Leinster Gardens and the fake posh townhouses that reveal how the London Underground used to work

The two false facades in Leinster Gardens, with their distinctive grey-blocked windows. Image: Google Maps

Leinster Gardens is a street like any other in affluent west London. Moments away from the expanses of Hyde Park, and just a stroll away from Bayswater and Queensway Tube stations, it’s lined with tall, elegant white houses, formally arranged cheek by jowl, their stucco-fronted façades endlessly seeming to preen themselves for the admiration of passers-by.

Some of the buildings – many now taken up by hotel rooms have Range Rovers parked outside; others sport a Porsche. The lowliest boast merely an Audi with a glimmering chassis fighting the freshly-painted black wrought iron railings in a battle to be the shiniest.

This affluence which has been a feature of the neighbourhood ever since these streets were first laid out in the 1840s is also the reason for its well-hidden blemish.

Stroll along past numbers 23 and 24, and you’ll notice something odd.

23 and 24 Leinster Gardens. Image: Google Maps

Where windows in other houses give glimpses of vast subterranean kitchens with exorbitant puddles of orchids on every surface, opaque grey-tinged panes block any view into 23 and 24. The doors, in a slightly less well-kept black, have no handles.

These houses don’t exist.

Behind the crisp, white façades, the space is occupied by a gaping void, occasionally filled by a passing Circle or District line Underground train.

This stretch of railway an extension of the Metropolitan Railway’s original stretch between Farringdon on to South Kensington was approved by Parliament in 1864, and obviously, at that point, harboured steam trains, puffing their way through the cuttings and tunnels between South Kensington and line’s newly-extended terminus at today’s Tower Hill.

The back view of the false facade, from Portchester Terrace. Image: Google Maps.

And even though the trains were fitted with condensers, large vents were still needed to give what remaining steam there was a way out.

These openings can be found along the earliest tube lines, if you know where to look and if you look at it from above.

Just east of South Kensington, between Walton Street and Donne Place, the polite houses on both back onto an exposed stretch of the old District Railway.

The opening between Walton Street and Donne Place. Image: Google Maps.

A little further east still, between Halsey Street and Rawlings Street, the same happens again.

An aerial view of Halsey Street and Rawlings Street. Image: Google Maps.

South-east of Sloane Square station, the line comes up for air again between Graham Terrace, Eaton Terrace and Ebury Street.

A jaunty view of the cutting by Eaton Terrace. Image: Google Maps.

On a different stretch, between King’s Cross St Pancras and Farringdon, the line runs in the open between St Chad’s Place and Wicklow Street, ducking under cross streets and below the backs of terraced houses.

The cutting near King's Cross is likely longer as the neighbourhood was less affluent. Image: Google Maps.

Because of the way these early lines were run, these spaces, open wounds in the middle of crowded terraces, were vital to make the thing work.

But of all of these, Leinster Gardens is unique. Because of the affluence or the existing neighbourhood, and presumably the NIMBY expertise of the then residents, false matching facades were constructed to replace the two houses that were demolished.

And now we’re left with the legacy of the strange empty houses at 23 and 24 Leinster Gardens, the addresses that don’t exist.


London Underground manages the facade and is responsible for painting the doors and generally keeping it in shape.

It’s a textbook London curiosity, and it’s been used to great effect.

The series three finale of the BBCSherlock used it as a location, and saw Mary Watson’s face projected onto the false facade of the two houses. Bit weird, if you ask me.

According to Andrew Martin, whose book Underground, Overground is something of a bible on this kind of anorakery, practical jokes abounded. Coal merchants sent apprentices to deliver heavy loads to the houses, and letters were addressed to Mr N.O. Body, 24 Leinster Gardens.

He includes a particularly amusing anecdote from when he once visited the two hotels that still sit either side of the void, the Henry VIII and the Blakemore, and asking about the strange fake houses between the two. “Within ten minutes, staff members from each hotel were standing in front of numbers 23 and 24 and saying to each other, ‘But we thought they were part of your hotel’.”

London, eh? Weird place.

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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The best bike maps are made by volunteers

A cyclist in Vancouver, Canada. Image: Getty.

Not all bike routes are equal. Some places that are marked as bike routes on a map feel precarious when traversed on two wheels, including shoulders covered in debris and places where you can feel the wind from speeding cars.

North American cities are building more bicycling routes, by adding on-street painted lanes, physically separated cycle tracks, bicycle-only or multi-use paths and local street bikeways. These different kinds of routes appeal to different types of users, from the interested but concerned cyclist to the keen road rider.

Despite this boost in biking infrastructure, a city’s website may not immediately reflect the changes or it may lack important information that can make cycling safer or more enjoyable.

Web-based maps that allow people to add information about bike routes give riders detailed data about the type of route, what it might feel like to ride there (do you have to ride close to cars?) and where it can take them (for example, shopping, work or school).

They can also tell us which cities are the most bike-friendly.

Measuring bike routes

We set out to assemble a dataset of bike routes in Canadian cities using their open data websites. But we found it was nearly impossible to keep it up-to-date because cities are constantly changing and the data are shared using different standards.

A physically separated cycle track in Victoria, British Columbia. Image: E. Gatti (TeamInteract.ca).

The solution was OpenStreetMap, which creates and distributes free geographic data. Anyone can add data or make edits to OpenStreetMap, whether they want to build a better bike map or make a navigation app.

We looked at OpenStreetMap data for three large cities (Vancouver, Toronto and Montréal) and three mid-sized cities (Victoria, Kelowna and Halifax) in Canada.

Not only did the data in OpenStreetMap agree reasonably well with the cities’ open data: in many cases it was more up-to-date. OpenStreetMap tended to include more local details such as where painted bike lanes ended and often marked the short cuts connecting suburban streets.

How did OpenStreetMap measure up?

Our analysis focused on how well different types of routes were mapped. We measured cycle tracks (which physically separate bikes from motorised traffic), on-street painted bike lanes (which use painted lines to separate bikes from motorised traffic), bike paths (which are located away from streets) and local street bikeways (which include traffic-calming features and where bicycling is encouraged).

Painted bike lanes are the most common type of route and also the most consistently well mapped. This makes sense, because the definition of a painted bike lane may be clearest across time and place. There is also a straightforward way for volunteers to tag it on OpenStreetMap.

But it was harder for us to distinguish cycle tracks from on-street painted lanes or paths (bicycle-only or multi-use) using OpenStreetMap. Local street bikeways were challenging to identify because of the wide range of ways cities design these kinds of routes along residential roads. Some use traffic-calming measures such as curb extensions, traffic islands, speed humps and raised traffic crossings to slow vehicle traffic and encourage safety, or greenery, reduced speed limits and bike-friendly markings on signs and the road surface.

Correspondence between OpenStreetMap and Open Data for categories of bicycling infrastructure. Image: author provided.

Bicycle routes that are physically separated from motor vehicles and pedestrians, like cycle tracks and bicycle-only paths, have the greatest benefits for bicycling safety and encourage bike use.

Ease of access to bicycle routes is important to a city’s overall bicycle friendliness, but there are other important things to consider including the distance to destinations, the number, slope and length of hills, number of riders and how the transportation culture of a city can influence its safety.


Bike-friendly Canadian cities

Our results showed that Montréal has the greatest total distance in cycle tracks in Canada. As cities continue building more bicycle routes, researchers and planners can use OpenStreetMap to measure these changes on the ground.

The perfect bicycle map is up-to-date, covers the entire globe and gives riders an idea of the kinds of experiences to expect on different trails, roads and paths. People cycling in cities can contribute to the high-quality geographic data needed to understand changes in bicycle friendliness.

But OpenStreetMap is only as good as its contributions. The exciting thing is that anyone who wants a better bike map — city planners, researchers and everyday riders — can join the bike-mapping revolution by logging in to OpenStreetMap and mapping the features that are important to bicyclists.

The Conversation

Colin Ferster, Post-doctoral fellow, University of Victoria and Meghan Winters, Associate Professor, Faculty of Health Sciences, Simon Fraser University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.