Yesterday and today I went on tours about abandoned transport infrastructure.
First, yesterday, was one of the London Transport Museum‘s “Hidden London” online tours, of the Kingsway tram tunnel and the nearby Holborn and Aldwych stations. “Hidden London” has been running for several years, until recently as in-person tours of some parts of closed stations. This year they are instead running online tours with slides and videos, mostly about parts of London’s transport history which could not normally be made accessible to the public because they are in poor repair. This particularly applies at Aldwych. Some parts of Aldwych are, in normal times, open for occasional guided tours, but there are parts that those tours don’t cover. The tour I went on, and which I recommend, explores parts of the station which aren’t just not open to the public, they were never opened at all! The station was built on a rather large scale than was ever needed, which became apparent even as it was being built, but construction continued in the hope that the Aldwych branch line would be extended to Waterloo justifying it. That never happened, and so the extra lift shafts and circulating areas have never been used for anything except utility tunnels. The history of the Kingsway tram tunnel was also interesting, in particular how, unlike Aldwych station, it was dramatically under-designed and so needed a rebuild after 20 years to cope with the amount of traffic.
And then today was to the world’s first air traffic control centre and the first purpose-built airport terminal, in Britain’s first international airport: Croydon! I must have driven past the old airport, which closed in the 1950s and has now been mostly built on with a mixture of housing and light industry, thousands of times, and aside from the De Havilland Heron mounted outside the old terminal building there’s no visible sign at all of an airport. It was only quite recently, within the last few months, that I learned that the terminal building was still there, and not just converted into offices, that it is still accessible. The passenger-handling side of the building is very well preserved (the freight part has been converted into offices) and the only significant changes from when it was Britain’s most important airport to today are that the departures board has gone, and there’s no longer a W.H.Smiths in the departure lounge.
After a brief tour of the passenger-facing side of the building, both inside and out, we went up into the control tower – the first dedicated control tower anywhere in the world, home to the first organised air traffic control, and where the first licensed ATC officers worked – where there is a small museum. The museum is mostly what you would expect at any small airfield museum, although the addition of the ATC section is a nice extra.
The building is open on the first Sunday of every month and staffed by volunteers, all of whom were friendly and knowledgeable. If you’re in the area I recommend a visit.
One particular item on display particular grabbed my attention. This “navigational computor” (note the spelling – in the 1930s when these were invented a “computer” was a person who did computations and a “computator” was a mechanical device to aid them. “Computer” only really settled on its modern meaning in the 1940s, so this is quite a revolutionary device for its time, for both its function and its naming!) appears to be (the museum guide for that room didn’t know anything about it) appears to be a Dalton E-6B, a device for quickly working out one’s true heading based upon what direction you’re pointing the aircraft, your air speed, and wind conditions.