London is literally the most visited city in the world. Every year 27 million tourists stream through Trafalgar Square, the British Museum and Westminster Abbey. They cycle through the London eye and browse at Portabello Road Market. They drink cream teas and warm beers and shop on Oxford Road. They do all of the London things and leave thinking that they’ve seen the city.
But they haven’t, not fully anyways. Because there’s a whole other side of London that they can’t see, that nobody gets to see really except for a select few.
This isn’t another article about budget tips for London. Nor is it about off-the beaten track things to do. It’s about the secret parts of London.A two thousand year old city is bound to have some secrets and there are parts of London that are hidden even from the locals.
So here’s the London you can’t see:
Everyone who visits London rides on the Tube. Not only is it the oldest metro system in the world, it’s still super convenient for getting around. Turns out though, that there’s a lot more going on under the streets of London than you’d think.
London has an entire network of abandoned tube stations. The first underground train in London left the platform in 1863- that is 145 years ago! Since then a number of stations, tunnels and platforms have been built and later shut down. Shut down–but not destroyed. There are about two dozen stations which sit ghostly and unused below the earth. This includes the now defunct British Museum Station. You can see pictures of a lot of these stations, I warn you though, it’s pretty eery.
It gets even stranger though. Deep Level Shelters built far underneath even the deepest tube lines. They were built by the government during World War Two as bomb shelters and never inhabited- they are now used mainly for storage (what is so important- or so useless, that you need to store it hundreds of feet underground? Government secrets? Old Spice Girls albums?). There is even a society, Subterranea Britannica dedicated to exploring these underground spaces
Below the Water
People have been living along the Thames since neolithic times, and pretty much as far back as that they have been tossing their old pottery, bottles and other trash into the river. Basically it has become the depository of thousands of years worth of junk.
Stick around London long enough and you realize that the Thames is a tidal river. In every 24 hour cycle the water level rises and falls a full 19 feet- twice! At high tide the river is close and immediate, it presses along the embankment like a fat man in a bath tub. At low tide it is a thin and shallow ribbon, the water recedes to reveal hidden staircases leading down to wide rocky beaches. I’ve never given it much thought other than that it looks pretty gross at low tide, but on a tour a few years ago, my guide told me that beachcombers can easily find bits of broken pottery and other treasures on the banks- instead of washing away, pieces of treasure are simply lifted up and redeposited by the constant rise and fall of the river.
Ghosts and History
Of course London has ghosts. Or at least ghost stories. In a city this old, with such a rich history, there is an entire parallel universe of alternate history. Whether you believe in spirit stuff or not there are certainly enough interesting and gruesome stories out there to be well entertaining.
In a city this old with this rich a history, there are more hauntings and ghost stories than you can count. After all this it the city that was once home to Jack the Ripper, Sweeney Todd (not real, but still!) and the Highgate Vampire among other creepy things. Liverpool Street Station is built on the spot of an old insane asylum. Half of the city really is built overtop of old plague pits and burial grounds. London hotels are haunted, as are theaters, graveyards and houses.
There are a number of walking tours you can take to learn more about Haunted London. There’s no guarantee you’ll see a ghost those, that’s one of the cities secrets that few can decipher.
That’s not all, I’m sure of it. A city that has existed for thousands of years must be weeping with secrets; forgotten landmarks, hidden tunnels, places that have long since been buried over by the detritus of progress. For me that’s part of what makes London so fascinating: it has secrets that we can only imagine.