Over a mile-long set of secret, subterranean tunnels in Central London, originally built to shelter Londoners during the WWII Blitz, are to be restored and preserved as part of new proposals to open them up to the public for the first time.
The Kingsway Exchange Tunnels span an area of 8000m2 and stretch 7.6m in diameter, equal to the width of three London buses. Kept secret for nearly 70 years as part of the Government’s Official Secrets Act, they were once home to the Special Operations Executive, an offshoot of MI6, the real-life location that inspired ‘Q Branch’ in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, where the author was the Admiralty’s Liaison Officer.
Dramatically enlarged by the British Government at the start of the Cold War to serve as a secure and secret long-distance telephone exchange, the tunnels operated the first transatlantic telephone cable, TAT1, which notably acted later as the ‘hotline’ between Moscow and Washington during the Cuban Missile Crisis; much of this original equipment will be retained.
When in operation, the Kingsway Exchange accommodated up to 200 staff, supported by self-contained water and air conditioning systems, along with the ‘deepest licensed bar’ in London, a restaurant with mock windows and a recreational room complete with snooker tables. By the late 1980s, telecommunication technology had advanced, and the tunnels’ telephone centre became obsolete and was fully decommissioned.
Subject to planning approval, the vision is to transform the tunnels into one of the world’s most unique cultural experiences. It will bring to life the history of the tunnels by installing high-resolution, large-scale curved immersive screens, together with interactive structures, scent-emitting technology and hundreds of individual acoustic pinpoint speakers. With an operational capacity of two million visitors per year, the tunnels could also host different experiences in partnership with major entertainment businesses, artists, performers and curators.
The Kingsway Exchange Tunnels have agreed to be sold by BT Group to The London Tunnels, a UK-based group that is backed by a private equity fund and family office, founded by Chief Executive, Angus Murray.
The London Tunnels is working with a range of experts from the world of arts, design and technology, including one of the UK’s leading architectural firms, WilkinsonEyre, the practice behind Battersea Power Station and Gardens by the Bay in Singapore. The proposal will adaptively reuse the tunnels to host a series of experiences exploring their history, nature, science and the arts.
The London Tunnels plans to invest an estimated £140m into restoring, preserving and fitting out the site, with a further £80m allocated to installing the immersive technology and screens with the aspiration of opening the experience to the public in 2027.
Angus Murray, Chief Executive of The London Tunnels, says: “The history of the tunnels, their scale and the location between London’s Holborn and the historic Square Mile, could make these tunnels one of London’s most popular tourist destinations. Welcoming two million people per year, The London Tunnels would, in turn, increase spending for local businesses, making a tangible difference to this part of Central London.
“One of our goals is to ensure that everyone, regardless of their economic circumstances, can enjoy this unique experience. As such, we are committed to offering free tickets to schoolchildren and setting up a daily ballot for complimentary tickets. We now wish to work with local stakeholders and residents to make this a reality and look forward to hearing their thoughts as we finalise a planning application.”
Paul Baker, Director at WilkinsonEyre, adds: “WilkinsonEyre are delighted to bring our experience designing visitor destinations to this unrivalled location, in the heart of London, but unknown to most. These secret spaces present the opportunity to tell extraordinary stories that helped shape the 20th century alongside awe-inspiring digital immersive experiences.”
The designs are being unveiled as part of a public consultation that aims to gather feedback about the plans before a planning application is submitted this autumn. People can view the designs for the experience through a new interactive platform as well as at a series of in-person events.