London’s Top 10 Tunnels and Catacombs


10. Greenwich foot tunnel
Connecting Greenwich to Island Gardens on the Isle of Dogs, this slightly forlorn passage beneath the Thames was constructed at the start of the 20th Century. According to a TV show what we saw the other day, and now can’t remember the name of (anyone?), it was almost flooded during the Second World War following a direct hit. The emergency repairs can still be seen today, so they say. The tunnel would normally rank much higher in this list, but is currently on (beneath?) the naughty step following irksome and ongoing irregularities in its opening times.

9. Woolwich foot tunnel
As Dannii is to Kylie, the Woolwich tunnel is the younger, less famous and (here opinions may differ) dirtier sister to the Greenwich tunnel. It connects Woolwich and North Woolwich under the Thames. Although it has also suffered closures in recent months, the Woolwich tunnel scores a place higher than its sibling thanks to its greater obscurity and because it is kept in service despite TWO nearby alternative means of crossing (the DLR and free Woolwich ferry).

8. London Bridge catacombs
Forget the Edinburgh vaults. London has its own subterranean city of passages, crypts and vaults beneath the London Bridge area. Many readers will be familiar with the cavernous Shunt venue and the tourists-only London Dungeon. Perhaps less well known is the extensive labyrinth beneath the bridge itself, which was recently turned into the underwhelming London Tombs and London Bridge Experience.  We once spent the night down there with genuine dead bodies, a bottle of wine and a ouija board. Find out how we got on.

7. The tunnel under Euston Road
We include this one simply for its obscurity. To find it, you need to wait for Open Gardens Weekend (every June) and head to Park Square Gardens (just south of Regent’s Park). A short passage known as Nursemaid’s Tunnel will take you from this small private park underneath Euston Road, to emerge in Crescent Gardens. If you can’t wait till June, we suggest you become posh and buy one of the adjoining Regency properties to become a keyholder.

6. The Tower subway
Unless you’re some kind of electrical engineer, you have no chance of visiting this one. However, one of its terminal buildings can still be seen in the plaza west of the Tower of London. It’s usually hidden behind an ice cream van. Look for the drum-shaped building of light-brown brick. The tunnel was built under the Thames in 1869, allowing people to cross the river downstream of London Bridge. It became redundant when Tower Bridge was completed a couple of decades later. Today it is used to carry telecommunication cables and water pipes.

5. Marble Arch underpass
With 14 exits, the Marble Arch subway is undisputed king of London’s many pedestrian underpasses. Never venture down there without a ball of wool or a trail of breadcrumbs. Sadly, perhaps, a new series of pedestrian crossings at street level is gradually making the underpasses redundant. Perhaps a 100 years from now, they’ll have the same ‘hidden’ mystique as the Tower Subway. Or perhaps not.

4. Old Vic Tunnels
Waterloo, like London Bridge, is undermined by a vast network of catacombs. Many are used as workshop space, eateries and graffiti hotspots, but plenty remain unused. Back in 2009, part of this complex was rediscovered and reopened by Kevin Spacey as an unusual performance and installation space for the Old Vic theatre. It’s something of a masterstroke. The most banal, ill-written performance conceivable would still impress in this space.

3. Clerkenwell House of Detention
Once a prison, then a tourist attraction, the Clerkenwell House of Detention now lies fallow, used primarily as a film set. In the recent Sherlock Holmes film, the creepy and extensive caverns stood in as the passages beneath Westminster (you know, the ones that miraculously take our hero from the Houses of Parliament to Tower Bridge in just a couple of minutes).  It’s rarely open to visitors today, but be sure to book your place if the chance arises. Otherwise, watch our video walk-through.

2. The Brunel Thames tunnel
Perhaps the most famous non-road tunnel in London, the Thames Tunnel is often cited as the first burrowing under a major river IN THE WORLD. Marc and Izzy Brunel spent almost 20 years building the tunnel between Rotherhithe and Wapping, and several workers died in the process. Today it carries the London Overground beneath the river. An open weekend just before the train service started attracted thousands of Londoners.

1. Kingsway tram tunnel
Our personal favourite. The Kingsway underpass carried trams and trolleybuses beneath that road and out onto Embankment until the last service in 1952. Although part of the southern section was converted into the Strand underpass for road vehicles, the northern section has remained as a gaping wound along Southampton Row, gated off and inaccessible to the public ever since. The one exception was the recent Chord installation, which used the tunnel as a long art gallery. More please!

This top 10 is based on nothing more than the whims and fancies of Londonist. The capital contains many more tunnels and catacombs, so please nominate your favourites in the comments below. Extra bonus brownie points to anyone who can highlight a tunnel we’ve never heard of.

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  • http://twitter.com/jonnelledge Jonn Elledge

    How’s about the Islington tunnel for the boatie types?

    • Anonymous

      A good call – there’s also the one under Maida Vale.

      • http://twitter.com/sparticus Mark Walley

        The Maida Vale one is a good tunnel and all (particularly the big high approach going east-west and the cafe going the other way) but the Islington one is much better, it’s proper long and scary, and always bitterly cold.

  • http://twitter.com/zefrog Nicolas Chinardet

    hugh!!! no mention of the Elephant and Castle subway system?! which, as part of it is closed off in a few weeks time, will also celebrate its centenary this year (not the current ones obviously which were built in the 1960′s)

  • http://twitter.com/Chris_Surridge Chris Surridge

    Also what about Chislehurst Caves? (http://www.chislehurst-caves.co.uk/). Extending under much of south London possibly as far as Greenwich. Druids, flint-knappers, WWII air-raid shelter, Dr Who location. Need I say more?

    • Anonymous

      Chris – good to see you over here (I’m the same Matt as on Nature Network).
      Chislehurst Caves are exceptional, and probably deserve a place in this list. Good nomination. I’ll think of an alternative category (top ten ancient wonders of London?) to celebrate them another time.

    • Anonymous

      Chris – good to see you over here (I’m the same Matt as on Nature Network).
      Chislehurst Caves are exceptional, and probably deserve a place in this list. Good nomination. I’ll think of an alternative category (top ten ancient wonders of London?) to celebrate them another time.

  • Wim Van Mierlo

    Alexander Pope’s grotto in Twickenham. The grotoo was originally built as a tunnel connecting his house on the banks of the Thames with some pasture land across the road (http://www.twickenham-museum.org.uk/detail.asp?ContentID=21).

    • Anonymous

      Nice one! Not sure I’d heard of that one.

  • ogrizovic

    Isn’t the Kingsway tram tunnel almost adjacent to a large system of infinitely cooler disused MI6 tunnels?

    Why yes: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2008/oct/18/london-underground-secret-tunnels

    • Anonymous

      True, but we’d have to make it a top 50 if we included all the military and governmental tunnels.

      • linalmeemow

        I’ve done some work down there in the last couple of years.  Amazing place – there are rooms that look like they haven’t been touched since the 1950s…

      • linalmeemow

        I’ve done some work down there in the last couple of years.  Amazing place – there are rooms that look like they haven’t been touched since the 1950s…

  • http://shepherds-bush.blogspot.com/ Chris Underwood

    But how about the tunnel I recently went down which covers a raging Fleet river underneath the centre of the City for the Shepherd’s Bush Blog? Read all about it here complete with vid interview of the “Flushers” who work down there

    http://shepherds-bush.blogspot.com/2010/12/going-underground-my-trip-into-our.html

    Now there’s a piece of hidden London

  • Dom Richards

    crystal palace catacombs – loverley brickwork

  • http://twitter.com/sparticus Mark Walley

    The tunnel at number 7, the one you call the Euston Road tunnel, is misleading named, as it’s actually under Marylebone Road. The Euston Road one in my head would be the one that connects the two entrances to Euston Square station. That said, it is a very good tunnel. You don’t need to be that rich to get a key, you just have to live near enough by and willing to pay the £120ish quid it is a year, and seeing as there is a council estate just the other side of the gardens which count as near enough, it’s fairly attainable. Fascinating fact though, that tunnel still smells heavily of urine, even though I imagine only rats ever pee in it. Proving that either all tunnels smell of wee by default, or that in British culture we excessively blame tramps and late night drinkers for urine smells, when in fact it’s mostly rats.

    • Anonymous

      Some excellent points, Mark. And, yes, you’re correct…it should be Marylebone Road at that point.

  • http://twitter.com/dgbdgb dgbdgb

    I’d say two of the key tunnels in London (both completed before the Thames Tunnel) are the Regent’s Canal tunnel at Islington mention by John above (which I believe was the first sizeable tunnel completed in London) and then the less known (but as important) Primrose Hill Railway Tunnel – completed by Robert Stephenson in 1837, and at the time became one of the best tourist attractions in the London area – people came out to have picnics and experience the novelty of steam trains emerging from the tunnel at speed. The Primrose Hill Tunnel also has a lovely architectural entrance, built at the request of Eton College who owned the land in the area, and which in turn set the pattern for other railway tunnels to be built with fancy portals. Read more about it and other aspects of this area at in http://www.crht1837.org/

  • http://twitter.com/dgbdgb dgbdgb

    I’d say two of the key tunnels in London (both completed before the Thames Tunnel) are the Regent’s Canal tunnel at Islington mention by John above (which I believe was the first sizeable tunnel completed in London) and then the less known (but as important) Primrose Hill Railway Tunnel – completed by Robert Stephenson in 1837, and at the time became one of the best tourist attractions in the London area – people came out to have picnics and experience the novelty of steam trains emerging from the tunnel at speed. The Primrose Hill Tunnel also has a lovely architectural entrance, built at the request of Eton College who owned the land in the area, and which in turn set the pattern for other railway tunnels to be built with fancy portals. Read more about it and other aspects of this area at in http://www.crht1837.org/

    • Anonymous

      Excellent nominations. Yes, I remember taking a look at the Primrose Hill tunnel entrance on an Open House Day. Very nice. I actually live in one of the Eton blocks, so the link you added is particularly interesting. Thanks for commenting.

  • http://twitter.com/topdowntoedown Lewis Cooper

    My favourite London tunnel is, by far, the pneumatic railway. A brilliant idea, executed with typical Victorian steam-powered gusto and the idea is still used today by supermarkets etc to move things about by vacuum tube… See http://www.ianvisits.co.uk/blog/2009/07/11/londons-lost-tunnel/

  • Jean Michel Genre

    Forgive my vagueness but isn’t there some kind of tunnel the Royal Mail use/used going from Paddington to their main sorting office on the Mount Pleasant road? Or do I need to have my medication stepped up?

    • Anonymous

      Indeed there is, although its not currently in active service. It was called Mail Rail and ran from Paddington to Whitechapel via Mount Pleasant. It closed around 5 years ago, I think.

  • Jean Michel Genre

    Ah thanks Matt – you are the oracle!

  • http://venta.livejournal.com/ LizW

    Hardly an architectural marvel, but I have a soft spot for the foot tunnel linking the Jubilee and Piccadilly lines under Green Park tube station. It’s just like any other walkway on the tube, except for the mosaic on the walls which starts with white and grey tiles at one end, and slowly fades to white and Piccadilly blue at the other. Genius, and so subtle it’s almost 100% unnoticed :)

  • Anastasia

    Camden Catacombs which can usually be accessed via a boat / dingy.

  • http://twitter.com/oliver_m_wright Oliver Wright

    Cold Blow lane in Deptford is a bit of a rat run…but fun nonetheless. And the disused (and now blocked) rail tunnel that goes through Dulwich wood – the line used to connect Crystal Palace and Nunhead. You can still see both ends by following the green chain walk.

  • http://twitter.com/IntensePassion Jennifer L. Crisp

    Another tunnel in Euston Road is the one built in the 1990s by The Wellcome Trust to connect the Wellcome Building with it’s premises across the road.  This allowed access for the transportation of library materials whilst the 1930s Wellcome Building was being refurbished.  Permission was given by London Underground for Wellcome to build the tunnel and use it for a specified number of years.  The tunnel is now closed and the two buildings are no longer connected.  If you are in Euston Square Station wander down to the east end of the platforms (where the trains come in from and go out to Kings Cross and Liverpool Street) and look up to the roof and you will see the base of the tunnel, encased in iron, running from one side to the other.  Whilst working at Wellcome I walked through the tunnel many times and heard the trains running beneath my feet.  One wonders if the tunnel will ever open again or, better still, be rediscovered in the future and written about on a site such as this.

  • Tunnelsareforvirgins

    you guys havent seen a tunnel since you popped out of your mothers’ vaginas…… get a lifeeeeeeee

  • Clementine

    Hey Matt, I was wondering if there is public access to any of the underground tunnels you mentioned. I am interested in doing a photography session and tunnels just fascinate me.