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.

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