Sunday, 19 October 2014

Victoria Triumphant

The section of the Victoria Line between Finsbury Park and Seven Sisters is the longest bit of Tube line without a station.  There was a suggestion that Manor House (which the Victoria Line passes under) could be added to the route, but there wasn't much money in the budget and it would have duplicated the interchange with the Piccadilly Line at Finsbury Park.

It means that you're beneath ground for a slightly uncomfortable period of time.  You get used to a certain rhythm on the Underground - the noise of the train, the whizz of the tunnel, the pauses as you hit a station.  The song varies in length and pattern but it still recognisably comes from the same symphony.  Beyond Finsbury Park the rhythm is wrong, and it prickles the back of your neck; it doesn't feel right.  It was almost a relief when the white light of Seven Sisters station burst into the carriage.

The seat backs, unsurprisingly, depict the trees that give the area its name.  Seven Sisters is a slightly larger station than the rest of the line; it has a third platform to enable trains to turn back, giving a better service for the core of the line.  There's also a connection to the depot on Tottenham Marshes from here, a connection that now and then gets mentioned as a potential branch with a new station or two.  The sheer number of people using the Victoria Line means it won't happen for a long time, if ever; there simply isn't the capacity.  Perhaps once Crossrail 2 comes along (which will also stop at Seven Sisters) there might be space for it.

I left the station by the back exit, onto Seven Sisters Road; not deliberately - I'd got mixed up - but it was lucky.  The main entrance on the High Road is via a series of anonymous staircases to a subterranean ticket hall.  The back exit's got a bit of a building to it, so I was able to get a proper sign shot.

Yes, I am pulling an odd face, but in the other shot I took, the Big Issue seller is staring right down the camera lens and I don't think he was amused.

I walked round the corner and got a feeling of deja vu.  The area round the Tube station reminded me of something.  It reminded me of - bear with me on this one - Paris.

You're going to need some persuading, aren't you?

I'm not saying that this bit of north-east London is a dead ringer for the Champs-Elysées.  I'm not daft.  But once you get out of the centre of Paris, to some of the more far flung arrondissements, you get spaces very like the one around Seven Sisters underground station.  A busy, straight road.  Wide pavements with cafes and restaurants spilling tables onto the walkway.  Trees to shelter you.  Steps leading down into the metro station.  It had the busy feel of a French city neighbourhood, only with a Tesco.

You're not convinced, I can tell.

I crossed over into Broad Lane, past a primary school and rows of modern houses.  There was a pleasing break for a little local shopping centre beneath a tower block, with a corner cafe smelling deliciously of coffee and bacon.  Some newer flats had been built with enclosed glass balconies; they were stuffed with bikes and boxes and faded looking plants.  Then there were plain terraces with huge satellite dishes dangling off the front, sometimes two or three.  The Polish or Pakistani or Paraguayan residents inside wanted tv channels that Sky just couldn't provide.

A big, ugly retail park filled the space between Broad Lane and the station, its grey boxes turning their back on the area around them so they could stare down at the car parking spaces.  Across the way TfL were building a new bus station for the area.  The Mayor's budget cuts were evident; this wasn't a glistening stainless steel edifice like the one further down the line at Vauxhall.  Instead it resembled a superannuated petrol station.

Across a bare patch of concrete that I'm sure the architects called a "plaza" but actually looked more like "a place for crisp packets to get caught up in" was Tottenham Hale station.  All the stations at the top of the Victoria Line interchange with rail services, but this one's slightly more important, as trains to Stansted stop here.  As a result it got a bit of a makeover in the 90s with a blue lightbox dropped on top of the station building for some reason.

It's all a bit of a mess, to be honest, so it's no surprise that the council have plans to level it and start again.  With the addition of another platform on the railway lines, a new second ticket hall, and possibly Crossrail as well, Tottenham Hale should look very different in a few years time.  I'll have to come back.

I went through the messy ticket hall and down the escalators to the platform.  There's a pleasingly wide glass window here, and someone's put some pot plants on the balcony over the shaft.  They didn't look officially endorsed - and were a bit tatty - but I was glad to see them anyway.

The River Lea wends its way through Tottenham on its way down to the Olympic Park and then the Thames.  Until it was tamed, canalised and used to feed the reservoirs around here, the only way to cross it was via a ferry.  Indeed, the station is on "Ferry Lane", so the seat backs commemorate the old way of crossing the water.

Now, of course, you can leap on a Tube train and be at the next station in a couple of minutes.  The penultimate stop on the line is called Blackhorse Road.  Can you guess what its platform motif was?

It's a great design though, by the wonderful artist Hans Unger.  Unger did a lot of strikingly modern posters and advertisements throughout the fifties and sixties, and there's something simple yet elegant about his black horse.

Blackhorse Road was the only station on the Victoria Line to get a brand new building.  Everywhere else the Tube shared with British Rail premises, an existing Underground station, or in the case of Pimlico, they just burrowed a hole in the ground.  There wasn't a decent BR station here though so the architects at London Transport designed their own.

The result is a lovely capsule of 1960s transport design.  Long, clean lines.  Plenty of chrome and mosaic tiling.  Space.  Blackhorse Road feels open and clean.  The only let downs are the later interventions - the clunky ticket gates, the customer information posts, and especially the back exit to the Overground.  The mainline station was originally on a separate site, but in 1981 the platforms were moved behind the Underground station for easier access.

There are only two good parts to the Overground portion of the station.  One is that it gives you a great view of that lovely concrete roof to the ticket hall.

The second is that it's served by the Goblin - the Gospel Oak/Barking Line.  I love that little portmanteau word.  It's almost as good as the old name for the Bedford-St Pancras route - the BedPan.  No wonder the Thameslink branding was embraced.

Outside, the station's not quite as charming.  It's dark and there are awkward steps to get in.  Plus, there's that new black horse.  Hans Unger did a lovely design down on the platform, so why have they decided that the one up top needs to look like it was ripped off the front of a Lloyds Bank?

It's very disappointing.  Also disappointing is the fact that I had to practically stand in the middle of the road before I could get a decent sign photo.

I crossed the railway tracks and headed into Walthamstow.  Of course, as a child of the 90s, Walthamstow means only one thing to me - proto-chav boy band East 17.  Made up of Tony Mortimer, Brian Harvey and the other two, they were the rough alternative to the slick Take That.  The That rolled around on exotic beaches in black and white in their videos; East 17 did a lot of finger pointing and shouting on the tough city streets.

I was always a Thatter rather than an Eastie.  The That had the better tunes, and I quite fancied Gary Barlow (this is when he was the fat one at the back; now that he's a tax evading Tory I wouldn't cross the road to spit on him).  East 17 had House of Love and It's Alright, which may actually be the same tune, Deep, and perennial Christmas irritant Stay Another Day.  And that's it.  I wasn't exactly blown away by their musical prowess.

Their bad boy image was starting to crumble as well.  Walthamstow seemed really quite nice.  Tree-lined avenues, pretty cottages, some pleasant post-war blocks of flats.  It wasn't the drug crazed ghetto the band always hinted they came from.  I suppose it makes sense; how many teenage boys seek to escape deprivation by learning the piano and then posing with their tops off in Smash Hits?  It's not exactly Eminem in 8 Mile, is it?

Incidentally I just went to East 17's Wikipedia page and discovered that the Other Two are still performing, but Brian Harvey and Tony Mortimer aren't.  Imagine paying to see that.

The pedestrianised town centre reminded me of Birkenhead.  A straight run of pound shops, cheap supermarkets, and cafes, though here they were interrupted by slightly more exotic fare - ethnic hair salons and halal stores.  Sam 99p had a completely original marketing technique:

Brilliant stuff there, Sam.

Further along, the market began to creep in, just a couple of stalls at first, then a stream of barrows.  It was a genuine East End market; Pete Beale could have turned up at any minute.  Clothes stalls sold chain store remnants, the racks marked "M&S" and "NEXT" and "DOROTHY PERKINS".  Knock off plastic toys called things like Transformerators and Space Wars had been shipped straight over from Nanjing.  CD stalls played reggae music constantly; there was no other music available, apparently.  There were weird, exotic fruits and vegetables on the food stalls, stuff I didn't recognise, but they were still presided over by a barrel shaped Cockney who yelled compliments at passing housewives.

Most wonderfully, there was a pie and mash shop, a real one, in green and cream tile.  I peeked through the window and saw wooden booths and gleaming ceramic surfaces.  I really wanted to go inside and try some jellied eels, or liquor, or some other bizarre East End foodstuff I'd only read about.  I felt intimated though.  There wasn't a menu in the window (of course there wasn't; it wasn't the Ivy) and I didn't have the confidence to go in and order off a board with a fearsome Peggy Mitchell type staring at me.  I passed on, grinning happily that this place still existed.  It even showed up on Strictly Come Dancing last night; Kristina and Simon from Blue went there to get a dose of Cockney inspiration.  I was chuffed.

(Slight tangent, but can we briefly talk about how amazingly bad Scott Mills is at going "HO!" in the Strictly titles?  He's absolutely awful, and I love it.  I watch it at least three times every week).

Yes, I was really charmed by Walthamstow, which probably doesn't happen to people very often.  I crossed a pleasing open square by the Victorian library to reach the final station on the line, Walthamstow Central.

There's a modern bus station surrounding it - a Ken Livingstone-era one, so it's quite nice.  I darted across the busy bus lane to take my last Victoria Line selfie.

I rode the escalators down to the platforms feeling a sense of achievement at finally visiting all the stations on the line.  The London Underground has always been special to me, all the way back to when I was a teenager and I'd ride the trains for entire afternoons just because it was there.  I could happily do it all over again.  In fact, how many stations are there on the Underground?  Hmmm....

NO!  That way, madness lies.  Besides, it'd make the Underground less special.  I like it being this place I can just dip into and get excited by, unlike Northern Rail which can sometimes be a bit of a chore.  I sat down on one of the specially tiled seats - this one features a William Morris pattern, a tribute to the artist who lived nearby - and waited for my train back.

The Victoria Line in four blog posts:

Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Victoria Continued

For years, I thought the best way to get from Euston to St Pancras and King's Cross was along the Euston Road.  It's a grim, battered, clogged up artery that sends thousands of miserable drivers around the congestion zone.  Trucks belch pollution directly into the faces of unsuspecting pedestrians.  The footpaths are clogged by German backpackers who've stumbled out of the local hostels and befuddled Japanese people trying to find Madam Tussaud's.  It's not pleasant, but it's still easier than taking the Tube one stop, especially while the escalators at Euston are under repair and you have to negotiate a spiral staircase with a load of suitcase carrying weekenders from Preston who are finding the capital overwhelming already and they only got off the train ten minutes ago.

A couple of years ago, after a Christmas visit to my mum, I came out of the Thameslink bit of St Pancras and, instead of pushing on through the station to the Euston Road, I turned right.  I found a whole new, charming, pleasant and eminently preferable walk between the two stations.  It's now my preferred route,

It's not perfect.  The first few yards up Eversholt Street, to the side of Euston, are grim.  On the left is the impassable grey wall of the station, ugly and uncompromising, brutal in its refusal to engage with the street.  On the right are dingy cafes, "private shops", bars where you can't see in through the dark windows.

I turned right at the Avis car hire place and entered the appropriately named Phoenix Road.  Here it suddenly became pleasant, liveable.  There was a church, a school, blocks of flats.  A pleasing rack of housing association apartments overlooked a private patch of green.

It was a little before 9 and a gaggle of women were bringing their little ones to the school.  A tiny boy broke free from his mum and ran away giggling; she followed him down the path, unable to stop laughing herself.

It felt like a proper community place.  People were talking to one another.  A man sat in his front yard, reading the paper and smoking a fag.  It was a place for people to live.

I wondered how long it had left.  At the end of the street, the Francis Crick Institute is being finished off.  There are huge transport termini within spitting distance.  The British Library took over the old goods yard.  It's becoming desirable, and all these poor people are in the way of fashionable flats and office towers.

I was only in London for one day.  The BF had a meeting, and he dragged me along so he'd have someone to talk to on the 06:05 from Lime Street.  He promptly got on board and fell asleep, so that was marvellous.  I waved him off at Euston and walked down my short cut to St Pancras.  In the new part of the station, the Midland Main Line section, it lacks grandeur, but there's still an elegance to it.  It fits.

Regular readers (hello you!) might recall that back in July I tried to visit all the stations on the Victoria Line a.k.a the best Underground line.  It was a sweltering hot day, I was a bit lazy, and I basically gave up after Euston and went to the pub and had a pint.  Now I was back, and this time I was determined to finish the job: the final seven stations on the line.

I ignored the tempting curve of King's Cross mainline station and instead turned up King's Boulevard, the grandiosely titled pedestrian street that leads to Granary Square and the new developments behind the stations.  On the left is One Pancras Square, a new office block wrapped in iron columns, and in its basement is a tube station.

Actually that's not true.  In the basement is a corridor to King's Cross St Pancras tube station - yes, another one.  The developers constructed it as a way of drawing people straight into the heart of their development.  It's like they imagine commuters are very easily distracted.

At street level, and in the escalator area, it's very ordinary.  There are no ticket machines or ticket hall - because pretty much everyone who'll use this entrance will have an Oyster card ready - and it's lined with plain white tiles.  Underground though, it becomes a strange glowing new world.

Colours strobe down an LED wall on your left, light carrying you along the passageway.  The black darts in the ceiling and the wall on your right, meanwhile, create a hypnotic repetition, mirrored in the floor patterns.  It's a weird, brilliant space, for what is basically just a corridor, like a 1970s space station.

I followed the corridor into another corridor, and from there into King's Cross's Northern Ticket Hall.  It seems baffling now, but there used to be only one Tube ticket hall serving both mainline stations.  The arrival of Eurostar caused a massive rebuild underground, and now there's a St Pancras ticket hall, the old one in the middle (greatly expanded) and the northern ticket hall under King's Cross's new plaza.  Plus, the old Thameslink entrance is open as a way into the Tube on weekdays.

The ticket hall is so big TfL were able to carve out a corner to plug its New Tube for London, the futuristic new train that might be arriving on the Piccadilly Line in the future.  I stopped and watched a CGI video that promoted all its fancy new features, then bent down for a better look at the little model of the train underneath.  I particularly liked the liveried Underground workers, though I couldn't help noticing they weren't actually driving the train; the new Tube will have the facility to be completely automated, eliminating all those pesky drivers who make outrageous demands to be paid and have holidays and things.

I passed through the ticket gates and headed into the warren of passages that thread beneath ground.  Six Tube lines connect at King's Cross St Pancras and so it's a confusing network of stairs, corridors and ramps that try to separate passengers out without too much bother.  It's only going to get bigger, too; Crossrail 2, necessary to carry passengers off the High Speed Line into London, will pass through here.  The station will be so long, it'll have King's Cross St Pancras at one end and Euston at the other, creating a behemoth of a station rivalled only by Chatelet-Les Halles in Paris.  In fact, add in the scheme to (finally) connect Euston Square station to the mainline one and it means that one day you'll be able to walk almost a mile entirely beneath the Euston Road.  Handy for the mole people (don't tell me there aren't any mole people in London, I know there are.  WAKE UP SHEEPLE).

I snapped a picture of the Victoria Line seat backing - it's crowns forming a cross, geddit? - and boarded a train north.  It was almost empty.  The commuters had all headed south; now this was just a stock movement and I happened to be on board.

The seat backs at Highbury & Islington, meanwhile, depict a castle that once stood on this spot, the "High Bury".  It was destroyed by revolting peasants ("you said it, they stink on ice").

Highbury & Islington is less an interchange station, more a place where a load of railway lines crash into one another.  It's a mess.  Running parallel to the Victoria Line are the Northern City lines, the route between Hertford and Moorgate, and which used to be part of the Underground.  There's easy transfer through to the other platforms, meaning that you can poke your head through and see an underground station that's not got TfL branding - a slightly disconcerting experience.

Dirty corridors and staircase after staircase send you up towards the surface.  It's a busy station but it doesn't feel like anyone wants it.  Even the arrival of Overground services didn't see much improvement; some lifts were installed but that was about it.

In all fairness, the Germans did fire a V2 rocket at the station, so there wasn't a fantastic railway terminus here that was cruelly demolished.  But the arrival of the Victoria Line should have made something out of the station instead of what we currently have; a lean to on a back street.

It is my duty to inform you that the pub next door to the station is called "The Famous Cock".  Rumours that it is to be renamed "The Matt Smith" were, sadly, made up by me just then.

On the opposite side of Upper Street there's a far more attractive railway building, built for those Northern City lines.  It hasn't been used since the Victoria Line came along, and though it's garishly painted, I can't help thinking it would be a much better way into the station than what's currently there.

Holloway Road's also called the A1, and its long straight form gives a hint to its importance as a main road.  The shops on either side are buried in the ground floors of turn of the century terraces, their brickwork blackened by decades of soot and bus exhausts.  There are the occasional Islington-ish businesses - a large art supplier, a kitchen designer, Waitrose - but it's mostly newsagents and ethnic food shops.  At the top the London Metropolitan University's staked its claim with an angled, stainless steel building fronting some far less distinguished grey office blocks.

The big attraction round here is, of course, the Emirates, Arsenal's flying saucer of a stadium.  It lurches out of the side street, a weird, alien presence that doesn't really belong.  It's not like the Etihad, which dominates the world around it, and it's not like Anfield, a cobbled together mess of different shaped stands that have grown over the years.  The Emirates is a cold green steel disc that frowns at passers by.

A handful of Asian tourists stumbled out of the club shop with carrier bags full of overpriced souvenirs.  They then paused outside so they could all have their picture taken in front of the Arsenal sign.  I took my own picture of the Arsenal sign.

I'm such a child.

In an ideal world, Arsenal would have given TfL a huge amount of money when they built the stadium so that all the local stations could be rebuilt to accommodate the thousands of people who pass through on a weekly basis.  They didn't, of course, instead preferring to chuck their millions into the grasping hands of sports agents and hormonal cases who can kick a ball a bit.  The result is the two nearest stations - Holloway Road on the Piccadilly Line and Drayton Park on the Northern City - have to be closed on matchdays because they can't handle the traffic.  A slight flaw, I'm sure you'll agree.

Behind the station, London went back to being normal again.  Stucco'd houses glistening in the warm October sun.  A leisure centre advertising mum and tots sessions.  Blocks of flats.  There was a moment of horror when I saw this:

Obviously my first thought was, "I bet it isn't."  Someone's overcompensating.  My second thought was, why would you buy that?  I mean, you're driving a BMW, so everyone knows you're a wanker already.  Why compound things?

I was now in the vicinity of the infamous Finsbury Park Mosque.  Obviously I kept an eye out for insane jihadists intent on destroying me and my entire way of life.  I didn't see any.  All I saw was the same kind of people you see everywhere in London - a bit miserable, a bit harassed, a bit busy.  A mix of colours and shapes but all with a vaguely distracted look on their face as they tried to get somewhere else, quickly.

I passed the Supreme Supermarket and Top Pizza - neither of which seemed to have a very good claim to the title - and reached Finsbury Park station.  There's a larger, more impressive entrance behind the bus station, but I used the little side exit, tucked under the railway lines.

Nice lamp, though.

I pushed my way down the corridor to the platform.  Finsbury Park has the misfortune of being the Underground's slightly dim child, the one who eats the paper he's meant to be drawing on.  Its platform motifs are very pretty, depicting pistols as a representation of when Finsbury was a spot for duelling in the 18th century.

Except that's a different Finsbury; that's the one three miles south of this spot.  Finsbury Park is effectively commemorating someone else's achievement.

On top of that, as I headed down the steps, I spotted this:

Here it is enhanced for those of you without Robocop-style laser sighted eyeballs:

You mean Stansted, Finsbury Park.  You can get trains to Stansted from Tottenham Hale, not Luton.  Bless.