This is a subway under a busy road in Mill Hill Broadway that has two claims to fame, and the most obvious is that it’s decorated with images of the solar system.
The subway is lined with what might be considered classic municipal subway tiles of blue and green, but what is very noticeable are the large murals of all of the planets and the sun that line the subway. Twice in fact, as they’re mirrored on each wall.
Uranus is shown with its rings, which are vertical as the planet spins sideways compared to all the other planets in the Solar System. Venus, a cloud covered planet is shown without its clouds, based on radar scans from spacecraft that were sent to orbit the planet. The Earth is shown with the Atlantic ocean in the centre, so you can see most of Europe, Africa and South America — this is not an American centric image of our planet.
Somewhat bravely, Pluto was added before there had been any decent photos of the surface taken, but when the New Horizons spacecraft visited in 2015, the artist would have been reassured to know they wouldn’t be asked to come back and make corrections – it’s quite a good estimate of what the planet looks like.
However, one of the two murals of Pluto has had “not a planet” scratched into the decoration, although they didn’t do the same for the sun, which unless something catastrophic happened, is also not a planet.
The choice for the decoration can be attributed to a nearby organisation, the UCL Observatory which is a few minutes walk away. It’s proven remarkably difficult to find out much else about the decoration though. The murals are by two artists, S Burnett and J Deardey (spelling unclear).
The subway is significant for more than the recent decoration though — it’s the very first subway built in the UK under a major road.
The road needed something because on one side was housing, but on the other was a large public park that the local council had bought in 1923 for the area, but when the Watford Way bypass was built in 1928, it cut the town from the park, and people were forced to cross the road at street level dodging the cars. The Hendon & Finchley Times said that pedestrians could wait up to half an hour at busy times for a gap to appear in the road traffic.
After some effort, the council was able to secure half the cost of building a subway from the government, and construction started in August 1936, and formally opened in July 1937 by the newly appointed Minister of Transport, Leslie Burgin MP. The Minister arrived late, because of road congestion.
“This subway,” he said, “was the first of its kind under a trunk road, and, to his mind, this method has its advantages. It was comparatively inexpensive, for the fly-over bridge was an enormously expensive project. This idea of driving a rabbit burrow underneath was a moral to follow in other parts of the country”
The subway was built out of reinforced concrete and was also one of the earliest to be built with both steps and ramp access. The ramp was an experiment to see if people would swap from crossing the road and use the subway because it had been found at the time that people wanted to avoid the stairs when pushing prams or elderly.
The subway was seen as being an experiment and having proven to be a success in reducing road accidents, subways were built across the country. However, over the past couple of decades, many of them are being filled in. A lack of maintenance meant they were often damp and dirty, and thanks to their secluded location, a home for the homeless or a toilet for the desperate. Pedestrians took to crossing roads at street level again, and councils are now putting in pedestrian crossings and closing subways.
The principle that nothing should be allowed to impede the passage of the motor car is over.