The London we see every day is a familiar sight full of recognisable landmarks, the signposts guiding our way around the urban sprawl. But dig a little deeper, and it’s possible to discover a secret side to the city. Unearthing the hidden gems beneath these well-trodden streets is a job for those who take the path less travelled. It leads to an underbelly of subterranean passages, abandoned tube stations and beautifully crafted brickwork: a testament to a time when Great Britain’s architectural aspirations were built on reassuringly firm foundations.
This haunting, half-life world is not on the radar of your average commuter, hurrying from home to office, office to home, via public transport. Here lies the realm of the urban explorers, or urbexers, a group of adventurers who push back the boundaries to plumb the depths of the city – or rise to its heights. Signs which say “Keep Out” or “Do Not Cross” are the equivalent of throwing down the gauntlet to them. Warning signals which are a red light to most people are a mere flicker of amber in their eyes.
Bradley Garrett, a leading light (or headtorch-bearer) among the urbexers, has set foot in Churchill’s secret wartime bunker in the disused Brompton Road station – investigating one intriguing aspect of London underground history. He also sneaked into the Shard before it was open to the public, and has broken into Battersea Power Station. The power station’s chimneys, its most iconic feature, are now being slowly chipped away by redevelopment work. The plan to rebuild the chimneys as new will rid the building of its mantle of faded grandeur, and this national monument will never be quite the same again.
If entering sites such as this sounds like trespass, it’s worth noting that the urbexers believe public buildings should be just that – open to the public. “We stand by our belief that publicly funded architectural projects should be visible and accessible to the hard-working public whose tax revenue made them possible in the first place” Bradley explains. “All of my projects work to reveal, through experiential engagement, what is hidden from plain sight.”
Another strand of his exploration follows the course of London’s subterranean rivers, like the Fleet, forced underground by urbanisation and now flowing beneath Fleet Street, where most passsers-by are unaware of its existence. An account of Bradley’s escapades with a group called the London Consolidation Crew can be found in his book Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City.
His latest book, Subterranean London: Cracking the Capital is a co-operation with fellow urbexers documenting hidden corners of the city. It takes readers on a journey down the Rabbit Hole to explore London’s rich architectural heritage, affording a rare insight into locations where few have set foot. This striking collection of extraordinary images, viewing the capital from an unusual perspective, will be a source of fascination to anyone with an interest in what lies beneath the surface.
You can find out more about Bradley Garrett on his website. He is a guest on BBC Radio 4’s The Museum of Curiosity, airing in November. Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City is published by Verso and Subterranean London: Cracking the Capital, published by Prestel, will be available from 1 September.
And, for further exploration of subterranean London (albeit under full supervision), why not join one of our underground group walking tours? Or perhaps discover some unusual aspects of London’s history?