If your idea of a tube station is a place you pass through briskly on your way from A to B, slipping deftly through a crowd of commuters, it might be time to stop and smell the coffee – as London’s underground is fast becoming a popular place to eat, drink and be entertained.
As well as the growing number of pop-ups to be found on the underground, there is also an untapped resource of “ghost stations” which are no longer used for train services, but could be opened up for commerical use. There are almost 40 derelict overground and underground stations, closed due to low passenger numbers or re-routing, as well as hundreds of old tunnels, and Transport for London, (TfL) is considering the idea of inviting bids to convert these abandoned spaces into tourist attractions, hotels, shops and museums.
Entrepreneur Ajit Chambers has set up The Old London Underground Company with the aim of developing a number of sites into shopping centres, offices, leisure complexes and entertainment venues, with Down Street station earmarked as a potential site. Meanwhile Brompton Road, closed since 1934, later bought by the Ministry of Defence and used by Churchill as a wartime bunker, has been sold to developers planning to build luxury flats.
Some businesses are already one step ahead: take the Growing Underground project masterminded by Richard Ballard and Steven Dring, at Clapham North station, which is tucked away in tunnels that were originally built as air-raid shelters during the Second World War. Backed by celebrity chef Michel Roux Junior, the farm grows leafy greens and fresh herbs using LED lights and hydroponics, generating a minimal carbon footprint.
While a number of disused stations could be ripe for redevelopment, it will be a while until any major building work gets underway, but in the meantime, underground venues are proving popular for all sorts of pastimes, from playing ping pong to watching a movie.
The Underground Film Club has ventured into The Vaults at Waterloo station for its winter season, showing classic, cult and recent film releases, in the atmospheric venue of the Victorian labyrinths underneath the railway arches. The programme includes classics like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Casablanca and Some like it Hot along with seasonal family favourites like Home Alone and Elf.
The rise of pop-ups intent on persuading commuters to linger longer in the tube, rather than dashing off to catch the next train home, is a canny commercial venture which has the backing of Transport for London.
A parade of pop-ups at Old Street, on the Northern Line, is part of TfL’s plans to modernise and improve underground stations. Among the novel ideas to tempt customers have been coffee in coconut shells at Black Sheep Coffee and juices served from a bathtub at organic outlet Press London Batch. Old Street’s Underground Drinking Club cultivates an atmosphere of sophistication by inviting customers to “join the club” to enjoy an evening of music and cocktails.
A growing number of pop-ups are proving equally popular at other stations, including St. James’s Park, Piccadilly Circus and Baker Street, and TfL’s Director of Commercial Development Graeme Craig sums up the current trend: “Pop-up shops provide an opportunity for new and existing retailers to showcase their innovative products and services to the millions of people who use the stations each year.”