The Subways and Tunnels of Camden Town.

The original Subway Sect - Rob Simmons, Paul Myers, Paul Smith, Vic Godard.

The original Subway Sect – Rob Simmons, Paul Myers, Paul Smith, Vic Godard.

Camden Town is a district of Inner London, just 2.4 miles northwest of Charing Cross. Back in 1976, it was just another abandoned area of North London which, after years of neglect, had been left to the drunks and winos that littered the pavements of Chalk Farm Road. ‘Rehearsal Rehearsals’ sat in the middle of it in a filthy, dilapidated former British Rail goods yard. I arrived there with my schoolmates The Subway Sect, to help with band rehearsals after Malcolm McLaren had seen fit to call Bernie Rhodes and arrange for some much-needed rehearsal time. However it was with anything but relish that we first encountered the cold, dank, and unpleasant rehearsal space. It’s crumbling, musty atmosphere reminded me of my grandmother’s old coal cellar and the damp cold penetrated everything, even in that hot month of August. ‘Rehearsals’ was a place you didn’t feel you wanted to hang around in any longer than you had to. Although brave attempts had been made to make it bearable, it was nevertheless a bleak and depressing environment.

This video was shot in 1977 but shows ‘Rehearsals’ pretty much the same that it was a year earlier.

Paul Simonon hung around the rehearsal room more than anyone else back then and was the first member of The Clash to befriend us. One night he said conspiratorially, “Want to see something really cool….?” He led us to the back of the rehearsal room behind the jukebox, through the drapes that served as sound-baffling, and down a gentle ramp to a huge, ancient door.

The Camden Tunnels.

The Camden Tunnels.

After some difficulty we managed to get it open and it slid slowly back to reveal an extensive labyrinth of pitch-black tunnels and passageways. The deathly frozen air hit us instantly as we entered what seemed at first to be some kind of sinister medieval dungeon, reeking with years of moldy camden_tunnel2disuse. Excitement gripped us, and I ran back to my car to get a torch (flashlight). Our first tentative exploration of the tunnels revealed a maze of derelict, mildewed archways and passages – some trailing off to dead-ends and others leading to enormous cavernous areas, as large as any warehouse. Tramway tracks criss-crossed some of the tunnels and water ran down walls or dripped from crumbling Victorian brickwork and ceilings. ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff 

camden_tunnel

Once Paul Smith (The Subway’s drummer) had managed to get Sebastian Conran’s disused little yellow moped running, we explored further and deeper into the seemingly endless caverns with our torches and would play track-outs (hide and seek) down there for hours with Paul Simonon. The sound of the little moped’s engine getting ever closer and closer in the darkness heightened the macabre excitement of the chase to a spine-chilling fever-pitch. The all-encompassing blackness, pierced only by our torches, hinted at ghastly silent camden_1-001terrors behind the commonest shapes or objects and challenged our corporeal senses to the point at which boundaries dissolved. I cannot convey the nightmare-sensation of those vast subterranean passages – that commingling of the coffin-terror, of entrapment – a palpable yet penetrating essence -the inexorable fear of running into something unknown, unpleasant waiting to pounce in the darkness like a Lovecraft fiction, fed into our imaginations and kept us from delving too deep into the fathomless excavation. Nevertheless, the altered state of consciousness produced by prolonged exposure was very real at times. fffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff

camden_tunnel3

Unknown to us, this warren of cold menacing passages and tunnels hadn’t known warmth or light for almost 100 years. Back then, they had echoed to the sound of an altogether different horror. ‘The Camden Catacombs,’ as they have become known today, were once owned by British Railways. They were constructed in the 19th Century as stables for horses and pit ponies that were used to shunt railway wagons. The tunnels run under the Euston mainline, under the goods depot at Primrose Hill, beneath Gilbey’s Bonded Warehouse on the Regents Canal and under Camden Lock Market. Their route can be discerned by the distinctive cast-iron grilles set at fixed distances into the road surface; originally the only source of light for the poor over-worked horses living their wretched lives in the darkness below. Some sections were demolished during the redevelopment of the area while other sections belong to Camden Market who dissuade access.

The life of an average pit-pony.

The life of an average pit-pony.

The 650-or-so railway horses were stabled on Chalk Farm Road (now Stables Market), and a labyrinth of tunnels built from 1865 allowed them to travel underground from their stables to their work in Camden Town Goods Yard, so they did not have to cross the tracks. The same network of tunnels was used by other heavy horses, such as shire horses of Gilbey’s, the wine and liquor company that owned warehouses and goods sheds with access to the railway. 

camden_1-000

In our innocence, and unaware of the sinister nightmare that these cold, dank cellars must have bore witness to, we continued amusing ourselves down in the ancient terror-tunnels up until around the time of the ‘100 Club Punk Festival’ when everything on the burgeoning punk rock scene started to get very serious. 

The Clash at Rehearsals.

The Clash in front of the entrance-way that led down to the tunnels at Rehearsals.

I remember Joe came down there a few times but Mick and Terry never did to my knowledge – mostly it was Paul and us that spent many frenzied hours in the network of pitch-dark caverns deep in the dark recesses behind Rehearsals.

Just two years later, The Clash would part company with manager Bernie Rhodes and bid goodbye to the cold, damp rehearsal rooms (if only for five years). So too would the Subway Sect, when Bernie Rhodes fired the whole band in the autumn of 1978 and kept Vic Godard as a song-writer and singer.

Rob Simmons, of the Subway Sect, perched on the top of my Transit van outside Rehearsals, 1977.

Rob Simmons, of the Subway Sect, perched on the top of my Transit van outside Rehearsals, 1977.

It seems ironic that the Camden Town area has become so popular and trendy with it’s markets and expensive high street, mainly because of the presence of a punk rock band for so short a time when in fact, the entire railway yard complex was built and used daily over 100 years before. Now with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that our own temporary and ephemeral use of the warehouse was but a floating, vain appearance – a moment, a twinkling of an eye in the long history of those dark, disused warehouses. And now we too have become part of their past.

The Baker.

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For a more in-depth look at “The Camden Catacombs I recommend:

http://www.forever-changes.com/camden%20catacombs/camden%20catacombs.htm

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For the most extensive collection of images of Rehearsals, as always go to:

http://www.theclash.org.uk/RiotOfOwn.htm

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13 thoughts on “The Subways and Tunnels of Camden Town.

  1. Tim Merrick (@theclashblog)

    Another great read Baker, I love those old elements of London, I once went down to the post office trains and tunnels under the city at King Edward Street…same crazy catacombs and vast storage but still in use at that time. Fantastic photos too…thanks.

    Reply
    1. thebaker77 Post author

      I always knew there were vast underground tunnels under Primrose Hill but the rumour back in those days was that it was a secret nuclear war bunker for the government. It seems now it was all part of the deep underground tunnel network that seems to criss-cross London. And because it was all excavated so long ago, it has laid virtually unforgotten all these years. There are even whole undisturbed underground stations that were never opened just lying there….

      Reply
  2. Pingback: ‘Pretty Vacant: The Graphic Language of Punk’ – exhibition in Philadelphia looks well worth a visit | The Clash Blog

    1. thebaker77 Post author

      For all these years, the presence of this subterranean underworld has remained a mystery to me Simon. It’s only since they were opened up by the new owners that its gruesome history has been revealed. The Department Of Health and Safety very quickly closed them down again. I daresay there are many more hidden worlds tucked away underneath London’s streets waiting to be disclosed by the authorities. Thank you for the comment.

      Reply
  3. David Dry

    I have never heard of these Camden Town tunnels, but London, as well as having the underground tube tunnels, has other little known tunnels.

    The service tunnels completed in Victorian time are still used to carry gas, water, electricity and telephone cables in areas as diverse as Southwark Street, the Victoria Embankment, Piccadilly Circus just to name a few venues. The tunnels at Piccadilly render the entire circus hollow and is the reason, no doubt, for the lower level Tube tunnels being so deep.

    It is possible to glimpse cables running through these tunnels through grills set into traffic islands in the middle of many West End streets.

    Another, once secret tunnel network, is the extensive network of Deep Level tunnels now used exclusively by British Telecoms for cabling purposes, but once partly envisaged as an escape route cum deep level bunker in the event of bombing. It was possible for Churchill to leave his then secret war room (now open to the public), walk along the basement corridor, through a door to a spiral staircase that would see him down to the Whitehall lateral tunnel 30m under Whitehall. The PM, if he fancied a walk, could have exited at Trafalgar square underground station, or – if he fancied a good walk – exit at Swiss Cottage. This network of tunnels serves all the central London telephone exchanges, including the, south of the Thames, Waterloo Exchange. It is quite something to be walking along the Waterloo bound tunnel and experience the sound of propellers from above where pleasure boats ply their trade on the Thames!

    Amusingly the ‘secret’ level of security was hastily dropped after it was pointed out to ‘the powers that be’ that Blue Peter childrens’ programme had filmed an episode in the Deep Levels.

    The possibility of these tunnels ever being proof against a nuclear strike also lessened the need for these tunnels to be a state secret. They do have laterals to all the major government buildings in the Whitehall area, however.

    Reply
    1. thebaker77 Post author

      Thanks for the info David – fascinating subject and only just starting to be discovered. I have been aware of the Secret Service tunnels for some years (ever since my conspiracy theorist days), so when I stumbled across the “Camden Catacombs” it was like the dots were connecting finally.

      Here’s a link to the MI6 tunnels and subterrenean world underneath London:

      http://www.economist.com/node/12623309

      Let me know if you come across any more.

      The Baker.

      Reply
  4. carl

    The Williamson tunnels go under the whole of the City of Liverpool and were built purely to employ people to build and pay them a wage.
    Why did they call you the baker?

    Reply
    1. thebaker77 Post author

      I will have to look into ‘The Williamson Tunnels’ Carl….thanks for the heads-up. As far as my nickname goes after the ‘press only’ gig at Rehearsals, the Subway Sect continued rehearsing there whenever I could drive them there – most days during the week and at weekends and it was at this time that I gained the nickname of ‘The Baker’ from (who else), Paul Simonon! It was partly due to the fact that we used to dye all our clothes, so that black was made white and visa-versa. This process tended to give everything we wore a grayish utilitarian look (which ultimately became the Subway Sect look). I had recently dyed a black single-breasted jacket several times in an attempt to turn it white. This repeated dying had given it a stiff, uniform-like appearance and in retrospect, it may have looked like something a baker would wear, I don’t know. Some guitar strings or sticks were needed one day, and as Sebastian (Conran) wasn’t around Paul just said out loud, “Hey, where’s that bloke that looks like a baker? Ask him to go and get them,” Everyone started laughing at the remark and the call went up, ” Hey, Baker, Baker….” I came upstairs to find everyone laughing and duly went off to the West End for the needed supplies, confused as to what the joke was. It was an innocent enough remark, made in a casual manner, but it just seemed to stick, and I have used it ever since. By then, I was regarded by everyone at Rehearsals as the Subway Sect’s roadie, even though at that time, I still had no concept of what a roadie actually was. As far as I was concerned we were all still school-mates from Barnes and this was just another bizarre diversion on our journey through adolescence. But I guess the Clash entourage in their professionalism, had already discerned the subtle difference between musician and technician and so I was regarded as ‘crew.’

      However, since talking with Paul Simonon about this (and after 35 years since those days), he had this to say:

      “….Well….I called you baker because I asked one of the Subways what your name was…( probably because I forgot the moment you told me..as I do with everyone) I guess I misheard him…and thought he said that Baker was your name…had nothing to do with your look..clothes…just misheard the mumbled answer ?….”

      So as you see, we all remember things differently and time does a number on all of us and our memories. There’s not a lot of certainty about anything really when you get down to it – even the date of Paul’s bass-smashing incident at the Palladium in New York seems to be in some doubt….everyone has taken Joe’s quote that it was on the second night but eye-witness accounts have come forward that clearly saw it happen on the first night. Even Pennie Smith who took the photo can no longer be sure. So after this amount of time, we are left with each person’s individual memory of events and a general consensus forms as to what actually happened.

      Thanks for the comment Carl….

      The Baker.

      Reply
  5. Betsy

    Boy, do I feel lucky to have read this. It’s beautifully written and more than visual – I can smell the must and feel the tickle of it in my nose. It’s such a personal account of great poetic history having been made by all of you. I am glad you are not silent. I don’t live in the UK but I am fascinated by the unexplored portions of the city I currently live in. It thrills me. So thank you sharing. – Betsy

    Reply
    1. thebaker77 Post author

      Thank you for the kind sentiments Betsy. Yes so much is unexplored and kept from public view. You just have to be ready to take the road less traveled when the opportunity affords itself.

      I am not silent about some things but time and circumstances have prevented me from posting for a while now. I intend to get back online soon and resume my digital dialogue. Thanks again for the interest.

      The Baker.

      Reply

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