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Under the Streets of London

Novembre 2012
Sotto i marciapiedi di Londra c’è almeno tanta storia quanta ce n’è sopra. Antiche cripte, bunker militari, catacombe, tunnel, stazioni fantasma... Peccato che non tutto sia visitabile. Ma grazie a Nick Catford, appassionato di archeologia urbana, possiamo saperne molto di più.

di Martin Simmonds

File audio:

The  underground station at Brompton Road (between South Kensington and Knightsbridge on the Piccadilly Line) was in operation from 1906 to 1934.
The underground station at Brompton Road (between South Kensington and Knightsbridge on the Piccadilly Line) was in operation from 1906 to 1934.
Nick Catford
Nick Catford

London is a city with a long history beneath its streets. Some places are easily seen, but others are well hidden. We look at some of the secrets of Subterranean London.


The London Underground is used by millions of people every day. But among the tube trains and dark tunnels, the world’s oldest underground system has around 40 “ghost stations.” These are stations which have been abandoned or relocated over the years. Most are disused and dirty, like King William Street, which closed back in 1900. Others can still be glimpsed from trains, like the British Museum station. Some of the original station frontages are also visible above ground, like Down Street or York Street with their distinctive red tiling. But the only ghost station open to the public is Aldwych; London Transport Museum run occasional tours here. Aldwych Station is also used as the setting for many films, including the Harry Potter series.


Camden Markets are one of London’s most popular tourist attractions. But most shoppers have no idea what secrets lie under their feet. Deep under the busy market stalls is a labyrinth of tunnels. These have become known as the Camden Catacombs. They were built in the 19th century to link an underground canal with the nearby railway warehouses, and as stables for the horses who worked here.


The Chislehurst Caves in south-east London are not actually caves, but ancient chalk and flint mines. The 35km of mysterious tunnels and passageways were carved by hand over centuries and last worked in the 1830s. After the First World War they were used for growing mushrooms, and during the Second World War as a huge underground shelter. In the 1960s the caves became a live music venue – Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones and David Bowie all performed here! Today they are open all year round for guided tours.


London has much military history beneath its surface. Perhaps the best preserved are the Churchill War Rooms, an underground command complex used during the Second World War. The network of rooms is almost unchanged since it was abandoned in 1945, and is now run by the Imperial War Museum. Less well known is Paddock, the alternative Cabinet War Room bunker in north-west London. The underground society Subterranea Britannica organise guided tours here twice a year.


London’s past can also be seen in the cold crypts beneath many of its churches, where bodies were stored in centuries past. All Hallows by the Tower is the oldest church in the City of London, and Roman and Saxon artefacts can be seen in its Crypt Museum. For a different experience, at the Cafe in the Crypt underneath St Martin-in-the-Fields church (near Trafalgar Square) you can dine among the tombstones and 18th century arches.




Speaker: Justin Ratcliffe (Standard British accent)

If you want to know what lies beneath the streets of London, Nick Catford is the man to ask. He first fell in love with underground exploration in the 1970s, when his father told him about an abandoned mine near their home. He has since become an expert underground photographer and edits the magazine of Subterranea Britannica, a UK society interested in all things underground. His new book, Secret Underground London, will be published in the new year:

Nick Catford (Standard British accent)

It’s a love of the unknown, being the first to see something and, being a photographer, recording it for others to see. I can’t get other people in, or very occasionally I can, but at least I can bring the images of these places to a much wider audience, which is why we’ve got the website and which is why I’ve produced the book, because it at least shows people what is there, what was there.


Nick Catford is particularly knowledgeable about London’s Cold War bunkers, having written a book on the subject:

Nick Catford

There were bunkers in World War Two, there were bunkers in the Cold War. In London the military are still actually using bunkers. At the Northwood Headquarters there’s a three-level bunker, which is still in use, but throughout London there were much smaller bunkers, bunkers that were built for the Royal Observer Corps. Their Cold War role was spotting incoming aircraft, Russian bombers, because in the early years of the Cold War, before we had missiles, bombs were going to be dropped from aeroplanes, so the Royal Observer Corps were re-formed. They’d been stood down at the end of World War Two, but in the ‘50s they were re-formed with this new nuclear role. So a vital role that continued until the end of the Cold War. The Royal Observer Corps wasn’t stood down till 1991. So all these bunkers throughout London, and there was one on the golf course at Dulwich, for example. There was one at Colindale, on top of Barnhill, there was one at Elstree, there’s one on the golf course at New Malden, there’s one just on the edge of Richmond Park, there’s one right by Alexandra Palace. There’s one at Stratford. Some of them are still there.


But the bunkers are not his favourite type of secret underground location in London:

Nick Catford

I think it’s got to be the tube stations. And, although it’s not the most interesting, for what’s still there, it is King William Street, because it is so old – we’re talking about a station that closed in the 1890s, and the tunnels under the Thames are still there and in the entrance to the tunnels from the station are all the toilets that were put in when it was a shelter during World War Two, so I think, if I had to pick one site, it would probably be King William Street. 




There are more than 20 tunnels running under the River Thames. There are road tunnels, foot tunnels, used and disused rail tunnels, and utility tunnels carrying telephone and electricity cables.
The first tunnel in the world to be constructed under a navigable river was the Thames Tunnel.
Work began in 1825, but it took 18 years to complete. It was never used for its original purpose, to move cargo, but became a tourist attraction, with two million people a year each paying a penny to walk under the river. Today it is part of the London Overground train network.




Nick Catford edits the magazine of Subterranea Britannica, a UK society interested in all things underground.
He has previously written a book on Cold War bunkers, and his new book, ‘Secret Underground London’, will be published in the new year.

For information about Subterranea Britannica, visit www.subbrit.org.uk

To pre-order Nick’s book, Secret Underground London, go to www.bradford-on-avon.org.uk/secretundergroundlondon

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I can’t get other people in. Non posso fare entrare altre persone. To get someone in è un phrasal verb che significa ottenere il permesso di fare entrare una persona in un posto. In questo caso Nick Catford sta parlando dei luoghi segreti di Londra, ma si potrebbe anche usarlo per parlare di un club privato, un ristorante chic oppure una scuola esclusiva dove la gente “normale” non riesce a entrare.

In London the military are still actually using bunkers. In realtà le forze armate continuano a usare i bunker a Londra. La parola actually è un false friend per gli italiani (ma anche per i francesi e altre nazionalità) perché non significa “attualmente” bensì “in realtà”. Qui è particolarmente facile confondersi perché Nick Catford usa un altro avverbio nella stessa frase, still (ancora).

They’d been stood down... wasn’t stood down until.  Erano stati sciolti...  non è stato sciolto fino a. Questo phrasal verb, to stand down, è molto raro e si usa quasi esclusivamente nel contesto militare. Chi guarda i film di guerra in lingua originale avrà sentito l’ordine Stand down! (si ritiri!) Qui invece il verbo si riferisce allo scioglimento di un reggimento.