Robert Hampton

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26th March 2013

Capital Letters

Giant London Underground roundelSo, London then.

I was there over the weekend of 16-18 March at the invitation of likeable Finchley-dweller Ian Jones, who zeroed in on an idle Tweet of mine like a ninja. On the first day of my week off work, I found myself on a Virgin train down to the Smoke.

Disaster struck early in the trip, as the Northern Line through Finchley was closed for engineering works. So, to actually get to Ian’s home, I faced the prospect of a rail replacement bus from Golders Green. First problem was actually finding where the bus stopped – Golders Green station has a row of bus stops right outside the station entrance, but of course the Tube replacement service didn’t stop there. No, you had to turn right out of the station, walk along a footpath, cross a road and board the bus at a temporary stop underneath a railway bridge. MAKES SENSE.

The line was, in fact, closed so London Underground could test the new Northern Line signalling system. Excitingly, for much of the weekend we could see a constant procession of test trains from Ian’s kitchen (which looks out onto the railway line). Less exciting was the fact that they went at about 5 mph and kept stopping and starting. Clearly all is not well with the new computers yet.

Undeterred by the lack of trains, we set out to explore some of the capital’s transport delights. Ian, in case you didn’t know, is the author of the excellent 150 great things about the Underground blog, and was keen to show me some of his favourite places. I will freely admit that a good proportion of the weekend was spent wallowing in our mutual transport geekiness.

First we headed to Arnos Grove on the Piccadilly Line, opened in 1932. It is a Grade II* listed masterpiece, with a spectacular circular building rising above street level to provide a real landmark for the area. Inside, the former ticket offices have been turned into a small exhibition of the station’s history. It’s marvellous.

Arnos Grove inside Arnos Grove outside

From there, it was a tube straight into central London, where we alighted at St Pancras, now a gleaming International terminal, where Eurostar trains to Brussels and Paris rub shoulders with trains for slightly less glamorous destinations such as Corby and Wellingborough. I wasn’t too thrilled with the huge amount of shops, nor with the giant sculpture The Meeting Place (made even worse by the addition of a handbag as part of an advertising campaign). However, the splendidly-restored overall roof remains as impressive as it did in the 1960s, when John Betjeman spearheaded a campaign to save the station from demolition.

St Pancras International The Meeting Place, with Handbag

We descended into the bowels of the station to pick up a First Capital Connect train for a short journey to Farringdon. At the latter station, work on the Crossrail project was well under way. Farringdon will soon be a major hub for interchange between the new line and the existing Thameslink route. I must confess to being rather envious of Londoners, whose famous tube map is getting ever more crowded with new routes. That’s not to say Liverpool is getting nothing (I was very excited to see pictures of the line through Huyton getting four-tracked recently) but Crossrail is something else entirely – an entirely new railway line being bored right through the centre of London. I can’t wait to come back and ride on the trains when it opens.

For now, though, I had to settle for peering through gaps in the hoardings to see the work going on (or not, in this case – it was Saturday evening, after all).

Farringdon Crossrail Works Farringdon Crossrail Works

Crossrail has a hard act to follow, as TfL is basking in the great success it had with the London Overground. When Ken Livingstone launched the Overground in 2007, it consisted of a hodge-podge of unloved, underfunded urban railway lines. A little over five years later, it has been transformed into a high-frequency, high-quality network of routes forming an orbital “ring” around London, with a completely new fleet of trains to boot.

Ian and I did a complete circuit of the Overground, starting and finishing at Highbury & Islington. I’ll let Ian tell this part of the story.

One of the Overground’s best features is, ironically, on an underground section of its route – the East London Line through Wapping, which passes through Brunel’s Thames Tunnel, the first under-river tunnel in the world. The station’s narrow platforms are adorned with murals highlighting the station’s history. In this case, the light at the end of the tunnel really is an oncoming train.

Wapping Train Mural wapping-tunnel

Our starting (and finishing) point, Highbury and Islington, is fairly mundane, until you head down to the First Capital Connect platforms. 16 years have elapsed since the Finsbury Park to Moorgate line passed into the hands of a private operator, yet the station here still bears the logo of Network SouthEast, the much-missed arm of British Rail which transformed rail travel in the London commuter belt.

Network SouthEast sign at Highbury & Islington

Other delights abound. At Piccadilly Circus station, almost unnoticed by the hordes of tourists who hurry through the station every day, is “The World Time Today”, a whimsical idea from Charles Holden (him again) It’s a wonderful curio, a linear clock whose central band slowly moves to show the time in different parts of the world. Ian and I were both perturbed to see that it was about an hour slow.

World Time Today Piccadilly Circus

Elsewhere, Blackfriars station has received a massive refurbishment in readiness for the Thameslink upgrade. The station straddles the Thames; the new platforms are so long that the station has an exit on each bank of the river. We visited at the weekend, however, when the station felt strangely quiet. The four-car train was rather dwarfed by its surroundings.


We saw a lot more than just the above, but for more about that you will have to hop over to my other blog, The Station Master, to read about our walk along the Tube line that almost happened, from Highgate to Finsbury Park; and our visit to London’s least loved station: Angel Road.

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