Cycling the London Underground, Part I


As I child obsessed with geography, maps and endless gazetteers of facts – in short, a proud nerd – the London Underground encompassed all that was sacred. When I was seven or eight, I could not fathom a more enjoyable day out than riding on the Tube, plodding in wonderment through the bustling stations and stopping off for themed merchandise at the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden. I still have all the books, the bedspread, the posters – and dozens of pocket-size Tube maps.

It wasn’t the trains that interested me so much as the feat of infrastructure and engineering. This system of 270 stations across 250 miles of twisting steel is a historical and cultural icon, characterised by its red and white-striped trains and “Mind the Gap” announcements. And of course, there’s Harry Beck’s original 1931 map design which, in its use of topology, revolutionised systems mapping in general. The Tube is a pub quiz trivia sink. Deepest station? (Hampstead, 59m) Oldest line? (Metropolitan, 1863) Only station with escalators up to the trains? (Greenford) One of my useless party tricks – after I’ve forgotten James Polk in the chronological list of U.S. Presidents – is to tell you the route between any two random Underground stations. (That extends to DLR and Overground, even purists will tell you that they don’t constitute the “Tube” proper.) Journalist Mark Mason writes that the London Underground has ‘achieved a special place in London’s collective imagination’; this undoubtedly applies to my own.

In 2010, Tube enthusiast Mason set out to walk each of the eleven London Underground lines in turn, as retold in his book Walk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground. Across 912,384 steps, to be specific, he regales us with a minefield of meditations on the dynamism of London’s urban jungle. When whisked through the Tube tunnel – or, in fact, the 55% of suburban network which actually runs overground – the average traveller never grasps the whiplash changes in architecture, geography, culture or social milieu that characterises one station from the next. “What is London?”, Mason asks, trudging from Hounslow to Hammersmith and Holloway, but also those outposts definitively beyond the suburban boundary at Epping or Amersham. In his quest for ‘ownership’ and expertise over at least part of the city, it’s easy to be swept up in Mason’s enthusiasm and eye for detail. Given my own curiosity for fresh London and/ or Underground related discoveries, I’ve decided to follow in his footsteps – but on my bike.

Cycling the London Underground seems like a well-timed project in this nebulous, lockdown-unwinding period. While leisure and social contact remains restricted, I find the weekends still stretch out ominously. But it’s relatively easy and cheap for me to pop down from Cambridge to Liverpool Street, tick off a line, and maybe meet up to five friends in a chilly pub garden at the end of it. It’s great for my fitness – a few lines pose the stamina challenge of 100+ kilometres – and I have a pretty good sense for navigating off the cuff. And with the provision for cyclists in the United Kingdom as it is, I hope it will provide a unique perspective to write up. Like Mason, I’m going to stick to the eleven Underground lines (no DLR, Overground, Tramlink, TfL Rail, Emirates Airline, etc.) but be a little less dogmatic about retracing the Buckinghamshire branches of the Metropolitan line or attempting to infiltrate my bike into Heathrow. I’m not a complete fanatic…

Bakerloo Line – Saturday 10th April, 10:30am
Stations: 25
Distance: 23.2km (by train); 29.4km (by bike)

I started the challenge last Saturday with a supposedly straightforward double bill. Bakerloo, followed by lunch with a friend at the end of the Jubilee, then back down through the centre to Stratford. I hop on my Boardman road bike at Liverpool Street for the short trip to Elephant & Castle, the Bakerloo’s southern terminus, to be struck for the umpteenth time by the eeriness of lockdown. Only a smattering of red buses pass as I cross London Bridge and arrive at the pigeon-infested square where the route begins. It’s a cold and blustery morning, about 6 degrees, and the skies are threatening drizzle. The Met Office tells me there’s a 90% chance of rain by lunchtime, but Auntie Beeb reckons it’s 20%. Meteorology has clearly come on leaps and bounds since the 1950s. Good job I prepared with thermal skins and my garish yellow waterproof jacket. Almost like a serious cyclist.

I graze on a banana facing the Bakerloo line ticket office, a lone Victorian tenement discordant with the brutalism of Elephant & Castle. The adjacent office block is aptly named Hannibal House, the work of Ernö Goldfinger. The Bakerloo line building was designed by a boy-wonder, turn of the 20th century architect called Leslie Green (1875-1908). Before his death from TB at the tender age of 33, Green was commissioned to design 50 stations for the Bakerloo, Piccadilly and Northern lines. His creations, many of them Grade II listed, present the British Art Nouveau style in a two-storey design, the stations’ exteriors drenched in ox-blood red glazed terracotta tiles, all provided by the Burmantofts pottery near Leeds. Most of Green’s constructions were flat-roofed to allow commercial and residential development above, and thus seamlessly incorporated the Tube into the rapidly expanding city infrastructure. Here, the station and surrounding area are named after a crucial part of said infrastructure – the Elephant & Castle pub – of which I heartily approve.

Kilburn Park, an archetypal Leslie Green station.

Presently, I set off northwest up the “Cycle Superhighway” with my own segregated lane and, unbeknown to me until later in the day, a generous tailwind. I am disgustingly cheerful as I pass the Imperial War Museum and wend my way to Lambeth North and Waterloo (two more Leslie Green creations), which pass by in mere minutes. At Waterloo emerges the world’s most inaccessible IMAX theatre, while my so-called superhighway is squeezed into a foot-wide track between a bus station and a roundabout. This is far more characteristic of London’s cycle lanes, I would discover.

We move swiftly to the cultural nexus of the South Bank, which I must approach on foot – as though I’d want to spend more time than is absolutely necessary with the Royal Festival Hall in my eyeline. This concert centre is even mocked on Wikipedia as exploiting ‘modernism’s favourite material, reinforced concrete’. It celebrates its 70th anniversary next month, having been built for a pittance as the centrepiece of the Attlee government’s Festival of Britain. Whether it helped to improve the national mood in the midst of post-war austerity and food rationing, I’m highly sceptical.

I walk contemplatively across the usually bustling Hungerford/ Golden Jubilee bridge to Embankment. On this intensely grey day, the dark slurry of the Thames conjures up little Wordsworthian awe, although the vista – from the Shard across to Somerset House on my side – remains effortlessly commanding. I pass a less-than-tuneful busker on the far stairs to complete the almost post-apocalyptic ensemble.

Phillipson's The End.

It is a short, sharp ascent of Villiers Street to Charing Cross station and the Strand, which marks the notional centre of London. This is “kilometre zero” from which all distances to London are measured, and the site of the original Eleanor cross erected in the 1290s by Edward I, in memory of his wife Eleanor of Castile. During the Civil War it was pulled down by parliamentarians, a move which sufficiently riled monarchists that after the Restoration, Charing Cross was the execution site of eight regicides. Then came the ultimate revenge: a bronze statue of Charles I on horseback, by a French Catholic sculptor, was erected there in 1675. This is just visible behind Nelson’s Column as I traverse Trafalgar Square. In front of me is the latest temporary instalment on the fourth plinth that has housed Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle and Katharina Fritsch’s rooster (derisively called Boris Johnson’s “big blue cock”). It’s now filled by Heather Phillipson’s The End: a swirl of whipped cream topped with a cherry, a fly and a drone which films passing tourists, of course. Don’t ask me to interpret that…

Approaching Piccadilly Circus, the one-way system becomes excessively convoluted so, to avoid death or taxi wrath, I take liberties on the pavement. The huge neon display has abandoned its habitual advertising to commemorate the death of Prince Philip, two months shy of his centenary birthday. I’ve never been old enough to experience a royal bereavement of this magnitude and was surprised by Friday’s deferential, wall-to-wall media coverage, befitting a bygone era. Yet the ubiquity of images of the Duke across the capital, on billboards and bus stops, capture his significance as an anchor to his Queen and country, an unceasing public servant and disarming wit. It’s testament to his longevity: when Philip was born in 1921, most of the suburbs I’m visiting were mere villages, fields and woodlands.

Thence to Oxford Circus, where betwixt the stunning curved colonnades of Regent Street I observe the rustling in the store fronts in preparation for Monday’s grand unlocking. There are even queues for the Apple Store’s click-and-collect; I pity those suckers trapped in the doom loop of acquiring a next gen iPhone, identical to its predecessor except for the charger ports which force you to fork out for expensive new accessories. Soon pass the glass screens of Broadcasting House and I begin a short game of "guess the embassy from its flag" (or, in China’s case, its protestors). Then the road diverges, lined now with white-marbled Georgian edifices, and opens onto Regent’s Park. It is a refuge for proper, lycra-clad cyclists, even now the drizzle has begun in earnest. Several give me an inclusive nod, while larger parties try their hardest to monopolise the park ring road and frustrate my swift progress thus far: 8 out of 25 stations in half an hour.

As I pass the Holmes Café and zero in on Baker Street, the traffic I’ve been expecting suddenly materialises in an array of cabs, buses and DPD delivery vans. I wait ages for a right turn down some narrow back streets to Marylebone, a pleasant red-brick, late Victorian mainline terminus and my first Monopoly station. There’s a canopy across to the five-star Landmark hotel opposite, where fees will start at a tasty £297 per night after its May reopening. I continue through a few more hairpin junctions, past some seedy tattoo parlours, salons and surgeries, then hit the labyrinthine intersection between Edgware Road and the Westway. This is one of London’s mercifully rare tributes to the American strategy of destroying historic buildings to cut a noisy concrete swathe through city centres to slightly ease congestion. It’s a right turn onto Praed Street, the somewhat run-down approach to Paddington station and – as Tube fans will know – the western end of the first Underground/ Metropolitan Railway in 1863. Here the quiet resumes, notwithstanding construction works which force cyclists the wrong way up a one-way system. Not that the Deliveroo mopeds that overtake me seem to notice. TfL probably gave up with encouraging responsible cycling decades ago.

Paddington station is consumed by scaffolding, so I have to backtrack through St. Mary’s Hospital to the canal basin and very cobbled pedestrian path that will take me across to Little Venice with only minor spinal aggravation. This is a stylish, leafy gem that jars with the grubbiness of Paddington. Calling the area even “Little” Venice is, however, quite the stretch in my mind – it’s a crossroads of two canals. But it’s alleged that Lord Byron coined the nickname humorously and it stuck. I pass several groups enjoying their socially-distanced-coffees-on-a-bench (the drizzle has stopped again) and a pair of BMXers discussing philosophy (naturally) en route to Warwick Avenue. Welsh songstress Duffy has planted this quaint, green-railinged station in our cultural imagination, yet the street is more distinctive for another modernist aberration, St. Saviour’s Church. It is an ugly mess of brown and grey, all corners and sharp edges, with a thick silver steeple which must attract the mother of lightning strikes and associated heavenly wrath.

The architectural extremes of this area are striking: compare St. Saviour’s to the beautiful gothic revival structure of St. Augustine’s Kilburn: only a few stops north but disguised by the oaks of Forty Tree Green. Locals refer to the church as the “Cathedral of North London” and its spire stands at over 77 metres. Leading on from Warwick Avenue, the tree-lined Warrington Crescent evokes the Georgian style of Mayfair or Belgravia while Randolph Avenue, where Maida Vale is situated, houses a hodge-podge of brightly-striped Edwardian and interwar apartments. Kilburn Park is surrounded by sixties-era social housing and modern, glass-dominated flats, while the station itself is the last of Leslie Green’s design on the Bakerloo. Indeed, the area feels like the last vestige of central London before the sprawls of suburbia.

From Brondesbury Road, with its manicured gated driveways and Land Rovers standing guard, I reach Queen’s Park and follow the Bakerloo line in a more literal sense now the underground section has ended. The side roads abutting the tracks are sprinkled with off-licenses and more empty shops, eagerly awaiting lockdown’s end. At Kensal Green, I stop for a short rest opposite the 72-acre cemetery of the same name, where such celebrities as Ingrid Bergman, Freddie Mercury and Alan Rickman are buried. As if to remind me of this proximity to death, a man carrying a large “Jesus Saves” sign makes a beeline towards me and I scramble off on the journey west. The surroundings become increasingly industrial and packed with Saturday midday traffic as I pass Willesden Junction (repair shops galore) and Harlesden (viaducts and fish bars).

On my way to Stonebridge Park – a station wrought almost inaccessible by the North Circular – I pass an actual park, see actual children playing actual football and actual parents shouting at actual referees. It’s strangely heartening to get this sudden, banal reminder that after three difficult months of Lockdown III, signs of real life are returning. Soon we’ll be in the pub again, raising a pint cautiously but irreversibly to our lips (although that might be quite impractical). Before that, the distinctly red and white semi-detached houses of Tokyngton Avenue, Wembley, await. The allusion to the Japanese capital must be purely coincidental.

My meticulous navigation feels uncertain as I pedal through rickety alleyways, the huge stadium arch to my right a sole point of reference. Yet somehow, none of these yield a dead end and I approach the first truly busy section of the journey at Wembley Central. Throngs of pedestrians frequent the chicken shops, Greggs, TK Maxx, mobile phone shops (the sort that can’t possibly remain solvent by selling only mobile phones) and Indian takeaways that greet me. With lunchtime approaching, my stomach is roused. This ends promptly before the next station, North Wembley, as I squeeze between some more cul-de-sacs in passageways festooned with mattresses, kebab detritus, stained clothing and broken glass. Wembley certainly has character.

The hints of seediness disappear almost as soon as they arrive. By South Kenton, I return to row upon row of semi-detacheds in mock-Tudor design – almost Waitrose territory. The conglomeration opens onto Northwick Park, a vast green riposte to the (now lighter) grey skies, bounded by the Bakerloo to its east, a large hospital to its north and the hills of Harrow to its west. Suddenly, I’m transported to the days of high school cross country and our trips to Harrow School for the interscholastic mud championship. Yes, my punishment for being no good at rugby, hockey or cricket was an annual outing to run in those fields and hills of sludge. Many a shoe and adolescent’s resolve was lost on that course. Still, I’d have no such trials in sticking to the dry footpaths today.

Kenton is situated among yet more Tudor-revival-but-otherwise-nondescript estates, by a Sainsbury’s and a Premier Inn. I begin to worry about the monotony of outer London for future endeavours; I have Richard Ayoade’s Travel Man catchphrase in my head: ‘We’re here, but should we have come?’ But this is a unique part of suburbia: prime “Metro-land” territory. It’s so-called because the Bakerloo, Metropolitan and Piccadilly line extensions in this corner of London were built before, in anticipation of, the expansion of the suburbs in the 1920s and 30s. “Metro-land” was a marketing slogan by the Metropolitan Railway (of which more in a few weeks) to pull social-climbing, professional families out of inner London’s grotty neighbourhoods to their own spacious homes in the countryside, yet with a fast rail link to the City (for work) and the West End (for pleasure). Of course, the more popular “Metro-land” became, the less likely it was one could actually live in the country rather than simply contribute to urban sprawl; besides, World War II burst the expansion bubble.

I do some people-watching on the last leg of the journey, a more built-up section of the A409 through Harrow proper to Harrow & Wealdstone, but I’m irritated by the number of people out wearing masks under their chins. The day we finally dispense with these tiresome face mask rituals could not come soon enough.

I start to feel the physical exertion of nearly 30km of stopping and starting with the final climb over the railway lines to the terminus. On reflection, however, the Bakerloo was an easy and rather uneventful starter. It’s flat and relatively navigable – compared to the Jubilee’s three Thames crossings – and blends the famous landmarks with serene if monotonous middle-class suburbia. Mark Mason declares that this end of the Bakerloo is ‘not London’, but surely an area that came into being with the encouragement of the Tube itself is essential to the city? It’s probably just the emptiness of lockdown, but the area outside the Congestion Charging zone seemed to me more like London than the centre; with streets generally starved of people, at least the traffic felt familiar. Still, my afternoon’s instalment, the Jubilee, would be a very different experience. (To be continued...)