20 February, 2011

Riding the Tube from A-Z

Here's an admission that hopefully won't come as too much of a surprise: as far as I'm concerned, there's little that beats a public transport-based quest.

Oh dear. Perhaps I should be a little more reticent about this belief. Perhaps articulating enthusiasm for such an ostensibly mundane, some might say joyless, activity isn't quite the done thing.

But then how else could I explain why I decided to spend a day visiting, in order, a London Underground station for each letter of the alphabet?

I can't, other than to say the very conceit was my motivation, and the work its own reward.

I didn't treat my challenge as a race. I wasn't trying to get from A-Z in the shortest time possible. But neither did I want to prolong the journey unnecessarily or find myself retracing my steps... although as it turned out I had to do the latter in order to avoid the former.

I did consider attempting to visit the first A of all the As, the first B of all the Bs, and so on. This, however, would have required me to cross the entire Underground network from one end to the other several times in a row (Dagenham East to Ealing Broadway to Fairlop, for example) and taken at least 16 hours.

Plus I had ruled out using the Docklands Light Railway. And even though there are no Underground stations for the letters J, X, Y and Z, I still intended to visit suitable substitutes.

Given all this, I knew my mission would take the best part of a day. Even without factoring in changing trains, changing lines, taking photos and taking breaks, my route clocked in at eight-and-a-half hours.

Therefore in order to visit as many stations as possible while it was still light, I intended to set off as early as possible.

Inevitably, this did not happen.

Last-minute faffing, including deciding to pack a flask of hot water and tea bags, meant I didn't leave West Finchley until 8.20am.

I tried to reconcile myself to this delayed departure by reasoning I would at least have missed the peak of the rush hour.

Inevitably, I was wrong.

I arrived at my first letter of the alphabet, Archway, at 8.43am precisely.

But I didn't leave Archway until almost 9am, having had to let one train go because it was too full and a second train go because it was heading for the Charing Cross branch. I needed the Bank branch, in order to get to St Pancras for a connection to Barbican.

And right here is an example of the rather lax attitude I took to my quest.

A more dedicated, competitive A-Z traveller would have pushed their way on to the first train, or jumped on the second regardless of its destination, purely in order to keep travelling. Revisions to routes and awkward interchanges could be worked out later; the key thing would be that they were on the move.

Conversely I did not and would not ever feel an urgency to charge round the Underground network. Still, my hold-up at Archway made me realise at this very early stage that the entire trip could take far longer than the eight-and-a-half hours it totalled on paper. I might not even finish until late in the evening.

Resolving that from now on any dawdling had to be constructive dawdling, I hastened to Barbican, where by virtue of it being above ground I didn't have to leave the station to both take and upload my proof-of-presence photo.

This was another rule that I had concocted which, in retrospect, I can see further lengthened the trip.

If I hadn't decided to take a snapshot of myself at each stop, and use my phone to upload it there and then, I clearly needn't have had to leave so many stations or get off so many trains.

At Barbican, for instance, I could have just taken a photo of a sign through the doors of the train.

But I wanted to document my progress as it happened and share my endeavours online in, as close as possible, real time. Even if that meant a host of grisly mugshots.

I had tried to structure my route to best accommodate lines and distances I needed to take to reach those more remote stations. Ickenham was the prime example of this, being the only station beginning with the letter I and hence unavoidable, but dwelling way out in zone 6 on the very edge of north-west Greater London.

This meant picking stations for letters C-H that brought me ever closer to my far-flung prize. I continued on the Circle line from Barbican to Liverpool Street, then picked up the Central line westwards to Chancery Lane.

After nipping out for the photo, I resumed my journey west, changing on to the Jubilee line at Bond Street for a dash up to Dollis Hill.

By now rush hour was over and I had more space to, in the words of Jimmy Savile, stretch out and move about.

Off-peak passengers are less self-conscious in general, and I travelled up the Jubilee line in the company of, among others, a woman doing her knitting and a man singing folk songs.

It was, as ever, a joy to break cover just before Finchley Road and be above ground once more.

I think the weather had actually turned colder; at Dollis Hill a mist and a chill clung close to the ground.

I had neglected to bring a hat. I would rue this more and more as the day wore on.

I then had to retrace my steps, the first of a number of doubling-backs that were essential if regrettable, returning back down the Jubilee to Baker Street, where I nipped on to a Circle line train to Edgware Road.

I scored my first success of the day here, chancing upon a District line train to Wimbledon almost immediately, which carried me all the way down to Fulham Broadway without a hitch. Yup, I avoided Earl’s Courting disaster.

In Fulham Broadway shopping centre I took a short break, utilising a popular chain of coffee shops to recharge my phone and have a hot drink, besides paying 30p to use the precinct toilets. Well, what can you do?

Then it was back to Earl’s Court and a short wait for a Richmond train to take me down to Gunnersbury.

By now I had tired of capturing my own gurning features on camera, and began to opt for what can best be described as limb shots:

It had gone midday by this point.

I really wanted to do Ickenham by lunchtime, but getting there was by no means straightforward.

I had to double-back again, then face an epic wait at Turnham Green before the right connection ambled along, then change at Acton Town and again at Rayners Lane before Ickenham hoved into view.

But even then I couldn’t cross it off the list, as I still had an H to do, which meant going through Ickenham and getting off one station further on: Hillingdon.

Luckily there was a train heading back down the line almost straightaway. I had 30 seconds to snatch a photo, jump on board, pull into Ickenham, hop off… then wait 15 minutes for the next London-bound service.

I’d been on the move for over five hours, but had only done a third of the alphabet.

To restore my spirits I made myself some tea from the flask I was now extremely thankful for remembering to pack.

On the Metropolitan train back towards London I was surrounded by people eating lunch, including, most cruelly of all, a woman guzzling chips. My stomach lurched.

At Finchley Road (my third visit of the day) I changed on to the Jubilee line and hopped down to St John’s Wood, which I figured was the closest I could get to a letter J.

Then it was back the way I came, through Finchley Road once more, in order to visit Kilburn:

And then I had to double-double-back and pass through Finchley Road a fifth time, heading back through St John’s Wood (again), Baker Street (again) to reach Bond Street (again).

Connoisseurs of economy of travel, I can hear your disapproval.

After a pointless search through Bond Street shopping centre for toilets, I zipped back and forth along the Central line, first heading west to Lancaster Gate, then east to Marble Arch, then west again to Notting Hill Gate.

This was a very satisfying haul in a very short time. I was suddenly over half-way through my challenge, but the time was 3.15pm and I was flagging.

I now embarked on a diversion.

I couldn’t find anywhere near Notting Hill station that supplied the holy trinity of a power socket, relief and refreshment.

Perhaps I didn’t look hard enough. Instead I gave in and popped back down to Fulham Broadway shopping centre. At least I knew all three would be there.

Yes, I know this was just compounding my already baggy schedule, but the interlude meant I didn’t have to stop again for the rest of the day.

I caught a District line train round to Victoria and fought my way on to a titular service up to Oxford Circus, by which time it was 4.25pm.

A run of good luck delivered me a swift change on to the Bakerloo up to Paddington, then another quick train up to Queen’s Park by 5pm. At this point I felt I was really making progress.

However it was starting to get dark, my flask was empty, rush hour was beginning and a mammoth trek to the other side of the city lay ahead.

Again, it was a matter of accommodating a far-flung station.

To take care of the letter U, I had either to go all the way out to Uxbridge (which meant passing through Hillingdon and Ickenham again) or strike out for the eastern end of the District line and the likes of Upton Park, Upney or Upminster. I opted for the latter, and so began working my way over to east London.

Along the way I ticked off R in the shape of Russell Square, which I reached by taking an Overground train from Queen’s Park to Euston then walking the rest of the way (considerably quicker than travelling between the two on the Underground).

I then zoomed up the Piccadilly line to Finsbury Park.

Here I changed on to the Victoria line in order to take care of Seven Sisters and Tottenham Hale.

It was now 6.15pm.

I continued on up the Victoria line to Blackhorse Road in order to pick up an Overground service round to Barking, from where it was two stops westwards to Upton Park.

I was quite pleased with this solution to the U issue, but it did mean I now faced a hefty journey back into the city centre to deal with the V issue.

It was now 7.10pm.

By now quite exhausted, I schlepped down the District line to West Ham and on to a Jubilee line train all the way round to Westminster. I almost fell asleep during this leg of the journey.

Then it was back on to a Circle line train - my 40th train of the day - to carry me along to Victoria, through which I had last passed three-and-a-half hours earlier.

It was now 7.50pm.

The end was in sight, but typically I had complicated things by deciding to find substitutes for the missing letters X, Y and Z.

So instead of ending my quest after I'd scurried up the Victoria line to Warren Street...

...I then had to continue up to King’s X St Pancras (do you see?).

Now came the coldest and most desolate leg of the journey.

I came out of King’s Cross station and walked all the way up York Way, past the offices of The Guardian and over the Regent’s Canal to visit the remains of the disused station York Road.

It was too dark for my phone to take a photo of any merit, but I had to prove I had been there.

From there I hurried back to King’s Cross and down to the Underground for a train along to Great Portland Street, from where I walked to Regent’s Park station which, by virtue of its proximity to London Zoo, was doubling as my finishing post. It was 8.45pm: almost exactly 12 hours since I arrived at Archway.

My quest was over.

If I hadn’t made the detour to York Road, if I hadn’t bothered with stations for J, X, Y and Z, if I hadn’t taken those breaks at Fulham Broadway, if I hadn’t needed the toilet or food or bothered to recharge my phone, if I had rushed for each and every connection, if I’d even included DLR and Overground stations, I would have been done with the alphabet much quicker.

But I wouldn’t have had half as much fun or finished my journey with quite the same sense of achievement.

1 comment:

Kake said...

Good work — sounds like it was a lot of fun! I would have packed some sandwiches though :)