Cycling the London Underground, Part II


Jubilee Line – Saturday 10th April, 2:45pm
Stations: 27
Distance: 36.2km (by train); 56.2km (by bike, plus accidental detours)

My return journey begins in leafy Stanmore, on the cusp of Greater London. Long-time home to Prime Minister Clement Attlee and an outstation of Bletchley Park during the Second World War, the town feels more distinctive and rural than the Bakerloo suburbs. It helps that for the first time today there are real hills; just a stone’s throw from the Sainsbury and Lidl-dominated Broadway lies Stanmore Country Park and its stunning vistas from Canary Wharf across to Heathrow. I’m refuelled by lunch with a friend from Wenzel’s – an independent bakery chain that dominates the Northwest London market – and head east to the village hall-like northern terminus of the Jubilee line.

My path back to Central London almost mirrors that of the outward journey, a few miles east. The Jubilee line north of Baker Street in fact used to be a branch of the Bakerloo until 1979, when it was opened as a line in its own right – the name commemorating the Queen’s Silver Jubilee – with a new West End section to Charing Cross. This terminus didn’t last long, as the renewal of London’s Docklands into a financial hub presented the opportunity for a south river extension connecting mainline hubs at Waterloo, London Bridge and Stratford to the Isle of Dogs and the Millennium Dome. The Jubilee Line Extension opened just in time for said Millennium in December 1999. It is a “future-proofed” architectural masterpiece: £3.5 billion of cavernous cathedrals to commuting. With four Thames crossings, a station perilously close to the Houses of Parliament and a Canary Wharf complex which required the draining of a 250-metre-long dock, it was a bit of a nightmare to build – and to navigate.

From Stanmore, though, it’s a straightforward pedal southward to Canons Park. I am accompanied by a convoy of 4x4s who become very cross when the leading Range Rover trundles to a halt, clearly lost, and blocks the residential avenue. I scoot off through the gaps as the tooting ensues. Yet my path is blocked again as I realise that the Barnet FC Training Ground (note: I’m about 8 miles from anywhere that can be considered Barnet) has been converted from a shortcut into a Covid testing centre. Cross myself, I fumble through more mock Tudor uniformity to the Garden City-esque streets of Queensbury. There’s a right turn, a Morrisons and a jammed main road en route to Kingsbury. The local council has blessed me with a narrow cycle lane in the middle of a busy pavement, which I give up using after near-misses with several feral children.

I calm down as we exchange the bustle of Kingsbury Road for the woody hillside of Fryent Country Park. It would be peaceful if it wasn’t bisected by a steeply climbing A road, which I struggle up (lunchtime mini pizza and cookies threaten to make a reappearance). Mercifully, it’s then all downhill to my next station, Wembley Park. The surroundings transform back to affluent residential, then to the retail parks and newfangled tower blocks that announce our proximity to the eponymous stadium. I attempt to find Olympic Way, the long pedestrian thoroughfare to the former Empire Stadium which was centrepiece of the Olympic Games in 1948. I have to negotiate a packed JD Sports car park, but the approach is almost bare. It’s far-cry from my last visit to Wembley, in equally miserable weather in November 2019, to watch England’s women defeated by Germany (plus ça change) in front of a packed, Covid-free house.

Wembley Olympic Way.

The stadium is surrounded by an enormous industrial estate; I traipse past Pyramid Builders, Metro Wardrobes and Euro Car Parts in a vague daze, 40-odd kilometres into the day. I reach the North Circular road, which Google Maps informs me I must cross to re-enter civilisation. It takes about 20 minutes in the absence of useful signage: through another shop car park; a person-sized hole in a fence; a cycle path precariously adjacent to six lanes of dual carriageway; a railway bridge; an underpass below said dual carriageway; and finally a cul-de-sac of apparently abandoned houses. What a useless location for my next station, Neasden.

At this point, I realise that this section of the Jubilee line is actually closed for one of London Underground’s perpetual engineering works, so I could save myself navigatory hassle by taking the replacement bus route. Easier said than done, however, as I follow a double-decker through the construction site that is Willesden. There are endless red lights along the crowded High Road, it starts to rain properly and – worst of all – the replacement bus cheats, missing Dollis Hill altogether. (Scandalous, but there’s no time to go back once I’ve realised.) Willesden Green is leafier, well-to-do territory again, but my focus has turned to avoiding a soaking rather than sightseeing.

Dartmouth Road, with its horse chestnut canopies beginning to sprout green shoots, offers some respite. But I have to stop under the railway viaduct at Kilburn to clear my mist-covered glasses and actually see again. Here the line crosses the Roman road Watling Street, now glamorously known as the A5. This is a preserved route of over 230 miles from Dover to Wroxeter – near today’s Shrewsbury. It is distinctive on London maps as a rare straight line, connecting Marble Arch to Elstree, among a spaghettied morass of later streets. Indeed, modern archaeologists date Watling Street back to 47-48 AD, only a few years after the Romans arrived to impose some order upon the recalcitrant ancient Britons.

As the rain recedes to a manageable drizzle I must continue to forge east, and M&S Food heralds the arrival of West Hampstead. The following stop, Finchley Road, then goes one better with an enormous Art Deco Waitrose: this might be the most popular store of the day, judging by the queue of parishioners diligently distanced at its entrance. I turn right onto the multi-laned arterial road, dotted with coaches and delivery lorries, to arrive at the Jubilee’s customary station named for a pub, Swiss Cottage. (This is actually the third iteration of the name: the initial 1804 tollkeeper’s lodge was called “Swiss Tavern”, then “Swiss Inn” until the early 20th century.)

To avoid being sideswiped across three lanes of traffic into Swiss Cottage, I bear off the main road to absorb the enormous Victorian mansions and 1930s apartment complexes of St. John’s Wood. There’s some quick downhill progress, with a glimpse of the space-age white pods of Lord’s Cricket Ground on my right and the imposing minaret and golden dome of London Central Mosque just visible through the foliage ahead – on the west side of Regent’s Park. I scarcely knew this venerable structure existed before I planned this route and was further surprised to read that it only opened in 1977, after over half a century of wrangling. In recent years, the mosque’s location is no small irony: an Islamic centre of worship virtually next door to Winfield House, the U.S. Ambassador’s residence.

By 4:15, I’m back at Baker Street and the relative quiet of the Congestion Charging Zone. Even on this dark Saturday, it’s bizarre to see the shopping avenues deserted: Selfridge’s is shuttered and Oxford Street easily passible. They’re replaced by a handful of people whizzing about on electric scooters, because apparently that’s now a cool thing to do for people above the age of 12. I turn right down Bond Street and pass the quirky bench-statue where tourists can sit between Churchill and Roosevelt, as if in conversation. This area is a feast of Prada, Bulgari (Bvlgari?), Cartier, Dior and Rolex boutiques – just as busy as normal…

I walk through the foliage of Green Park to Buckingham Palace; it’s rather sparsely attended for the day after a Royal bereavement, though of course there’s the white-tented media circus lurking behind the Queen Victoria monument. Beneath my feet/ wheels, this is where the Jubilee line diverges from its former course down the Mall to Charing Cross. The Charing Cross platforms are closed to the public but maintained by TfL, to provide an easy likeness for any filmmaker requiring a few Tube scenes. Such blockbusters as The Bourne Ultimatum and Skyfall have filmed here; note in the latter that 007’s chase of the supervillain Raoul Silva from “Temple” to “Embankment” station in fact uses the same Charing Cross Jubilee station, kitted up in appropriate District line attire.

I continue from the Palace onto another Cycle Superhighway alongside St. James’ Park. It’s busy again at Westminster, the first stop on the Jubilee Line Extension. In order to build the station, a 39-metre-deep box had to be constructed below the still-operating District and Circle line platforms and carefully avoiding the 140-year-old foundations of the Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben, as its misnamed). In an episode of engineering wizardry, the ground below the Houses of Parliament was filled with numerous horizontal tubes of concrete, which has kept the already listing clock tower out of alignment with its base by only 50 centimetres.

Building the Jubilee at Westminster. Today's Portcullis House went on top of this underground cavern.

I appreciate Westminster Bridge’s ample bike lane en route to Waterloo; I refuel at Tesco Express with some water and sugary comestibles. It’s estimated that this is just one of 9,000 convenience or grocery stores in the Greater London area. That seems a remarkable statistic, but it works out quite feasibly that there would be about an average-sized shop per 1,000 people. More concerningly, perhaps, is that there are (as of 2018) 237 Pret A Mangers in the region, nearly two-thirds of the UK total and one for every 38,000 people. Even amid the pandemic, Pret’s consumption of its rivals in the capital shows few signs of abating.

Endless traffic lights hinder my progress past Southwark – a maze of empty-looking tenements and market squares – to London Bridge. I’m losing valuable time in queues of BMXing adolescents and Deliveroo drivers with no authority, in my view, to use the Cycle Superhighway. A stylish mixture of glass-clad investment banks and pastel-shaded wharves-turned-swanky apartments surround Tooley Street from City Hall down to Bermondsey. The weather is improving, but then the surroundings take a turn for the worse as I approach Southwark Park. This is the site of many a pre-pandemic tennis match – or rather, meltdown – with an old school friend. On one occasion, I tried to blame deteriorating light for my 6-7, 2-6, 4-6 loss, until my victorious pal informed me that he also cannot see in the dark.

At Canada Water, a station marked by a glass drum-like structure that allows natural light to penetrate down to the platforms, it’s time to go off-piste. The Jubilee line traverses the Thames three times between here and Canning Town, but I can only cross using one route, through the Greenwich foot tunnel. (There is a car tunnel at Rotherhithe, but it looks narrow and congested, and I want to avoid death from asphyxiation.) Therefore, I’ll do the stations out of order: straight to North Greenwich along the south Thames Path, then doubling back, through the tunnel, to Canary Wharf.

But even this is arduous: a congested main road through forgettable Deptford to Greenwich; a brief reprieve to follow the footpath past Cutty Sark and the Royal Naval College; then industrial wasteland as the Thames turns north towards the Dome. At times, there is a real cycle lane, but more commonly I follow a narrow path at a crawl, negotiating 90-degree bends round disused piers. Junkyards are piled high behind barbed wire fences, while algal scum washes up on the silt to my left; still, I am met by a steady stream of oncoming pedestrians. Eventually, there is an outlet to the Greenwich Peninsula Golf Range, where a heavily-accented cyclist asks for directions to the Thames Path. ‘I just came that way,’ I reply, ‘but it’s horrible.’

North Greenwich station sits in the shape of an eagle’s wingspan, adjoining the O2 Arena. The Dome’s white canopy with its yellow support towers looks like a massive, 80% submerged conker, stranded in this austere marshland. And, for several years, it was considered an expensive failure. Barely half of the estimated 12 million footfall attended the 2000 Dome exhibition – in Blairite jargon, the “Millennium Experience”. It lay almost empty, haemorrhaging taxpayers’ money, until purchased by the mobile phone group O2 in 2005. The Dome’s fortunes were revived, with the addition of a shopping centre, restaurant “street”, entertainment complex and 20,000-seater stadium. I’ve been to the O2 to see everything from Novak Djokovic to Tutankhamun: an ageing relic and a boy pharaoh from the Second Millennium BC. Today it is closed only by public health necessity, the approach plaza dotted with noisy teenagers.

Royalty and government celebrate the new Millennium at the Dome. The Queen clearly wants to be in bed.

I take a longer road route back to Greenwich, for a second chance to marvel at the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is the Old Royal Naval College. It dates back over 300 years and was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, of St. Paul’s and Hampton Court Palace pedigree. The vast site was a hospital for nearly two centuries before making its name as a naval training ground. Now generally a museum, it is an iconic filming location which provided, among other scenes, Buckingham Palace interiors for The King’s Speech and the epic barricade battles for the 2012 film adaptation of Les Misérables.

I walk through the slightly spooky Greenwich Foot Tunnel, nearing my 80th kilometre. Millwall Park is quiet and surrounded by low-rise eighties flats, which morph quickly into enormous silver skyscrapers as I follow the DLR northwards. It’s now past 6pm and Canary Wharf is practically empty. I wonder how much of this office space will remain uninhabited with the shift to flexible, home working in the long-term. Will there be much appeal for this flood-prone peninsula in the post-Covid world? Or do I underestimate the human propensity to return to old, safe and normal – if far from optimal – patterns?

To be honest, I wasn’t thinking about deep philosophical questions at this point in the journey, so much as reaching the end before nightfall and irreversible muscular deterioration in my legs. I take several wrong turns into Maseratied apartment complexes in an attempt to cross East India Quay and the River Lea, a hefty tributary of the Thames that flows towards Stratford, Tottenham and eventually Hertfordshire. I find the zigzagging paths of the Leamouth Peninsula, where new towers block out the deteriorating light, and cross a tastefully trussed red bridge to Canning Town. It seems the only way north is through the station complex, so I mask up and negotiate a painful amount of stairs.

The end of the journey is something of an autopiloted blur: under a dripping viaduct and through a mile of low, square council estates to West Ham. The road bears right into the brown bricked sameness of Plaistow, then left towards something taller and more colourful for the final part of the line. After nearly 100 kilometres, I swing round to the vast Stratford station. The burgundy neon signage of Westfield glows invitingly in the background as I extricate my posterior from the bike seat, in relief more than satisfaction.

The Jubilee line was an ordeal in the afternoon drizzle. The effort of over four hours was contrived by the detours required post-Canada Water. But the juxtaposition of uniform, Metroland-like affluence in the northwest with the unevenly developed southeast presents a fascinating reminder of the money thrown at this city. Cranes litter the landscape and new towers appear virtually every other week. In Mason’s day, Stratford was still a ropey interchange hub, over a year shy of the consecration of twin monuments to sport and shopping that define it today: the Olympic Park and Westfield. I permit myself a sardonic eyeroll at this inevitable truth of capitalism, but as a salmon hue from the setting sun leaks across the dark greys above – finally – my mind turns to McDonalds.