Wednesday, 20 October 2010

A tale of two tunnels

One of the things that fascinates me most about London is its tunnels. I've previously written about my adventures in Tunnel 228 and the Kingsway Tram Tunnel, and I'm pleased to report that the last few weeks have provided me with two more opportunities to explore the city's secret labyrinths. 

First up was a tour of the abandoned Aldwych tube station on the Strand. You may have heard about this as it got a lot of news coverage when the tour opened, and I felt lucky to get my hands on a pair of highly sought-after tickets from the London Transport Museum, which organised the event.

Aldwych station closed in 1994, but during the London Blitz 70 years ago, thousands of Londoners sheltered there to escape the bombings from the German Luftwaffe. The aim of these particular tours was to give visitors an idea of what it was like to take refuge in a tube tunnel while the bombs rained down from the skies.

Walking down the emergency staircase to reach the platform (the lifts no longer work, obviously) genuinely gave me goosebumps as I imagined what it must have been like back in 1940, leaving your home and possessions behind and spending the night with hundreds of strangers. But sadly I wasn't overly impressed with the tour; there simply wasn't enough information given to us about the history of the tube station itself, and it relied too much on special effects and the cockney role-playing enthusiasm of a few actors.

Don't get me wrong, the tour was impeccably organised and it was entertaining - especially for the kids who were there with their parents - but I wasn't looking for theatrics, I was thirsty for information. It was great that there was an old tube train that we could explore, but surely if they wanted to give us a true indication of what sheltering in the tunnel was like during the Blitz then there shouldn't have been a train on the tracks or fancy lighting and sound effects? I simply wanted to be shown around and told about what people had to go through, but instead I learned more from health and safety talk which was given in the ticket hall before the formal tour began.

I was still glad that I got the opportunity to explore Aldwych station, but I'm not convinced it was worth £8.50.

My second tunnel adventure took place last weekend at the Old Vic Tunnels underneath Waterloo station. Indeed, these are the same tunnels that were used by Punchdrunk for their Tunnel 228 project I went to last year. This time the exhibition was called Hell's Half Acre, and consisted of a series of installation artworks by various artists, inspired by Dante's Inferno and curated by the Lazarides Gallery.

I must say I was utterly blown away by this exhibition. As usual, I couldn't tell you what it all meant, and having never read 'Inferno' I couldn't place the works within any kind of context whatsoever, but I can honestly say that around every corner there was an installation that made me gasp, coo with awe or grimace with a strange sense of admiring unease.

Humans in cling-film cocoons, a ball of pigeons, magnified maggots, a hypnotic perpetually-changing projection reflected in a pool of water, random etchings on layered plates of glass that formed a perfect image if you stood in the right place....I could go on.

Unfortunately the exhibition - which was free though you had to pre-book - is finished now, but I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for more Lazarides / Old Vic Tunnels projects.

Speaking of keeping an eye out for things, I must give a shout out to the IanVisits blog, as this is without doubt the best source of information for tunnel-related events in London.

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