Avondale Park is a pleasant but innocuous open space in North Kensington created in 1892 on the site of Adam’s brickfield one of the many light industrial sites in the area in the 19th century. Today it combines sports facilities with a play area and formal gardens. But beneath it lies a big secret .Landscapers working on the site in 2009 investigating the roots of a large tree discovered a set of extensive underground passages. There were several theories of how old the passages were and what purpose they might have served but research by the Parks department in Council Records showed that the passages were an almost forgotten municipal air raid shelter constructed in 1939 and sealed in 1946.
It seemed odd that a shelter which would have held up to two hundred people could have been forgotten. When local people were asked about the shelter many did in fact remembered its existence but almost no-one suspected that it was still there. This may be an example of the strange fog of secrecy that existed in the war years. Today it is hard to keep secrets. Information gets out through news media and over the internet. We forget that in the Second World War it was not only public policy to keep secrets but a matter of survival for the general population as well as the government. Major local events such as the destruction of Sloane Square station went largely unreported and obituaries for people who died in air raids often said simply that the person had died suddenly. Perhaps this habit of secrecy persisted after the war and the existence of the Avondale Park shelter was gradually erased from public consciousness.
During the exploration of the tunnels I got the chance to go down there myself and take a few photographs.
The walls of the shelter are concrete in some of the passages steel in others. In the picture below you can make out brackets near ground level where folding benches or beds might have been attached. The whole set of passages a rectangle bisected by a pair of middle passages seems large when you are wandering around it as I was with a group of less than a dozen people.
But imagine it filled with rows of people, just sitting together too close for comfort in the dimly lit passages, some talking quietly, some just listening for the sounds of aircraft and explosions, others just silently waiting for the all clear siren.
Imagine the sense of claustrophobia and apprehension as hours went by, punctuated by the sudden panic when an explosion was too loud or too close for comfort.
Shelters like this one were built in many parts of London where there was no space for individual Anderson shelters or there were no tube stations nearby. (The nearest Underground station would have been Holland Park, quite a distance if you needed to get to safety quickly) Several have survived so Avondale Park is not unique but it is unusual and worth preserving as an insight into life on the home front in World War 2. The Blitz is often associated at least in the popular imagination with east London but Kensington and Chelsea along with the rest of west London also suffered significant destruction and loss of life.
The shelter was cleared out completely in 1946. The toilets, furniture and lighting were removed. There is almost no sign of the many temporary inhabitants apart from this barely legible handwritten notice exhorting people not to spit and a faint drawing of an aeroplane.
But the shelter is quiet enough for you to imagine what it might have been like to spend hours underground uncertain of what you might find when you got out again. The shelter entrance has been closed until a final decision can be made about future use, possibly as an educational resource. The dark corridors are quiet again and remain as a hidden monument to the terrors of the Blitz.