25 June, 2007

Victoria Line: Finsbury Park - Green Park

When I was growing up in the 1980s, my parents used to take me and my sister on trips to London to visit an old work friend of my mum. She lived in Highbury, hence her local Underground station was Highbury and Islington. It was for a very long time, after King's Cross St Pancras (where our train into London would terminate), the only Underground station I really knew. Even venturing one stop further north to Finsbury Park was a no-go.

As such I took lasting intricate mental pictures of Highbury and Islington, the kind you do when you're 9 or 10 years old, to the extent that when I revisited it for this journey, despite not having set foot in it for decades, I remembered the design and layout eerily well.

I have particularly vivid memories of being intrigued by the platform adjacent to the Victoria Line one, which we never used but of which I forever caught glimpses through connecting tunnels. This was, and still is, the old Northern City Line, about which I've talked when I visited Moorgate, and which back then was run by British Rail.

The fact it's adjacent to the Victoria Line platforms is testament to the logic applied to Highbury and Islington when the station was reconfigued to incorporate the Victoria Line. It's a brilliant interchange all round, really, with the mainline service on adjacent platforms to the Victoria Line both north and southbound, plus an easy link to the Silverlink North London Line, which this year will become - excitingly - the London Overground.

Anyway, the current entrance to Highbury and Islington hails from the opening of the Victoria Line in 1968 and has little merit:

The original 1872 station, however, still stands in all its splendour on the opposite side of the road:

At the time of writing, King's Cross St Pancras is even more of a mess than usual. Ironically the entrance to the Underground is one of the few bits that's actually fairly tidy.

Work has obviously picked up apace ahead of the fixed opening of St Pancras International in November, and now there's an even more tortuous route from the mainline station to the Underground. What there is to see of the renovated building, however, looks monumentally stunning.

Similar Herculean work is scheduled to begin at Euston soon, to construct a sensible and long-needed tunnel between it and the nearby Euston Square station, hence enabling a simple, if long, connection between the Victoria/Northern lines and the Circle/Metropolitan/Hammersmith & City lines.

Both of these stations, and the next - Warren Street - I've already visited on the Northern Line. As this blog goes on, more of these duplications will inevitably arise. I can't think of anything else to say about Warren Street except the new University College Hospital building opposite is superb.

Saturday afternoon outside Oxford Circus station is one of the worst places in the world.

It seems there was never not a time when this insidious interchange wasn't overcrowded, or in a state of renovation, ever since its opening in 1900. Intriguingly, during the expansion to accommodate the Victoria Line in the 1960s, a large bridge-like edifice was built over the Regent Street/Oxford Street junction, over which all traffic was diverted for five years. Despite being such an iconic and ostensibly flagship station, you take your life in your hands when you enter during the rush hour. Some of the corridors bear posters from the late 1980s.

Green Park is only marginally less busy, but gains points for boasting an acoustic guitar-wielding busker every weekday morning who plays, among other things, the theme from The Deer Hunter.

It was first opened in 1906, called Dover Street. The name was changed in 1933 when new entrances were added on the south side of Piccadilly, thereby allowing you to exit and be inside the titular park within seconds. All I can say is that this nearness to nature is a blessed relief when you're emerging, always hot and usually bothered, from the Victoria Line of a workday morning.

20 June, 2007

Victoria Line: Walthamstow Central - Finsbury Park

Pertinent Truths about the Victoria Line:

- its trains don't have drivers - it is the only Underground line never to emerge above ground - it is the line with the highest proportion of interchanges (all stations bar one are connecting with something or other) - it was originally going to be called the Walvic Line - it is ridiculously, relentlessly, hot

This last point is the most obvious to the seasoned traveller and one-off visitor alike. During the summer a journey on a Victoria Line train, whether crowded or empty, is like stepping inside a mobile stove. Air quality is appalling. Air conditioning is non-existent. It's downright horrible at times. But even in winter the temperature is unseasonably high. In fact, I have never not left a Victoria Line train, regardless of the time of year, sweating and desperate for air.

The trains haven't been replaced since the line opened in 1968. Given their age the carriages' infrastructure is holding up well, but the decor is woefully uncomfortable. If you choose one of the inward facing pews, as opposed to the segmented seats, you invariably end up bouncing around like you're sitting on a trampoline, especially when your train hits top speed.

Which will happen often, given the line was designed to rush passengers as quickly as possible from the outskirts to the centre of the city. Hence the way it only takes six stations to get from one side of Zone 1 to the other.

All of these gripes might very well disappear when the 43 1967 vintage trains are replaced with a new fleet in 2009. In its day, however, the Victoria Line was a marvel: the first automatic (i.e. non-driven) railway in the world and much needed relief for the Piccadilly Line in carrying people from NE to SW London.

Top of the line is Walthamstow Central.

It all looks very impressive on the outside, as befits an entrance done up in 2006; inside, however, it seems bits of the station haven't been, well, finished. At all. The platform ceilings are still unpainted from when the place opened to the public on 1st September 1968. Worse is the fact there is no standby escalator to cope when the other two break down (a symptom all too common in Victoria Line stations north of King's Cross).

It's quite a cavernous place, though, as befits a terminus, and as usual there's the exciting dilemma facing the passenger of choosing the right platform from which a southbound train will leave first. Chances are you'll climb on one, then sit motionless for 10 minutes.

The top four northern-most Victoria Line stations all opened for business simultaneously. Blackhorse Road is blessed with a less than spectacular entrance:

but a rather striking visualisation of, well, its name:

Tottenham Hale mainline station was renamed from simply Tottenham when the Underground interchange arrived. I like the giant blue box.

Seven Sisters, meanwhile, was named after a septet of elms reportedly planted in the 1300s, and has the most ethnically diverse postcode in the European Union.

The ensuing section of the line is the longest between sequential stations in deep level tunnels on the whole network. The frazzled passenger ultimately emerges blinking into the grim lights of...

Finsbury Park. This station is a menace. Aside from the sensible alignment of Victoria and Piccadilly Line services (you change from one to the other by simply walking onto an adjacent platform), everything else about Finsbury Park is designed to hinder rather than help the traveller.

There are no escalators or lifts to reach the platforms; instead there's an endless, pitiless winding tunnel, along which punters ebb and flow, being buffeted, barged, jostled and, more often than not, robbed. It's very easy to get carried along with the tide of people and miss the turning onto your platform completely.

Moreover there are no ticket barriers at the station whatsoever. People surge in and out of Finsbury Park with no attempt at regulation or authorisation. Then there are the bolted-on exits to the mainline station, which itself is a conundrum of platforms, by virtue of having passed through numerous conflicting owners since opening in 1861. Finally there's not one but two sprawling bus stations outside.

It's not a place you'd want to linger long, but woe betide if you happen to get caught in a mob of people surging one way or the other. If you don't have your wits about you, you'll never end up where you want to go.

17 June, 2007

Northern Line: Kennington - Morden

I'd hoped that, rather like what to me is the top end of the Northern Line, the bottom end would also be largely above ground and blessed by a sequence of personable, quiet suburban stations.

Instead it's entirely below ground save for 15 measly seconds' travelling time. For someone charged with the self-appointed task of hopping on and off trains in order to pop in and out of every station, the prospect of almost a dozen round trips on soot-lined escalators via almost a dozen dirt-blown warm-to-baking platforms was not a welcome one. I thought the reason why there are so few lines running south of the Thames was because of the poor composition of the earth - yet here was a line remaining stubbornly out of daylight until almost journey's end.

In fact if you count the Northern Line's submersion between Morden and East Finchley as a continuous excavation, you have one of the longest tunnels in the world: 17.25 miles. I'm still picking the black snot out of my nose now.

Anyway, at least those near-dozen soot-lined escalators almost wholly conform to this brilliantly preserved art deco style of lighting:

And it'd be churlish to not admit some of the most strikingly-ornate stations of - I suspect - the entire network can be found south of Kennington, courtesy of Charles Holden who designed every single one of the class of 1926 (Clapham South - Morden inclusive). Indeed, as you head south from Kennington you move through four decades of history, beginning in the 1890s and ending up between the wars. So it's not all bad. Plus it even rained while I was doing this stretch, meaning at least I was cool above ground.

Both Oval and Stockwell originally hailed from 1890 when they formed part of the old City & South London Railway. Oval's interior has long been tastefully decked out in the inevitable cricket murals, while outside a nearby fountain afforded the chance for some ill-advised experimental photography.

Stockwell was opened in 1890 by the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, but has since been totally rebuilt - several times. Originally it was the terminus for the world's first ever deep-level underground line, the City and South London Railway, which ran from King William Street (near Monument). It's now an interchange with the Victoria Line. Interchanges, I'm learning, are never that nice to look at from the outside. Still, it's another of those stations with a deep-level World War Two air-raid shelter underneath - the fourth I've met so far on my journey (after Belsize Park, Camden Town and Goodge Street). There are three more further south on the Northern Line - Clapham North, Clapham Common and Clapham South - with the eighth, and only non-Northern Line shelter, buried at Chancery Lane.

Here's a photo of Clapham North, and I'd like you to observe closely the behaviour of its subjects.

Yup, that's right - everybody is talking into a mobile phone. It wasn't staged; I only noticed it when I got home. Until the technology arrives that allows people to use mobiles underground, I guess this kind of sight, persons clustered around station entrances like workers round a factory tannoy, will only compound itself.

Of much more excitement (relatively speaking, of course) is the fact that Clapham North shares with its neighbour Clapham Common the distinction of being the only two below ground stations on the entire network which have single island platforms, i.e:

It makes for a right scrum when trains arrives simultaneously, reminiscent of those dreadful scenes in the Forty Minutes documentary on Angel when a horde of passengers fight to go up and down the same set of stairs at the same time. Fortunately it wasn't rush hour here:

It's actually quite thrilling (again, relatively speaking) to use such a perfunctory, if perilous, platform. Above ground Clapham Common (built in 1900, like its predecessor), boasts an equally distinctive quality...

...no proper station building. This dome sits on a traffic island. I'm glad I caught the rain in this photo.

When you get to Clapham South you're at the first of Holden's buildings, all opened in 1926, all to a similar design, and all defiantly eye-catching. This one sits on the edge of the common (grass included in shot) and was originally going to be called by the far more evocative name of Nightingale Lane.

This photo of Balham was taken a year ago, when I was walking the Capital Ring.

Meanwhile back in 2007, Tooting Bec was bedecked with flowers.

And Tooting Broadway was blessed with a statue of his nibs Edward VII himself.

More of the same excellence at Colliers Wood:

South Wimbledon isn't even in Wimbledon, but was given its name in the belief that Wimbledon had a higher social standing than its actual location of Merton.

And so to the end of the line: Morden.

For so many people, both Londoners and tourists, Morden must only ever exist as a name on a loudspeaker, flatly declaring "this train terminates at Morden". As such it's easily better known than any of its near neighbours on the Northern Line, yet is probably the least visited. It's an incredible edifice, originally built by Holden on open farmland and intended to form part of a larger complex of local shops and businesses. Suffice to say you'd need to head a good deal further south than this - already the southernmost station on the entire Underground - to find farmland now.

Despite the unexpected quirks and unanticipated delights encountered on this first line of my tour, my attitude towards the Northern Line hasn't changed from the outset. It still frustrates me as much as inspires. Apparently the endless engineering work will ultimately result in a new signalling system allowing for, I think, an 18% faster service, whatever that means.

To be honest, I'd settle for one that runs the same speed it does now but is slightly cooler than the inside of an incensed potter's kiln.