Underneath the buzzing metropolis of London lie nearly two centuries’ worth of tunnels. Among them are the London Underground, the world’s oldest metro system, and the city’s sewer system, which date to the mid-19th century.
Soon, another historic tunnel network below the city may open as a tourist attraction.
Angus Murray, a banker and former financial executive, has signed a deal to purchase the tunnels constructed in the 1940s to serve as shelters during the London Blitz. At 130 feet below the surface, the passageways stretch across 86,000 square feet.
“Would I compare this to be as iconic as the London Eye? Yes, I would,” Murray said during a recent tour, per Bloomberg’s Thomas Seal and Damian Shepherd. “Who wouldn’t come here?”
Murray has big plans for the sprawling space. After a four-year makeover, he envisions “cavernous, cylindrical rooms with gigantic screens to create immersive, blockbuster-inspired experiences,” writes Bloomberg.
He also wants to showcase the tunnels’ rich history. In 1941 and 1942, the British government built them as bomb shelters, though the worst of the bombings had concluded by that point. They were soon given a new purpose: housing the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a World War II-era espionage organization that inspired the world of James Bond.
The agency designed the elaborate weapons often associated in popular culture with “Q Branch,” the fictional research division from Ian Fleming’s James Bond books. (Fleming worked as a liaison officer to the SOE during his intelligence career.)
Later, during the Cold War, the tunnels were used for communications, including the hotline connecting the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union. “The exchange was home to a heaving network of 5,000 trunk cables and a busy community of 200 workers manning the phone lines,” writes CNN’s Maureen O’Hare.
In the 1980s, British Telecom took over the space. During this era, the tunnels held the United Kingdom’s deepest bar—it even featured a game room—where underground workers gathered. By the 1990s, however, technological advances rendered the telephone centers obsolete.
In recent years, the tunnels have been quiet. These days, they look like “an astonishing time capsule,” as author Guy Shrubsole, who has written about and explored the tunnels himself, told Natasha Khullar Relph of BBC Travel in 2020.
“It feels like an underground space station, almost, of these winding tunnels that go on and on forever but are filled with dusty equipment from when it was used for Cold War communications,” he said.
According to Murray’s company, London Tunnels Ltd., free tickets will eventually be available for school children. General admission will cost about £30 (about $37), per Bloomberg.
Several other subterranean tourist attractions already exist below the streets of London, such as the “Mail Rail” at the Postal Museum, a 6.5-mile-long network once used to deliver mail throughout the city. Others include the Churchill War Rooms and the Hidden London tours of the city’s abandoned passageways.