Under London, tunnels and air raid shelters will become tourist attractions

There is a locked door on the eastbound platform of Chancery Lane station on the London Underground. The door is unpretentious, sturdy and white.

Behind it is a wide set of stairs leading to a labyrinth of tunnels about a mile long built in the 1940s that were initially intended to serve as a World War II shelter and later used for espionage, storage of 400 tons of documents government and telecommunications. Services.

Welcome to the Kingsway Exchange Tunnels, located approximately 100 feet below street level in central London, extending beneath the Underground's Central Line. They may soon be entering a new chapter: Angus Murray, the owner of the complex, who bought the tunnels last summer, has applied for a building permit from the local authorities together with the architecture firm WilkinsonEyre to transform the tunnels into a tourist destination capable to handle millions of people a year.

Murray's London Tunnels plans to invest a total of £220 million (about $275 million) to restore and preserve the tunnels, as well as adding technology for art installations and other attractions. Mr Murray hopes to open the complex in 2027 and said it will be able to host temporary art exhibitions, fashion shows and more.

Currently, entering the tunnels requires taking a small lift hidden behind a side door in an alley off a wide street in central London. (Visitors to the attraction would use a different, larger entrance, Mr. Murray said.)

When the elevator doors open, you enter a World War II tunnel, one of 10 civilian shelters proposed by the British government after the start of the Blitz, the eight-month German bombing of London that began in September 1940. The tunnels were never used as shelters. By the time they were completed in 1942, the Blitz was over.

During the Cold War, the British government instructed its telephone department, which later became British Telecom, to install a secret communications system in the tunnels that could survive a nuclear attack. According to the project's website, the famous direct line between the Kremlin and the White House ran through the complex. Some of the telephone exchange equipment in the tunnels survives today, although it has not been used since at least the 1980s.

“The idea was that it would provide some degree of protection,” said Martin Dixon, trustee of Subterranea Britannica, a charity that documents and seeks to preserve underground spaces.

“If the Cold War had turned into something more serious, it would have allowed communications at some level to continue,” said Dixon, who joined Subterranea Britannica about 40 years ago.

The tunnels under Chancery Lane tube station are more than a mile long and in some places almost 25 feet in diameter. Those dimensions make them among the largest sets of tunnels built for people in a metropolitan city, Murray said.

“They have a fascinating history,” he said.

For a group of postal and telecommunications workers in the decades following World War II, the tunnel complex became a workplace, some aspects of which have survived. In a room the suffocating smell of an old carpet is inevitable. Another still preserves the remains of a canteen. Yet another has fake windows that frame images of nature as decorations. There are still offices and rooms where workers could spend the night.

Some parts of the tunnels are lined with fake walls and doors with nothing behind them. The effect is not unlike watching a scene from the dystopian Apple TV+ show “Severance.”

There is also still a bar where postal workers could drink, and Mr Murray said he hoped to revive it and make it the deepest underground bar in London.

The tunnels' communications operation became obsolete in the 1980s, and in 2008 British Telecom put them up for sale. Until the 1990s BT workers would come down to the complex to inspect fire safety and other conditions. Otherwise the tunnels were empty.

Many details of the new attraction have yet to be worked out, but Murray said the cost of the experience will likely be in the same price range as other major London tourist sites. (The entrance fee to the Tower of London is about $40, while that of Westminster Abbey is about $36.)

Mr Dixon, of Subterranea Britannica, said he was excited by the prospect of the Kingsway Exchange turning into an attraction, as long as it was safe and the history was preserved.

“I have seen thousands of underground spaces, from the mundane to the spectacular,” he said. The Kingsway Exchange is particularly interesting, she added, for all the different functions it served. “He played his role in World War II and was ready to play his role in the Cold War.”

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