Beneath the heaving, unpleasant streets of Camden lies a secret unknown to the hoards of tourists and market traders up above – a long-forgotten labyrinth of tunnels and vaults that are relics of the area’s colourful Victorian industrial past.
Colloquially known as ‘The Camden Catacombs’ the tunnels were in fact not used to store bodies, but as stables for horses that were used to shunt railway wagons. Underground wheels and pulleys housed in engine vaults below would also power the tracks, helping to pull heavy trains from Euston up to Camden Town by rope. In 1869, the catacombs expanded when wine importers W. & A. Gilbey moved their business to Camden Goods Station and the vaults became an excellent storage space for whiskey, wine and gin.
Whilst the area has undergone major transformation over the years, the bulk of the Eastern and Western Horse Tunnels remain in tact and uninhabited – however off limits to the public. The tunnels also connect to an abandoned deep level railway tunnel the named the Up Empty Down Carriage tunnel or ‘Rat ‘ole’. This tunnel cuts under the mainline tracks coming out of Euston and pops up near Chalk Farm and was used to divert empty trains to Willesden. The phrase “Rat ‘ole” originates from the great lengths drivers would go to to ensure a clear trip through – where stalling could be positively dangerous in its fume-laden close confines.
The Western Tunnels
Observant readers may have noticed a locked door on the canalside adjacent to the London & North Western Railway tracks which cross over the canal. The above photograph is taken on the other side of this door looking back towards the canal.
This is directly beneath the railway tracks which lead out of Euston station, water pipes and high voltage cables run through the tunnels, illuminated by a single air vent.
A few turns later the tunnels are interrupted with a shaft which leads down to the Up Empty Down Carriage tunnel. Two ladders reach down into the darkness, the bottom barely illuminated by our torches – one would not want to fall here.
The bottom of the shaft opens up onto the railway tracks. The tunnel is a significant diameter in size and feels a lot larger than other deep level tunnels, in order to accommodate the larger trains which used to operate within it.
Illuminated by 100 candles, which were surprisingly hard to light given the constant breeze running through the tunnel.
The Eastern Tunnels
The Eastern section of tunnels can only be accessed via the water.
Floating along the Regents Canal late at night in our somewhat unstable inflatable device.
The interior of the ‘Dead Dog Hole’ and our landing point which leads to the catacombs, luckily no dead dogs today.
Arched brick tunnels meander beneath the market buildings above. Cast-iron ventilation grilles are placed regularly in the roof, originally the only source of light for the horses below.
A few months after visiting, I found out there was a scene of a secret lair in Bond’s Spectre film, which matched a photograph I had taken floating into the catacombs.
Emerging towards Camden Lock with slightly soggy bottoms.