If it wasn’t for the internet, we wouldn’t have been there. If it wasn’t for the internet, most of us probably wouldn’t have even known about the structure we were in. But there we were, underneath one of London’s busiest roads, watching rope whirl around a big contraption. It was impressive, but that wasn’t the reason half of us were down there.
If it wasn’t for the internet, it’s doubtful I would have gained such a fascination for the Kingsway Tram Subway, created with the street above and opened in 1906 to provide a link between north and south London’s tram networks – partly so the vehicles could be taken to their central repair depot in Felltram Way, Charlton. It included two stations, one at Holborn to complement the Tube station, and one at the Aldwych. The trams were withdrawn in 1952 – going to be scrapped at a yard in Penhall Road, Charlton – and the Kingsway Subway was all but abandoned, given over for storage. In 1964 the Strand Underpass opened inside part of the old subway, but the northern section, with its ramp descending down from Southampton Row, remained. Before the Thames Barrier opened, a London-wide flood control unit was sited in a portacabin there. Now Camden Council uses it to store street furniture, signs, and other bits of equipment.
The subway survived 46 years as a working part of London’s transport network, but has been an oddity beneath the capital’s streets for 57 years. How different would London be if the trams had stayed? Very, but London’s transport history has been littered with stupid, short-term decision-making. I pondered this point as a bright red Porsche cut up a newly-non-bendy 521 bus at the tunnel entrance.
Only in the past decade have younger generations been alerted to the Kingsway Subway’s existence by the internet. It is very, very rarely open to the public, but artist Conrad Shawcross has decided to use it for his installation Chord. It opened for business last week, and it’s currently fully-booked, with the promise of more free tickets available soon.
Some of the tunnel still has its tracks in place – I’m just old enough to remember the tram tracks in Woolwich market and in Felltram Way – and in most of it, the sets are still in place. It’s a couple of minutes walk into Holborn tram station, where one of the tracks has been filled in – the flood control centre lived here – but advertising spaces remain, and – tantalisingly – a single, dirty space left by a London Transport roundel remained.
One of the people on the tour was a gentleman who said the “HOLBORN” signs had remained into the 1970s – he used to work for the BBC, and twice had to venture into the flood centre to check the emergency broadcast lines. Not only that, he’d also travelled through the subway in a tram as a boy.
But in other parts, it’s clear that this has found other uses – some film props remained, a tattered 1940s Tube map clung to the wall, presumably also brought down by film-makers. Stacked up on the filled-in track, our guide explained, were old gas lamp fittings. Further into the tunnel, old bollards and bits of pavement were stacked up alongside one of the signs that sat about Inverness Street market in Camden Town. The team behind the exhbition had to move all this to make space for the installation, slightly further into the tunnel.
Ah, yes, the installation. In their own words:
Conceived specifically for the long subway, the artist has built two identical rope machines that will weave a thick hawser from 324 spools of coloured string. These vast machines will begin back to back in the centre of the space and then gradually move away from each other slowly down the subway following the old tram tracks. Like two huge spiders, they will slowly weave their rope behind them as they slowly travel through the space over the course of the exhibition.
It looks pretty damn impressive, and is worth seeing as a sight in its own right. And it’s hard to imagine this anywhere else.
Coming back up onto Southampton Row, we peered up the leaf-covered stairs of the old Holborn station, now covered by a grille in the middle of the road. It’s hard to imagine these narrow stairs and the little platform being at the centre of a teeming transport network, and to picture this ghostly hole in the ground being filled with life. Sadly, it’s even harder to imagine the innovative thinking that created the Kingsway Subway being applied to London’s transport problems now.
Art-lover or geek, If you want to take a look at this fascinating installation/relic of the past, then more tickets will be made available soon. Be quick, though – the gates on the Kingsway Subway will close on 8 November.