LONDON UNDERGROUND: Getting deep under the skin of the UK’s capital

VIJAY SHAH via Londonist


(c) Londonist

A major city, a former industrial metropolis, with a population of eight million, London has become famous for its high-rise buildings filling the air. The Shard, the Gherkin, the Walkie Talkie, it is a hangglider’s veritable nightmare. But less of a thought is given to the city’s growth in the opposite direction. Famed for its Underground trains, many of which run deep below the busy roads, homes, offices and tourist attractions of the city, London has plenty of other subterranean secrets too, as explored recently by local online magazine Londonist.

The clay and soil beneath London’s mean streets are home to a bewildering number of tunnels, obsolete Tube stations, bunkers and basements of all sorts. It is pretty much a subterranean maze below Londoners’ feet, and enough to rival the mass of roads, walkways and cycle paths above ground. The average London sewer is only four feet under our feet, while the Lee Tunnel, which runs under East Ham and Stratford in east London and stores and runs out effluent and sewage from the Abbey Mills Pumping Station, is the deepest at around 60-70 metres. There is even a mail rail for letters used by Royal Mail which moves parcels and birthday cards around unhindered at a depth of 21 metres. Probably too much for Postman Pat. His cat would turn out completely black from all the soot, we reckon.

Other down-below surprises include deep-level emergency shelters (30m down), the London Power Tunnels, which help keep the capital’s electricity flowing at 35m, and the new Crossrail service, which chugs around happily at a depth of 25 metres. The city is also home to secret tunnels, underground passageways and bunkers, many built by the government during the war years. Add to that the forty or so disused Underground stations such as Down Street, Aldwych and others, some which may be converted into underground shopping centres if plans get the go-ahead.

Sadly, as much as London is a city of firsts, the deepest human-made structure is not directly underneath your local boozer or primary school. If you consider true depth, then that accolade goes to the SG-3 borehole in Russia, part of the greater Kola Superdeep borehole. SG-3 was excavated by the Soviets in the far eastern Kola peninsula between 1970-1989 in a test to see how far humans could go beneath the surface.

Londonist writer and illustrator Matt Brown has produced a special infographic with a distinct city vibe, that visually explains the different underground features, and has also assembled an informative guide to many of these earthly delights, featuring Wikipedia articles, official websites and the magazine’s own exclusive video ‘Secrets’ of many of London’s grandest tunnels. You can view all these at the Londonist article in the Sources section of this blogpost.

Londonist, Facebook, Facebook Inc.
“How Deep Does London Go?” – Matt Brown (M@), Londonist/Londonist Ltd. (27 October 2015)
“Kola Superdeep Borehole” – Wikipedia/Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.
“How Deep Does London Go?” – Matt Brown (M@), Londonist/Londonist Ltd. (27 October 2015)

6 thoughts on “LONDON UNDERGROUND: Getting deep under the skin of the UK’s capital

    • halfeatenmind November 2, 2015 / 5:18 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Raewyn.
      It is, especially considering much of it was built more than a century ago, when technology was a great deal simpler. The power of London haha!…and of course Victorian engineering.


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