Friday 18 July 2014

Victoria Regina

Earlier this week the BF had to go away for a meeting.  Normally I'd wave him off with a cheery smile, looking forward to an evening of self-indulgence (pizza, beer, and at least one Bond film).  However, on this occasion, I decided to tag along, as it meant 24 hours in London.  You can never visit London enough.

While he was in his meeting, though, I'd have to find a way to amuse myself.  I thought about walking the Crossrail route, but that's largely picking round a series of holes in the ground these days.  Perhaps a stroll round the Circle Line - no, wait, Ian and Adrian did that the Saturday before.  So I settled for the Victoria Line.

If pressed, I'd probably have to name the Victoria as my favourite of all the Tube lines.  The deep-level tubes are better than the sub-surface ones, for reasons too obvious to mention, and the Victoria is the only one that never pokes its head above ground (unless you're an employee headed for the depot).  Since it was planned and constructed within a relatively short period of time, there's a consistency to its design and layout; this is in direct contrast to the mainly cobbled-together nature of the other lines (Kingsbury and Westminster are both on the Jubilee, but Kingsbury is like a garden suburb semi and Westminster is a glittering steel station from the future; sixty years separate their construction).

I started at the end: Brixton.  The plans for the Victoria Line took decades to come to fruition - it was first suggested in the 1930s - and its southern terminus thrashed around all over the place.  East Croydon, West Croydon, Coulsdon; there was even one idea that the line would make a weird turn to the west after Victoria and take over the Wimbledon branch of the District line.  Brixton was finally settled on.  It was cheaper than heading all the way across South London, but it still brought the Tube to an area of the city that was without Underground lines, and was close to Brixton railway station for interchanges.

On the platform, I found one of the Victoria Line's little delights.  Each station had a unique piece of artwork commissioned and installed in the seating alcove; it took inspiration from the surroundings or the name or the history.  At Brixton they have - and it makes me smile just typing this - a ton of bricks.


I'd been here once before, about 19 years ago, but it had been a very brief visit.  Since then the ticket hall's been revamped, given lifts for disabled access, and had an absolutely colossal roundel installed in the glass window over the entrance.

I immediately took a wrong turn out of the station, going left instead of right.  I blame the fact that I spotted a sign for Electric Avenue in the distance, and, as it's widely known, you've got to rock down to Electric Avenue.

Then I took it higher, continuing along the Brixton Road towards Windrush Square.  I saw the legendary Ritzy cinema, then did a circuit of St Matthew's Church before heading back the way I came.

I started to feel guilty.  This is nothing new - I feel guilty about something on a minute by minute basis - but here I felt bad for pre-judging Brixton.  The name is tainted; it brings up images of riots, violence, urban blight.  I'd expected it to be something like a ghetto.  Instead I found a lively, exciting district, filled with trees and shops.  It was just another town centre.  It certainly wasn't a byword for the collapse of society.

I ducked down a side road filled with tall villas with staircases up to the front and emerged on the Stockwell Road, opposite a skate park.  A BMX-er was already putting it to good use, riding the humps on one wheel, two wheels, spinning the frame of his bike under his body in mid-air.  Behind him a pair of cranes hinted that the rich arms of the city were starting to stretch this way.

There were a parade of different cafes and stores all along the road, each representing a different country and each one happily co-existing with its neighbour.  A Lebanese cafe next to a West Indian food store; a Portuguese restaurant beside a Ghanian hair salon.  Posters advertised cheap call cards to contact home during Ramadan.  A woman in the full burka passed the Chinese Community Association.

It left me feeling excited and thrilled.  It was like being abroad, but in Britain; surrounded by strange, unfamiliar sights and listening to unknown languages against a backdrop of Radio Two and red double-deckers.  It was a glorious mish-mash, and so much more interesting than another British high street of Boots, WH Smith, McDonalds, and Primark.  I guess this is the kind of thing that would cause Nigel Farage to have an embolism - foreigners!  In our England! - but it made me even more proud of our country.  People just get along if you let them.  They just make a little space and then they bump against the person next door and there's a little moment where the two exchange a look of understanding, and then they just get back to doing whatever they were doing.  It was great.

I'm not saying that things are perfect, by any means, and my next station was a reminder of how things could go horribly wrong.  Stockwell station is now perhaps better known as the place where Jean-Charles de Menezes was executed by Metropolitan Police officers in the paranoia after the 7/7 bombings.  A tiled memorial to him has been erected in the wall outside.

An innocent immigrant murdered by the police after a bombing by British citizens; it all became confused.  I'd had a moment of panic that morning, thinking that I might have arrived on the 9th anniversary of his death; I didn't want to intrude.  I was a week out.

Stockwell station was one of the few surface buildings constructed for the Victoria Line.  It's nothing special.  The whole line suffered continual budget cuts and economies during construction, and so they ended up with a plain brick building.  It's not the Tube's finest hour.

Down below, the tile pattern looks like just a random zig-zag, until you spot that little orange triangle and it becomes clear that you're staring at a swan.

Vauxhall is involved in one of my favourite pieces of "fancy that!" trivia, gleaned from spending my teenage years reading A History of Luton (I was such a cool kid).  The Sheriff of Bedfordshire under King John was a man named Falkes de Breaute; he had a home in Luton round about where Castle Street is now.  His London home, meanwhile, leant its name to the local area, eventually morphing from Falkes' Hall to Vauxhall.  When a brand new car manufacturer in the area needed a logo, they adopted Falkes' Griffin, then, when they got too big for the middle of London, the Vauxhall Motor Company moved out to... Luton.  History goes in cycles, folks.

Hey, I thought it was interesting.

The tiled seat backs at the station take their inspiration from the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, a sort of 18th Century Disneyland.  They're disappointingly traditional after its more abstract predecessors.

Up on the surface, Vauxhall underground station is overshadowed by its transport neighbours.  The National Rail station is easily visible beneath the viaducts, and the distinctive Vauxhall Cross bus station gleamed in the hot summer sun.  Its distinctive "ski-jump" outcrops house solar panels, which power the station.

It's now one of the busiest bus interchanges in London, but it was opened under the Ken Livingstone era, so now Boris wants to demolish.  Apparently he wants to make this a "linear park"; what he actually means is a lot of posh people have bought apartments in the area and a bus station isn't too desirable.  The buses, instead of gathering in a central place, will be spread around the roundabout.  Inconvenient and confusing, but it'll only affect the poor people, so it doesn't matter.

(Dear London readers: please vote this bugger out at the earliest possible opportunity.  Many thanks).

Next to all that, the totem signs and underpasses for the Underground stations seem a little inadequate.

Obviously the real star of Vauxhall Cross isn't the transport hub at all: it's Terry Farrell's gaudy, over the top, brilliant headquarters for MI6.  (Incidentally, the bus station is located on Bondway; a fantastic coincidence that makes me grin like a loon).

It's hard not to look at those two on the pavement and think, are they spies?  Surely that's a flaw in housing your Secret Service in a really obvious building - the Russians can just set themselves up on a bench on the other side of the street and film everyone going in.  It's good to see they repaired all the damage that Silva did to it in Skyfall, though.

There's an actual Vauxhall Cross underground station in Die Another Day.  That should be a perfect nexus for me of 007 and the Tube, but actually it really annoys me.  Bond enters it by County Hall and ends up on a Piccadilly Line platform; none of that is anywhere near Vauxhall.  Such a basic flaw in the idea.  Not that I wouldn't climb over the corpses of a thousand infants to get a look at it myself, mind.

I crossed Vauxhall Bridge, looking down the river and thinking, nope, London just doesn't get any uglier, does it?

At the foot of the bridge, a new residential development was being squeezed into the triangle of land between the river and Millbank.  I'd crossed over into rich, serene Pimlico now, home to Tate Britain and embassies of former Soviet republics.  White fronted houses surrounded silent garden squares.

There nearly wasn't a station at Pimlico.  The Victoria Line was designed for interchanges, and all its other stations crossed another Tube line or a mainline.  This bit of the city was untouched by any public transport, so while there was a suggestion in the initial plans that there should be a station here, budget crunches saw it drop off the list.  The Crown Estates, who own much of the land round here, stepped in and offered a spot for the station for free; they cannily realised that their property would be worth a whole lot more with a fast link to the West End on its doorstep.  A similar deal was hammered out for the forthcoming Woolwich Crossrail station.

The deal was so last minute that Pimlico ended up opening a year after the rest of the stations on the Brixton extension, in 1972.  I was pleased to go inside and find a station that was still much as it had been when it opened.

I pushed past the gaggle of French backpackers who were cluttering up the ticket hall and headed down below.  Note the central staircase in the tunnel; yet another cost cutting feature, where space for three escalators was provided, but only two were installed.  The idea was if traffic demanded it, a third escalator could be installed later.  For most of the Victoria Line's stations, this happened almost immediately, except now you had to install an escalator with passengers going by and without interfering with the train running.  Those third escalators ended up costing a whole lot more in the long run than if they'd just been put in right away.

Below ground, it felt like something right out of the era of the Three Day Week.  The Underground's current elegant, confident corporate look hadn't filtered down here; this was still the ALL CAPS, slightly rattled 1970s London.  A city that was a bit shitty, really, and dirty, with a transport network that was short of cash.  The line guide on the tunnel wall still listed interchanges with "British Rail", and Green Park had a very obvious patch where the arrival of the Jubilee Line in 1979 had been cheaply filled in.  There was also a dimly backlit roundel sign, something that seemed like a great idea until London Transport realised they'd have to go round changing the bulbs and keeping it clean.

It sounds like I'm picking on Pimlico, and that's not the case.  I found it charming and fun.  Its seat design is a let down though.  Practically next door is the Tate, so it's no surprise that they took inspiration from its collection for the tiles.  Perhaps a replica of a work by Turner?  A Warhol?  No, they did some yellow dots.

Still, twenty years later Damien Hirst was doing something similar for his Spot Paintings and earning thousands of quid, so maybe the Tube was just very prescient.  I was busy taking photos, so I let the train behind me pass; the rest of the people on the platform were more keen to get away, despite the dispatcher announcing "there is another train right behind this one, which will be less crowded."

The train pulled out and left just the two of us behind.  He sighed into his microphone.  "I may as well talk to myself."


Dave said...

the brixton bricks is genius

Ian said...

"Regina". *titters*

Andrew Bowden said...

I was told once by someone with LU connections that each of all tube signs have a fixed life-span and LU will do their absolute uttermost not to replace them before they reach the end of the dedicated lifespan. Hence old branded signs, with bits screwed on or stickers applied, to ensure good value for money. They last something like 30 odd years.

And some people have the audacity to say that the public sector is wasteful. Compare that with some rail stations where the signs seem to last barely ten minutes...

Klepsie said...

Another factoid for you about Vauxhall: it's supposedly the reason why the Russian word for "railway station" is "вокзал", a transliteration of "Vauxhall". (See for discussions...)

El Kap said...

CASK Pub. A reason never to make a train from Pimlico station...