Growing Underground

Disused tunnels seem to go on foreverBack in the 1930s they had foresight. London’s population was expanding and capacity was severely limited by surface area for the future. The city’s great and good planned for the future. They just didn’t know which future.

The boffins had a great idea. Why not build an express line, a sort of ‘cross-rail’ affair, parallel to the Northern Line that would whisk commuters past some of the smaller stations?

Danger...A door into another centuryThe plan died with the arrival of WWII, but the dream lived on. When deep level bomb shelters were begun in 1940 for 8,000 of the capital’s beleaguered, blitzed citizens, they were cunningly constructed in tube-form. The war couldn’t last forever and afterwards a brave new world would need fast, efficient trains to the suburbs. Whip out the bunk beds, install some tracks and South London commuters would be laughing.

Even that future was doomed. Post-war Britain couldn’t build enough houses, let along begin major tunnelling. The deep shelters mouldered. A few found odd short-term careers, such as Clapham South’s foray as a less-than-welcome mat for Jamaican arrivals on the Windrush, but the rest, if they found work at all, were nothing more glamorous than high-security storage facilities.

Light at the top of the hill

Part of the original tunnel ribcageThere have been all manner of wild suggestions for what the eight deep shelters of London could be used for but for the same reason they’re great secure storage, they’d be useless as nightclubs or bars. Emergency access sucks. For anyone that can make a go of 65,000 square feet of inaccessible tunnels 100 feet underground, however, London’s last squeak of affordable real estate is up for grabs.

“I saw the ‘to-let’ sign,” says entrepreneur Steven Dring. He and business partner Richard Ballard had originally been looking to disused office blocks for their new baby, a urban farm growing microgreens in a sustainable, carbon-neutral, local-to-need way, but high-rise prices made vertical farming prohibitively expensive.

Rows of 'bunk beds'

LED lighting was the technical breakthrough that made everything work. Low energy lights don’t emit much heat on their own, but put them together and you can get enough warmth and light to grow the range of leaves Dring and Ballard had in mind. After a test-drive at the somewhat dilapidated Clapham North shelter, they took the lease at Clapham Common since it had a lift, loading bay and heavens – lights that worked.

Horticultural Director Chris NelsonBefore Growing Underground went into sanitation lockdown, after which visitors  have to go through virtual decontamination chambers to reach the salad (there are no pests or diseases down there and that’s the way it’s going to stay, thank you) I was allowed in to have a snoop around both London’s newest farm and darker, creepier, older areas that still carry the whiff of rationed spam and dried egg.

Pillar-Box red liftClaphams’ bomb-shelterers probably didn’t have to sign a hygiene statement before descending to the bowels of the earth. On the other hand they didn’t get an elevator either. They had to trudge 180-odd steps of strange, double-helix, spiral staircase – one up, one down.

The lift fits through the middle, all heavy metal, thickly gloss-painted bolts and accordion-grilled doors straight out of Dr Who. It is no surprise that 1968’s Dr Who series The Web of Fear was apparently set, though not filmed in the mildly dystopian post-war architecture of London’s deep level shelters.

The elevator at the bottom of the worldOn stepping out, the first thing that hits is the smell – that odd, underground odour you can’t quite place, but get in practically every wartime tunnel you’ll ever sniff. This one also enjoys a distinctly vegetal edge. Immediately outside the lift it looks like every wartime tunnel too but, a few steps in, white doors reveal a cross between a 1960s science fiction movie and a Tate Modern installation.

A spooky light at the end of the tunnelWhite walls. White floors. White ceilings. Pink lights. Bright pink lights. “It’s the LEDs,” explains Chris Nelson, Horticultural Director of Growing Underground. “It’s all industry-standard kit, just put together in an unusual way.”

The pink glow of thosuands of LEDs Once-potential tube line has been stripped and cleaned to within an inch of its thick concrete ribcage. 1940s bunks are a distant memory. Today’s beds are still racked in neat, pull-out rows, but the inhabitants are rather smaller. Giant drawers of salad leaves, grown on capillary matting made from recycled carpet, are tended with constant irrigation, a specially formulated diet and a sophisticated ventilation system blowing a gentle breeze across the seedlings. It’s basically a hi-tech version of the mustard and cress you grow at school on bits of damp kitchen roll but without the mould when you forget they’re in your desk.

The root system When Growing Underground opens for business, barely-born, perfectly tender  pea shoots, radish, mustard, coriander, amaranth, celery, parsley and rocket will grace the kitchens of top restaurants. Michelin-starred chef Michel Roux Jr is already signed up. The public will also be able to purchase the veal of the plant world via hyper-local supplier Farmdrop.

A think polythene tube softly blows air onto the plantletsCurrently just a small part of the vast underground system at Clapham Common is utilized by ‘farmland’. The clean metal frames, white-painted tanking and minimal shelving have an eerie, sci-fi feel but it’s even spookier when the door at the other end opens to reveal areas not yet colonised by men in lab coats tending tiny green plants. One side of the door is 21st Century clinical, the other’s a timewarp to 20th Century wartime Britain, where gaping holes stretch to seeming infinity.

The wheelbarrow of doom sets off for a very long journeyNorthern Line tubes rumble through the earth nearby, a reminder of the shape of this peculiar world: round, for trains. Down in the lower half of the round, where irrigation pumps buzz quietly, stretch yet more tunnels.

They’re largely empty. “The London Transport Museum took a salvage team to remove anything of historical interest,” says Steven Dring. “Maps, posters, benches, water fountains…”

Baby leavesIt’s somehow comforting to know that this place, built for Britain in its hour of need, still has the potential to be called into duty. The lease includes various covenants including surrender of the building in case of national emergency.

Happily however, London is enjoying a time of peas. Business is good and getting better.

“There is potential for six tunnels, down here,” says Chris Nelson. “We have, so far, used just part of one. There are five more to go.”

Can London eat that much fancy salad? Almost certainly.

More disused tunnels

This feature by Sandra Lawrence originally appeared at Londonist. If you would like to syndicate this story or commission Sandra to write something similar please contact her at the following address, missing out the obvious gap…



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