London Tunnels Used For Shelter During The Blitz And For Cold War Espionage May Be Turned Into An Interactive Exhibit

Published September 28, 2023

The tunnels at one point housed the top-secret intelligence organization that inspired the James Bond films.

Tunnel Exhibit

The London TunnelsThe $268 million project would transform the tunnels into a massive interactive exhibit.

For decades, a network of secret underground tunnels has sat beneath London. Known as the Kingsway Exchange Tunnels, they’ve been used over the years as a bomb shelter, as a base for British spies, and as an exclusive underground pub for government workers. Now, they may open to the public for the first time since World War II — as an interactive exhibit.

A team of architects and investors has announced plans to turn the Kingsway Exchange Tunnels into a massive tourist attraction. If the plans are approved, the $268 million project would transform the tunnels into a massive exhibit designed to bring the history of the tunnels to life through immersive features like high-resolution screens, speakers, interactive installations, and even scent-emitting technology, according to CNN.

Kingsway Tunnel

The London TunnelsThe tunnels were originally built as a bomb shelter during World War II.

“Opening to the public for the first time, we will bring to life the history of the tunnels through experiences that inspire exploration and imagination,” the London Tunnels website says. “We want to honour and preserve the past, from exploring the challenges faced during the Blitz, to the telephone exchange that connected the Cold War ‘hotline’ between The White House and the Kremlin.”

The tunnels, which sit 40 meters (or 131 feet) beneath the Chancery Lane tube station and span about five square miles, were first built in the 1940s to shelter Londoners during the Blitz bombings of World War II.

After the war ended, the tunnels were closed to the public and became enshrouded in secrecy, protected by the UK’s Official Secrets Act.

The tunnels then became the home of Britain’s Special Operations Executive, a top-secret intelligence organization specializing in sabotage, espionage, and reconnaissance. The organization, an offshoot of MI6, is said to be one of the real-life inspirations behind James Bond.

During the 1950s, the tunnels were used as the Kingsway Telephone Exchange, an internal communications network. This underground hub for Cold War-era communications also operated the first-ever transatlantic telephone cable — the “hot line” between leaders from the United States and the USSR.

In the 1980s, British Telecom took over the site and built the world’s deepest licensed bar in the tunnels, for use only by government workers.

“Imagine being able to walk in the tunnels, built by the British in the 1940s and designed to protect Londoners during the Blitz,” the London Tunnels website states. “Envisage what it was like for past generations to have lived through this period of time, and the courage shown by the British people.

“With their vast scale and long corridors, there is an opportunity to not only restore but recreate; allowing visitors to experience something truly unique, and to explore broader topics across the arts, nature and sciences.”

Tunnel Pub

The London TunnelsA rendering of a proposed underground bar in the tunnels.

In addition to drawing up new plans for the tunnels, the London Tunnels team has also created detailed digital mapping of the space exactly as it was left when it was abandoned at the end of the 20th century.

If the project secures planning approval later this fall, it is expected to open to the public in 2027 after restoration and construction is complete.

Currently, London’s best-developed underground tourist attraction is the Churchill War Rooms, which sit just 12 feet below the ground. The group London Underground also offers “Hidden London” tours, which give tourists a chance to explore the city’s abandoned tube stations.

But the London Tunnels Project seeks to offer something neither of these experiences can.

“The history of the tunnels, their scale and the location between London’s Holborn and the historic Square Mile, could make these tunnels one of London’s most popular tourist destinations,” said London Tunnels CEO Angus Murray.

After reading about London’s underground tunnels, read about how a man in Turkey found an underground city beneath his house during a home renovation. Then, learn about the underground tunnels beneath Disney’s Magic Kingdom.

Hannah Reilly Holtz
Hannah Reilly is an editorial fellow with All That's Interesting. She holds a B.A. in journalism from Texas Tech University and was named a Texas Press Association Scholar. Previously, she has worked for KCBD NewsChannel 11 and at Texas Tech University as a multimedia specialist.
Maggie Donahue
Maggie Donahue is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. She has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in creative writing and film studies from Johns Hopkins University. Before landing at ATI, she covered arts and culture at The A.V. Club and Colorado Public Radio and also wrote for Longreads. She is interested in stories about scientific discoveries, pop culture, the weird corners of history, unexplained phenomena, nature, and the outdoors.
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Holtz, Hannah. "London Tunnels Used For Shelter During The Blitz And For Cold War Espionage May Be Turned Into An Interactive Exhibit.", September 28, 2023, Accessed June 13, 2024.