London, England

The Magic Door

Date July 2008
Posted May 2010
Infiltrating London's Tube network
Loud and fast, always swamped with thousands of people. That's what initial memories of the Tube describe, jam packed into the round-topped cars as they careered through pitch black tunnels beneath the London streets. Those sinister swinging grab handles that used to hang from the ceiling, endless escalators, the snapping ticket barriers threatening to cut the fragile body of a ten year old into pieces, that world-famous typography. Passengers of all kinds, of all walks, all staring into space, avoiding eye contact, avoiding interaction, the system to them just a means to an end.

Somewhere in the Tube, London, England (2008) courtesy of

A small dedicated demographic back then in the 1980s were seeing this unique rapid transit infrastructure with different eyes, a wholly more controversial purpose in mind. Their handiwork was revealed now and then as cars came through the stations painted top to bottom, the hastily applied tags, characters and lettering explained to me then as vandalism, graffiti. It was exciting nonetheless, these select examples of the endless grey trains suddenly having something unique about them, an identity applied in acrylic by some mystery artist or another. But this wasn't happening in the stations, not that I could see, anyway. Besides, there wouldn't be time - how would you do this in under a minute with people all around?

Evidently there was access elsewhere, some means of infiltrating the tunnels that was not immediately obvious. The fabric of the city was almost two-dimensional as presented to a young child, surrounded by lights and signs, fences, locked doors and with a strong parental hand dragging mine through those snapping barriers, across roads and through bustling department stores. Somewhere here was a hidden door or passage, just like on those computer games we had. A cheat perhaps, a little known opening into the mechanics of the metropolis, a way of breaching the backstage workings. Those fans behind grates, the grilled-off basements, the drains running deep below the tarmac but just about audible through heavy metal lids.

Somewhere in the Tube, London, England (2008) courtesy of

It's commonly agreed by those resourceful/stupid/curious enough to find their way into rapid transit system infrastructure that if you go somewhere and there aren't already 'tags' plastered about, you're doing pretty well. For the tunnels this is more applicable now since London Transport initiated their zero tolerance crack-down on train graf. It was declared that no 'bombed' train would be allowed to run in service until every square centimeter of rogue colour had been removed. Consequently the majority of tags and pieces today are found within the tunnels themselves, rather than on the trains. That said, contrary to popular belief some yards and layups are still accessible, but perhaps the realisation that few people if any will see the completed work is enough to put the minority of active Tube writers off the idea of painting trains.

The problem then, for those running with the higher stakes carrying evidence upon their backs in sketch books and aerosol cans, and also for those like us risking 'only' a roasting for trespass on live rail lines, is access. How was it done then, and how is it done now? As with many systems of this kind, the ways in and out come and go frequently, the rat runs and secret routes subject to perpetual change. Later endeavours, particularly those of one scary looking Aussie drunkard, would reveal that sometimes though one only has to look to find.

Somewhere in the Tube, London, England (2008) courtesy of

This time around, the portal had been found and investigated by loops and dsankt, their heart rates no doubt running just a little higher as they followed the dusty stairs into the darkness, knowing that this was an offering not to be refused. For the treats it provided, this nondescript piece of hinged steel was to become known as 'The Magic Door'. And for us it was new ground, something which had been talked of many times but never actually achieved, be it for lack of effort, fear of the consequences or otherwise.

Fortunately the door was still open as we approached in darkness one July night, furtively looking around for anyone who should see us enter and cause us bother. Since the door was ajar, we could be fairly certain that no alarms were going to go off, and so we followed the sound of extractor fans, progressing deeper until a series of staircases delivered us to a set of yellow signs helpfully warning that those daring to go further could expect to encounter moving trains. By now each sporting more than a liberal coating of that black dust that seems to accumulate in all underground rail networks, we could be fairly confident that the driver wouldn't spot us as we peered into the darkness of the tube itself. With the approaching train the tunnel lights had gone out, replaced by an increasing draft.

Somewhere in the Tube, London, England (2008) courtesy of

Seconds later the headlight could be seen in what was a vastly different context to the crowded platforms where the passengers had boarded and would surely disembark. Free from the yellow lines, 'mind the gap' warnings and well lit environment, all that we could do was wait as the noise built to a deafening roar. In such confines as these nobody needed to be told that trying to cower from the train anywhere but an alcove such as this would surely result in a deft splattering, the fleshy construction of the human form no match for the machines of steel that it had created. The train passed in a loud blast, shaking the tunnels and leaving just as quickly as it had arrived. We were now free to pick our way across the multitude of electrified rails and investigate various other tunnels, cable ducts and hiding places.

Later we emerged, grimy, tired but satisfied, dragging ourselves out of the door and back into the streets where sodium lights continued to burn, cars drove by intermittently and life was continuing unaffected by our intrusion. We had watched the trains from the cold side of the glass and listened to voices from the dusty side of the vents, wondering for a moment if some other curious mind out there was questioning and exploring these physical boundaries, asking what might be beyond, and just what kind of a gamble would be required to find out. For ourselves though the decision not to accept what was presented for public consumption and instead to look for a more personalised experience had long since been made, the rewards each received clearly worth the risks he took.

In later weeks the door was found to be secured - somebody, perhaps a worker, discovered the oversight and did the responsible thing. But it didn't matter - the system is city wide, and subsequent adventures would reveal similarly overlooked opportunities to gain access to tunnels, disused stations, yards and trains alike.
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