Tag Archives: tube

The Little Station That Could

When one thinks of stations on the tube network, it is the busiest ones that come to mind first: Victoria, Waterloo, King’s Cross, Paddington, London Bridge, Liverpool Street. We know all of these, and more. We’ve probably used them. But there’s one station that I’m almost certain that you’ve never stopped at. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Roding Valley, the least used station on the entire network.

Found on the Hainault loop of the Central line, the tiny station boasts around 260,000 passengers a year, compared to Waterloo that has 90,000,000 a year. This is mostly due to its location and tiny catchment area, meaning only 700 or so people use it each day. To compare this further, roughly the same number of people pass through Roding Valley in a day than do Victoria in ninety seconds.

The tracks were laid in 1903, but the station wasn’t actually opened until 1936 by the London & North Eastern Railway. Since 2006, it it one of the few stations that is permanently unstaffed and one of twelve stations to have no ticket barriers.

This is a terribly short post this week because there’s so little to say about the station, but I wanted to include it simply because it’s remarkable that it is still there at all. It’s not architecturally special, there’s nothing particularly important nearby that you’d need to use it for, but it must be nice knowing you’re one of the few people who use it regularly.

Long may Roding Valley keep up its vigil and show that the tube network works just as well out on the fringes as it does in the city centre.

Advertisements

The Meaning of London

This way, please.

No one knows what the word “London” means. That might seem surprising, but given that the city is about two thousand years old, some of the paperwork is bound to have gone missing in that time.

When the city was founded by the Romans in 43 AD (there was evidence of tribes in the location before this time), it appears to have been given the name Londinium. The prefixes of Londin- and Lundin- were used occasionally around the Roman Empire, but their meaning remains a little confused still. However, some people suggest that it actually is based on a Saxon name, christened for a King Lud who once ruled the city. But was Lud even real? That’s hard to say, because he crops up earliest in books of Welsh myths and legends, and there seems to be some confusion as to the validity of his existence.

There are many suggestions, however, that the name is actually Celtic, not Roman. The pre-Celtic Old European language has a word (p)lowondia, which means “a river too wide to ford”. This could describe the Thames, as even now it’s much narrower than it was, and for a long time it was hard to get across. There’s another ancient language known as Ligurian, spoken by people in what are now southern France and northern Italy, and their word lond means “mud” or “marsh”. Again, this is possible – being on the banks of a large river, prehistoric London would almost certainly have been marsh country.

The Welsh phrase Llyn din means “lake fort”, so is that the origin? The Brythonic language has lhwn, which means “grove”; does London come from Lhwn Town? Then there’s the suggestion it’s a reference to the temple of the Roman goddess of the moon, Diana. A temple to her supposedly once stood where St Paul’s now stands, so is the origin Lunadun, “city of the moon”?

In pre-Roman times, defended earthworks built to protect the locals were called duns, thus suggesting another option for the latter half of the name, at least. And just to confuse matters even more, the Vietnamese words lœun and dœun both mean “low, inferior, muddy”, again tying in to other similar theories.

Even some of Britain’s Israelites have wandered into the debate, claiming that the first Londoners were descendents of the Tribe of Dan; lan-dan literally meaning “abode of Dan”. At this point, it’s pretty safe to say that we will never have a complete consensus on what the word means.

London’s familiar curve

So if we can’t get to the bottom of what London means, I wonder if there are any simple explanations for some of the more, shall we say, esoteric place names in the city itself.

The Thames, for a start, is notable for being pronounced completely unlike it looks like it should be, although this is nothing unusual in the English language. The word, however, comes from the Celtic word for it, and means something like “dark”. In Latin its name was spelt Tamesis, and in the Magna Carta, it’s spelt Tamisiam. The th- at the beginning of the name was pretentiously added during the Renaissance because it sounded more Greek. The name was in use by the time the Romans turned up anyway, as a Roman local was called Tamesubugus, named after the river.

OK, so what about tube names? While many – Baker Street, Hyde Park Corner, Holloway Road, Monument – describe exactly where they come out at, some of the names seem a little stranger.

Mudchute is one I’ve always found funny – indeed my friend Claire, mentioned in previous posts, lived here for a while – as it seems to be an unfortunate name for quite a nice area of Docklands. Unromantically, Mudchute was originally a dumping ground for any unwanted products (usually mud) taken from the Millwall Docks to prevent it from silting up. Using a pneumatic chute, the mud was transferred from one side of the road to the other. The Millwall Docks closed in the 1970s, and since then the area has developed and part of it has been turned into a city farm.

Elephant & Castle is probably the oddest name on the tube network, but the mystery behind it isn’t actually that exciting. One imagines, perhaps, some sort of battle when elephants stormed a south London castle, but this never happened. The most common theory bashed about by those without a clue of the truth is that it’s a corruption of “La Infanta de Castilla”, a reference to a number of Spanish princesses. Unfortunately, the name predates the use of the word infanta, and the truth is that it’s simply the name of a nearby coaching inn.

Before it had been a pub, it had been a blacksmiths who used ivory and had his crest emblazoned with an elephant. Shakespeare even mentions the Elephant Lodgings in Twelfth Night. Similarly, Angel tube station gets its name from a local pub too, and there’s still an Angel there, although it’s now owned by Wetherspoon.

The Seven Sisters of London

Seven Sisters is named for seven elms that surround a walnut tree. The originals have been moved and replanted numerous times, and now the seven trees are hornbeams. On the theme of trees, Burnt Oak takes its name from the time it referred merely to a field that contained, yes, a burnt oak tree. Sometimes these things are taken far too literally.

Cockfosters, that name that makes everyone going northbound on the Piccadilly line chuckle inwardly even a little, actually refers to the home of the chief forester, the “cock” being the head of something in old English. Finally you have two odder names on the DLR, Cyprus and East India. No, these are not signs that the tube network is now stretching over Europe to India, but both refer to the times of colonisation and empire. Cyprus is the name of a local estate, but it does indeed come from our historical links to the country, and East India is at the docks where the ships arrived from the Indian subcontinent.

Much of London is absurdly strange, and so the names are of course going to be a little odd. It seems fitting that a city with such a conflicting and conflicted history has a name that escapes explanation, but it’s refreshing to know that even the slightly odder, giggle-worthy names of the city have completely regular explanations, giving further insight into the many faces the city has worn and continues to wear.

Seeing the Sights

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Karen asked if I could help her and her husband plot a route around London to see the sights. I went one better and provided a fully illustrated guide to every major site in London that was completely walk-able. With no idea how long it would take to walk, or even if it was all that feasible, they set off with it. Fortunately, it worked, and they were able to see everything they wanted.

As such, I provide the same route here for anyone who wants to see as much of London as possible in one day. I’ve posted a walk before, but this one has more of a goal. All you have to do is start at London Bridge station…

Head up above ground and under the Shard, and go down St Thomas Street or London Bridge Street. Go towards Borough Market, which looks like a strange sort of greenhouse. Pass through the market, heading towards the Thames. You will pass Southwark Cathedral and then arrive at the Golden Hinde. Go down Clink Street and you’ll emerge on the side of the Thames again, between a Nando’s and a pub called The Anchor.

Millennium Bridge

Walk under Southwark Bridge, and opposite Bankside Pier is Shakespeare’s Globe, the only thatched building that’s been allowed in London since the Great Fire in 1666. Next is the Millennium Bridge, famously destroyed by Death Eaters but now back in one piece. This is in front of the Tate Modern. On the other side of the bridge you will see St Paul’s Cathedral, but don’t go there yet, I’m factoring it in for later.

Go under Blackfriars Bridge and you’ll pass The Coat and Badge pub. Keep on walking past the National Theatre and then past the next two bridges (the Thames has over two hundred bridges, as well as twenty-seven tunnels, six ferries and a cable car) and you’ll come to the London Eye. The Jubilee Gardens are nice here. At Westminster Bridge, cross over the Thames at last! This should have taken about an hour so far, not counting time to stop for photos.

Here you will pass Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster where the government are busy messing up the country. Just past this, you’ll see Parliamentary Square which is full of statues of famous politicians. On your left is Westminster Abbey.

This next bit has been a bit trickier to try and fit in without going back on yourself, so I think this works as the most sensible method. Turn right before Parliamentary Square and you should be on Whitehall. Up here on the left is the entrance to Downing Street. There’s also usually some guardsmen up here too looking very severe. Walk the length of Whitehall and then you’ll reach Trafalgar Square at the end. Don’t cross over to it yet, you’ll be coming back.

The Mall, towards Buckingham Palace

Turn into the next street on the left, under Admiralty Arch, and go down The Mall – it’s the street painted red. Follow this right down and (you’ll have seen what’s at the end) you will be outside Buckingham Palace. Alternatively, you can walk through St James’s Park on your left to the same destination once through the arch.

With Buckingham Palace behind you, on the left is Green Park. Walk through here until you reach Piccadilly, and then turn right. You should pass Green Park Station. On this road you will pass The Ritz, Fortnum & Mason (grocers to the Royal family), my favourite bookshops; Hatchard’s and the flagship Waterstone’s store, and you will emerge into Piccadilly Circus. Keep going through Coventry Street and you’ll find yourself in Leicester Square, home to cinemas, restaurants and M&M’s World.

Carry on through Leicester Square and then turn right into Charing Cross Road. Keep on down this road and you will come out at Trafalgar Square. When you’re done here, your next stop is St Paul’s, but there are two options.

ONE: Go to Charing Cross tube station, get the Bakerloo line to Oxford Circus and change to the Central line to St Paul’s. This will take about ten minutes.

TWO: Walk along Duncannon Street and then into the Strand, the curve of Aldwych, down Fleet Street, and Ludgate Hill. This will take about half an hour, but takes in the Royal Courts of Justice, as well as Ye Olde Chesire Cheese, one of London’s oldest pubs.

Either method you choose, you’ll arrive at St Paul’s Cathedral. Opposite this is the geometrically angular new shopping centre One New Change, which is fairly unremarkable but there are gorgeous views from the cocktail bar on the roof, which you can get into without having to buy anything.

I promise, you’re nearly done, just a few more things to show you.

The Monument

If now facing towards the river (you should be able to see Millennium Bridge and the Tate Modern on the other side of the river), turn left into Cannon Street. At the end, turn riverwards down into King William Street then into Monument Street to see Monument, built to acknowledge the Great Fire of London. You can climb it, but it’s narrow and tough on the legs. Out of Monument Street, you’ll come to Lower Thames Street and keep going left. After another fifteen minutes or so, you reach the Tower of London.

Go down to the riverside, then cross Tower Bridge. Turn right off the end here and you’ll pass City Hall (Boris’s office) and now you’re on the home stretch back to London Bridge! Walk along this side of the river and you’ll pass HMS Belfast, and at the end of this run, you’re back at London Bridge station.

Ta-dah!

Once you’ve gone full circle, you should have seen every major tourist spot in central London. There’s still some debate about how long this takes – Karen veered off at one point, and I’ve not added up the different sections (writers, infamously, cannot do maths) – but my only advice would be to wear comfortable shoes. This is a long walk but hopefully it’s worth it.

If you feel inspired to try this walk for yourself, please let me know by commenting and tell me how it worked for you and what you particularly liked along the route. I hope this will provide a crash course in London for many of you.

The Ghosts of the Underground

The London Underground has existed in some form or another since 1863. London has since sprung up around it and the tracks of the world’s first underground railway have spread throughout the city from the centre, out to its edges. Because of its long-standing history and being present during several great upheavals in British history such as the Industrial Revolution and the Blitz, many people are convinced that parts of it are haunted.

They may be right.

The only way is up.

The only way is up.

We can’t say for sure that people are haunting the platforms, but what we do know is that there are certainly ghost stations. I don’t mean in the sense of a Twilight Zone station that only exists during a full moon (though I wouldn’t be totally surprised if London did have a few of them), but simply stations that used to adorn the network and that familiar map, but have since been closed, demolished, moved or simply cut off.

Some of these were closed due to a lack of use. Anyone who knows the edges of London well will know that the District Line stops at Ealing Broadway in the west and Upminster in the east. But between 1883 and 1885, the line went as far out west as Windsor. On the other side, the line carried on out until Shoeburyness, closing in 1939. There simply wasn’t the demand at the time and the lines have now been reused by the overground network, meaning that it’s unlikely the two extremities will ever be reconnected to the tube network.

The south of the network has remained largely unchanged and, actually, there are no ghost stations south of the Thames, but to the north it’s a different matter entirely. The Central line reached up to Ongar until 1994, and the Metropolitan line has had fourteen stations lopped off its western end. Where it now terminates at Amersham, it used to carry on though Stoke Mandeville and out as far as the village of Brill. The Brill station was opened in 1872 and the travelling time to get into the City of London was two hours, meaning that it was closed, and then demolished, in 1935. Amersham became the terminus in 1961 with the closure of Great Missenden, which is still in use by Chiltern Railways. Great Missenden is notable for being the stop usually used by Prime Ministers if travelling to Chequers by train.

While most of the ghost stations have since been commandeered by National Rail or demolished, leaving no trace of their former selves, a few have found themselves develop new purposes. York Road still sits empty on the Piccadilly line between King’s Cross and Caledonian Road, and while it saw little use during its lifetime and closed in 1932, it now serves as an emergency exit from the tunnels, with one passageway lit at all times, just in case. The Central line’s Blake Hall still exists but now as a private residence, and when the new Osterley station was built on the Piccadilly line, the old one became a retail unit.

The above ground remains of Aldwych.

The above ground remains of Aldwych.

The most notable of these closed stations though is Aldwych. Once a weird little offshoot of Holborn, it was opened in 1907 but by 1962 was only open during peak hours. In 1994 it closed altogether – the lifts needed replacing and it wasn’t worth it, given its lack of use – but no one was in a hurry to demolish it. In fact, while you might not know the name, you’ve almost certainly seen inside Aldwych station. It is the one that is most often used in television and films to substitute every other station. It has stood in as a backdrop for such films as V for Vendetta, Creep, Atonement, 28 Weeks Later, Battle of Britain, and last year turned up on an episode of Sherlock. It even appears in the game Tomb Raider III, and the video for The Prodigy’s “Firestarter” was filmed here. A train is kept on the track permanently for filming purposes.

Like several other stations, Aldwych is notable because during both world wars, disused parts of the station were used to store art from the city’s galleries. It’s well known, of course, that during the Blitz, scared Londoners would use the tunnels and tube network as ready-made bomb shelters, but it wasn’t just the everyday citizens. This brings us to Down Street, situated between Hyde Park Corner and Green Park. It was closed in 1932, and in 1939 the platform faces were bricked up and the place was divided into meeting rooms, offices and bedrooms. This became the bunker for Winston Churchill and his cabinet during the height of the Second World War. Safe below ground, he could control the war in absolute safety.

One final station that is no longer with us is one that I like simply because it’s named after one of the best buildings in London: British Museum. Originally on the Central line, and opened in 1900, it was threatened fairly quickly by the introduction of Holborn station, just one hundred yards away. At the time the two lines (Holborn was originally just on the Piccadilly line, but now also is connected to the Central line) were owned by different companies. A foot tunnel to connect the two was proposed originally, but in the end it was decided that Holborn was better located and so it was expanded and in 1933, British Museum closed. The surface building was demolished and, below ground, it’s only used for storage. Next time you’re passing between Tottenham Court Road and Chancery Lane, take a peek out the window and you might spot stacks of railway sleepers.

The ghost stations of London are a reminder that while the city is always growing and always improving, it isn’t afraid to make a few errors now and again. Sometimes the past has to be removed to make way for the future.

The First Step

“London is a riddle.” – G. K. Chesterton

It all started when my train was cancelled. I found the one that was a dead cert for getting into London and hopped on it, arriving in the city four and a half hours before I was due to meet my friend. As the train got closer and closer to its destination, I found myself staring out of the window. I’d been reading the rest of the way but then there I was, my eyes flickering around the scene like it was the first time I’d seen it.

A plane banks and takes off into the horizon. People are hanging sheets out on their tiny balconies. Graffiti peppers the walls, and Tower Bridge peeks above blocks of flats. Then the Gherkin swims into view and the train stops at London Bridge. I get off and by the time I’m out of the station, stood beneath the Shard, I have decided on a plan of action – I am going to walk though London and fall in love with the city all over again.

Deciding to head west, I trip down steps and through Borough Market, where my nostrils are attacked immediately by traders setting up their stalls, some serving up cooked breakfasts and baps, others offering all manner of cheeses and spices. It is still early, the market not yet in full swing, so I slip on through and am suddenly face to face with the Golden Hinde, the galleon owned by Sir Francis Drake and an easy reminder of the city’s long history. Anywhere else it might look out of place, but in London, it looks right at home.

Shoplifters will be prosecuted.

Shoplifters will be prosecuted.

I slip down Clink Street, past the prison museum and notice, for the first time in my life, a skeleton hanging in a cage above the entrance. Was that always there? Is it real? I trot along Bankside; St Paul’s visible ahead, the Shard already seeming far behind. Cranes speckle the skyline, adding a never-ending string of finishing touches to the city. I’m suddenly outside the Globe Theatre, a replica built to honour William Shakespeare and his work. I admire the strangeness of Millennium Bridge, a bridge unlike any others that crosses the Thames as of yet, and avoid looking at the Tate Modern. I quite like it from the outside, but what happens inside is of no concern to me – I don’t understand it.

A lone human statue, spray-painted silver and hovering in a seated position comes into view and I march past, no longer as impressed as I once was when I first saw one of these. Under Blackfriars Bridge, and then past London Television Centre, where a soundstage of leather sofas is being set up on the side of the river for This Morning, a crowd of people gathered to see who’s going to be sat on them.

A man walks past me chatting into his phone speaking a language that sounds more like Simlish than anything else, a sudden reminder that London is a city made up of people from all over the world with every kind of background. To aid this point I note Cleopatra’s Needle on the other side of the Thames, another artefact brought here from a different time and place. London is a city where all of time and space is trying to happen at once, held together – just about – by copious amounts of duct tape and hope. No wonder the Doctor spends so much time here.

The bookshop under Waterloo Bridge is only just setting up – I’m too early – so I make do with a trip into Foyle’s instead. I buy a book, because I can’t not, and resume my walk. On the northern bank of the Thames is a building that looks like a Bavarian castle; a thought passes through my mind that I’ve no idea what it is. Back on the Southbank, I approach the London Eye, a singer belting out a rock song of his own devising on one side; a performer dressed as Charlie Chaplin taking photos with a tourist on the other. Tourists are suddenly now everywhere and I can no longer walk in a straight line – I dodge, duck and weave and emerge on Westminster Bridge.

A friend of mine has recently got a job in the Houses of Parliament, so I text and ask if he can escape to see me, but he’s in a meeting and there won’t be a reunion today. I cross the bridge anyway, MI6 in the distance, one of the most obvious secret buildings in the world. I loop around Parliament Square, observing the statues of Churchill, Lloyd George, Peel, Disraeli and others, discovering for the first time that Abraham Lincoln has a statue here too. Why? I sit for a little and then continue on, pounding the streets between the Supreme Court and Westminster Abbey, sure that I’ve never been up this road before.

The Duck Tour bus comes down the road, heading for the river. An Indian family get out of a car, having apparently found the last parking space in the city. Anyone who drives in London is far braver than me. I’m now at St James’s Park tube station, a station that I have no memory of, apparently one of the few in Zone One that I’ve never used. Not much further on is the ever-spinning sign of New Scotland Yard, a place I’ve never seen in person, only on television.

I pass into Pimlico now, through a street market selling cheap trainers and expensive sandwiches, and then past the offices of Channel 4, a massive number four outside, towering over taxis dropping people off. I keep walking, now not sure where I’m going at all, but pressing on regardless. I somehow loop and I’m heading back towards the river, but I don’t mind, I let my feet take me where they need to. Before I know it I’m back at the Thames, on the north bank this time, MI6 and St George’s Wharf now dominating the skyline.

I keep on west, the smell of salt water reminding me that we’re not actually that far from the sea, comparatively, and at this point the river is still tidal. I walk past some houses, right on the riverside, presumably worth millions. One has an unusual sundial on the wall, and a chess set with intricately carved figures set up in the window. I contemplate taking a picture, but the Private Property sign makes me think twice.

I move to a street further from the river and suddenly every road and building has the word Grosvenor in it – I’m into a seriously posh bit of London. I wonder now whether I most want to end up at Agatha Christie’s Chelsea home, or beneath the watchful gaze of the Natural History Museum’s diplodocus in Kensington. As I think, I spot a set of stands that should contain hire bikes, but there is only one left. On the road, a man opens a van and begins to unload the bikes, setting them up. It’s only then that I look up and see the towering face of Battersea Power Station on the other side of the river. It hits me now just how far I’ve walked and I look at my watch. I’ve been walking for nearly three hours. I’m meant to meet my friend shortly, and we’re meeting in Canary Wharf. I can’t walk back that far. I check a map and move to Victoria, the closest tube station.

My aching feet in blue suede shoes.

My aching feet in blue suede shoes.

I walk past houses I’ll never be able to afford, find a statue of Thomas Cubitt that seems to have been swallowed up by the city and most people probably have no clue is there, and wonder absently what’s going on behind the curtains. I cross Lupus Street, wondering if it was named for the disease and, if it was, why, and then am engulfed by the pervasive smell of a Subway, just before passing the Queen Mother Sports Centre, a name which conjures up a hilarious image of the dear old Queen Mum in all her finery on a treadmill.

At Victoria I grab a sandwich and mill among the people, then descend beneath the city to find a tube station. If it was hot above ground, it’s nothing compared to the fetid, stale air of the underground system today. As I reach the bottom of the escalator, there’s a crash and I look up to see a woman’s shopping trolley has upturned itself on the ascending escalator and is spilling shopping down the steps. Enough people run to assist her which means I don’t have to feel guilty about not helping. I think briefly of the stereotype that Londoners are unfriendly and ignorant. I don’t think it’s true, never really have.

The tube journey is uneventful otherwise. I change once at Green Park and power on to Canary Wharf, where I mooch around the shops in the underground mall for a little bit, joining the businessmen and women on their lunch breaks in what seems to be their own private part of the city. Eventually I find a seat in a bar with the wonderful name of Smollensky’s and await my friend’s arrival. My feet hurt, but I am happy.

My mission was to fall in love with the city again, and I absolutely did that. I saw things I’d never seen before, encountered old things for the thousandth time, and generally let my mind wander as far as my feet. So I’ve started this blog to talk about all things London, to explore its streets, buildings, history, people, culture, parks and everything else besides. It’s a city I think I know well, but here’s where I put that knowledge to the test.

Join me, won’t you?