Exploring The Underground With Hidden London Tours

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Disclosure: This article may contain links to products or services (including Amazon) that pay me a small commission. This is at no extra cost to you.

For many people, the London Underground is little more than a way of getting from one place to another. But have you ever wondered about the history of public transport in London, and wished that you could go behind the scenes to learn more and to explore some of the hidden sights? Hidden London Tours are a way to do just that, as I discovered when I took a tour of the long history and lost tunnels of Piccadilly Circus.

Disclosure: I went on a Hidden London Tour as a guest of the London Transport Museum.

What Are Hidden London Tours?

Hidden London Tours are run by the London Transport Museum, the museum in Covent Garden that explores 200 years of the capital’s vast transport network. These tours, conducted by expert guides, go behind closed doors to explore disused tunnels, platforms and ticket offices, and to discover the stories of London’s tube stations and underground lines, and the people who used them.

You get the chance to see secret spaces that are normally closed off to the public, and to glean all sorts of information drawn from the Transport Museum’s extensive archives. And along the way you learn snippets about London itself. I wasn’t surprised to discover that Hidden London Tours had been voted “Best Hidden Gem in the World” at the Tiqets’ Remarkable Venue Awards for 2022.

Looking along a long tunnel with curved walls covered in green and white tiles
Hidden London Tours take you through parts of the underground that are normally closed off

Piccadilly Circus: The Heart Of London

The tour I went on was called “Piccadilly Circus: the Heart of London”. Our very knowledgeable guides were Marilyn and Becky, and they started by giving us lots of information about Piccadilly Circus, the station, and its history. This was at one time London’s busiest station: we heard how the original station had to be moved to its present location in order to accommodate increased passenger numbers and the demand for escalators to move those passengers down to the platforms.

It was this move that led to the closing of the tunnels and lift shafts that we were going to explore. We were warned that some of the tour would be dark, dirty, dusty and damp!

Piccadilly Circus Station

We started the tour in the ticket hall, looking at some of the station’s history. I had taken the opportunity to look around before the tour started (something that busy travellers rarely take the time to do). I was surprised how many of the early features were still there, from small shop units to original tilework to a “world clock map”, showing the time at different places around the world. There was also an interesting memorial to Frank Pick, the Chief Executive of the London Transport who introduced many of its distinctive design features.

Monument on a curved station wall. An underground station symbol has the name "Frank Pick" and words are written on the wall in gold: Beauty, Immortality, Utility, Perfection, Goodness, Righteousness, Truth, Wisdom
The memorial to Frank Pick at Piccadilly Circus Station

We were told about the building of the new Piccadilly Circus station. This was a massive undertaking: not only did the station have to be large enough to accommodate large numbers of passengers, but – being in a very busy part of London – it also had to be built entirely underground. No expense was spared: this was to be the “Underground’s flagship station”. Features included travertine marble from Tivoli in Italy and a large mural to go above the escalators (the marble remains but the mural has unfortunately disappeared).

Hidden Tunnels

Now it was time to go further underground, passing through a closed door to climb down more than a hundred steps to the platform below. We passed buskers and passengers emerging from a train to enter another locked passage. We were now in a tunnel leading to the original station. Many of the original tiles of teal, green and cream could still be seen on the walls, as could the old painted signs.

Walking along the dusty passageways and past the remains of old lift shafts, we saw several information posters on the walls, and our tour guide stopped to tell us the story of the station, both old and new. We were starting to get a sense of how important the new station must have been when we saw an original plan showing all the fashionable shops that were to be incorporated.

Part of Piccadilly Circus Station, with pillars and tiled floor. On the wall is an old map showing the time in different parts of the world
You can see original features in the station hall today, including an old world time map

Wartime History

For me, the most fascinating part of the history came after the tunnels closed in 1929. This was the role of the lost tunnels during the Second World War, when the residents of London tried to escape the Blitz by using the station as an air raid shelter. We heard what it was like for the thousands of people who crowded into the tunnels each night, and the problems caused by a lack of toilet facilities!

The station was also used for “special storage” during the war. Even those who were sleeping there were unaware that many of the city’s most important artworks had been secretly brought to the station for safekeeping.

Tunnel wall with green and white tiles and an old sign saying "to the trains" with an arrow pointing to the right
An old sign in the closed off tunnel

A Wealth Of Information

We were now at the end of our tour – fortunately we were able to leave the station via the escalators rather than climbing back up the stairs. We had been given a vast amount of history and information – if you want to learn more you’ll have to go on the tour yourself…

How To Take A Hidden London Tour

  • Hidden London tickets can be booked through the London Transport Museum. There are several different tours on offer, including the disused Aldwych Station and the long-abandoned Down Street station.
  • Children may not be allowed on Hidden London Tours – check the website for details.
  • Newsletter subscribers get advance notice of new tours and 24 hours priority booking.
  • Virtual tours are also available, and take place via Zoom.

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WorldWideWriter is owned and managed by Karen Warren.

I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 70 countries at the last count), and I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way. Read more…

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