How Aldwych Tube Station Could Have Become A Heritage 'Theme Park'

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By M@
How Aldwych Tube Station Could Have Become A Heritage 'Theme Park'

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Aldwych shown on a tube diagram and labelled as a theme park
Image (photoshopped): Matt Brown.

The 1996 proposal to build a heritage 'theme park' inside the abandoned Piccadilly line station.

Most readers will be familiar with Aldwych, the famous 'ghost station' where trains have not called since 1994. It's now used as a film set and for training purposes, but forgotten plans from the mid-90s would have seen it turned into a heritage railway, or 'theme park' as the press had it.

Strand or Aldwych tube station
Aldwych tube. The northern face carries the old name of Strand station. Image: Matt Brown

The 1996 proposal would have seen the station restored to its "pre-war look", with a range of exhibits in the station building and a heritage train ride along the mile-long stretch of disused track leading up to Holborn. The attraction would have used original rolling stock — including 1921 Piccadilly line trains, and 1938 units — to take visitors on a journey through tube history.

The idea was put forward by the Civic Trust, and was backed by a number of rail lobbyists, including the Rail Development Society and Transport 2000.

Alas, the plans were shot down by London Underground. They raised a sceptical eyebrow at that the huge costs involved, but also feared the scheme posed a fire risk. "We have completely ruled out any ideas of an exhibition or allowing the line to be used for passengers," they told the press, concluding with a touch of hyperbole.... "Would you supply electricity to someone who could, in theory, blow all the fuses across the network?" Other safety concerns included the vintage rolling stock, which was nowhere near modern fire standards, and the lifts whose safety certificates had lapsed.

"We would modify the trains and obviously address the safety aspects," retorted the Civic Trust. "It would be a big boost for London." But London Underground held firm and the site remained empty, save for the occasional training exercise and film crew.

Other plans for Aldwych

Aldwych tube with film crew
A film crew making use of Aldwych station. Image: Matt Brown

This wasn't the only idea for keeping the old station alive. In 1995 plans were developed to open Aldwych up for an historically minded sleepover, recreating conditions endured by families during the Blitz. This too was quashed on safety grounds.

And ahead of Aldwych's closure, the Evening Standard had a bit of a brainstorm with some well-known talking heads. Dame Shirley Porter reckoned the tunnels could be "the sort of place where a history of London throughout the ages could be shown." A bit like the Museum of London, then. Dear old Frank Dobson MP took a more socialist stance: "I may be old fashioned but my general view is that the best use of a Tube station is as a Tube station. The fact that it isn't making money is not the point." Architectural commentator Gavin Stamp agreed.

Other ideas mooted included a fashion exhibition centre; a shelter for the homeless; and an underground mausoleum left to decay as a monument to the incompetence of tube management.

A slow reawakening

This last suggestion is closest to what happened. The station has never been sold and remained closed off for many years, unless you happened to be part of a film crew. Dozens of movies, TV shows and music videos have used the platforms and tunnels. In 1996, London Underground undermined their own fears about fire risk by letting this lot in:

London Underground seems to have gradually overcome its health and safety objections to public access. The site has long been home to King's College's rifle and pistol club — the only place in the capital where you can legally fire weapons in a tube station. More recently, London Transport Museum has opened the site to occasional tours as part of its Hidden London programme. Could the next step be a heritage train ride through the tunnels?

Sources

Evening Standard, 11 January 1993
Evening Standard, 16 March 1995
Westminster & Pimlico News, 11 January 1996

Accessed via the British Newspaper Archive and Newspapers.com

Last Updated 13 March 2024