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On my first trip to the UK, I really just passed through London on my way to and from the North. So about a month after I got home to Amsterdam, I went back for a long weekender in the great city itself.
Like last time, I had to take a Thalys from Amsterdam to Brussels, then change to the Eurostar - but due to some big and inexplicable delays, we were nearly 20 minutes late getting into Brussels and I almost missed the connection. Luckily I knew exactly where I needed to go this time - turns out it is actually very quick and easy when you know how. By dinnertime I was in London, and after scarfing down some Burger King (and overhearing the most
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BI0kEyjBm8 argument in MLE accents about how long it takes to get from High Barnett to Kings Cross) I checked into my hotel a few blocks from Kings Cross/St Pancras.
After dropping my stuff off, I was off to meet some friends for drinks at Tottenham Court Road, so it was time for my first trip on the Tube!
The first thing I noticed was how hot it gets almost as soon as you head underground - it was quite a brisk October night outside, but quite steamy underground. This wasn't always the case - in the early days they advertised the Tube as being a cool way to travel in the summer months, but the clay surrounding the tunnels
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hQo6_GkITe0 over the decades, and there isn't much in the way of air conditioning on most of the older stations or trains.
The second thing I noticed was that my mobile reception instantly disappeared the moment I went underground, and didn't return until I got to my destination - something I found quite jarring, being used to having plenty of reception in Melbourne's Loop stations, or Amsterdam's North-South line, and something that makes life difficult when you're trying to navigate an unfamiliar network, or text your friends to coordinate where you're meeting.
The third thing was what rabbit warrens some of these stations are. I'm used to underground stations, but it's generally a pretty clear, straight and intuitive path from the surface to the platforms - with the Tube, the signage is generally pretty good so I didn't exactly get lost, but there was a lot of walking down long corridors and going around corners to get where I needed to go.
All of these things are in large part legacies of how old the Tube network is, and how much of it has had to be retrofitted around not only legacy railways but also the legacy of London at large - fitting station entrances wherever land was available, not necessarily where it would give the easiest access.
In any case, my first trip was a short jaunt on the Victoria line from Kings Cross St Pancras to Euston. The Victoria line has a really unique system of tiling on the platforms for each station, to help give each station its own unique identity and make it easier to quickly tell which station your train has pulled into - which I love, and think we should absolutely be doing for Melbourne's stations.
At Euston I changed to a Northern Line train down to Tottenham Court Road. Whereas the Victoria Line was purpose-built in the 1960s with a cohesive design, the Northern Line is an amalgamation of two private lines that launched around the 1890s - Warren Street's Northern Line platforms still have tiles spelling out its old name "Euston Road" harking back to this era. Tottenham Court Road has some nice colourful tiles which seem to be a modern addition, and which do a good job of brightening up the place, but there's none of the unified design philosophy of the Victoria Line.
The next morning, I took the Piccadilly Line down to Covent Garden, to visit the London Transport Museum (about which more later). Covent Garden is another station with a lot of history - the platform still has an old-style roundel, one of the precursors to the modern Underground roundels we see today, and the surface station building is a classic example of the arches and oxblood-tiled style of Tube architect Leslie Green.
After a visit to LTM, I took a walk down the Strand, past the ornate Charing Cross station, so named for the Eleanor Cross which used to stand nearby (a replica of which now stands in the station forecourt). After a visit to the National Gallery, I wandered down to the Thames for a look at Parliament - unfortunately Big Ben was covered in scaffolding for repairs at the time, though. I'd intended to take the train from Westminster station, but there were throngs of Brexit protesters pretty much all the way from Trafalgar Square to Parliament, so they weren't letting anyone into the station - so instead I had a nice walk along the Thames to Embankment station.
From Embankment, it was a Circle Line train to Tower Hill. The Circle Line was born out of two competing companies, the Metropolitan Railway and the District Railway, which after many years of competition with each running bidirectional trains, joined their lines to form a complete loop, with one company running clockwise and the other anticlockwise, with shared station facilities. This led to a lot of problems, as in some instances there would be a ticket booth for each company on opposite sides of a station hall, and whichever one a passenger approached would sell them a ticket for their own railway - even if that meant sending the passenger the long way around the loop. Obviously not a problem under the current unified control of Transport for London.
From Tower Hill I walked around the ancient Tower of London and across Tower Bridge, and had dinner in a nearby pub. After dinner it was a walk along the Thames to London Bridge, to catch the other branch of the Northern line up to Kings Cross; another legacy of the Northern Line's history as an amalgamation of two private lines is that it doesn't just have branches that fan out on the outer edges, as is common for railways around the world, it also has two different branches heading through the core of the network.
The Northern Line's history resulted in two branches through the core of London (via Rob Brewer)
From Kennington, some trains go relatively straight up to Camden Town, while others do a big eastward deviation via Old Street. And once the two lines meet at Camden Town, they diverge again into their suburban branches to Edgeware and High Barnet. It's all quite an odd arrangement, but with a new southern branch currently being constructed between Kennington and Battersea, there's talk that this may trigger a split into two entirely distinct Tube lines. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.
On my last day in London,
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_emz0o638PQ, after which I went for a walk through Regent's Park to Baker Street. The line for the Sherlock Holmes museum at 221b was massive and I couldn't really be bothered spending the time there anyway, but there is a statue around the corner on Marylebone Rd which had no such issues. Baker Street station has Sherlock-themed tiles on some platforms, but unfortunately when I was catching a Jubilee Line train to Green Park I didn't spot them.
After checking out Buckingham Palace and Hyde Park, I took a Piccadilly Line train from Knightsbridge to Kings Cross St Pancras to catch my Eurostar back to Amsterdam.
The reality on the ground (or under it) is often very different to the impressions we have of a city before we've visited it. And as ever, my experiences from touristing around for a weekend aren't going to reflect what it would be like to actually live in the city. The Tube is an absolute masterpiece of public transport in some ways, but it's certainly not without its flaws - and by gum is it expensive. But there is such a huge amount we can learn from London, particularly as Melbourne's population continues to boom and we need to find ways to shift away from the car-dependence that still very much dominates the city.
I really loved London, and I hope I can make my way back there for a longer visit some time soon.
This article first appeared on the-iron-road.blogspot.com
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