22 January, 2009

To the end of To The End Of The Line

A month or so before Christmas I bought a book called The Romance Of London's Underground. I found it in a second-hand bookshop in Buckinghamshire. I think it was published in the early 1930s; there is no date mentioned anywhere in the text, but sounds as if it were written just before the creation of the London Passenger Transport Board (1933).

It's a slightly discoloured publication with stiff pages and a musty smell. The dustjacket disappeared years ago. It is written by somebody called W. J. Passingham. It boasts chapters with titles such as TRAINING THE STAFF and SIGNALLING AND SAFETY DEVICES.

Yet it surpasses all shortcomings on the very first page, in the very first paragraph:

There is beneath the City of London and its gigantic suburbs another world, a complex system of transport - of highways and byways - such as even the most thoughtful among its citizens rarely think upon in terms other than speed and comfort. For the Londoner who walks daily the familiar city streets, the sightseer in search of Romance, and the historian seeking material for posterity is written the story of this underground city and the men who created it.

Those two sentences, for me, sum up all that I love about the Underground. They embody something of what I was attempting, and not really succeeding, to achieve with this blog: a travelogue mixing both fact and sentiment, an account both empirical and subjective, an inventory of motion and emotion.

I wanted to try and record some of what I feel when I use the Underground. I wanted to talk about the way I admire its history, its design, its geography, its personality. I wanted to capture impressions of its overlooked triumphs and all-too-obvious failures. Above all, I wanted to make it feel human, to illuminate its capacity for evoking - often at the same time - melancholy and, yes, romance.

Whether I even came near to that is not for me to say. I wrote this thing to be read, and I'm grateful to those few folk who looked in now and then and left a comment or two.

I enjoyed travelling to every station on the network, despite some of my negative reviews, and even though the whole tour took much longer than expected. Some of the best moments came when I really did get to the end of the line, and found myself in that most eerie of places, the terminus. This always prompted a rich mix of perceptions: the business of lingering somewhere designed for anything but; the act of flinging yourself as far away from the city centre as possible yet still feeling attached; the sight of an Underground train overground in the middle of countryside, or a quiet suburban hollow.

I started this blog when money was pouring into the network and its backers in City Hall were full-throated and fiery. I'm ending it under a regime that seems nonchalant at best, hostile at worst.

I hope the future for the Underground is both safe and sound. I fear that it is neither.

And so to London and down the ever-moving Stairs
Where a warm wind blows the bodies of men together
And blows apart their complexes and cares.
- Louis MacNeice

17 January, 2009

The Hammersmith & City Line

Overlooked and underused. The first by me, the second by everyone.

Welcome to the Hammersmith and City, apparently the next-to-least used line on the entire Underground. That come as no great surprise. It doesn't run to and from anywhere spectacular. It has a horrible colour on the map. Most of the line doubles up other services. The only bit that's independent links two places, Hammersmith and Paddington, that are already well-served by lines.

Above all it suffers from an identity problem - in that it doesn't really have one. It's probably no accident that I left it until last on my tour. I've always treated it as something of minor consequence, for all the reasons given above. The stations it serves exclusively are ones I've never had that much recourse to use. That's not to diminish their respective worth, it's just they suffer from association with a line that, like the Circle, owes its existence to cartography rather than construction engineering.

Bits of it date back to 1863 and were part of the very first Underground service between Paddington and Farringdon. Yet it's only been marked as a separate line on Underground maps for two decades or so. The first version to feature a pink Hammersmith and City Line was published, I think, in 1990. Until then it was officially part of the Metropolitan Line.

I've covered most of this line already: Paddington and Edgware Road; then Baker Street round to Liverpool Street; and finally Aldgate East up to Barking. The one outstanding section, the final piece in the jigsaw, the one bit of London the Hammersmith and City gets all to itself, is from Hammersmith to Royal Oak.

It's a very old section indeed, but also boasts - at the time of writing - the newest station on the entire network.

Tracks were laid here in 1864, when the Metropolitan pushed west from Paddington. For a time you could then travel onwards all the way to Richmond, using a viaduct that linked up to Ravenscourt Part, part of which is supposedly still visible. Nowadays if you want to continue your journey you have to walk from Hammersmith on the pink line to Hammersmith on the purple and green lines, a distance of all of two minutes.

If you were standing equidistant between the two buildings, mulling over which would get you to, say, King's Cross St Pancras the quickest, what would you choose?

Well, there are marginally less stations lying between your embarkation and your destination on the Hammersmith & City (11, compared to the Piccadilly Line's 12) but Piccadilly trains are more frequent. H&C trains are less crowded, but tend to get snarled up in the miasma of interchanges between Paddington and Baker Street. In the summer, H&C trains are cooler and less packed with tourists. They'll also deliver you nearer to your mainline connection at King's Cross. Speed, however, might be the deciding factor. I suspect Piccadilly Line trains are faster, but you'll arrive at your destination flustered and sweating.

I made this journey on what felt like the first night of winter. It was also a day when the media had just started cottoning onto the fact that a recession had begun and they could make money out of hysterical headlines about job losses. Here's Alexander's Barbers at Hammersmith station replete with Obligatory Depictions Of Perfectly Styled Heads plus the Evening Standard at its subtle best:

I sat on a stationary train for 10 minutes. The driver turned up and walked very slowly all the way to the front of the train. Nothing happened for a further three minutes. Finally the train began to crawl away from the platform. I realised that, seeing as how I would be getting off at every single station, taking photos, then waiting for the next service, this would be a very time-consuming journey indeed.

Goldhawk Road was opened a few months before the First World War.

It feels as if it hasn't been properly refurbished since. The platforms on all these H&C stations are desolate, forlorn places. They are all above ground. There are few signs or indicators telling you when the next train will arrive. Instead a disembodied voice tries to reassure you that "an eastbound train has just left Hammersmith" or that "a westbound train will call in xx minutes". On an especially cold and unloved evening, such announcements felt like pointedly small crumbs of comfort.

Shepherd's Bush Market used to be simply Shepherd's Bush until October of last year:

When I was there I noticed several notices inside the station explaining what had happened should any passengers still be confused. It's a cosy, compact building, but I'm not sure why its name wasn't changed long ago to avoid duplication with the Central Line. Instead it had to wait until the opening of the all-new, hugely-spectacular...

Wood Lane. Now this is a station. A glorious one, all told. It's only been open three months, but already people have found stuff to complain about, mostly the fact there aren't any staff selling tickets. But that's nothing compared to the way that, like all stations built in the 1930s or since the late 1990s and unlike every other single station on the Underground, it demands to be looked at. And photographed in a puddle.

A brand new Underground station that commands your attention in such graciously stylised fashion is a wonderful thing to behold. Plus it's opposite the greatest building in the world, BBC Television Centre. Come on Mark Thompson, you can't flog off the place now!

At Latimer Road something happened that was unique to my entire trip around the Underground: a member of the public took issue with me taking a photograph.

This wasn't the first time I'd been accosted; there was that security guard at the Piccadilly Line Hammersmith station. But it was the first time an ordinary punter had come up, asked what I was doing and told me, in a tone that was dangerously close to aggressive, that I better not have taken a photo of themselves. I went into default nerd reaction, pleading a bit pathetically "I'm taking pictures of stations - just stations!" while trying to sound as useless and inoffensive as possible. I don't think he was convinced. He gave me the evil eye and repeated his warning about not wanting his photo taken. A few anxious seconds passed. I wasn't sure what to do. There were loads of people milling around but nobody seemed bothered. Thankfully he suddenly turned away and moved off. I felt stupid for feeling shaken. I'd done nothing wrong - had I? Suffice it to say, said person is not in this photo:

At the next station, Ladbroke Grove, a policeman appeared curious about my activities. What was going on? Why all this sudden interest?

The station has been through numerous name changes and shopkeepers are currently trying to effect another one, so it becomes Portobello Road: a logical move given its closeness to the titular market.

Both Westbourne Park...

...and Royal Oak...

...share tracks with the mainline services in and out of Paddington. They feel even more unwelcoming than their predecessors, shorn of all but the most rudimentary of Hammersmith and City identities. By this point, all Underground trains were packed to bursting. It was the rush hour, but just as many people seemed to be heading into London as out of it.

I trundled into Paddington with my face pressed up against some dirty glass. It certainly felt, in my case, like the end of the line.

11 January, 2009

The Circle Line

How to write about a line that doesn't exist, but whose stations you have - to a man - nonetheless visited?

(Clockwise: Tower Hill-Westminster; St James's Park-Gloucester Road; High Street Kensington-Edgware Road; Baker Street-Aldgate)

I thought I should give a nod to the Circle Line, not least for its status as aesthetically the most distinctive element of the Underground map. By virtue of its geography, it's become the latterday equivalent of the old City of London wall, albeit (mostly) just below the earth's surface.

When I look at the Underground map I subconsciously treat everything within the Circle Line as belonging to the city centre, and therefore - if I'm feeling particularly misanthropic - to be avoided. A number of times I've deliberately chosen routes to places that avoid this area entirely, often utilising the increasingly reliable Overground service. This is because I class the Circle Line and what it encloses as being part of work, not pleasure. If I can help it, I'd rather not step foot beyond that yellow stockade when I'm not doing my job.

There's a mindset that operates on the Underground within the boundaries of the Circle Line. It's that of the tourist-cum-worker. It's that of the no-time-to-stop-and-think, must-get-to-my-destination-at-all-costs, always-room-for-one-more-person-inside-this-already-full-to-bursting-carriage sort of person. That's fine if you're a visitor or an employee. If you're a resident or a traveller, staying above ground is always the better option.

If I find I have to visit somewhere within, what for fares purposes, is called Zone 1, I'd rather get off at one of the boundary stations and simply walk the rest of the way.

Indeed, when I worked in Soho, I'd always get off my train at Euston and complete the journey on foot. I came to look forward to this stroll, especially as it took me through the quiet back streets of Bloomsbury, at that time of the morning affably quiet and stylistically fascinating. I miss not having the chance to do it now, though I still, when I have the time, get off the Underground a few stops early and finish my commute by pavement.

That's not to say I never use the Circle Line. If you want to move sideways through the capital, are not near the Central Line, are in no mood for dawdling on foot and are too tired to contemplate any other kind of transport, it's the most straightforward way of sliding east to west and vice versa.

Except, of course, you're not actually using a single purpose, self-contained line.

The Circle shares all its tracks, save for two short stretches between Aldgate and Tower Hill and High Street Kensington and Gloucester Road, with other lines. The bulk of its southern half is duplicated by the District; most of its top half is used by the Hammersmith and City AND the Metropolitan. To this extent, it doesn't exist. It is a line created by cartographers, not engineers.

The titular circle grew out of expediency. Bits of it were built individually, with no intention to be linked into a loop. Different companies completed different stretches, beginning with Farringdon to Paddington. Those stretches creeped in either direction, but with no urgency. The circle took over 20 years to complete, finally becoming one entity in 1884.

But even then it wasn't formally identified as a circle, in the form of a separately-coloured, separately-named line, until 1949. Before then, maps simply showed the respective Metropolitan and District services (although from 1947 a circle of sorts had been denoted by the addition of a thick black border along the route). It had long been informally known as the Inner Circle, but this was never given official sanction.

At the time of writing, this non-existent line will shortly become properly non-existent once again. As early as December of this year, the Circle may become part of a Hammersmith and City Line spiral that begins in Hammersmith, runs to Paddington (along the route of the current Hammersmith and City) and then does a complete loop of the current Circle Line ending at Edgware Road.

I'll talk more about the Hammersmith and City Line shortly. But if this plan comes to pass, and it has been confirmed by the manager of the Circle and Hammersmith and City Lines, it will constitute a logical reconciliation of what has, cartographically-speaking, been a 60-year illogical quirk.

I would not miss the Circle Line in its present form. A rationalising in the shape of a merger with the Hammersmith and City would, in theory, mean smoother services and a more predictable timetable. At present, you cannot rely on Circle Line trains to actually do what their name implies. Orbital services have in-built problems. One single delay can have a terrible knock-on effect. Synchronising with those services running as District, Metropolitan and Hammersmith and City trains is an additional nightmare.

As such you'll be lucky to have a smooth journey around the loop. You're usually guaranteed fairly uninterrupted passage between Baker Street and Aldgate, and between Tower Hill and Victoria. But any route that ventures beyond these stretches will always involve a delay: FACT. You could well end up sitting for at least five minutes at High Street Kensington or Edgware Road, while there's no point assuming anything speedy about Aldgate. If your journey takes you through this station, you must always factor in an extra 10 minutes.

At the end of the day it's all to do with timing. The Circle currently runs seven trains in each direction at seven-minute intervals, with a notional complete circuit mathematically designed to take 49 minutes. But it doesn't. Because of those synchronisations with other lines. Because of mishaps. Because of unexpected delays. And so on.

Unspooling the circle and turning it into a spiral would remove much (but not all) of these inconveniences. I hope it goes ahead, and goes ahead soon. If it stops people treating it like a reason to have fun, then that alone will have been worthwhile.

How to write about a line that doesn't exist, but whose stations you have - to a man - nonetheless visited? In a rambling, hesistant, unpredictable fashion that doesn't, ultimately, go anywhere. Just like the line itself.

02 January, 2009

District Line: Hammersmith - Richmond & Ealing Broadway

I thought that this blog, like the Great War, would be over by Christmas. Both cases proved to be incorrect.

I actually completed my tour of the Underground over a month ago. I visited the last station on my list on Saturday 22nd November. It's one of the stations that appears in this update. But since then I've had so little time that, well, there's only been one entry. And I now have a backlog of photos. I find myself having to reconstruct memories and impressions from the other side of the holiday. The blog has become a retrospective account, rather than an as-it-happens journal.

So here is the remainder of the District Line. Keen-eyed readers, and I know it's presumptuous to use the plural, will know there are still two more lines left to tackle. But neither are 'proper' lines, as will ultimately become clear, and as such will not, I'm fairly sure, require multiple blog entries. Meantime, the branches of the District that terminate at Richmond and Ealing Broadway require attention.

The two diverge just after Turnham Green, the last in a trio of agreeable, neat, no-nonsense stations that date back to the 1870s.

First up is Ravenscourt Park, originally called Shaftesbury Road, which opened on April Fool's Day 1873:

The name changed a few years later when the nearby park was first opened for public use. Its platforms are the main highlight, built above street level and boasting much of the spirit, if not the actual fixtures and fittings, of its Victorian heritage.

There's something about very long platforms high up in a city suburb that is, well, a bit exhilarating. It's as if the world has been opened up a little; you have acres of sky and space all to yourself and, especially if there aren't many passengers about, you feel like you have the advantage over everyone else scuttling about down below. Then a giant train glides into the giant platform to pick you up and swoop off down the line.

Stamford Brook...

...is the same:

- with the added bonus of the station itself feeling like someone's house. I'd be interested to know who the neighbours are and their views on living between the other half of a semi-detached building and a fully-fledged Underground station.

Turnham Green compounds the charm with the presence of a flower-seller:

If you're travelling to Richmond, the next stop after Turnham Green is a total contrast. By every measure - ambience, design, comfort, safety, convenience, you name it - Gunnersbury is shocking:

I wonder if it is perhaps the most miserable station on the entire network. I may have used that label before; if I have, forget all previous candidates. Gunnersbury takes the prize for the worst Underground stop of them all.

It is gloomy, ill-kept, badly-designed, inhospitable, unreliable, lumpen and wretched. The platform display signs are, according to a friend who passes this way regularly, always incorrect; they certainly were when I was there, referring to a train due in at 09:51 when it was already half past four in the afternoon. Underground and Overground services share the same tracks. In 1954 a tornado ripped the roof off the station but left the rest of the structure intact. If only another one would come along and finish the job.

It was too dark to properly appreciate Kew Gardens:

From what I could tell, thankfully it's a world apart from its predecessor in virtually every respect. The Victorian design of the yellow-brick buildings and some of the original features give it a very particular atmosphere. There is also a footbridge which has Grade II listed status, built with a narrow walkway and very high walls with the intention of protecting people's clothing from the smoke of engines passing underneath. Being there in the gloom of a winter's evening heightened resonances of steam-era railways.

I had thought Richmond was the very last station I had left to visit, and hence the end of my quest.

Then I remembered about Heathrow Terminal 5. Grrr. Anyway, the first station opened here in 1846; I'm not sure when the current building dates from. The exterior reminded me of Wimbledon; sadly, so did the interior. It is a place of near-utter confusion, giving rise to that perpetually frustrating aspect of busy stations: people standing dead still slap bang in the way of you and everyone else, gawping at timetables or simply trying to work out where they should be busily rushing to. It was not the most dignified of locations to symbolise the end of The End Of The Line. Which was just as well, because it wasn't.

If you find yourself on the other branch that runs to Ealing Broadway, the District Line has one last gem to offer:

Chiswick Park. This has gone straight into my list of the 10 best stations on the Underground. It's a glorious building, inside and out, and searching online I see that Charles Holden (him again) was inspired by a station in Berlin, one Krumme Lanke. Holden's design was part of a rebuilding that took place in the 1930s when the Piccadilly Line was being extended westwards and extra sets of tracks needed to be laid. Any excuse for a bit of Euro-chic where Charlie's concerned. The view from the platform of the station's brick tower is breathtaking:

The remaining three stops on this branch were all ones I had visited before; two on the Piccadilly Line, Acton Town:

and Ealing Common:

and the third being the terminus, shared with the Central Line, Ealing Broadway:

Thinking back, Chiswick Park restored a little of my respect for the District. But not quite enough. Truth be told I don't have any particular overriding feeling towards the line, positive or negative. It's just such an assortment of contrasting, not to say contradictory styles and attitudes, it's impossible to perceive of it as a whole or to sum it all up with one adjective. Well, there is one. Unreliable. But that's more to do with the service than the character or design or the line. Or is it? I'm sure I'd feel more pointedly disposed (or otherwise) towards the District were its trains not treated as an after-thought and more the reason for the line's existence.

That, and they put the original platform noticeboards back at Earl's Court.