30 December, 2007

Piccadilly Line: South Kensington - Acton Town

You begin to shake off the tourists on this stretch of the Piccadilly. You also shake off the ground itself.

The line breaks cover just before Barons Court. I feel the same thing every time this happens, anywhere on the network. It's a sense of escape, a sort of liberation. The sprawl of the city centre is behind and away from you. Ahead is the open air, the suburbs, and space. And, of course, places you can take photos of without having to schlep up and down escalators all the time.

All the stations on this stretch have counterparts on the District Line, and it was for the District - or rather the Metropolitan Railway, or the Metropolitan District Railway, or the Great Northern, Piccadilly & Brompton Railway, or the London and South Western Railway, and so on and on - that all of them were founded.

So none are technically Piccadilly stations. Their histories are bound up with that aformentioned jumble of erstwhile multi-named companies and conglomerates, dating back to the 1860s. The Piccadilly only turned up in 1906, and then only as far as Hammersmith. It wasn't until the 1930s that the likes of Acton Town joined the line.

As such, passing this way and photographing the stations as members of the Piccadilly family is, I guess, somewhat disingenuous. That's my way of saying I'm not going to bother much with the histories of the buildings and leave that for when I write about the District Line. Meanwhile here are half a dozen west London destinations snapped, as usual, in varying stages of daylight and nighttime, becoming evermore ornate and everless populous.

Gloucester Road is worth loitering in awhile, in order to check out the art installations that take up the whole of the disused platorm 4.

Anybody with little English and even less patience will have a torrid time at Earl's Court, a brilliantly sprawling junction with bits of the District line sprouting off in all directions where there's no telling what train will be passing your way next. It's still got these fantastic old-style multi-purpose destination boards as well. But I realise I'm talking about the District line and the Piccadilly has nothing to do with them at all, so instead here's an interesting (well, I think so) view from the station's Warwick Road entrance.

Come Barons Court and you're above ground, with the Piccadilly and District line tracks running side by side. The building is Grade II listed. I took this photo, along with the other night ones here, after work in the week before Christmas.

I always wonder what people must think of this weird bloke standing outside Underground stations taking photos of them without their permission. Yet nobody has ever come up to me and said anything, or enquired what I was doing, or asked me to stop. Nobody, that is, until I got to Hammersmith.

I only realised this afterwards, but in this photo you can actually see the security man who's about to ask me to put my camera away. He's the one walking towards the lens, in the blue anorak, right in the middle of the shot.

He didn't give me any valid reason for not being able to take a photo. It wasn't like I was even anywhere near the station entrance itself, as you can see. So much for festive spirit.

I took these last two photos during the week after Christmas, one wintry afternoon when I was feeling ill and continually eating Strepsils.

Piccadilly Line trains don't call at Turnham Green most times, only stopping in the early morning and late evening. Although it doesn't look like it here, the flower seller was doing an OK trade for the time of day (and year).

Notice anything familiar about Acton Town?

Recognise that 1930s-ish minimalist art deco-esque look? Yup, we're back in the world of Charles Holden, with stations meant to be looked up at rather than just passed down through. I suspect there'll be a fair bit more of this as the Piccadilly shakes itself free of the District line and strikes north towards Sudbury.

29 December, 2007

Piccadilly Line: Covent Garden - South Kensington

There can't be many other stretches of the Underground which boast such a concentrated sequence of landmarks to their name.

No wonder this is one of the busiest parts of the whole network. No wonder it's better to walk overground between most of these stations rather than put yourself through a few minutes of crush-carriage hell. No wonder these stations not only feel but most definitely look a century old.

One that I forgot to mention last time, and which isn't quite so busy - mainly because it doesn't exist anymore - is Aldwych. It's not been closed that long, comparatively; it shut in 1994 after ever decreasing usage and ever increasing costs. It was a route to nowhere, forming one end of a stub of a branch line that spewed off north of Covent Garden. Originally it was to be the southern terminus of the Great Northern and Strand Railway, running from Finsbury Park in the north, under King's Cross station, to a point near The Strand. But the concoction of the Piccadilly Line put pay to all that.

I'm not sure I miss it that much. It always looked out of place on the Underground map. It didn't fit into the logic of Harry Beck's original diagram, appearing squat and ugly. It didn't seem sensible to have a branch line going nowhere right in the middle of London. It didn't even serve a part of the city barren with Underground stations.

Still, it's one of the most easily located disused stations in the city, bearing its original name 'Strand'. And it's always turning up on TV and in films, whenever 'Generic Underground Station' is required, so it's not entirely redundant.

South of Covent Garden and Leicester Square, where I've been before...

...is Piccadilly Circus: a swaggering ogre of a station, none of which lies above ground, but which rolls majestically in a giant circle just under the titular thoroughfare.

The cavernous complex is a fantastic creation, unsurprisingly the work of Charles Holden (though the old, above ground booking hall, closed in 1929, was Leslie Green's handiwork), around which flock folk from all corners of the globe, defiantly pushing train tickets into incorrect slots, filming everything on camcorders, and shouting. It's a mini-tornado down there. I've never been inside the station and not felt half-swept up by a torrent of bodies bobbing and weaving non-stop around and around and around.

Beyond Green Park, another old friend, of which there will only be more as this project continues...

...lurks another disused station, but with nowhere near the pedigree of Aldwych. Down Street was axed in 1932, briefly sparking back to life during the Second World War when Churchill and his War Cabinet used it as an air-raid shelter. It seems to have been something of a folly from the start, though, as it was built in an area (Mayfair) where the residents were too posh to want to use the Underground and just that bit too close to its neighbouring stops.

The surface building, another Leslie Green creation, is still standing, albeit shorn of its original purpose. Just like that of its neighbour, Hyde Park Corner:

Green's entrance hall is now a pizza restaurant. This station is, boringly, entirely below ground.

As you'd expected, entering and existing Knightsbridge is a right roustabout. Especially the entrance right next to Harrods.

All the stations on this stretch of the line were opened almost exactly 100 years ago. There's little of the original Knightsbridge nowadays, thanks to an apprently unending attempt to render it more fit for coping with batteries of consumers charging for bargains.

The tunnels between Knightsbridge and South Kensington allegedly follow such a twisting route to avoid a 17th Century plague pit. Lurking in their depths is yet another ghost station: Brompton Road. Despite proving convenient for the eponymous Oratory and the Victoria and Albert Museum, it was pretty much ignored once Knightsbridge station started expanding, and was duly boarded up in 1934.

So to South Kensington, where the Piccadilly aligns itself with one of the oldest Underground routes in the capital (the District), duplicating and stealing stops from this and other lines all the way out to Ealing and beyond. There's been a station here since 1868, the Piccadilly arriving in 1906 in its initial guise as the Great Northern, Piccadilly & Brompton Railway running between Finsbury Park and Hammersmith.

The new platforms needed a new building, which meant the existing, dazzling entrance...

...had a bit of Leslie Green ruby brick artistry bunged on the back.

As nice as South Kensington is, there's a huge case to be made for having a new station in this part of London, one that would mean you wouldn't have to walk miles through dripping, gloomy passages to get anywhere near to the Royal Albert Hall, the Royal College of Music, Hyde Park and Kensington Palace. It could be called Kensington Gore, or even just Albert Hall. Anyone standing for Mayor who put this in their manifesto would romp home.

22 December, 2007

Piccadilly Line: Manor House - Covent Garden

I make these journeys as and when I can. Sometimes, as is obvious from the dates of some the entries, weeks will go by when I just don't have time to write anything. But that doesn't always mean I'm not out photographing.

I made a point, for instance, of travelling the length of the East London Line a few days ago, all too aware that it shuts for good just before Christmas. In fact it shuts this very day, 22nd December.

As the year has gone on I've also collected photos in twos and threes when the opportunity arises, such as trips to unlikely places for work-related things, or brief forays along nearby lines after office hours.

The longer I continue this blog, the more the entries will reflect this pick and mix approach to capturing the whole of the Underground on film. I can't help it. It's the only way, I think, I'll ever get to the end. And so my account of this particular stretch of the Piccadilly Line is made up of photos taken on two separate occasions, separated by six months. It was winter north of King's Cross; summer when I travelled south.

I've come to enjoy visiting stations in the dusk, or in fading light; it enhances their romantic, eerie quality, and paints them increasingly as ports in a storm or beacons of light amidst a mass of flat, featureless darkness.

South of Manor Park, and also Finsbury Park - which I visited back on one of the hottest days of the year - are three stations I passed through on one of the coldest, as the light was starting to dim. All opened on the same day: 15th December 1906.

At Arsenal it was gloomy but still, ostensibly, daytime:

It was originally called Gillespie Road, switching to its current name in 1932 after a campaign led by the then Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman. When I was there a match was in progress at the nearby Emirates Stadium and police were everywhere. At the same time you could see the cranes at work dismantling the old Highbury stadium, towering over houses like they were in their back garden.

I couldn't believe how far you have to walk to get from the platform to the exit and vice versa; then I realised there are no escalators or lifts inside the station at all. It's a real slog to make your way through the seemingly endless winding tunnel and up into fresh air. Equally it's difficult to resist the temptation to run down the tunnel when making the trek in the opposite direction.

Both Holloway Road and Caledonian Road were designed by Leslie Green and bear his trademark ruby tiling. What with Charles Holden's 1930s extravaganzas north of Finsbury Park and Green's work below, the Piccadilly line must surely boast the most beautifully-styled stations of the whole network.

You can see the same architecture on the disused remains of York Road station, which also opened in December 1906 as one of the original stops on the-then Great Northern, Piccadilly & Brompton Railway.

Being so close to King's Cross it was never in great use, and Sunday services were stopped just 12 years after its opening. The whole place shut down for good in 1932, but Liberal Democrats on Islington council advocated the reopening of the station in their 2006 local election manifesto, and apparently at least one candidate for the Islington Conservative Party has spoken out in favour of its return.

It'd certainly be very easy to add back to the Underground map: there's acres of room south of Caledonian Road. With much of the original building still standing it'd probably be fairly simple to restore to active service. A cost-plus analyis, however, would probably suggest an unsustainably low level of use.

I looked in on King's Cross St Pancras again since I was last there in the summer, and of course it is now an architectural marvel. One of the new entrances:

The stunning renovated roof:

Our old friend John Betjeman:

And some of the man's great words:

Rewind back to the summer, when I was photographing the likes of Goodge Street and Tottenham Court Road. Russell Square, Holborn and Covent Garden are again all the handiwork of Leslie Green. Russell Square is a gem, beautifully preserved and, you suspect, rather under-appreciated by the millions of tourists who seem to be particularly prevalent at the station, presumably because of the dozens and dozens of tiny hotels and bed and breakfast in the area:

By contrast Holborn has lost most of its charm and also half of its original name: Holborn (Kingsway):

Covent Garden is an appallingly overcrowded place and seems to have always been that way. I can't recall ever not finding the station heaving with people and a tangible hysteria in the air. At least much of Green's original edifice still stands, despite struggling to call attention to itself amongst the multitude of market stalls, street entertainers and people walking in their own worlds:

It's apparently fine to have this and Leicester Square station both in operation despite being a five-minute walk apart, yet the idea of having York Road and King's Cross (a further distance) both up and running would be laughed out of court. Ah well...

30 November, 2007

Piccadilly Line: Cockfosters - Manor House

It's felt like I've spent half the year finishing off the Metropolitan. As such it's nice to get started on a fresh line, especially as it's one I've been looking forward to for ages.

The reason for that is the fact this first stretch of the Piccadilly is, I think, unique by virtue of its stations being entirely the product of one man's spectacular mind. The designer Charles Holden was responsible for every single one of the buildings between Cockfosters and Manor House. They were all opened in the space of twelve months from 1932-33. Several are Grade II listed structures.

Together they comprise the most stunningly realised, architecturally coherant set of stations I've encountered so far. Each and every one is a delight. Each and every one is far, far more than a stub on an Underground map. They represent quite possibly the closest anyone has come to repeatedly marrying splendour with utility in the ostensibly functional world of public transport.

Cockfosters sets the style: a European-inspired, Art Deco-esque appearance, centred around brick, glass and reinforced concrete, with loads of neat straight lines, cubes and crisply tailored furnishings. Plenty of glass allows natural light to dive deep into the premises.

This isn't your run-of-the-mill terminus: this one feels spacious, welcoming and optimstic, rather than cluttered, gloomy, the end of the road, a blunt and uncompromising full stop. There's no confusion over where to get the first train heading west. It's just been refurbished and renovated. It is wonderful.

Oakwood has a more prominent trademark Holden feature: the cavernous ticket hall, making you feel like you've arrived at an airport or bus depot. Especially when the lights are on inside, and dusk is falling outside:

In the station car park, meanwhile, there's this stunning, eerily-futuristic beacon beaming out to passers-by. I especially like the illuminated bit at the bottom; it really ought to rotate to complete the magic.

Southgate looks like a giant spinning top. It's also not clear, from the outside, how the thing actually holds itself together: where, for instance, is the support for that striking whatchamacallit sitting right on the top?

Everything pales, though, when you reach the next station: the majestic, shimmering Arnos Grove:

What is is about this building that is inexhaustably, unambiguously, spectacular? I really can't beat Jonathan Glancey's description:

"In my imagination, I see Holden's great drum starting to revolve, and then spin as if designed, like some great centrifuge, to draw in commuters from the suburban homes all around it, together with their cases, rucksacks and shopping bags, their umbrellas, furtive hoods and mobile phones, their paperbacks, laptops and newspapers, their brow-furrowing concerns, daydreams and season tickets. In reality, I can't help hoping that this king, queen and all princes of a metro station raises at least one commuter's spirit each day as he or she passes into and out of what remains one of the finest of all 20th-century buildings."

It's one of The Guardian's 12 greatest modern buildings, and rightly so. When you go inside, it's like entering Aladdin's cave, or Santa's grotto. There's just something fundamentally transforming about Arnos Grove. Why, even shortlived cable TV-only late-1990s BBC channel UK Play transmitted a short, eulogising documentary about the place.

Next down the line, Bounds Green is the only station not to have been realised directly by Holden. Instead his collaborator C.H. James designed the nuts and bolts from a template established by his esteemed colleague. Again, it's fantastic stuff. An octagon, for heaven's sake!

Both this and the next station in line, Wood Green, have been the target of bombings. Historical bombings, that is. Bounds Green was damaged by a German bomb in World War Two, which killed 17. An IRA bomb exploded at Wood Green in 1976, injuring one.

A man in a jester's hat was leaving the station when I was there. He was oblivious to everybody and, such is the British way, everybody was oblivious of him.

The splendour never lets up. Turnpike Lane is blessed with a mammoth tower that allows light to penetrate far into the ticket hall.

While Manor House is perhaps most notable for boasting no fewer than nine entrances, encouraging you to believe it is entirely below street level:

Named after nearby pub, it was at one point slated for transfer to the Victoria Line. Instead it stayed put and remains, depending on which way you're heading, either the first or last in a chain of overground Underground gems.

Quite simply, to view and visit them is to raise not just your spirits, but your belief in people's ability to fashion miracles out of the mundane.

31 October, 2007

Metropolitan Line: Harrow-on-the-Hill - Uxbridge

This one, final branch of the Metropolitan spools out through a chain of pointedly well-kept, purposefully low-key settlements and suburbs.

All of the stations, apart from the terminus, were pretty much deserted when I passed this way. It was late on a Saturday afternoon, and dusk was creeping in. Nobody seemed much gripped by an enthusiasm to travel anywhere local. Groups of teenagers were heading into London for the night; groups of shoppers were heading back home to Uxbridge. In-between, little happened.

This was the last stretch of the Metropolitan to be built, in 1904. Many of its stops weren't added for several years. One didn't materialise for almost two decades. The whole branch has a sparse, uncluttered feel. Nobody travels this way out of pleasure.

West Harrow didn't become a station until nearly 10 years after the line arrived. Unashamedly small, it feels almost apologetic for existing.

Nonetheless it can play host to the most spectacular of sunsets.

Rayners Lane, its neighbour, is the point at which the Piccadilly line, heading up from Sudbury, joins the Metropolitan and shares its tracks all the way to Uxbridge.

When it opened the place was called Rayners Lane Halt, and served a few scattered village cottages and little else. Harrow Garden Village slowly washed up around it, and the station was finally remade in the 1930s by Charles Holden, whose buildings I've met before, and who made sure to stamp his signature motifs - the flat roof, the geometric shapes, the glass ticket hall - here as elsewhere.

By necessity it's a sprawling place, but not especially bustling, the trains shunting to and fro at their own pace with little sense of wanting to go anywhere. Well, to go anywhere fast. The sun was sinking low when I stopped off, casting the whole place into deep, sentimental shadow.

Eastcote is also Charles Holden's handiwork, bordered, as seems so often to be the case along this line, by tiny antiquated-looking businesses and musty corner shops that nobody goes in.

Ruislip Manor is the same, albeit lacking the grandeur its name implies.

Ruislip was, for a time, the only stop between Harrow and Uxbridge and has, perhaps understandably, more of the look and feel of a proper branch line station than its predecessors:

Ickenham was the next to open in chronological terms, but you wouldn't think it surveying its dismal structure today. The building was completely demolished and rebuilt in the 1970s. It's surely one of the grottiest and most unwelcoming edifices on the whole Metropolitan line.

Except for the platforms, that is:

Hillingdon was the last stop to be added to this branch of the line and therefore the last new station to be added to the Metropolitan in its entirety.

It spent two decades loitering under the name of Hillingdon (Swakeleys), and is still referred to as such on signs on the platforms. Its present condition, though, is far removed from its antecedent, and literally so. In 1992 an entirely new version of Hillingdon station was opened, south of the original, to enable the A40 to be expanded and re-routed. As such you can now stand on the platform and, rather eerily, watch one of London's major arterial roads rumble beneath you. It's a fantastically designed place, full of gleaming corridors and giant walkways that won it the title of Underground Station of the Year 1992, but which seem utterly at odds with its location out in the middle of nowhere, hard to reach, and next to a dual carriageway.

Finally, then, to Uxbridge, where the Metropolitan came to rest on 4th July 1904, a little way to the north of where the station is today. Its present form is another Holden creation, topped off by a pair of sculptures over the entrance depicting giant mechanical wheels with leaf springs.

It's a cavernous, rather impressive place, totally at odds with its immediate surroundings - Uxbridge's noisy, ramshackle shopping precinct - and, with its stained glass and canopy roof, seems to have arrived straight from another age.

And that was it. The end of the Metropolitan line. No more tiny branches to investigate, no more dead ends to explore, no more Metro-land lingering over the horizon. It felt like an epic trek was concluding in, as usual, a profoundly underwhelming fashion. Uxbridge town centre, despite once being the setting for Press Gang - the best children's TV series ever - was no gold at the end of the rainbow. The value of this excursion had been the journey itself, not the arrival at a destination. All change, please. All change.

13 October, 2007

Metropolitan Line: Moor Park - Amersham

This stretch of the London Underground, being neither in London nor underground, exists in a world of its own.

It bears none of the symbols of the rest of the network: crowded carriages, gruff commuters, regular services, and mile upon mile of darkness. Instead it operates at a pace and in a manner entirely divorced from its parent.

Trains are infrequent. Carriages are almost empty. You can sit in a station for ages, entirely at the whim of whoever is - or isn't - at the controls. And you pass through landscape so beautiful and undisturbed as to suggest you aren't so much in a different county but a different country.

North of Moor Park the line divides yet again, with one branch curling off towards Watford. To ride this service is like taking a Sunday afternoon excursion along a miniature railway. You pass through fields and forest, with trees bending right over the line to form a dense tunnel of foliage. I saw foxes, hares and squirrels alongside the track. It really is as far removed from any notion of an Underground railway as it's possible to get. Here's a photo of the line I took from a bridge outside Croxley station:

The Metropolitan reached here in 1925. Initially the station was named after the village: Croxley Green, a charming place and thoroughly, unashamedly, rural. It reverted to its present title after the Second World War.

The Herfordshire countryside intrudes right onto the platforms:

After Croxley it's but a few miles and minutes to Watford, though the station, such as it is, is no way a direct link to the town. It sits far out on the edge of the suburbs and resembles, much like Mill Hill East, a terminus by default. Originally the line was to have continued into the town centre, and recently plans have been revived to try and achieve just that. For the time being, though, it's a curious cul-de-sac into an unlikely port in the middle of nowhere.

If you take the other branch from Moor Park you're following mainline services towards Buckinghamshire. As late as 1961, Rickmansworth station was the point at which Metropolitan line trains bound for London switched from steam to electric locomotives. Up until then, if you wanted to travel north of here you'd find yourself being decoupled from your swish diesel service to a wheezing, hissing steam engine hailing from the back end of 19th century. Electrification of the line was seen as less of a priority, clearly, in this backwater of the Underground.

Rickmansworth, like many of its neighbours, seems to pride itself on its horticultural exhibitionism, and so it should:

Chorleywood, meanwhile...

...is even more at one with nature:

By now I was passing through stations that felt untouched for over 100 years, where the arrival of a train seemed almost an inconvenience, disturbing the tranquil inertia and unapologetic calm.

Chalfont and Latimer opened in 1889 to serve the numerous similarly-named, quaintly-titled Chiltern outcrops of Chalfont St Giles, Chalfont St Peter and Little Chalfont. Entering the station was like going through the door of a village hall.

Here the line divides yet another time, offering a choice of destinations: Chesham or Amersham. Chesham is a dead end, served during the day by a desultory four-carriage train that goes back and forth, back and forth every half hour or so. It's possibly the least integrated example of public transport on the whole network. The train leaves when it feels like it and arrives likewise. I sat on it in Chalfont and Latimer for 25 minutes before it moved an inch.

Chesham itself, opened in 1889, is a real end of the line place. It has the longest distance between adjacent stops on the entire London Underground, and is the most westerly station there is.

Unmanned, somewhat ill-kept and not a place to want to linger, its only appeal - when I was there - was its view across the Chess valley towards the rest of Buckinghamshire.

Its neighbour, Amersham, is the resting place of all through-services on the Metropolitan. By dint of being on a mainline route it's nowhere near as disheartening as Chesham, but you're still at the mercies of the system as to when the next London-bound train will be leaving. When I was there, campaigners were handing out leaflets to try and stop the planned closure of the ticket office.

I might have had more sympathy for them had they not made the central point of their argument the rather fusty claim that the Oyster card was "complicated". It's nothing of the sort!

As John Betjeman took great trouble to point out, the Metropolitan didn't always end here. Originally services continued, on to Great Missenden, Wendover, Stoke Mandeville and Aylesbury (up to 1961), and also beyond, even further into Buckinghamshire, to Waddesdon Manor, Quainton Road, Granborough Road, Winslow Road, and Verney Junction (up to 1936).

The latter was conceived by captains of industry to be one of the great interchanges of the country, on a par with Crewe or Clapham, with trains from the north joining the Metropolitan to rush all the way down to London, through the city, onto the coast and, spectacularly, under the sea to France.

Such ambition seems preposterous nowadays, at a time when it takes almost 20 years to merely get agreement to build a single new railway to run from the west of the capital to the east. But at least those engineers and planners had the inclination to dream.

They also had the foresight and willpower to extend the Metropolitan deep, deep into the shires outside London, thereby allowing the city's residents and workers an ongoing chance to escape into the restorative meadows of Metro-land.