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Old 12-22-2008, 11:03 AM   #1
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Mile of London Tunnels for Sale, History Included
Steve Forrest for The New York Times

David Hembra of the BT Group, Britain’s largest phone company, in one of the secret tunnels built during World War II as bomb shelters for London residents. More Photos >

LONDON — For sale: a vast tunnel complex in central London. Former tenants include Britain’s secret service, the famous hot line between America and the Soviet Union during the cold war and 400 tons of government documents. The asking price is $7.4 million.
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After years of lying unused beneath the traffic-jammed streets of the city, the tunnel complex — one mile of underground corridors and adjacent rooms — is now for sale by the BT Group, Britain’s largest phone company. BT hopes the site’s special features will attract buyers even as the property market above ground is going through its biggest downturn in decades.

Appearing more like the set of a James Bond movie than prime real estate, the complex still has a bar and two canteens, not in use, and a billiard room, not to mention functioning water and electricity supplies.

The tunnels were built during World War II as bomb shelters for about 8,000 people and were designed to allow them to survive for five weeks shut off from the outside world.

An eclectic range of would-be buyers has asked about the space, including an overseas billionaire seeking a spot to hold his board meetings. Others who have expressed interest include those looking for a location for a wine collection, London’s police and local electricity companies, said Niall Gallagher, the realty agent at Farebrother Chartered Surveyors in charge of finding a suitable buyer.

“It’s a weird and wonderful space,” Mr. Gallagher said. “It really captured people’s imagination. There were many inquiries, and we received one or two interesting offers.”

The tunnels were built in 1940 during the blitz, when Britain came under sustained air attacks from Nazi Germany. The government decided to create eight underground bomb shelters in London, as the city’s subway stations were not big enough to accommodate all those seeking refuge.

But the BT tunnels, and one other, were never used by the public because the government needed them for its own operations. The BT tunnels soon became a temporary base for troops before D-Day while another tunnel was turned into the European headquarters of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

In 1944, the tunnels became a base from which the Allies helped resistance movements in Nazi-occupied countries. Members of the secret service, in offices equipped with telephones and teleprinters hidden beneath the war-torn streets, helped coordinate as many as 10,000 men and women gathering support against the Nazi regime across Europe.

After the war, the tunnel network became an important operations center for the company once known as British Telecommunications. In recent years, though, BT has used the space mostly for storage. The company decided to put the tunnels up for sale a few weeks ago.

Though some may fantasize about buying the space and living a secret life in a cavernous underground world filled with gadgets suitable for the Bat Cave, the reality would most likely be harsher.

The air is dry, hot and stale. The constant rattling of London Underground trains rushing through a separate tunnel system a few feet above and the sound of giant ventilation fans make the tunnels a noisy environment.

Turning the tunnels into a nightclub or hotel is out of the question because only two elevators link them to the outside world; even a small fire would be difficult to contain.

The tunnels are closed to the public, but the people who still work there, mostly for maintenance, enter through an inconspicuous iron door on Furnival Street, a quiet path behind busy Chancery Lane, close to the Royal Courts of Justice and not far from the River Thames. Apart from an old industrial crane attached to the facade of the windowless building, nothing hints at the vast underground labyrinth below it.

The tunnels’ history gives them an aura of mystery, kept alive by the handful of BT employees still working there.

David Hay, a BT historian, said legend had it that the government wanted to keep the location of the tunnels so secret that it hired foreign workers with no knowledge of the London streets to build them. BT staff members are still under strict orders not to reveal the exact location of the system, though incomplete maps have surfaced on the Internet.

“We just don’t know what the future owner will want to use it for, so we can’t disclose more information,” David Hembra, one of the maintenance workers who now visits the tunnels several times a week to check for gas leaks and other problems, said.

When Mr. Hembra started to work in the tunnels 10 years ago, their pivotal years were behind them, and little remained from the turbulent days of World War II. The offices were removed after the war ended, when new tenants moved in. Britain’s public records office needed the space to store more than 400 tons of documents.

But it was not long before the documents had to be moved again to make room for a secure international telephone center that the government deemed necessary as relations between Washington and Moscow grew tense. During the cold war, the British government instructed its telephone department, which later became BT, to set up a secret communications system based on the latest technology that would be able to survive a nuclear attack.

It was the beginning of the busiest period for the tunnels, with almost 200 workers spending their days and nights underground to route up to two million calls a week across the 6,600 phone lines. In 1963, the hot line established between Moscow and Washington after the Cuban missile crisis ran through the London tunnels.

The buzzing complex soon became known as “underground town,” with its own recreation room complete with dartboards and billiard tables, a movie theater and two dining halls. Workers often spent the night in sleeping rooms.

By the early 1980s, technology had advanced so much that the tunnels’ telephone center became obsolete, and BT’s technicians moved back above ground.

Today, anyone wandering the vast corridors is still reminded of their place in history as a bank of telephone cables stands next to colossal electricity generators from the 1960s. Remnants of that life are visible amid the brown-and-orange wall decoration in the old bar, color photographs of the world above in the restaurant and a canteen kitchen equipped with potato-peeling machine, dishwasher and a menu board offering sausages and peas.

“In the winter months, if you didn’t come up at lunchtime, you never saw the light of day,” John Warrick, a former worker, wrote on the Web site Subterranea Britannica, remembering his days in the tunnels. “Life down there was a little like living in a submarine.”
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