It was then with some excitement that I arrived at Southampton Row for a tour of the tunnel, offered as part of a viewing of London artist Conrad Shawcross’ latest installation. I wasn’t sure how many were here for the art and how many for a gawp at this secret place, but there were twenty excited people in my lunchtime group.
First we descended the ramp to the old station platforms. Wandering along the tracks gave a sense of the size and space of the tunnels, and how different so much of London would have been with trams trundling up and down streets. The network seems with today’s eyes to be hopelessly overblown, but in many places trams ran in place of conventional buses. It’s difficult to imagine Camden, Kentish Town, Archway and East and North Finchley with steel wheels on the streets. Yet Melbourne, Australia kept its urban trams and is rightly famed for it.
Not much survives of the station which has since been used for filming and the storage of stuff: rusting lampposts, shrink-wrapped machines and bits and bobs owned by Camden Council, who own the space. Posters on the wall didn’t appear original, though one had some interesting detail of the Northern Heights section of the Northern Line.
I turned around to notice the group has strolled off leaving me goggling at the walls, so I took the opportunity to dart up a flight of stairs and, with my head poking through a grate at street level, startle a few passers-by.
I’m not an art critic but found the installation itself astonishing. Giant spindles attached to a custom-built (and locally made) pair of machines, which inch-by-inch pull away from each other in the process winding coloured wool into a length of rope as long over 50 metres long. The machine moves on wooden tracks laid down especially. We were asked not to take photos but you can find an image in this review. It would be thrilling to imagine Shawcross being let loose on the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall.
The slow walk to ground level completed the group dissipated quickly, absorbed back into the busy pedestrian traffic around Holborn tube on a Friday.