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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Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.