Ambitious plan to open up the hidden underground spaces of London takes shape

By Nick Owen | 19 July 2011
a photo of a man in an underground tunnel complex
Ajit Chambers wants to give the world’s oldest subterranean rail network a new lease of life
Love it or loath it, the London Underground is one of Britain’s great institutions. 

Millions use the Tube every day and the map of the world’s first underground railway is considered to be one of the finest pieces of 20th century design.

But amidst this labyrinthine network, more than 40 Underground stations remain frozen in time, closed due to lack of passengers – some of which haven’t felt a human presence for more than 100 years.

Plans are now well underway to give the world’s oldest subterranean railway tunnels a new lease of life. Former banker Ajit Chambers, founder of The Old London Underground Company, has earmarked 26 Tube stations across London for redevelopment.

He believes the derelict stations hidden away beneath the capital are some of London's greatest assets, with more than £1 billion worth of untapped real estate still to be bought up.

Sites that were once used as bomb shelters during the Blitz and more recently as Harry Potter film sets will, he says, become museums, restaurants, nightclubs and even climbing centres.

Some of the stations – such as Down Street, a stop away from Hyde Park Corner – will utilise the heritage value of the sites, while others will simply make use of the unusual spaces.

“London needs to hold its head up high and have a legacy project it can be proud of," he says, when asked why he took on the challenge.

While some may argue that these historic pockets of London should be kept untouched, Ajit believes the rejuvenated stations will, in turn, rejuvenate London’s heritage.

“It’s a very middle-class way of thinking that if something is unseen it’s beautiful and therefore its mystery needs to be kept intact," he explains. “These places aren’t going to be turned into Starbucks; they need to be opened up so that families can go on outings to fascinating heritage sites.”

a screen shot from a streamed television debate of a man speaking with a microphone
Ajit has lobbied and campaigned vigorously to get the project off the ground
Since The Old London Underground Company was founded in 2009, Ajit has been in talks with Mayor of London Boris Johnson to try and get the project off the ground.

The Mayor, who also chairs the board of Transport for London (TfL), recently gave the project the go ahead - providing, he said, “it doesn’t cost a penny of the tax payer’s money”.

The first of these "ghost stations" set to open is Brompton Road, between Knightsbridge and South Kensington, a stone’s throw away from Harrods.

Closed in 1934 and used throughout the Second World War as an anti-aircraft headquarters, the station was later used to interrogate Hitler’s renegade deputy Rudolf Hess.

By November 2011, the historic station will open as a restaurant, with Robbie Williams tipped to perform the ceremonial duties.

Three major investors have sourced the £200 million required to bring the project to fruition, and little else seems to stand in Ajit’s way.

The banker-turned-philanthropist is developing the project through a public finance initiative, meaning the sites will be handed back to Transport for London over a period of decades.

“Really what we’re doing is negotiating the leases and making it possible to do this financially”, he said. "It’s up to London to decide what goes into these sites."

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