21 December, 2008

District Line: Earl's Court - Wimbledon

Journey south from Earl's Court and you'll find yourself following the route of tracks first laid almost 150 years ago.

There used to be a great deal more railway lines in this part of London, most of which were conceived, developed and died before the 20th century even began. This one spur of the District Line survived, and now keeps a huge swathe of south London connected to the rest of the capital.

It's a poor state of affairs. There has been talk for decades of a whole new Underground line running from south west to north east via Chelsea, Victoria, Piccadilly, Angel and onwards to Leytonstone. It needs to be built. The advantages of being able to, for example, miss out the melee that is Earl's Court and nip straight up to central London from Putney or Wimbledon are self-evident. Equally anything that eases the burden on the inner London stretches of the Piccadilly or Victoria lines can only ever be a good thing.

A route has been 'safeguarded' for development, to use the official jargon, but whether anything gets done, especially with the current fare-increasing, car-friendly regime in City Hall, is doubtful.

Meantime residents of this part of London will have to struggle on. I have a colleague at work who relies on this part of the District Line to get her to the office every day, and almost every day there is a problem. Delays. Re-routing of trains. Unexplained stoppages. Infrequent services. And a general, relentless, lack of information.

As far as she, and I, can make out, the cause of the problem is usually to do with Earl's Court (surprise surprise) and specifically getting the Wimbledon branch trains in sync with those coming from Richmond, Ealing Broadway and Kensington Olympia. How sweet the idea of a new route that omits that wretched interchange.

First stop south of Earl's Court is West Brompton, added to the overground West London Extension Joint Railway in 1866 and the Metropolitan District Railway in 1869. The District building remains pretty much as it was when first built, which gives it an air of reassurance at odds with the reliability of the train services it hosts.

This feeling is deepened when you go inside and get to stand on one of two walkways that span the platforms. Take away the signage and the sound of iPods turned up too loud and you could almost be 100 years ago.

Fulham Broadway, on the other hand, has recently junked its original building for a brash and undignified makeover inside a shopping centre.

'Life begins at Fulham Broadway'. What does that mean? Seriously, just think about it for a moment. What does that mean? What on EARTH does that mean?

At least the original building can't be demolished by virtue of having Grade II listed status. That hasn't stopped it suffering the fate of becoming a branch of TGI Friday's. Thankfully bits of the old station still survive:

Both Fulham Broadway and Parsons Green date from 1880 when the line was extended from West Brompton.

It's a compact and poky place, which would need serious redevelopment were it to ever become, as has been mooted, the point at which that new south west/north east line would leave the existing District Line tracks and plunge underground towards the Kings Road.

Putney Bridge is more airy and user-friendly:

It was the terminus of this branch until the MDR got its act together and built the Fulham Railway Bridge across the Thames, connecting up with the London and South Western Railway at...

...East Putney in 1889. Apparently this station was owned by British Rail right up until 1994, despite mainline services ending in 1941. It's another place that bears traces of how the network used to be, when this bit of the line was part of a giant loop that connected up with Clapham Junction and Barnes. You can see odd spans of disused line and ill-kept bridges when you pass this way. Lines that once ran somewhere, and now go nowhere.

At Southfields...

...you can see an evocative reminder of this line's history:

An inscription which also survives at Wimbledon Park:

I'm not sure I believe it, but I have read that there has been a railway station at Wimbledon since 1838. The current station isn't the same building, nor is it on the same site. What is Wimbledon today was first occupied by the District Line terminus in 1889, subsequently rebuilt with its marvellous Portland stone entrance in the 1920s.

The station's interior does not match the promise of its exterior. Inside it is a mess. This is not really the building's fault; it wasn't designed to be the frontispiece for the sprawling multi-platform beast that is 21st century Wimbledon station. Still, there must be some better way of organising the place than currently exists, with its poor signage, confusing cross-platform changes, lack of proper information and pervasive air of nobody giving a damn.

Splendid from the outside. Squalid from the inside.

29 November, 2008

District Line: Kensington (Olympia) - Edgware Road

I confess I found this leg of the journey to feel more like a tidying-up exercise than anything more profound.

The District Line doesn't unfurl through west London in a particularly logical fashion. Although Earl's Court looks like an efficient and convenient interchange on the map, in reality it is neither. The five branches do not all share trains. You cannot, for instance, get to Kensington (Olympia) from anywhere else on the District Line without changing at Earl's Court onto a special 'one-stop' service. Unless you're coming from High Street Kensington, that is. You can only travel from High Street Kensington, via Earl's Court, to Kensington (Olympia). But you can travel to High Street Kensington, via Earl's Court, from EITHER Kensington (Olympia) or West Brompton.


Best to treat Earl's Court as a bit of an eccentricity; a textbook British fudge and a 'make do' kind of place. There's no use grumbling about the place. You could be grumbling for 20 minutes or so, waiting for your destination to be lit up on this laser display board:

These have undoubted novelty value, but they don't have any charm - unlike their predecessors, which were only recently replaced, and for no reason whatsoever.

At least these had a bit of personality and hence could keep you entertained while you waited, tentatively, anxiously, and in utter bewilderment, for the announcement of your connection. The new versions are soulless and exhaust all interest after 10 seconds.

The tracks to Olympia were opened in 1872. The line from Earl's Court up to Edgware dates from 1868 (to Paddington) and 1863 (to Edgware).

For a long time Kensington (Olympia) was associated in my mind with a dotted line. It was one of those stations on the Underground map reached only by a 'limited service'. As such it had an air of mystique and remoteness. The reality is a bit of a let down. There's no booking hall of any kind. You can only buy tickets from machines. You walk straight from the street onto the platform:

The one feature of interest is this half-removed British Rail signage:

It might not have much traffic from the Underground, but Olympia is still the route by which mainline services sneak round the centre of London, and is also on the Overground line between Clapham Junction and Willesden Junction. Older maps show the station as Addison Road; the name change came ahead of the 1948 Olympics.

Wikipedia has a few interesting observations. Before the Eurostar moved to St Pancras, its trains trundled through Olympia on their way from Waterloo International to the North Pole depot. If Waterloo had ever been closed in an emergency, Eurostar services would have terminated here; immigration facilities were installed for just such a purpose. Further back, Motorail services operated by British Rail used to terminate here, enabling folk to 'convey' their cars between London and many parts of the country. Why don't these futuristic car-trains exist anymore?

Still further back in time, the link to the Great Western mainline (at North Pole Junction, three miles to the north) meant that the station was designated an important role in the Cold War should nuclear attack appear imminent. The station would have been a mustering point for dozens of civil servants on their way to the giant underground bunker at Hawthorn, Wiltshire.

None of this answers the question: why does the District Line service to Olympia exist at all? The Overground services now run fairly frequently, harking back to the days when the line first opened as part of an 'Outer Circle'. The Underground service is an anachronism, albeit a delightful one.

The Metropolitan Railway built the tracks that the District uses between Earl's Court and Edgware Road, save for the stretch that connects it with the Circle Line. This was opened by the Metropolitan District Railway in 1871. Again, it doesn't appear immediately obvious why this bit of the present-day District Line exists. It duplicates the Circle Line...although you could argue the Circle Line is one massive duplication of the District and Metropolitan lines. Which it is.

Anyway, it does mean you can get onto the Circle Line without having to double back on yourself, i.e. travel eastwards to Gloucester Road, then westwards back round to High Street Kensington:

It's an impressive entrance, but nowadays the station itself is relegated to a supporting role in a rubbish shopping centre. I took this photo almost exactly one year ago, hence the Christmas decorations:

The District Line platforms at Notting Hill Gate...

...have the ambience of a police mortuary. Or what I'd imagine a police mortuary to be like. A forensic stillness coupled with an unspoken sadness.

Bayswater I always associate with George Smiley.

The station has been variously named Bayswater (Queen's Road) & Westbourne Grove, Bayswater (Queen's Road) and Bayswater (Queensway). Queensway itself, on the Central Line, seems two stations and one change away on the map. It is in fact a walk of two minutes.

Paddington is where you join, briefly, the oldest tracks on the entire Underground.

If you're travelling up on the District Line you arrive at what was originally called Praed Street, so named to distinguish it from Bishop's Road from where the first Underground trains set off for Farringdon in 1863. Now, of course, it's all part of one giant Paddingtorium, with street level entrances and exits all over the shop and a slightly crazed air about the place. Which is not helped by one of the interchanges, with the Hammersmith and City Line, being the entire other side of the mainline station.

Finally the District Line heaves itself into Edgware Road, where I've been before...

...and whereupon you can wait for up to 20 minutes for an onward connection on the Circle Line. *sigh*

14 November, 2008

District Line: Westminster - Hammersmith

Another very old chunk of Undergroundalia, this. The line between South Kensington and Westminster opened in 1868; tracks to Hammersmith appeared in stages up to 1874.

South Kensington to Westminster was the first passenger service offered by the Metropolitan District Railway, the perversely-similarly-named rival to the Metropolitan Railway. It's a portion of the network that shows its age (the smell of the tunnels, the grime of the platforms) but is fascinating for what it reveals about the mentality of its architects and builders.

Now and then it pops overground, or snakes between tall bridges and lets a sliver of daylight into its depths. The stations are barely below ground; at Sloane Square and South Kensington they're in broad daylight. St James's Park, the first stop west of Westminster, resembles a mainline station with a giant roof on top, its platforms facing each other across twin sets of tracks. But it's chiefly notable for...

...the fantastic building that has grown up around it. Designed by Charles Holden in the late 1920s and boasting statues and what-nots by Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill and Henry Moore, it was intended to be a suitably noble HQ for the London Electric Railway (the forerunner of London Transport). It certainly fulfilled that job. Bits of Underground management still dwell inside today.

Victoria, on the other hand, is a mess. And it knows it.

There has been renovation work of some kind or other going on here for as long as I can remember. I've talked about it before. Suffice to say since that previous write-up there has been no outward sign of progress, just endless, endless building work. Fair enough, I suppose; it is the busiest station on the whole of the Underground (nearly 80m passengers a year). Its District/Circle line platforms are at least easier to get to than the deep-level Victoria ones.

When Sloane Square was opened, a river ran through it. Or more precisely, above it. The River Westbourne, which surfaces in Hyde Park as the Serpentine, flowed directly across the site of the station. But that didn't bother the engineers; they just diverted it into a giant iron pipe and carried the water above the platforms. I quite liked this station, despite its titular associations with pretension. It's got an airy feel to it, helped by the fact the platforms are above ground, and the atmosphere felt calm and unhurried compared to its neighbours.

South Kensington was where the Metropolitan District met the Metropolitan; all sorts of convoluted junctions and interchanges used to begin here (at one point there were three versions of the Circle Line in operation: an Inner Circle, a Middle Circle and an Outer Circle). The station entrance is beautiful:

The same cannot be said of the wretched subway that begins inside the station and makes you think you're within a few minutes walk of such places as the Albert Hall and the Science Museum, whereas in fact you have to trudge for ages along a dank passageway before you're even close. Up until 1908 you had to pay to use it.

Originally Gloucester Road was the terminus of the Metropolitan's extension from Paddington, before it opened tracks extending it to South Kensington.

More confusion reigned here, it seems. At one stage in its history the station had four tracks and four platforms, two of each for each rival railway company. Plus it used to be called Brompton (Gloucester Road), despite there being a separate Brompton Road station (now closed) close by. The place has been done up very sympathetically and bears, both inside and out, much of the character of the original. One of the disused platforms is now occupied by Platform For Art installations; when I was there it resembled an over-sized obstacle course made out of everyday household items.

Forewarned is to be forearmed, and that's especially true of Earl's Court:

This place would be unsettling for the unseasoned traveller even if it wasn't currently in the middle of a giant refit. District Line trains rattle off from here in five directions; I'll return to tackle some of those branches and offshoots another day. Best by far to just note that this station boasted the Underground's first ever escalator in 1911, and carry on westwards towards...

Fulham - North End, or West Kensington as it's now called. All these night-time photos date from last Christmas (so much for an orderly, sequential blog of the Underground), but I hope you can still see the station bears the acclaimed fingerprints of Charles Holden, particularly his work for the south end of the Northern Line.

You couldn't get off at Barons Court until 1905; previously all there was to see here were open fields and market gardens. Housing arrived with the turn of the century and the District Railway eventually relented to local demand (and the need to acknowledge the presence of the Piccadilly Line). This photo doesn't do the station justice. It's a Grade II listed building, and deservedly so.

So back to Hammersmith, scene of my accosting by a security officer. Before I go any further down the line, however, I need to double back and deal with those awkward diverging bits of the District at that masterpiece of orienteering, Earl's Court.

01 November, 2008

District Line: Aldgate East - Westminster

Welcome to another very old, very confusing slice of the Underground.

Ostensibly there's nothing confusing about it at all. It is a straight line. It has no branches or curious offshoots. It doesn't even have that many interchanges.

When I started reading up on this bit, though, a familiar tale of multiple name-changes, disputed ownership and successive renovations emerged. It didn't even used to be a straight line.

It is, however, indisputably old. Very very old. There's been a station on the site of Tower Hill since 1882, when the Metropolitan Railway opened the matter-of-fact sounding Tower of London. This lasted all of two years before being closed to make way for Mark Lane station. The reason? The Metropolitan had just linked up with the Metropolitan District (now the District Line) to give birth to what was informally dubbed the Inner Circle, and a larger station was needed.

Mark Lane became Tower Hill in 1946, a year before the Inner Circle became the official Circle Line. But still the station was too small, so it was closed and rebuilt yet again in 1967, back on the old original Tower of London site. 41 years on refurbishment work is STILL happening, because the station is STILL too cramped and creaky.

Tower of London would make for a much better name than Tower Hill. It must be one of the stations most visited by tourists, and shouldn't hide its importance behind a misleading moniker. When I took this photo, on a Friday evening, 100 French teenagers were swarming outside.

Here's Monument, from an afternoon in the summer of 2007 when the Standard was essaying its usual thirst for BBC-baiting:

The station was expressly built for the new Inner Circle, opening in 1884 with tracks freshly-laid between Aldgate and Mansion House to complete the loop. This hadn't been an easy process. The two companies, the Metropolitan and the Metropolitan District, had fussed and feuded over who would build the final stretch of the circle, the precise route from one bit to the other, how much it would cost and so on. It was typical of the times that the construction of one bit of track encircling the centre of London involved two companies, big business, the government and endless delays.

Monument nowadays is part of the sprawling network of tunnels and escalators that link it with Bank. It feels like it doesn't have an identity of its own. It's so close to its neighbours, it's almost worth avoiding altogether. But that would mean having to use the monstrosity that is Cannon Street:

There was once a great building above this station, built on the site of the medieval Steelyard, the trading base in England of the Hanseatic League. It had giant towers, a huge curved roof for the mainline platforms, and a splendidly lavish hotel in the style of Charing Cross and Baker Street.

Then it fell into disrepair. Then it suffered bomb damage during the war. Then the rascal architect John Poulson knocked the whole thing down and built one of the worst stations anywhere in Britain.

It being dark when I visited, you're spared the sight of the offensively boring slab of dullness that is the present-day outside of Cannon Street. It is a building that has no redeeming features. It is horrible. It is menacing. And thankfully, finally, it is about to be pulled down. What this means for the underground station isn't clear; at the moment all you do is walk through what feels like a empty grain silo or abandoned warehouse and down some steps. Hopeless.

Mansion House must surely be the only London Underground station mentioned, albeit indirectly, in the lyrics to a children's TV programme (Rentaghost). It opened in 1871 as the eastern terminus of the Metropolitan District Railway, and was done up in the 1920s by Charles Holden.

It's part of a sequence of stations that sit on the banks of, or very close to, the Thames, but which seem to patronised chiefly by city-folk and business types. They all have an air of creeping panic to them. The platforms are dank and have the ambience of an Edwardian municipal swimming pool. Nobody lingers, except to speak briskly on a mobile phone before plunging below. You're not encouraged to pause or drag your step. And you won't see one friendly, smiling face.

Blackfriars is a soulless cavern. It's also due for major renovation, to the extent that the whole Underground station will close from March 2009 to late 2011. The plans sound promising, and include a new entrance on the South Bank, i.e. the other side of the river, making it the first station you can enter from either side of the Thames.

Temple's got a bit more character. It's been around since 1870 - when what became the Inner Circle first started to creep eastwards from Westminster - and you can palpably sense its history from its look and feel. At one point this was going to be a terminus for the Piccadilly Line, before somebody changed their mind and halted at the now-abandoned Aldwych instead. The two are only 200 metres apart.

I passed through Embankment on the Northern and Bakerloo, and have already talked a little about its garbled history. By the time it became an interchange with those lines it had already been open for over 30 years and was firmly established in the passenger mind as Charing Cross station. It was only when the Bakerloo arrived in 1906 and decided to call the place Embankment, when it wasn't, that the garbling began.

No such confusion with Westminster:

Well, except it opened in 1868 as Westminster Bridge. And it used to be the end of the line. If you were travelling from the west. And only until 1870, when Blackfriars became the end of the line. And was nothing to do with Westminster Bridge Road station, which opened in 1906, but which had previously been called Kennington Road, and which later changed its name to Lambeth North, by which point Westminster Bridge had become Westminster, so it didn't matter anyway.

Enough now!

16 September, 2008

District Line: Barking - Aldgate East

West of Barking the District Line ages by around 20 years. Electric services first came this way in 1908, along tracks that had been around since - incredibly - 1854.

East Ham was added to the Underground in 1902, but if you look carefully while on its platforms you can find evidence of its original owners, the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway. There are ornate LTSR logos still in evidence on some of the canopy supports and posts. Sadly I only read about this after my visit, and hence all I have to show for the place is this photo shared with a bus:

You can see vague traces of Victorian designs all along this stretch of the line, Upton Park (original buildings dating from 1877) being a good example.

Wikipedia takes time to supply the following details about this station: "In total there are six separate food and beverage machines, two chilled beverage machines (750ml bottles), two chocolate machines (that vend a variety of Cadbury products), and two miscellaneous snack machines. Upton Park tube station is surrounded by several late night kebab and chicken and chip shops for a more nourishing meal."

Now that's the kind of information this blog needs more of.

Plaistow is a listed building, replete - like Upton Park - with LTSR livery. And, like Upton Park, I didn't get it on camera.

The construction of the original West Ham station was sponsored by Arnold F Hills, owner of the Thames Ironworks and Football Club which played at the Memorial Grounds from 1897. The club was renamed West Ham United three years later, the station opened in 1901, and the District Line arrived 12 months after that. However because it was in the middle of nowhere, passenger (and crowd) numbers were woeful. The club subsequently moved to Upton Park in 1904.

If you ever catch a glimpse of an Underground map in EastEnders, you'll see that Bromley-by-Bow doesn't exist. In its place is the famously fictional Walford East. This photo captures the news of the hour, which at the time of writing seems hopelessly inappropriate: Shares Bounce Back.

There's a bit more character to Bow Road than its neighbouring namesake. The place was opened in 1902 by the Whitechapel & Bow Railway (later swallowed up by the District Line) and the booking hall is now a Grade II listed building.

This alone is worth preserving:

It's here that services running westwards from Upminster and Barking dive underground via a tunnel to the east of the station that's apparently the steepest on the entire network.

I confess I was fairly impressed with the frequency and the upkeep of the trains during this leg of the journey; then again I was travelling during rush hour and I imagine the service is much reduced off-peak. There was no shortage of passengers either. This portion of the District Line is extremely popular. Mile End is especially busy, the interchange with the Central Line prompting mass movements of bodies in either direction. For those taking notes, this is the only subterranean Underground station that offers a cross-platform interchange between so-called 'deep' and 'cut and cover' lines. I'm sure I've mentioned that before.

On the westbound platform at Stepney Green you'll find your usual electronic noticeboard. On the eastbound platform, however, there's still one of those old illuminated displays which merely indicates the planned destination of the next train. It gives no clue as to when it might arrive. Once, all stations were like this and we lived with it because we knew no different.

I've been to Whitechapel already.

The District Line, in its original guise as the Metropolitan District Railway, struck out this way in 1884, forming an interchange with the existing East London Railway. Things get a little confusing now, as the District station was given a different name to its East London brother: Whitechapel (Mile End). Then it was closed for rebuilding, reopening in 1902 with its present name when the Whitechapel and Bow Railway came into existence (the company which, together with the London Tilbury & Southend Railway, laid tracks all the way to Southend-on-Sea).

Then there came a whole lot more business involving the Metropolitan Railway (not the Metropolitan District Railway) which is now the Hammersmith and City Line, and which I'll talk about another time. Moreover there used to be another station near here, St Mary's (Whitechapel Road), which sat between Whitechapel and Aldgate East. It existed from 1884 up until 1938, when Aldgate East's platforms were moved, er, east and given a new entrance a few hundred yards from that of St Mary's.

If you followed all that you'll be relieved to know it's the end of this entry.

Aldgate East is a relic from when rival companies thought nothing of building rival stations on rival lines a few streets apart. It's about five minutes from Aldgate on the Metropolitan and Circle lines. But it does boast this lovely antique Underground roundel...

...so it's not entirely to be sniffed at.