Show and tell

16/03/2014  •  664 words

You’ve been asked to do a five-minute presentation to a group of schoolchildren on the topic of your choice. Describe your presentation.

My criteria would be fairly simple. It would have to be something that children are unlikely to encounter otherwise. It would have to be something about which one would naturally inquisitive. It would have to have some breadth to it so that, even in five minutes, the children wouldn’t get bored. And it would have to interest me enough that, even in five minutes, I wouldn’t get bored.

These things considered, I would give my five minutes over to disused stations on the London Underground.

I was fascinated by these from a fairly young age. I lived on the High Barnet branch of the Northern Line, so often passed by South Kentish Town (closed 1924), If you know what you’re looking for, you can see evidence of a station between Camden Town and Kentish Town both below and above ground. The platforms aren’t there any more, but they haven’t been bricked up, so you can see where they once were as you pass by on a train. On the surface, a classic Leslie Green station building is currently a Cash Converters.

Children could learn about many more important things through the unifying topic of disused stations. For example, they could learn about key moments in London’s history. Down Steet (closed 1932) was used as a nerve-centre for Britain’s operations in the Second World War: initially kitted out as the headquarters of the Railway Executive Committee, it was used for War Cabinet meetings and was a regular hangout for Churchill during the war. It offers an unusual  but memorable angle on the innovation necessitated by war.

British Museum (closed 1933) was used to store artefacts from the museum during the Blitz. There are plenty of opportunities for learning about ancient items that have had a dramatic past since becoming exhibits – and we can still see them today.

Aldwych (closed 1994) is a lesson in market economics. Served by a shuttle service to Holborn, very few people used the service – as few as 500 a day. When the lifts needed replacing, the cost was deemed prohibitive and the spur was shut.

Economics also comes into play with Charing Cross (closed 1999) on the Jubilee Line. Originally conceived as the Fleet Line, an homage to one of London’s lost rivers, the line was renamed in honour of the Queen’s silver jubilee. The majority was taken over from what had at different times been the Bakerloo and Metropolitan lines, with a new section into the West End. The plan had always been to extend it further east, but this extension took two more decades to materialise.

In order to run out through the Docklands and up to Stratford, the terminus at Charing Cross had to close. The emerging commercial centre of the Docklands was relatively undeveloped when the extension was planned, but by the time the line opened at the turn of the millennium it was thriving. Now, the extended section of the Jubilee Line is one of the busiest sections on the network, carrying vast numbers of passengers to workplaces that didn’t exist twenty years ago on a line that didn’t exist twenty years ago. London is an enormously dynamic, adaptable city. You only have to look at Canary Wharf – and the sacrifice of Charing Cross – to see that in action.

There are other things to interest children when it comes to disused stations. There are ghost stories, where people reported mysterious happenings at stations shut to the public. There are urban myths of people alighting at disused stations and either being forced to stay the night or encountering mysterious figures in the darkness. There are rumours of secret tunnels and passageways to important buildings or locations (Broadcasting House, for instance). The subject could prompt a thousand good stories of a dozen different genres.

But I’d just give it five minutes to pique the children’s interest.