24 March, 2008

The East London Line

Welcome to a line that no longer exists.

The East London Line closed, permanently, the weekend before Christmas. The Saturday before that, I travelled along that part of the railway still open to the public. It was a cold, overcast afternoon that threatened rain which - as you'll see - duly arrived. All the stations I visited felt like they'd been put out to grass: dirty, worn, battered. There weren't many people around. The whole atmosphere was one of desertion. It was about as far removed from the spirit of Christmas as it was possible to get. Plus I was ill. It was not the most inspiring of journeys.

Nonetheless I felt a strong sense of history right down the line, and not just because it was about to shut for an enforced hibernation.

Here were some of the oldest railway cuttings in London - in the country, for that matter. Here was the world's first tunnel under water. Here were names and places that carried associations with centuries of London's past: Whitechapel, Rotherhithe, Wapping. Above all, here was a line that nobody, but nobody, would be able to travel along ever again.

Not in this guise, at any rate. The line is scheduled to come back into use in 2010, but as part of the London Overground network, with extensions and appropriations turning the once self-contained stand-alone route into merely an anonymous segment of a giant whole. Never again will there be a strangely shaped, illogically-designed stump of a line sitting just to the east of Liverpool Street on the Underground map.

In one sense it's merely reverting back to its original purpose. When tracks first opened here for public use in 1869, it was as the East London Railway, a line operated by six different companies connecting north and south London and the counties beyond. It was never intended to function as a route that ran from nowhere in particular (Whitechapel) to somewhere else nowhere in particular (New Cross). Goods services rumbled along the line as late as 1962. Passenger trains from Liverpool Street crossed the line as late as 1966. At least incorporation into the new Overground service should see more people passing this way, albeit heading further afield than the East End.

Still, it'll be strange to see it no longer on the map. I'm sure the planners are glad to see the back of it. They could never decide what to call it, what to colour it, how to brand it, anything. For ages it was officially called, as if for punishment, the Metropolitan Line East London Section. Sometimes it'd be coloured purple. Other times it would be purple with a white stripe. It's only been orange since 1990.

The northern terminus, Shoreditch, closed in 2006. Since then trains have started and stopped at Whitechapel, a six-platformed maze of entrances and exits that line up alongside Whitechapel Road where, the day I was there, an enormous street market sprawled as far as the eye could see. The main part of the station was very busy, but the East London section was almost deserted. I almost felt embarrassed standing on it. This feeling would persist along the entire line.

Shadwell was, for a time, called Shadwell & St George-In-The-East, before the vogue for long and geographically-precise names was deemed too frivilous just after the First World War.

As much as I wish this was snow, it's just rain illuminated by a flash bulb.

That orange notice on the right informs the occasional stubborn traveller such as myself that there really is no point passing this way after 22nd December:

A station that's about to be closed is surely one of the saddest places to be in the world.

Wapping is right on the edge of the Thames, and marks the start of the tunnel, built by Marc Isambard Brunel and his son Isambard between 1825 and 1843.

Originally designed for, but never used by, horse-drawn carriages, it's an astonishing sight. You can - you could - see all the way down it by standing at one end of the station platform. It's incredible to think this took almost 20 years to build:

There's a fantastical history behind the tunnel, involving floods, deaths, illness, bankruptcies, bizarre multi-manned human shields, digging equipment designed to sink into the ground, and the Tsar of Russia. Essentially it was built more for the sake of it than anything else, quickly fell out of favour with London's gentry, became a doss-house for vagrants, closed for a time then became the fulcrum for the East London Railway once somebody figured out how to fit a train through.

The coming of the railway totally changed this part of London, restyling it as a powerhouse of industry and shipping and, in the process, bequeathing the city with acre upon acre of disused dockyards. And yet, over on the other side of the tunnel at Rotherhithe...

...the work of Brunel father and son is justly commemorated:

I know it sounds unashamedly childish, but I found riding through this short tunnel strangely thrilling. Or maybe thrillingly strange. At any rate, I saw somebody else taking a photo of it, so I knew I wasn't the only one.

Next stop was Canada Water, where I've been before, and which made for about the most complete contrast you could imagine.

Similarly I next went from a station opened in 1999 to one that hailed from 1884.

There's that orange notice again. I've read that Surrey Quays was only called Surrey Quays in 1989 when somebody somewhere thought its original name Surrey Docks was too old-fashioned and negative. In other words, docks = decay, the past; quays = progress, the future. The locals were not happy.

Lastly, to the end of the line - or rather, the ends of the line, in the shape of New Cross and New Cross Gate.

On paper, it's pointless. On the ground, they're only 600 metres apart. Yet thanks to rival companies rushing to lay tracks through London in the early 19th century, two stations called New Cross were built, one opening in 1839, the other in 1850. And both were called New Cross for ages. For almost 100 years, in fact. Clearly such a colourful anachronism could not be allowed to survive after the First World War, so one was redubbed New Cross Gate - the one that opened first, confusingly.

From here, eventually, you'll be able to continue onwards on board the London Overground all the way down to West Croydon or, ultimately, north westwards towards Clapham Junction and hence, if you so desired, in a massive anti-clockwise direction via Willesden and Highbury & Islington all the way back round to Whitechapel.

For now though, and for the next few years, you can't pass this way at all. The marvels and memories bound up in the East London Line are locked away, its eccentricities hidden from view, its identity abolished forever.

16 March, 2008

Interlude: top 10 stations

OK, given I'm roughly halfway through my journey around the Underground, I thought I'd name what I think are my 10 favourite stations I've encountered so far.

Feel free to agree, disagree, or simply ignore.

In no particular order, other than alphabetical:

1) Arnos Grove (Piccadilly Line)

2) Canary Wharf (Jubilee Line)

3) Croxley (Metropolitan Line)

4) Moor Park (Metropolitan Line)

5) Osterley (Piccadilly Line)

6) Rayners Lane (Metropolitan Line)

7) South Kensington (Circle Line)

8) Wembley Park (Jubilee Line)

9) Westminster (Circle Line)

10) Woodside Park (Northern Line)

08 March, 2008

Piccadilly Line: Acton Town - Heathrow

I was a bit uneasy about travelling this final stretch of the Piccadilly Line.

I'm not entirely sure why. Perhaps it was because I would be so far from where I lived. Perhaps it was because it looked a long way on the map. Perhaps it was because I was heading towards an airport, where I would be trying to take photographs and not look suspicious.

There have been tracks down this way since 1883, when the Metropolitan District Railway (now the District Line) opened a service to Hounslow Town. The Piccadilly began running trains during that decade of uber-expansion: the 1930s. District Line services disappeared 30 years later. The last piece in the jigsaw, the extension to Heathrow, only materialised a couple of decades ago. Indeed, part of it is still materialising today.

South Ealing, one of only two stops on the entire network to boast all five vowels in its name (I have yet to visit the other), squats by a pelican crossing at road level but opens out into a huge, recently refurbished cavern inside.

It's only just down the road from Northfields, or Northfields Halt as it was originally called. Or Northfields and Little Ealing as it was subsequently called. Either alternatives, I think, would improve the character of the place today and match the regal pretensions of its design (another Charles Holden effort).

Holden's tentacles extend down the line through Boston Manor and Osterley. These are fantastic creations, enhanced - inevitably - by the kind of brooding skyline that accompanied me on my trip. It's the towers that do it. They reach up into the firmament for no reason other than they can. The one at Boston Manor has an illuminated strip that rises above the tower itself, challenging the sky to do its worst.

Osterley, though, goes one better. Here the tower is capped by...another tower, poking up even higher, which feels like it's almost scraping the clouds. How many people pause to look up at this edifice when they're entering the station? Depends how many people have got the time and the inclination, I suppose. Probably not enough, though.

The trio of stops in Hounslow turn out to have vastly contrasting, confusing histories. The line used to terminate here, at a station called Hounslow Town which no longer exists. Then it was extended to Hounslow Barracks, which is now Hounslow West. For a while there were no, as there are now, Hounslows East and Central. Central turned up in the guise of Heston and Hounslow, but to the west of Hounslow Town. Then a new Hounslow Town opened, which is now Hounslow East. Following all this?

It's not that important. Nowadays Hounslow East, the first you come to when you're travelling towards Heathrow, is a real shock: uncompromisingly modern and completely at odds with its surrounding neighbourhood. There's no real point for it to look this way, other than to make a point.

By contrast Hounslow Central looks like a village shop...

...and Hounslow West like a university library:

No prizes for guessing who designed that one.

Here was where the Piccadilly Line ended for a very long time. Since there has been a civilian airport on the site of Heathrow since the Second World War, it's surprising now to think there was no Underground link until 1977. Hatton Cross only opened in 1975, acting as a temporary terminus until the final bit of the line was laid two years later. This last stretch of the Piccadilly was simply dug just under the ground then covered back over, in the same way the very first Underground lines were dug an entire century earlier.

Hatton Cross is a horrendous place. The station is like a warehouse: cold, vast, ugly, dumped in the middle of nowhere, and with absolutely no concession to anybody desiring to do anything other than pass through en route somewhere else.

Trains from here run either straight to Terminals 1, 2 and 3, or the same destination via Terminal 4. Or at least they did when I was there. In a matter of days this is set to change, when Terminal 5 opens and - hooray! - all the London Underground maps across the city will need to be replaced.

Terminal 4 was opened in 1986 and is a far more obvious and logically-designed place than its neighbour. It took me only a few minutes to get up from the platform and into the terminal arrivals lounge, a route clearly signposted and easy to use.

1, 2 and 3, originally called simply Heathrow Central on its opening in 1977, is a completely different matter. I didn't know where I was going once I'd left the station, first ending up in a bus depot, then outside with a bunch of smokers. All I was looking for was the main station entrance. This was as good as it got.

There's no way of getting directly from Terminals 1, 2 and 3 to Terminal 4 by Underground. You'd have to go back to Hatton Cross and start again. The line runs one way only, hence why there's only one platform at Terminal 4 station. Heaven help you if you need to nip to Terminal 4 quickly from 1, 2 or 3.

Believe it or not, this was my first proper visit to Heathrow. When I was very young my family went on a day trip on a plane from East Midlands Airport to Heathrow and back again - the height of sophistication and exoticism, I'm sure you'll agree.

Maybe it was that trip which gave me my fear of flying. I certainly recall being terrified at the mere notion of not having anything by way of solid matter underneath me. Anyway, since then I had never been to, or had cause to go near, Heathrow.

It's not a nice place. I felt as if my brandishing a camera around the place was being picked up by 100 security cameras. Despite it taking me hours to get to, being something of a national landmark, and representing the end of my vast journey around the Piccadilly Line, I got out of there as soon as I could.

02 March, 2008

Piccadilly Line: Acton Town - Uxbridge

So much for believing I would have this project completed in a year.

Anyway, there were two sections of the Piccadilly Line I needed to visit, and I did them both during one Saturday afternoon (and evening, as it invariably became).

This branch, which curves round from Acton Town to head northwards towards a rendezvous with the Metropolitan, represents another uninterrupted of Charles Holden-inspired stations, save for North Ealing which - as you'll see - stands out by virtue of resembling someone's house.

It's not a very well-served branch. It took me twice as long to travel this stretch as it did the Acton Town to Heathrow route (taking into account my need to get off at every single station, take photos, then wait for the next train). What the service is to frequency the stations are to hospitality. Despite their impressive designs, none of them were very welcoming. Then again, that could have been because they were mostly deserted, it was getting dark, and this was the middle of February.

There's been a station at Ealing Common since 1879, but Holden's version, like all of them in this part of London, opened in the early 1930s. Originally the District Line passed this way, in its previous guise as the Metropolitan District Railway. When the Piccadilly was extended to run west of Hammersmith, Ealing Common changed sides and marked the point (as it still does) where the two lines diverge.

It is, as ever, an imaginative creation, boasting the requisite Holden talking point: in this instance, a hexagonal roof. There also seemed to be the now familiar battery of small businesses skulking in side rooms, such as a taxi cab firm, estate agent or barber.

Actually, North Ealing looks more like a church hall than someone's house, but the incongruity of its design compared to its purpose remains. There's a cosy feel to the place nonetheless, not borne out by its platforms which stretch for miles and are barely welcoming.

When this bit of the line was built at the turn of the last century, a station was opened specifically - and temporarily - purely to serve the Royal Agricultural Society's recently opened Park Royal show grounds.

This sort of thing doesn't happen anymore. Stations are built to last, permanence is considered a premium, and there's neither the time nor money to waste on frippery that will have a short shelf life. I think this is a shame. Imagine the pleasure to be had in first discovering, then using, a station only erected for three months. Well, I'd find it a pleasure.

The main station at Park Royal still stands, and is a dazzling edifice. When the light starts to fade and evening creeps in, Underground stations turn into beacons of solace and safety. A lot of this is undoubtedly due to the way they are lit inside, which in turn is thanks to their overall design. Park Royal draws you towards itself like a well-tended hearth.

The onset of dusk doesn't always make for valuable photography. I had trouble at Alperton, where - by the time I eventually arrived - it was now almost pitch black.

This station was originally called Perivale Alperton, about as suburban and domiciled a name you're likely to get. Holden's building is once again giant-like in both size and ambition. In fact it's huge. It dominates the surroundings like an airport terminal.

Sudbury Town's lack of decent outside lighting rendered the chance of a decent photo almost negligble. I don't know if you can actually see anything here:

That is Sudbury Town station, I can assure you. The interior lighting did, at least, make for a rather dramatic wall of yellow, looming out of the murkiness.

For further proof, here's a shot of the platform:

The shot of Sudbury Hill below is almost two years old, and is another one taken during my circumnavigation of London on foot. I doubt, if I'd been here in the dark, I would have been able to capture anything on camera:

Finally, South Harrow and another station benefiting from a warm illuminated interior. Although this belied the mood of the place, which was grim and combustible. Saturday night was beginning, and Harrow's hordes were roaming. I got out of here as quickly as I could.

North of this point the Piccadilly meets the Metropolitan at Rayners Lane and runs in tandem all the way to Uxbridge: a section of the Undergrond I have already covered.

There was still unfinished business, however: that stump of the line that sprawls south westwards towards the sprawl of a terminus that is Heathrow airport.