Unearth these London Locations with a Secret Past

A unique new exhibition unveils underground spots in the capital–and there's even more to discover.

The tube, underground, metro or subway… whatever you call it, chances are you’ve used it. Now the London Transport Museum’s new exhibition, "Hidden London" (to Jan 2020), reveals another side to the world’s oldest subterranean railway. Used as air-raid shelters, film sets, storage for world-class art and hotel accommodation, the tunnels have enjoyed a lively and varied past.

For the first time, the museum has brought together historic posters, archive photos and footage, secret diagrams and decorative tiles from disused spaces on the Underground. The look and feel of life underground has been recreated, complete with a disused ticket office and an eerie stairwell for visitors to climb. Try your hand at being an operator, and explore the recreated headquarters of the Railway Executive Committee – which was relocated to a tunnel 22 metre underground during the Blitz in World War II.

Operators in Cabinet War Rooms, London, UK
Switchboard operators, who were all civilian women, at work in Room 60 in the Cabinet War Rooms. (©IWM)

More Secret London Spots...

Whether you’re underground or above ground, peek behind hidden doors to find that the capital is alive with open secrets – you just need to know where to look.

London Underground Tours

The London Transport Museum also hosts tours of the Underground. History fans won’t want to miss the tour of Down Street Station, between Hyde Park Corner and Green Park, which was only open to the public from 1907 to 1932. Explore the bunker’s tunnels where Churchill plotted the course of the conflict over maps.

Map room in Churchill War Rooms, London, UK
The map room in the Cabinet War Rooms, which remains as it was left in 1945. (©IWM)

Churchill War Rooms

During World War II, Churchill also operated from underground government headquarters beneath Whitehall, which are now open to the public as the Churchill War Rooms. Visitors can explore the winding corridors, listen to the Prime Minister’s wartime speeches, see Churchill’s bedroom and visit the Map Room in the Cabinet War Rooms. It remains exactly as it was left in 1945, with a map on one wall, briefcases and rotary telephones. 

Vintage photo of St Ermine's Hotel, London, UK
St Ermine's Hotel, which was the headquarters of a unit responsible for covert operations. (©St Ermine's Hotel)

St Ermin’s Hotel

In 1940, Churchill also made a floor in St Ermin’s Hotel – the headquarters of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a unit responsible for covert operations. Agents printed coded messages on silk, which visitors can still see in the lobby. Britain’s foreign intelligence service, MI6, was also stationed at the hotel during World War II. Throughout the Cold War in the 1950s, Guy Burgess – one of five British spies who worked for the Soviet Union – gave secret papers to his Russian counterpart in the hotel’s Caxton Bar.

The London Oratory

The Soviet Union’s foreign intelligence agency, the KGB, also exchanged information and packages with agents during the Cold War at this church next to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Also known as Brompton Oratory Church, the venue was completed in 1884 in the Italian Baroque style.

The Old Vic

While most agents from Britain’s domestic intelligence service conduct business from hotels and private members’ clubs, much of their work was in public, including at this theatre. In 1961 it was here that agents arrested KGB spy Konon Molody (also known as Gordon Lonsdale). You can see how Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond spy series, got inspired.

Belmond Cadagon Hotel, London, UK
Belmond Cadagon Hotel, which now has the Oscar Room, as homage to Oscar Wilde. (©Belmond Cadagon Hotel)

Belmond Cadogan Hotel

In 1895, when homosexual acts were illegal, the Irish playwright Oscar Wilde was arrested on charges of gross indecency at this hotel (then known as Cadogan Hotel) following an affair with the Marquess of Queensberry. After a refurbishment, the hotel reopened in February 2019, keeping its grand wooden staircase and Oscar’s room, now part of the Royal Suite. www.belmond.com

Buckingham Palace

The public can visit Buckingham Palace’s 39-acre garden and explore its state rooms in summer. There are rumours of secret tunnels, a hidden door is featured on the public audio tour. A mirror behind a dresser on the left side of the White Drawing Room opens like a door to reveal a passageway that leads to the royals’ private apartments. You can see the exterior and watch the Changing the Guard ceremony all year round. www.rct.uk

Dean Street Townhouse

After being set up by a mutual friend, Prince Harry had his first date with Meghan Markle at this hotel restaurant in Soho. Markle isn’t the first famous actress to visit the Georgian building, which dates from 1732. King Charles II’s actress mistress Nell Gwyn visited, as did the playwright and actor Noël Coward. Go for dinner and see if you can spot a celebrity.