wartime Railway Executive Committee (REC) during the station’s stint as a secret government bunker. Officials from the government needed a safe and bomb-proof location to manage trains, and abandoned Down Street was seen as the ideal place. In order to adapt it for its new purpose, the ticket hall was removed and the ceiling was steel-fortified, while a huge blast-proof door was installed to ensure those working underground would be protected against any aerial bombardment.
Each of the narrow tunnels was turned into a different meeting room, including offices and telephone exchanges which connected the station to other government departments and important railway locations. Around 40 staff worked in the station in shifts, using underground dormitories, washrooms, toilets and dining facilities during that period. The REC worked around the clock, with most of its workers committing to shift patterns of ten to 12 days, to avoid people being spotted going in and out of the unmarked doorway at street level.
Senior executives could also make use of an executive mess room and private bedrooms, both of which were used by Churchill during his stays there. His assistant private secretary, John Colville, described Down Street as “the safest place” during the Blitz, and Churchill is known to have dined with members of the REC and War Cabinet in the mess in November 1940. The disused station continued to be the REC’s headquarters for two years after the war ended, managing the movement of troops and equipment until it was disbanded in December 1947 when the railways were nationalised.
While the historic station has not been used in any film or television productions due to its narrow entrance, which makes it too tricky to fit in camera equipment, it was referenced in two Agatha Christie novels – The Man in the Brown Suit in 1924 and The Mystery of the Blue Train in 1928. The upcoming tours of Down Street will recommence in January as part of the exclusive ‘Hidden London’ excursions in four disused sites on the underground network, including Aldwych, which provided shelter to Londoners during the Blitz and was used in the 2007 film Atonement, and Moorgate, which was one of London’s first tube stations.
Tours of Down Street will take place on selected dates between 15 January and 13 February 2022 with tickets on sale from Friday 3 December 2021; for more information visit ltmuseum.co.uk