A network of secret tunnels hidden under central London for decades will soon be opened up to the public under an ambitious £220 million plan for a huge new tourist attraction “as iconic as the London Eye” unveiled today.
The Kingsway Exchange tunnels, an expanse of 8,000 sq m of passageways several hundred feet below High Holborn, were shrouded in mystery for most of the 20th century with details covered by the government’s Official Secrets Act, because of their wartime role as a base for MI6 officials.
The site is now set to be transformed into a museum exploring their history after it was bought by a consortium called London Tunnels Ltd.
Construction of the tunnels began during the Blitz in World War Two to serve as a deep-level shelter, before being used by the Special Operation Executive, Winston’s Churchill “secret army” forerunners of MI6. They were repurposed during the Cold War as a covert telephone exchange, operating the first transatlantic telephone cable which would later be used as the ‘hotline’ between Moscow and Washington during the Cuban missile crisis. It featured the deepest licensed bar in the UK as well as a restaurant equipped with rations to feed hundreds of people for months on end, in preparation for a nuclear attack.
It is hoped that as many as two million visitors a year will visit the attraction site after it is converted into a high-tech immersive experience with giant curved immersive screens, interactive structures, scent-emitting technology and hundreds of individual acoustic pinpoint speakers.
The firm behind the plans hopes to invest £140 million into restoring, preserving and fitting out the site, as well as a further £80 million allocated to installing the interactive screens, with a view to opening the attraction in 2027.
Angus Murray, an Australian banker and the former president of asset management giant Macquarie, led the acquisition with the backing of his private equity firm Castlestone Management.
The development could yet be scuppered if it does not receive planning permission from Camden council.
Murray said: “The history of the tunnels, their scale and the location between London’s Holborn and the historic Square Mile, could make these tunnels one of London’s most popular tourist destinations.
“We now wish to work with local stakeholders and residents to make this a reality and look forward to hearing their thoughts as we finalise a planning application.”
He told Bloomberg: “Would I compare this to be as iconic as the London Eye? Yes, I would, who wouldn’t come here?”
The tunnels, which have been unoccupied for years, were taken over by BT in the 1980s. The telecoms giant first put the site up for sale in 2008 but had struggled to find a buyer. BT declined to comment on the deal and refused to say how much cash it received. A person familiar with the matter said difficulties with obtaining planning permission for the unusual site contributed to the protracted sales process.