Going underground is part and parcel of every day life in London. In fact, after a few weeks of living here you don’t even think about millions of people travelling around like ants many metres below ground. So you may be wondering why I chose to visit a deep-level shelter, 30 metres beneath Clapham South station. Surely it’s just like every other journey below ground?
As we clambered down the stairs, sirens blaring, I was sure that (as I’d hoped when I booked the tickets some 12 months earlier) I’d discover something that would bring to life what it was like to live in London during a huge part of the capital’s history.
You see in 1940 the British Governent laid plans to create mass shelter accommodation for 100,000 people and 10 shelters, each to accommodate 10,000 people, were commissioned. There were to be five in the north of London and five in the south, every one 30 metres below ground. The intention was to increase safety and boost morale during the height the Blitz.
As the Hidden London tour guide closed the door and set the scene of life during World War II, it was easy to imagine the sense of relief at being able make your family safe whilst the rest of the city shuddered.
The deep-level shelter was spilt into two levels and broken down into individual sub shelters named after senior British naval officers.
Although we all travel like sardines with what feels like 1,000s of people every day, can you imagine spending the night with them all?
It was incredible to discover something that was built so quickly and needed to be not only safe and sturdy, but able to manage basic requirements of each and every individual.
With the shelters finished as the bombing had eased off, due to the cost to run the shelters, it wasn’t until 1944 that a number of them were put to their intended use. Clapham South being one of them.
Each shelter opened held rows upon rows of triple-tiered bunk beds.
The conditions were basic but there were toilets and a canteen serving hot drinks and snacks.
Carrying your own form of entertainment was recommended.
Pretty cosy to say the least.
Each tour guide did such a great job of taking us back in time, not only to the war but also to other times the shelters were put to use. Like the 50s when it was rebranded as the Festival Hotel. What a great idea to reuse them as inexpensive accommodation for overseas visitors to the Festival of Britain.
But the shelters were actually built with a more practical future in mind. The shelters were built alongside the Northern and Central lines with the intention that they’d be able to serve as express underground lines in the future and support the growing population.
Although it just looks like a series of tunnels I was transfixed by the stories of life below ground all those years ago. It brought to life what it was like to live here during the war so much more than any other tour I’ve done.
Hidden London do a number of special tours, the most well-known one being the closed Aldwych Station. The tickets are notoriously hard to get hold of but if you sign up to their newsletter you will find out as soon as tickets go on sale. I really wanted to see Aldwych Station but those tickets went in a flash, luckily Clapham South was a pretty great subsitute.
Have you done any of Hidden London’s tours?