Dark and mysterious, the Camden Catacombs are a series of underground passages that are to be found underneath the Camden markets, and they make for an excellent alternative glimpse into some of London’s oldest history.
The catacombs were constructed in the 19th century, but they have been officially owned by Network Rail for the past four years.
Although they’re dubbed catacombs, you might be pleased to know that these underground tunnels were never actually used for dead bodies. Instead, their original purpose saw them serve as stables for horses and pit ponies working on the railways. There was also an underground pool for canal boats that operated on Regent’s Canal, which was close to the catacombs.
Not open for business
The only access to the catacombs is an entrance that’s alongside the main line of the tunnels. However, visitors aren’t granted permission to go down to the catacombs, as there is a serious risk of flooding due to the links to the Regent Canal basin.
Along with connections to the canal, the web of tunnels underneath Camden also lead to a subterranean hall, which used to feature a steam-powered winding gear used to winch trains up the hill from Euston Station.
In the heyday of the catacombs, the tunnels also provided access to the basements under Victorian warehouses in this area of Camden. According to the online Camden Guide, however, most of the sections of these tunnels were lost during a redevelopment of the area in the 1980s.
Can I see any of it at all?
If you go to Camden, you’ll be able to soak up the history of the catacombs, regardless of the fact that you won’t be able to explore them for yourself.
There’s lots of information in the area about the catacombs, including the fact that part of them were once used for a Horse Hospital, for the animals that were kept down in the stables. This section is largely overground though, so you’ll be able to take a look at this, as it’s now a unique arts venue for underground and avant-garde music, films and art installations.
You can also see a small part of the network when you go to Camden’s Stables Market, where you’ll find antiques and vintage clothing on sale from restored buildings that deck the side of the canal.
How do I get to Camden?
As with most places in London, Camden is easy to reach, particularly if you are travelling by Tube. Simply take the Northern Line to the Camden Town stop and you’re there.
Camden makes a particularly good visit on a day out because it’s close to two major train stations: King’s Cross St Pancras and London Euston.
It’s particularly easy to travel from Euston station because you can take the Northern Line straight to Camden from there, whereas you’ll need to get the Victoria Line to Euston from St Pancras. Either way, it’s no more than a five-minute journey, so you don’t have to worry about lost time.
What else can I do in Camden?
In a word: lots. But there are a couple of things upon which Camden prides itself and one of those is shopping, in particular vintage shopping.
Camden’s many market stalls are full to the brim with second-hand vintage shoes, clothes, homewares, posters and vinyl records. Visit London recommends a shop called Dappa Boutique, which will give you a full vintage makeover to go with your new outfit.
There are many pubs in Camden that are perfect for chilling out over a nice pint and they’re also a good place to spot the occasional celebrity too. The Hawley Arms was a particular favourite of the sadly departed Amy Winehouse, but various Indie-heads have been known to hang out in there too, including Razorlight and The Kaiser Chiefs.
With musicians being part of the thread of life in Camden, it’s little wonder that there are so many brilliant places to listen to live music in this area. Littering the musical history of this part of London were shows from Pink Floyd, The Doors and Blur.
Many big-name musicians and up-and-coming artists are to be found playing in The Roundhouse and The Dublin Castle. For something a bit heavier, try Underworld for metal music, or The Jazz Cafe for blues, retro and of course jazz.
For the night owls among you, Camden is also a great place to dance the evening away and there’s plenty of places on offer for you to have a boogie. Try Barfly for drinks and dancing, and go to Koko for bands like Bastille or alternative burlesque evenings.
I still want to see underground tunnels
If you simply have to see some old-style tunnels (apart from the crowded Tube tunnels), then keep an eye on the progress of the opening of a WWII bunker beneath Clapham – a mere 30 minutes from Camden.
So far, plans seem to include turning the underground area into a cafe and an exhibition about the history of the tunnels. Regular Hidden London tours will take place in the area underneath Clapham Common station too, which will be organised by the London Transport Museum.