20 February, 2011

Riding the Tube from A-Z

Here's an admission that hopefully won't come as too much of a surprise: as far as I'm concerned, there's little that beats a public transport-based quest.

Oh dear. Perhaps I should be a little more reticent about this belief. Perhaps articulating enthusiasm for such an ostensibly mundane, some might say joyless, activity isn't quite the done thing.

But then how else could I explain why I decided to spend a day visiting, in order, a London Underground station for each letter of the alphabet?

I can't, other than to say the very conceit was my motivation, and the work its own reward.

I didn't treat my challenge as a race. I wasn't trying to get from A-Z in the shortest time possible. But neither did I want to prolong the journey unnecessarily or find myself retracing my steps... although as it turned out I had to do the latter in order to avoid the former.

I did consider attempting to visit the first A of all the As, the first B of all the Bs, and so on. This, however, would have required me to cross the entire Underground network from one end to the other several times in a row (Dagenham East to Ealing Broadway to Fairlop, for example) and taken at least 16 hours.

Plus I had ruled out using the Docklands Light Railway. And even though there are no Underground stations for the letters J, X, Y and Z, I still intended to visit suitable substitutes.

Given all this, I knew my mission would take the best part of a day. Even without factoring in changing trains, changing lines, taking photos and taking breaks, my route clocked in at eight-and-a-half hours.

Therefore in order to visit as many stations as possible while it was still light, I intended to set off as early as possible.

Inevitably, this did not happen.

Last-minute faffing, including deciding to pack a flask of hot water and tea bags, meant I didn't leave West Finchley until 8.20am.

I tried to reconcile myself to this delayed departure by reasoning I would at least have missed the peak of the rush hour.

Inevitably, I was wrong.

I arrived at my first letter of the alphabet, Archway, at 8.43am precisely.

But I didn't leave Archway until almost 9am, having had to let one train go because it was too full and a second train go because it was heading for the Charing Cross branch. I needed the Bank branch, in order to get to St Pancras for a connection to Barbican.

And right here is an example of the rather lax attitude I took to my quest.

A more dedicated, competitive A-Z traveller would have pushed their way on to the first train, or jumped on the second regardless of its destination, purely in order to keep travelling. Revisions to routes and awkward interchanges could be worked out later; the key thing would be that they were on the move.

Conversely I did not and would not ever feel an urgency to charge round the Underground network. Still, my hold-up at Archway made me realise at this very early stage that the entire trip could take far longer than the eight-and-a-half hours it totalled on paper. I might not even finish until late in the evening.

Resolving that from now on any dawdling had to be constructive dawdling, I hastened to Barbican, where by virtue of it being above ground I didn't have to leave the station to both take and upload my proof-of-presence photo.

This was another rule that I had concocted which, in retrospect, I can see further lengthened the trip.

If I hadn't decided to take a snapshot of myself at each stop, and use my phone to upload it there and then, I clearly needn't have had to leave so many stations or get off so many trains.

At Barbican, for instance, I could have just taken a photo of a sign through the doors of the train.

But I wanted to document my progress as it happened and share my endeavours online in, as close as possible, real time. Even if that meant a host of grisly mugshots.

I had tried to structure my route to best accommodate lines and distances I needed to take to reach those more remote stations. Ickenham was the prime example of this, being the only station beginning with the letter I and hence unavoidable, but dwelling way out in zone 6 on the very edge of north-west Greater London.

This meant picking stations for letters C-H that brought me ever closer to my far-flung prize. I continued on the Circle line from Barbican to Liverpool Street, then picked up the Central line westwards to Chancery Lane.

After nipping out for the photo, I resumed my journey west, changing on to the Jubilee line at Bond Street for a dash up to Dollis Hill.

By now rush hour was over and I had more space to, in the words of Jimmy Savile, stretch out and move about.

Off-peak passengers are less self-conscious in general, and I travelled up the Jubilee line in the company of, among others, a woman doing her knitting and a man singing folk songs.

It was, as ever, a joy to break cover just before Finchley Road and be above ground once more.

I think the weather had actually turned colder; at Dollis Hill a mist and a chill clung close to the ground.

I had neglected to bring a hat. I would rue this more and more as the day wore on.

I then had to retrace my steps, the first of a number of doubling-backs that were essential if regrettable, returning back down the Jubilee to Baker Street, where I nipped on to a Circle line train to Edgware Road.

I scored my first success of the day here, chancing upon a District line train to Wimbledon almost immediately, which carried me all the way down to Fulham Broadway without a hitch. Yup, I avoided Earl’s Courting disaster.

In Fulham Broadway shopping centre I took a short break, utilising a popular chain of coffee shops to recharge my phone and have a hot drink, besides paying 30p to use the precinct toilets. Well, what can you do?

Then it was back to Earl’s Court and a short wait for a Richmond train to take me down to Gunnersbury.

By now I had tired of capturing my own gurning features on camera, and began to opt for what can best be described as limb shots:

It had gone midday by this point.

I really wanted to do Ickenham by lunchtime, but getting there was by no means straightforward.

I had to double-back again, then face an epic wait at Turnham Green before the right connection ambled along, then change at Acton Town and again at Rayners Lane before Ickenham hoved into view.

But even then I couldn’t cross it off the list, as I still had an H to do, which meant going through Ickenham and getting off one station further on: Hillingdon.

Luckily there was a train heading back down the line almost straightaway. I had 30 seconds to snatch a photo, jump on board, pull into Ickenham, hop off… then wait 15 minutes for the next London-bound service.

I’d been on the move for over five hours, but had only done a third of the alphabet.

To restore my spirits I made myself some tea from the flask I was now extremely thankful for remembering to pack.

On the Metropolitan train back towards London I was surrounded by people eating lunch, including, most cruelly of all, a woman guzzling chips. My stomach lurched.

At Finchley Road (my third visit of the day) I changed on to the Jubilee line and hopped down to St John’s Wood, which I figured was the closest I could get to a letter J.

Then it was back the way I came, through Finchley Road once more, in order to visit Kilburn:

And then I had to double-double-back and pass through Finchley Road a fifth time, heading back through St John’s Wood (again), Baker Street (again) to reach Bond Street (again).

Connoisseurs of economy of travel, I can hear your disapproval.

After a pointless search through Bond Street shopping centre for toilets, I zipped back and forth along the Central line, first heading west to Lancaster Gate, then east to Marble Arch, then west again to Notting Hill Gate.

This was a very satisfying haul in a very short time. I was suddenly over half-way through my challenge, but the time was 3.15pm and I was flagging.

I now embarked on a diversion.

I couldn’t find anywhere near Notting Hill station that supplied the holy trinity of a power socket, relief and refreshment.

Perhaps I didn’t look hard enough. Instead I gave in and popped back down to Fulham Broadway shopping centre. At least I knew all three would be there.

Yes, I know this was just compounding my already baggy schedule, but the interlude meant I didn’t have to stop again for the rest of the day.

I caught a District line train round to Victoria and fought my way on to a titular service up to Oxford Circus, by which time it was 4.25pm.

A run of good luck delivered me a swift change on to the Bakerloo up to Paddington, then another quick train up to Queen’s Park by 5pm. At this point I felt I was really making progress.

However it was starting to get dark, my flask was empty, rush hour was beginning and a mammoth trek to the other side of the city lay ahead.

Again, it was a matter of accommodating a far-flung station.

To take care of the letter U, I had either to go all the way out to Uxbridge (which meant passing through Hillingdon and Ickenham again) or strike out for the eastern end of the District line and the likes of Upton Park, Upney or Upminster. I opted for the latter, and so began working my way over to east London.

Along the way I ticked off R in the shape of Russell Square, which I reached by taking an Overground train from Queen’s Park to Euston then walking the rest of the way (considerably quicker than travelling between the two on the Underground).

I then zoomed up the Piccadilly line to Finsbury Park.

Here I changed on to the Victoria line in order to take care of Seven Sisters and Tottenham Hale.

It was now 6.15pm.

I continued on up the Victoria line to Blackhorse Road in order to pick up an Overground service round to Barking, from where it was two stops westwards to Upton Park.

I was quite pleased with this solution to the U issue, but it did mean I now faced a hefty journey back into the city centre to deal with the V issue.

It was now 7.10pm.

By now quite exhausted, I schlepped down the District line to West Ham and on to a Jubilee line train all the way round to Westminster. I almost fell asleep during this leg of the journey.

Then it was back on to a Circle line train - my 40th train of the day - to carry me along to Victoria, through which I had last passed three-and-a-half hours earlier.

It was now 7.50pm.

The end was in sight, but typically I had complicated things by deciding to find substitutes for the missing letters X, Y and Z.

So instead of ending my quest after I'd scurried up the Victoria line to Warren Street...

...I then had to continue up to King’s X St Pancras (do you see?).

Now came the coldest and most desolate leg of the journey.

I came out of King’s Cross station and walked all the way up York Way, past the offices of The Guardian and over the Regent’s Canal to visit the remains of the disused station York Road.

It was too dark for my phone to take a photo of any merit, but I had to prove I had been there.

From there I hurried back to King’s Cross and down to the Underground for a train along to Great Portland Street, from where I walked to Regent’s Park station which, by virtue of its proximity to London Zoo, was doubling as my finishing post. It was 8.45pm: almost exactly 12 hours since I arrived at Archway.

My quest was over.

If I hadn’t made the detour to York Road, if I hadn’t bothered with stations for J, X, Y and Z, if I hadn’t taken those breaks at Fulham Broadway, if I hadn’t needed the toilet or food or bothered to recharge my phone, if I had rushed for each and every connection, if I’d even included DLR and Overground stations, I would have been done with the alphabet much quicker.

But I wouldn’t have had half as much fun or finished my journey with quite the same sense of achievement.

17 February, 2011

An alphabetical challenge

I've decided to attempt a self-devised London Underground-based mission.

Barring unforeseen developments, tomorrow - Friday 18 February - I'm going to try and visit, in order, a station for each letter of the alphabet.

Seeing as there are no stations beginning with the letters J, X, Y or Z, I've had to come up with vaguely-related alternatives. J, for example, will be covered by a visit to St John's Wood, while Z will have to suffice with Regent's Park, aka London Zoo. If anyone can think of better ones, speak up.

The challenge should be manageable in one day. I did consider attempting a stricter mission, involving visiting, in order, the first A of all the As, the first B of all the Bs and so on. This, however, would have required me to cross the entire Underground network from one end to the other several times in a row (Dagenham East to Ealing Broadway to Fairlop, for example) and taken at least 16 hours.

As it is, I still have to visit zone 6 thanks to the location of the only station beginning with I.

There are also some unkind diversions courtesy of the paucity of Ds and Vs.

But unless I run into trouble of a kind that adds up to hours of delays or station closures (you better damn well stay open tomorrow, Ickenham!), I should complete the challenge and be back home before the Underground network goes to bed.

By way of proof of my journey, I will take photos outside each of the stations, which I'll also be posting on Twitter as the day unfolds.

The fun, or possibly the foolishness, begins tomorrow at breakfast time at Archway.

26 September, 2010

Aldwych, then and now

I'd always assumed this blog had settled into a kind of permanent siding when I ticked off the last London Underground station on the map back in January 2009.

Then came the trip around the Overground earlier this year, which I decided to write up as a kind of epilogue.

Now I have an epilogue to that epilogue, in the shape of a visit to the disused Underground station of Aldwych.

It wasn't your ordinary tour of a disused station, however. This was part of a three-day event organised by the fine folks of the London Transport Museum entitled Under London, with Aldwych station recreated to appear how it would have looked 70 years ago when it became a shelter from air raids during the Blitz.

As well as dressing the station with posters and props from 1940, a small cast of character actors was also on hand to give the tour a kind of dramatic structure.

Now this might sound a bit unnecessary, even silly; but honestly, it was a masterstroke. It really was a fantastic experience, right from the outset when we were shuffled into the station ticket hall to be addressed by an authentically stoic ARP warden:

Our man did a bit of business about gas masks and what to do if we were caught short, before right on cue an air raid siren sounded.

We had to file down the spiral staircase of 160 steps to be greeted by an authentically bossy female shelter supervisor, who delivered her lines with great aplomb, switching effortlessly between upbeat banter ("Been shopping, dear? How lovely!") and downbeat prophecy ("Remember, the bomber always gets through"), along with more potty talk. Toilet training was clearly of utmost concern during the Blitz. (Tip: bring a blanket to preserve your modesty, plus some cloves of garlic for the smell).

We were then split into groups and taken on to the platform itself, where a train was parked, decked out in period advertising.

More colourful characters lurked within the carriages: a gossipy woman doing knitting, and a smooth-talking spiv who promised me two tickets to see "Snakehips" Geraldo at a local dance hall next weekend, besides asking me to vouch for the quality of the material on a pair of parachute knickers.

Yes, this was a hands-on tour and no mistake.

My friend Chris and I started wondering how they must have recruited these actors. 'Must look convincing in tin helmet...know how to handle gas mask...Cockney accent...moderate rhyming slang...jovial countenance essential'.

Smart-eyed readers will observe that the train parked in the platform was rolling stock not from the Piccadilly Line, but the Northern Line. I overheard one of the museum staff saying that this train was still in service as late as 1988. I certainly remember its wooden floors and hard-backed seats from trips to London as a child.

Aldwych only closed in 1994, but it must have been in a pretty dilapidated state even then. The walls and tunnels bear signs of decay that are depressingly long-term.

The platform was kept in darkness during the tour so it was hard to get a true sense of what it must have been like when fully operational - but in a way that wasn't the point, for this was a semi-fictionalised event, not merely a facts-and-figures tour.

The whole thing ended with a montage of sounds depicting an air raid going on above us, followed by a brief attempt at a singalong. Sadly, not many people seemed to know the words to It's A Long Way To Tipperary, but I joined in, as lustily as I dared.

Then it was back up the 160 steps (not as much of an ordeal as it sounds) and out past an array of merchandise including Ministry of Food fudge, which really ought to be brought back (both the fudge and the Ministry of Food).

I've always been intrigued by Aldwych station and to be honest for much of the tour I was walking round with a stupid grin on my face.

Hats off, or rather helmets off, to London Transport Museum, together with London Underground, for devising such a superb way to allow people a glimpse of a bit of a subterranean icon.

Oh, and on the way out we were all handed one of these: a tour guide designed to look like a ration book. The perfect finishing touch.

02 June, 2010

Gospel Oak to... Gospel Oak: An overland circumnavigation

When I laid this blog to rest at the start of last year I tried to make it sound and feel as final as possible, partly for melodramatic reasons but partly to dissuade me of any temptation to keep returning and adding indulgent epilogues or self-defeating updates.

When I decided to ignore all of that and make a slight return to the blog, I knew I had to do it in the guise of something more than just an excuse to make a few partisan points about the state of public transport in London.

So I'm making a few partisan points about the state of public transport in London... with additional photos!

The recent re-opening of the former East London Line, which I last visited a few days before its closure at Christmas 2007, allowed me to do something I'd often speculated upon back when the London Overground was merely a glint in Ken Livingstone's laudably integrationist eye. Namely, a circumnavigation of the city using overland, not underground, services.

Of course, the Overground is still not quite complete; there's a gap between Surrey Quays and Clapham Junction that's a couple of years away from being joined up.

But I saw this as an opportunity, not an obstacle, and besides I hadn't been on one of the spruce new Overground trains since their introduction last year.

They are fantastic. Clean, spacious, quiet and air-conditioned, they are a joy to ride in. The air conditioning was particularly welcome on the day I made my journey, which was one of those lumpen, sticky, not-quite-the-height-of-summer days you get in the capital.

This didn't stop one woman complaining that she was cold, going so far as to assail one of the Overground staff on the matter (who inevitably, but probably correctly, said "There's nothing any of us can do about it").

Oh look, here's that very woman, sitting in clean, spacious, quiet and air-conditioned carriage eating a yoghurt - that's right, a COLD foodstuff:

I took that photo at Dalston Junction, one of the brand new stations on the brand new bit of line that fills in the north east "gap" of the Overground circle, between Dalston and Shoreditch.

It's a smashing building, and to step inside is like entering a giant cool and elegant freezer cabinet.

The other new stations at Haggerston and Hoxton look great as well, while Shoreditch High Street is amazing: a massive concrete hangar that squats above the titular location, into which trains slide as if docking in a futuristic transport hub. Which, of course, it is.

Anyway, I began and ended my circumnavigation at Gospel Oak, Michael Palin's own parish, using the Overground to go to Dalston Kingsland.

Here I had to change trains and cross a couple of roads to get to Dalston Junction - the two won't be connected by rail until next year - from where I got another Overground train all the way down to West Croydon.

I'd never been to Croydon before, and I don't really want to ever go there again. At least, not into the town centre, which was noisy and ugly and uninteresting save for this somewhat grand edifice:

...which is East Croydon station, outside of where I got a tram to continue my clockwise journey round to Wimbledon. The tram service in south-east London is another treat. In fact, trams in any city in any part of Britain in the 21st century are a treat. I sat up the front so I could see through the driver's windows and right down the line.

I love the way these tracks sneaked across roads, around gardens and behind hedges, until suddenly arriving at Wimbledon. The only downside to this leg of the journey was that I was sitting facing an old man and his grandson, and I didn't want to eat my lunch for fear of looking too coarse.

To complete the circle I had to then nip up the main Waterloo line to Clapham Junction, from where the Overground resumes its course round to Willesden Junction, which is an absolute sink of a station.

To be fair, it only exists as an interchange and hence has no reason to entice new passengers in or kick existing ones out. But still. Even its surroundings are rotten:

From there it was on to yet another Overground train, this time one of the old rolling stock, to get back to Gospel Oak.

What was the point of this excursion, arriving at precisely the same place from where I departed?

The point, as ever, was the journey itself, not the destination. The London Overground is a real asset to the city, and all the years of investment and redevelopment have utterly paid off.

I couldn't believe how quickly I was out of my stamping ground of north London and heading through the unfamiliar acres of Forest Hill, Penge and Norwood (the latter only known to me before now by virtue of its setting for a particularly fine Sherlock Holmes story).

When the circle is complete there'll be no need to go as far south as I did, so you won't need to use the trams.

But, as I said earlier, this obstacle is, for the time being, an opportunity for like-minded souls to sample another bit of London's vast public transport network - one whose future, sadly, is in even more peril than when I previously signed off, thanks to the newly-installed coalition axemen.

I suspect the completion of the Overground is too far down the line, literally, for any of its remaining upgrades and additions to be binned off.

But as for the next set of proposed new transport links, not least the incredible Crossrail, I fear Boris Johnson is even now trying to bury them deep enough in his waste paper basket so Ken can't find them come 2012.

22 January, 2009

To the end of To The End Of The Line

A month or so before Christmas I bought a book called The Romance Of London's Underground. I found it in a second-hand bookshop in Buckinghamshire. I think it was published in the early 1930s; there is no date mentioned anywhere in the text, but sounds as if it were written just before the creation of the London Passenger Transport Board (1933).

It's a slightly discoloured publication with stiff pages and a musty smell. The dustjacket disappeared years ago. It is written by somebody called W. J. Passingham. It boasts chapters with titles such as TRAINING THE STAFF and SIGNALLING AND SAFETY DEVICES.

Yet it surpasses all shortcomings on the very first page, in the very first paragraph:

There is beneath the City of London and its gigantic suburbs another world, a complex system of transport - of highways and byways - such as even the most thoughtful among its citizens rarely think upon in terms other than speed and comfort. For the Londoner who walks daily the familiar city streets, the sightseer in search of Romance, and the historian seeking material for posterity is written the story of this underground city and the men who created it.

Those two sentences, for me, sum up all that I love about the Underground. They embody something of what I was attempting, and not really succeeding, to achieve with this blog: a travelogue mixing both fact and sentiment, an account both empirical and subjective, an inventory of motion and emotion.

I wanted to try and record some of what I feel when I use the Underground. I wanted to talk about the way I admire its history, its design, its geography, its personality. I wanted to capture impressions of its overlooked triumphs and all-too-obvious failures. Above all, I wanted to make it feel human, to illuminate its capacity for evoking - often at the same time - melancholy and, yes, romance.

Whether I even came near to that is not for me to say. I wrote this thing to be read, and I'm grateful to those few folk who looked in now and then and left a comment or two.

I enjoyed travelling to every station on the network, despite some of my negative reviews, and even though the whole tour took much longer than expected. Some of the best moments came when I really did get to the end of the line, and found myself in that most eerie of places, the terminus. This always prompted a rich mix of perceptions: the business of lingering somewhere designed for anything but; the act of flinging yourself as far away from the city centre as possible yet still feeling attached; the sight of an Underground train overground in the middle of countryside, or a quiet suburban hollow.

I started this blog when money was pouring into the network and its backers in City Hall were full-throated and fiery. I'm ending it under a regime that seems nonchalant at best, hostile at worst.

I hope the future for the Underground is both safe and sound. I fear that it is neither.

And so to London and down the ever-moving Stairs
Where a warm wind blows the bodies of men together
And blows apart their complexes and cares.
- Louis MacNeice

17 January, 2009

The Hammersmith & City Line

Overlooked and underused. The first by me, the second by everyone.

Welcome to the Hammersmith and City, apparently the next-to-least used line on the entire Underground. That come as no great surprise. It doesn't run to and from anywhere spectacular. It has a horrible colour on the map. Most of the line doubles up other services. The only bit that's independent links two places, Hammersmith and Paddington, that are already well-served by lines.

Above all it suffers from an identity problem - in that it doesn't really have one. It's probably no accident that I left it until last on my tour. I've always treated it as something of minor consequence, for all the reasons given above. The stations it serves exclusively are ones I've never had that much recourse to use. That's not to diminish their respective worth, it's just they suffer from association with a line that, like the Circle, owes its existence to cartography rather than construction engineering.

Bits of it date back to 1863 and were part of the very first Underground service between Paddington and Farringdon. Yet it's only been marked as a separate line on Underground maps for two decades or so. The first version to feature a pink Hammersmith and City Line was published, I think, in 1990. Until then it was officially part of the Metropolitan Line.

I've covered most of this line already: Paddington and Edgware Road; then Baker Street round to Liverpool Street; and finally Aldgate East up to Barking. The one outstanding section, the final piece in the jigsaw, the one bit of London the Hammersmith and City gets all to itself, is from Hammersmith to Royal Oak.

It's a very old section indeed, but also boasts - at the time of writing - the newest station on the entire network.

Tracks were laid here in 1864, when the Metropolitan pushed west from Paddington. For a time you could then travel onwards all the way to Richmond, using a viaduct that linked up to Ravenscourt Part, part of which is supposedly still visible. Nowadays if you want to continue your journey you have to walk from Hammersmith on the pink line to Hammersmith on the purple and green lines, a distance of all of two minutes.

If you were standing equidistant between the two buildings, mulling over which would get you to, say, King's Cross St Pancras the quickest, what would you choose?

Well, there are marginally less stations lying between your embarkation and your destination on the Hammersmith & City (11, compared to the Piccadilly Line's 12) but Piccadilly trains are more frequent. H&C trains are less crowded, but tend to get snarled up in the miasma of interchanges between Paddington and Baker Street. In the summer, H&C trains are cooler and less packed with tourists. They'll also deliver you nearer to your mainline connection at King's Cross. Speed, however, might be the deciding factor. I suspect Piccadilly Line trains are faster, but you'll arrive at your destination flustered and sweating.

I made this journey on what felt like the first night of winter. It was also a day when the media had just started cottoning onto the fact that a recession had begun and they could make money out of hysterical headlines about job losses. Here's Alexander's Barbers at Hammersmith station replete with Obligatory Depictions Of Perfectly Styled Heads plus the Evening Standard at its subtle best:

I sat on a stationary train for 10 minutes. The driver turned up and walked very slowly all the way to the front of the train. Nothing happened for a further three minutes. Finally the train began to crawl away from the platform. I realised that, seeing as how I would be getting off at every single station, taking photos, then waiting for the next service, this would be a very time-consuming journey indeed.

Goldhawk Road was opened a few months before the First World War.

It feels as if it hasn't been properly refurbished since. The platforms on all these H&C stations are desolate, forlorn places. They are all above ground. There are few signs or indicators telling you when the next train will arrive. Instead a disembodied voice tries to reassure you that "an eastbound train has just left Hammersmith" or that "a westbound train will call in xx minutes". On an especially cold and unloved evening, such announcements felt like pointedly small crumbs of comfort.

Shepherd's Bush Market used to be simply Shepherd's Bush until October of last year:

When I was there I noticed several notices inside the station explaining what had happened should any passengers still be confused. It's a cosy, compact building, but I'm not sure why its name wasn't changed long ago to avoid duplication with the Central Line. Instead it had to wait until the opening of the all-new, hugely-spectacular...

Wood Lane. Now this is a station. A glorious one, all told. It's only been open three months, but already people have found stuff to complain about, mostly the fact there aren't any staff selling tickets. But that's nothing compared to the way that, like all stations built in the 1930s or since the late 1990s and unlike every other single station on the Underground, it demands to be looked at. And photographed in a puddle.

A brand new Underground station that commands your attention in such graciously stylised fashion is a wonderful thing to behold. Plus it's opposite the greatest building in the world, BBC Television Centre. Come on Mark Thompson, you can't flog off the place now!

At Latimer Road something happened that was unique to my entire trip around the Underground: a member of the public took issue with me taking a photograph.

This wasn't the first time I'd been accosted; there was that security guard at the Piccadilly Line Hammersmith station. But it was the first time an ordinary punter had come up, asked what I was doing and told me, in a tone that was dangerously close to aggressive, that I better not have taken a photo of themselves. I went into default nerd reaction, pleading a bit pathetically "I'm taking pictures of stations - just stations!" while trying to sound as useless and inoffensive as possible. I don't think he was convinced. He gave me the evil eye and repeated his warning about not wanting his photo taken. A few anxious seconds passed. I wasn't sure what to do. There were loads of people milling around but nobody seemed bothered. Thankfully he suddenly turned away and moved off. I felt stupid for feeling shaken. I'd done nothing wrong - had I? Suffice it to say, said person is not in this photo:

At the next station, Ladbroke Grove, a policeman appeared curious about my activities. What was going on? Why all this sudden interest?

The station has been through numerous name changes and shopkeepers are currently trying to effect another one, so it becomes Portobello Road: a logical move given its closeness to the titular market.

Both Westbourne Park...

...and Royal Oak...

...share tracks with the mainline services in and out of Paddington. They feel even more unwelcoming than their predecessors, shorn of all but the most rudimentary of Hammersmith and City identities. By this point, all Underground trains were packed to bursting. It was the rush hour, but just as many people seemed to be heading into London as out of it.

I trundled into Paddington with my face pressed up against some dirty glass. It certainly felt, in my case, like the end of the line.

11 January, 2009

The Circle Line

How to write about a line that doesn't exist, but whose stations you have - to a man - nonetheless visited?

(Clockwise: Tower Hill-Westminster; St James's Park-Gloucester Road; High Street Kensington-Edgware Road; Baker Street-Aldgate)

I thought I should give a nod to the Circle Line, not least for its status as aesthetically the most distinctive element of the Underground map. By virtue of its geography, it's become the latterday equivalent of the old City of London wall, albeit (mostly) just below the earth's surface.

When I look at the Underground map I subconsciously treat everything within the Circle Line as belonging to the city centre, and therefore - if I'm feeling particularly misanthropic - to be avoided. A number of times I've deliberately chosen routes to places that avoid this area entirely, often utilising the increasingly reliable Overground service. This is because I class the Circle Line and what it encloses as being part of work, not pleasure. If I can help it, I'd rather not step foot beyond that yellow stockade when I'm not doing my job.

There's a mindset that operates on the Underground within the boundaries of the Circle Line. It's that of the tourist-cum-worker. It's that of the no-time-to-stop-and-think, must-get-to-my-destination-at-all-costs, always-room-for-one-more-person-inside-this-already-full-to-bursting-carriage sort of person. That's fine if you're a visitor or an employee. If you're a resident or a traveller, staying above ground is always the better option.

If I find I have to visit somewhere within, what for fares purposes, is called Zone 1, I'd rather get off at one of the boundary stations and simply walk the rest of the way.

Indeed, when I worked in Soho, I'd always get off my train at Euston and complete the journey on foot. I came to look forward to this stroll, especially as it took me through the quiet back streets of Bloomsbury, at that time of the morning affably quiet and stylistically fascinating. I miss not having the chance to do it now, though I still, when I have the time, get off the Underground a few stops early and finish my commute by pavement.

That's not to say I never use the Circle Line. If you want to move sideways through the capital, are not near the Central Line, are in no mood for dawdling on foot and are too tired to contemplate any other kind of transport, it's the most straightforward way of sliding east to west and vice versa.

Except, of course, you're not actually using a single purpose, self-contained line.

The Circle shares all its tracks, save for two short stretches between Aldgate and Tower Hill and High Street Kensington and Gloucester Road, with other lines. The bulk of its southern half is duplicated by the District; most of its top half is used by the Hammersmith and City AND the Metropolitan. To this extent, it doesn't exist. It is a line created by cartographers, not engineers.

The titular circle grew out of expediency. Bits of it were built individually, with no intention to be linked into a loop. Different companies completed different stretches, beginning with Farringdon to Paddington. Those stretches creeped in either direction, but with no urgency. The circle took over 20 years to complete, finally becoming one entity in 1884.

But even then it wasn't formally identified as a circle, in the form of a separately-coloured, separately-named line, until 1949. Before then, maps simply showed the respective Metropolitan and District services (although from 1947 a circle of sorts had been denoted by the addition of a thick black border along the route). It had long been informally known as the Inner Circle, but this was never given official sanction.

At the time of writing, this non-existent line will shortly become properly non-existent once again. As early as December of this year, the Circle may become part of a Hammersmith and City Line spiral that begins in Hammersmith, runs to Paddington (along the route of the current Hammersmith and City) and then does a complete loop of the current Circle Line ending at Edgware Road.

I'll talk more about the Hammersmith and City Line shortly. But if this plan comes to pass, and it has been confirmed by the manager of the Circle and Hammersmith and City Lines, it will constitute a logical reconciliation of what has, cartographically-speaking, been a 60-year illogical quirk.

I would not miss the Circle Line in its present form. A rationalising in the shape of a merger with the Hammersmith and City would, in theory, mean smoother services and a more predictable timetable. At present, you cannot rely on Circle Line trains to actually do what their name implies. Orbital services have in-built problems. One single delay can have a terrible knock-on effect. Synchronising with those services running as District, Metropolitan and Hammersmith and City trains is an additional nightmare.

As such you'll be lucky to have a smooth journey around the loop. You're usually guaranteed fairly uninterrupted passage between Baker Street and Aldgate, and between Tower Hill and Victoria. But any route that ventures beyond these stretches will always involve a delay: FACT. You could well end up sitting for at least five minutes at High Street Kensington or Edgware Road, while there's no point assuming anything speedy about Aldgate. If your journey takes you through this station, you must always factor in an extra 10 minutes.

At the end of the day it's all to do with timing. The Circle currently runs seven trains in each direction at seven-minute intervals, with a notional complete circuit mathematically designed to take 49 minutes. But it doesn't. Because of those synchronisations with other lines. Because of mishaps. Because of unexpected delays. And so on.

Unspooling the circle and turning it into a spiral would remove much (but not all) of these inconveniences. I hope it goes ahead, and goes ahead soon. If it stops people treating it like a reason to have fun, then that alone will have been worthwhile.

How to write about a line that doesn't exist, but whose stations you have - to a man - nonetheless visited? In a rambling, hesistant, unpredictable fashion that doesn't, ultimately, go anywhere. Just like the line itself.