Secret world war two tunnels to become interactive exhibit

Posted by Derek Mason

7th November 2023

Caption: Battersea Power Station
Picture credit: Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Top secret world war two tunnels are set to be turned into an experience centre – designed by London-based architecture studio WilkinsonEyre.

These passageways were built below High Holborn in central London to offer shelter from the Blitz during the second world war. Known as the Kingsway Exchange Tunnels, at one point during WWII they were home to secret organisation the Special Operations Executive, an offshoot of MI6, which was sometimes called Churchill’s Secret Army. Its purpose was to carry out espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe and to aid local resistance movements.

Walls have ears, and we’re only allowed to talk about these tunnels now that they’re no longer subject to the Official Secrets Act. Found 40 metres beneath the capital, the tunnels are 7.6 metres wide and run for a combined length of one mile.

The plans to turn these tunnels into an immersive visitor experience are still subject to planning approval from Camden Council. The existing special communications equipment will be preserved – with the plans also including provision for digital screens, speakers, scent-emitting technology and interactive sculptures. The goal is to create a truly immersive experience.

This interactive museum would allow visitors to understand the history of the tunnels and also provide the opportunity to host art and science events, and other entertainment.

Once again, the tunnels will be alive with activity, having once contained the deepest licensed bar in the UK as well as a restaurant able to feed hundreds of people for months on end, in preparation for a nuclear attack.

The tunnels were not only home to WWII secrets. They acted as an international telephone exchange during the cold war, and they’re believed to have inspired Q Branch – the fictional research division in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. The tunnels were decommissioned as a communications centre in the late 1980s, when the technology became obsolete.

This £220-million project is an exciting one for WilkinsonEyre. They’ve grown a lot since they first came to my attention a couple of decades or so ago, and they’re now a high-profile UK architectural firm. Back in the 1990s I remember them working on the Butterfly Bridge spanning the Great Ouse in Bedford. A more recent well-known project of theirs is the redevelopment of Battersea Power Station. If planning permission is granted for this attraction, I’ve no doubt that the tunnels will be well worth a visit.

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