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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Can you have capitalism without capital? Brighton, Ankara, Ghent and the intangible economy

The Fusebox, Brighton. Image: WiredSussex.

As you head north out of Brighton on the A23 things take a distinctly granular turn. The cool bars and trendy eateries give way to second-hand shops and nail bars.

Looming over the area, New England House, an eight-storey brutalist office block, is home to Wired Sussex, a collection of digital and media companies, as well as its offshoot The Fusebox. Here, a collection of entrepreneurs, tech visionaries and creative technologists are seeking to transform their ideas into successful businesses. This island of cutting-edge thinking, surrounded by the evidence of the glaring consequences of austerity, could stand as a synecdoche for the suddenly vogueish concept of the “intangible economy”.

Towards the end of last year, on Radio 4’s Start The Week, Jonathan Haskel, author of Capitalism Without Capital, laid out the features of this brave new economy. The ideas are scalable, have sunk costs, their benefits spill over, and they have synergies with other intangible assets. All of these things are, to a greater or lesser extent, attributes featured in the virtual reality games, apps for care home workers, and e-commerce ideas mapped out by the bright sparks in the Fusebox.

Its manager, Rosalie Hoskins, explains that it exists to support the work of small companies doing creative work. Within these clean white walls they can bounce their ideas off each other and reap the fruits of collaboration. “We’ll provide the doors,” she says. But “it’s up to them to open them.”

One innovative thinker hoping to make her entrance is Maf’j Alvarez. She tells me she studied for a masters in digital media arts at the University of Brighton, and describes herself as an ‘interactive artist’. “Right now I am playing with virtual reality,” she tells me. “There’s a lot of physics involved in the project which explores weight and light. It definitely has a practical application and commercial potential. VR can be used to help people with dementia and also as a learning tool for young people.”

The Fusebox, she says, is “about collaboration. The residents of the Fusebox are in all a similar situation.”

The willingness to work together, identified by Haskell as a key element of the intangible economy, is evident in the Fusebox’s partnership with like minded innovators in Ankara. Direnç Erşahin from İstasyon, a centre for “social incubation” based in the Turkish capital, visited the Fusebox toward the end of last year.

“It was a good opportunity to exchange knowledge about the practice of running a creative hub – managing the place, building a community and so on,” he says.

Erşahin and his colleagues have launched a fact-checking platform – teyit.org – which he believes will provide “access to true information”. The co-operation between the Fusebox in Brighton and İstasyon in Ankara  is “a good opportunity to reinforce a data-oriented approach and university and society interaction,” he argues.

But the interaction between wider society and the denizens of the intangible world is often marked by friction and, ironically, a failure of communication.

This point is underlined by Aral Balkan, who runs a company called indie.ie which aims to develop ethical technologies. “There’s a good reason we have a trust problem,” he says. “It’s because people in mainstream technology companies have acted in ways that have violated our trust. They have developed systems that prey upon individuals rather than empowering them.”

A former Brighton resident, Balkan is almost a walking definition of Theresa May’s “citizen of nowhere”. He is a regular speaker on the TED and digital circuits, and I crossed paths frequently with him when I covered the industry for Brighton’s local newspaper. He left the city last year, chiefly, he tells me, in protest over the UK government’s overweening “snooper’s charter” laws.


He has Turkish and French citizenship and is now based in Malmö, Sweden, while working with the city of Ghent on a radical redevelopment of the internet. “Ghent is a beautiful example of how location affects the work,” he tells me. “They don’t want to be a smart city, they want to encourage smart citizens. We are exploring alternatives.”

Karl-Filip Coenegrachts, chief strategy officer at the City of Ghent, is another believer in the synergies made possible by the intangible economy. “The historic perspective has impacted on the psychology and DNA of the city,” he says. “The medieval castle built to protect the nobility from the citizens not the other way around. People in Ghent want to have their say.”

Left out of this perspective, of course, are those who cannot make their voice heard or who feel they are being ignored. The fissures are easy to find if you look. The future of Belgium’s coalition government, for example, is threatened by Flemish nationalists in the wake of a scandal over the forced repatriation of 100 Sudanese migrants. In Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has purged local government and continues to stamp on any dissent.

In the UK, the gig economy makes headlines for all the wrong reasons. Back in the area around the Fusebox, the sharp observer will notice, alongside the homeless people curled up in sleeping bags in charity shop doorways, a stream of gig-worker bikers zooming from one order to another.

The intangible economy throws up all-too tangible downsides, according to Maggie Dewhurst, vice chair at the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain. She gives short shrift to the idea of ‘capitalism without capital’.

“It does get a bit irritating when they muddy the waters and use pseudo academic definitions. They pretend tangible assets don’t exist or are free.”

In fact, she adds, “The workers are a human resource.”