A curious space under the streets outside Charing Cross station, filled with odd shops is likely to close if a plan by the building owners is approved.

The triangular building that sits directly opposite Charing Cross station was built in the early 1830s under direction from John Nash, and although listed, the entire interior of the building was gutted in the 1970s, leaving just the facade as the original.

The insert of the glass wall entrance for Coutts bank is a replacement for the retail arcade that used to stand there and was always a rather odd addition to the otherwise uniform building facade.

It was also during the 1970s rebuild that the basement was carved out, with space given over to the public subway and the retail shops — all of whom only occupy about half the basement space, with the rest being for the bank.

It fitted the prevailing thought at the time that subways lined with shops would be desirable all-weather shopping environments, when in fact they soon decayed into lost voids under city centres filled with the destitute and gloomy shops struggling to survive.

Despite the dystopian effect, there is still a curious affection for these lost spaces, a refuge for those with nowhere else to go, for shops that could never afford high street rents, for an unsanitised view away from the uniform retail blandness of the high street above.

It’s this public space that’s now about to be absorbed back by the bank as they want to put office space down here.

There are seven retail shops in the basement (two empty) and the argument being put forward by the bank is that the concourse that runs under their building is little used these days either as access to the London Underground, or for curious people going shopping.

Monitoring the pedestrian flow found that the remaining exits on the south side of Strand and the one remaining northern side exit can each individually absorb the diverted traffic without overcrowding.

The existing entrance from the Strand will be converted to a new retail store. The Adelaide Street entrance will be closed and converted to a fire escape door serving the retained basement retail and office space. The William IV Street entrance will be converted to a fire escape.

It’s the sort of planning application that makes perfect common sense and is difficult to argue against — and yet, there’s a nagging doubt, a sense that something will be lost. The underpass is grim, it’s unpleasant, it’s useless — and yet that’s what gives it the character that it has. It’s a relic of the 1970s, in appearance and effect and to lose it is both no loss at all, and yet leaves a howling wake at its loss.

It’s a fantasy escape from the bland world above with their uniform coffee shops and clothes outlets into a hidden dark unpolished world, if only for a few minutes as we hurry to trains and work.

If the planning application is approved, bankers will sit in meetings where today people shop for magical ephemera and fancy dress costumes. People in deep conversations will wander carpeted corridors that was once a dirty public subway.

It will be better. And yet it will be so much worse.

Head down there soon, delight in the curious passages that will soon be lost, maybe buy something, but most of all, soak up the infested atmosphere of decay and despair before it’s lost forever.

Drawings by the planning application, photos by the correspondent.


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  1. Adam Bowie says:

    It probably should be mentioned that the underpass is home to the oldest magic shop in the world – Davenports!


    They’ve been there for as long as I can remember, having moved in 1984. And I think they’re still family owned.

  2. Adrian says:

    The story I was told was that developers started to demolish it but a public outcry forced them to reconsider, and lead to the creation of Listed buildings.

    (And, after they “repaired” they demolished section with glass, started a trend for atriums.)

  3. Chris Rogers says:

    Coutts is the first modern atrium building in Britain. The story of its creation and the underpass are intimately linked to the proposed GLC redevelopment of Covent Garden in 1968…

  4. James Balston says:

    It’s strange that these subways don’t work as they were designed to, and sad they have become “destitute and gloomy” as you put it. In other cities there are examples that are thriving. Munich for example has a network of these spaces around the central U-Bahn stations, that buzz with activity.

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