Down Street station ‘Hidden London’ tour – London Transport Museum

Down Street tube station, situated in a side street in Mayfair, is easily missed. This was one of the reasons why it had such a short life as a fully operational station. Fortunately, when taking one of the guided tours, you don’t have to try and find the station as the starting point is inside the Athenaeum Hotel on Piccadilly.

The ‘Hidden London’ tours of Down Street are billed as a chance to see where Winston Churchill sheltered during the Blitz, but Britain’s wartime Prime Minister played only a small part in the station’s story. The tour includes plenty of anecdotes about how the building has been used and there is a lot to see. Inside the hotel, I met up with the tour guides and my fellow visitors and we were soon finding out more about the early history of the station.

Down Street station, 1907.
PHOTOGRAPH BY © TfL from London Transport Museum’s collection.

Opened in 1907, Down Street station was always an anomaly and rarely busy. This was mainly due to its quiet location and proximity to two other stations on what became the Piccadilly Line, Dover Street (later renamed Green Park) and Hyde Park Corner. Another factor was that many of the affluent local residents didn’t use the Underground themselves and disliked the station, fearing it would bring an influx of ‘undesirables’ to their neighbourhood.

By the First World War, some trains were no longer stopping at Down Street, then the ticket hall was closed so passengers had to buy their tickets from the lift operator. It was probably no surprise that Down Street was closed completely in 1932 after only 25 years of service. But, seven years later and because the station was built deep under the city, Down Street found a new lease of life. It became the headquarters of the Railway Executive Committee (REC) which was a wartime collaboration between Britain’s four main private railway companies.

‘To the Street’ sign from the Second World War.
PHOTOGRAPH BY London Transport Museum

The tour proper begins at a nondescript door within what is now the slightly scruffy frontage of the former station. Yet, I still felt a sense of excitement about entering through a door that only a few can access. Once inside we descended via the circular stairwell until we reached a network of tunnels which in 1939 were converted into a suite of offices and living quarters. From here, for the duration of the Second World War, the REC planned and coordinated Britain’s above ground railway system. This involved the vital work of moving service personnel (fit and wounded), munitions, food and other supplies. Passengers were discouraged from travelling by train unless their journeys were essential.

The tour guides explained how each part of the tunnel network was divided up and used for working, eating, cooking, washing and sleeping. We saw evidence of the wartime changes including signage, a telephone switchboard, sanitary ware, and the outline of where clocks had once been positioned. In some of the rooms, evocative period photos were on display, and I began to think about what life must have been like in this intense and cigarette smoke-filled subterranean world. The clocks were particularly important as many of the REC staff stayed at Down Street for shifts lasting several weeks where day would have blended into night. Imagine not seeing daylight or breathing fresh air for so long! On the plus side, the staff were safe from the bombing, and for those from humbler backgrounds the fitted baths, hot running water and inside toilets may have been a novel and welcome experience.

A piece of wartime communications equipment.
PHOTOGRAPH BY London Transport Museum

Up to 40 men and women lived and worked at REC headquarters at any one time and, even underground, British class differentials were strictly maintained. The male executives sat on soft leather chairs and could go out for meetings and other business. For the rest of the staff, it was hard wooden chairs with little respite. The executives had a private dining room where occasionally they enjoyed caviar, cigars and fine brandy, all supplied by the railway companies. Here, they would have been joined by Winston Churchill on the nights he slept over at what he called ‘the burrow’ during the height of the Blitz in late 1940. At a time when Britain’s survival was so uncertain, the safety of the Prime Minister was paramount.

Throughout the tour, we could hear the distant rumbling of the Piccadilly Line trains. Then, after descending a short flight of steps, the volume increased as we were level with the tracks and only separated from the trains by metal cage doors. The walls of the headquarters were built directly on the platforms, so you have to know exactly when to look when speeding in the dark between Green Park and Hyde Park Corner. Yet, once you know the station is there, I guarantee you will try and spot it.

A speeding Piccadilly Line train just metres away.
PHOTOGRAPH BY London Transport Museum

As the 90-minute tour of this ghost town-like station came to an end, we ascended the stairwell and exited through the small door to the street, leaving Down Street to its main purpose these days of providing ventilation for the Piccadilly Line. Having been temporarily transported back to the 1940s, it felt odd stepping out into 21st Century Mayfair with the warm lights of the Athenaeum ahead of us. As we said goodbye to our excellent guides who were knowledgeable, enthusiastic and had been happy to answer questions, I began planning my next ‘Hidden London’ adventure.

‘Way Out’ sign from when Down Street was an operational station.
PHOTOGRAPH BY London Transport Museum

Top tips

Wear comfortable shoes and darker coloured clothing. Down Street station is dusty, and you are likely to brush up against some of the walls.

In addition to your tickets, you will need photo ID. The tours are adults-only, and tickets also include free entry to the London Transport Museum within 30 days of your tour.

A narrow corridor.
PHOTOGRAPH BY London Transport Museum

Visiting and access information

Check the website for availability for Down Street and other ‘Hidden London’ tours including Charing Cross, Clapham South, and Moorgate. Prices vary between the different tours and pre-booking is essential.

The Down Street station tour is not suitable for everyone as it includes many steps, some uneven floors, narrow corridors and small rooms. The light varies from dark to quite bright, and you will hear the noise of nearby trains. Toilets are available at the beginning and end of the tour but not once you enter the station. The maximum group size is twelve visitors.

Acknowledgements and image credits

This article reflects my own views, but I should acknowledge and thank Ollie Burton, Head of Hidden London, as well as the professional and engaging tour guides Pat and Gillian and customer service assistant Neil. All images are courtesy of London Transport Museum.

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Ian Lacey

Ian Lacey is a public historian. He is currently undertaking postgraduate research at Royal Holloway University of London into the experiences of UK travellers who went Interrailing between 1972 and 1990. Ian has worked in the visitor attraction sector for the National Trust at Osterley Park and House, and most recently as Marketing Manager at the Houses of Parliament where he was responsible for promoting tours and visits. Aside from history, Ian’s interests include travel and tourism, accessibility, photography, music, and cricket.

Twitter @ian_lacey