I have a slight confession to make, a sort of guilty pleasure if you will, and that is that I'm a massive transport geek. Now you won't find me on a train platform taking photos with a little notebook recording S-stock London Midland trains coming in and out of Birmingham New Street, but I doubt you'll be able to tell me a little fact about the tube network I haven't heard before. I know which stations were abandoned, I know about the various disasters and mysterious, which stations are supposedly haunted and which areas of London have dummy houses hiding the lines. I've read books about tube lines and am secretly jealous of people who've walked all the tube lines.
And then the news reported that they'd be opening up Clapham South station for tours and I knew I had to join in. Partly because of the whole transport geek thing and partly because I live in Clapham. I don't know where the line is below my house, but it must be pretty close because I can pick up the tube's wifi from my bedroom, and sometimes hear the tubes rumbling below me at night. It took me ages to get a ticket - it turns out there are quite a few people in London who want to go underground and we did have to wait quite a long time to get on our tour.
Clapham South tube has one of the only purpose built air raid shelters which the public can still access. Before this, Londoners had been using tube stations on the platforms, until a bomb hit the Balham station killing 66 people and then Bank station killing 111 people. The government realised they had to do something and started building underground shelters - without telling anyone what they were doing. Mounds of earth appeared on Clapham Common, and because it was during the Second World War, no one questioned where all the earth had come from or why it had been dumped on the Common.
We headed down hundreds of circled steps to the sound of the air raid sirens - a little cheesy but it did make me think about all of the people who'd had to run down those steps before me genuinely fearing for their lives and homes. When we finally reached the bottom, we were greeted by our guide and a mass of tunnels which seemed to stretch on forever. It was impossible to work out where you were in relation to the ground above - every time we tried to work out which direction Balham or Clapham Common was, we got it wrong.
The shelters had room for 8,000 people, all of whom had a bunk. There were kitchens, a medical room, toilets and a game room. You had to bring your own stuff up and down with you each night - and believe me, after hauling my fat bum up the stairs at the end of the tour, I wouldn't have been wanting to do that holding clothes and a duvet. Having said that, the only time you got to keep your belongings down there during the day was if your house got bombed. So maybe I'd have picked the slightly exhausting option...
I learnt that the shelters were later used to house soldiers, as a cheap hostel during the Festival of Britain in 1951 and also as a stop for those who came to England on the Empire Windrush - and is partly why Brixton is so multi-cultural to this day, as the nearest job centre to the tube station was in Brixton.
Similar tunnels in Clapham Common are being used for storage, tunnels in Clapham North are being used to grow vegetables and herbs in controlled conditions which I think is pretty awesome. Even though the tunnels aren't often open to the public these days, if you do get a chance to do and see them, take it! The guides were so enthusiastic and even though the tour wasn't cheap, I feel like I got value for every penny. I'm already looking into taking another trip down to other stations, like Down Street. If you're a bit of a tube geek like me, or into your London history, you'll find it hard to join a more interesting tour.