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.