Cycling the London Underground, Part III


Victoria station, with the bespoke tiled motif of the Queen herself. From: https://art.tfl.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/1307_AOTU_Underline_LearningGuide.Interactive.02.pdf

Victoria Line – Friday 23rd April, 3:15pm
Stations: 16
Distance: 21km (by train); 25.3km (by bike)


Sufficiently recovered from a gruelling opening adventure, my second cross-London sojourn promises less graft, and infinitely more pleasant conditions. I’ve got a Friday afternoon to spare before my first dinner reservation in four months, so I decide to take on the shortest proper Tube: the Victoria line.[1] I exit the mainline station at Tottenham Hale to be dazzled by sunlight. There won’t be a single cloud all afternoon and, with temperatures poised in the mid-teens, I slough off serious cycling attire for a T-shirt and jeans. Somehow, I don’t even get burned. I head east a couple of stops to the Victoria line terminus, in excellent spirits, down a nice empty cycleway: this is what I expected to sign myself up for.

Funnily enough, bustling Walthamstow at school pick-up time on a Friday afternoon never made my Bucket List, but there’s something reassuring about the energy of the town. It’s prettier than I expected; blossoms sprinkle the paths of the park that adjoins Walthamstow Central station – my official start – and satisfyingly geometric Victorian terraces fill the side streets. It’s market day on the High Street, and the footfall slows me to a crawl past endless stands of fruit, baked goods, clothes, trinkets, books and dubious-looking mobile accessories. The smell oscillates wildly between fresh breads and spices, exhaust fumes and raw fish – potentially on the turn in the mid-afternoon sun. Following the High Street could take all day, so I weave through tree-lined avenues of euphoric children to emerge on Blackhorse Road. The station building is plain but marked by a square mural of an eponymous black horse with a squashed head. Perhaps the designer made the art class error of drawing the body too big and then struggling desperately to fit the rest of the horse in.

The black horse mural.

The Victoria line is one of two – with the Waterloo & City – to run entirely underground,[2] so I’ve committed the route to memory rather than relying on lines to follow. At least it’s a straight track for the next few miles, along well-apportioned cycle lanes. En route back to Tottenham Hale – newly surrounded by towering apartment blocks – I cross the Walthamstow Wetlands. It’s a network of reservoirs and wildlife refuges, built up from heavy industry by the East London Waterworks after World War II. Though scarcely visible from the main road through dense shrubbery, this is an area of serenity and vital ecological conservation: it provides water to 3.5 million people and is integral to the Lee River byway for migrating birds. The Wetlands are an exemplar of “re-wilding” – a concept in vogue as climate change threatens to decimate low-lying urban development – more than half a century ahead of their time.

From the construction site of Tottenham, I pass mundane retail parks and cavalcades of red buses to reach the intersection of Seven Sisters. The area is so named for seven elms planted in a ring formation on Page Green Common, on my left as I approach the station, as long ago as 1619. I was under the impression that the Seven Sisters were uprooted by the Great Storm of 1987, but further research suggests that elms aren’t especially sturdy and they have, in fact, been replanted with different varieties at least four times – in 1852, 1886, 1955 and 1996 – by families of seven sisters. (The most recent trees were actually planted by five families, each with seven sisters: that’s just showing off.)

I head west along Seven Sisters Road through forgettable South Tottenham and then steeply uphill. The road widens and I am siphoned into a bus lane; I pass some commanding residential units in Stamford Hill but otherwise, my focus is primarily not to be cut up by taxis and postmen. Finsbury Park looks inviting on my right-hand side, dotted with freshly budding oaks, and when the station finally appears through the traffic ahead I take it as my cue to turn south towards some less stressful streets.

This is now Corbyn territory – the former Labour leader’s diverse Islington North constituency – but I see far more of the affluence than the deprivation of the area along Blackstock Road. The steep climb through Highbury is defined by gastropubs and tall, stone tenements. I pass tennis courts and sweeping greens on the gentle downhill to Highbury & Islington station, which lies next door to The Famous Cock: a stellar name for a pub. It’s only more upmarket on the ride down Upper Street to Islington proper, as marked by an Ottolenghi restaurant and Granita – the supposed eaterie where the famous 1994 pact which propelled Tony Blair to Downing Street as Prime Minister, and Gordon Brown next door as his increasingly disgruntled Chancellor, was formalised.

I’m making good progress, so I decide to mosey through some back streets. The Georgian vistas of Milner and Gibson Square are stunning, if silent and austerely uniform. Around the corner is Old Royal Free Square, which I assume is the former site of the now Hampstead-based Royal Free Hospital – given the propensity for London hospitals to change location. In fact, it started life in 1850 as the London Fever Hospital. The local paper tells me that then Islington villagers ‘weren’t keen on sick people with infectious fevers’ – I doubt many people are – but also wanted to build a hospital for the very poor (this a century before the NHS was founded). It survived on voluntary contributions until 1948, when it merged with the Royal Free in Holborn – hence the name – but closed in 1975 after the completion of the far larger, architecturally horrible, Royal Free in Hampstead. Closure was met with huge local opposition since the hospital retained a dedicated women’s wing that specialised in abortions – bear in mind they were only legalised in 1967 – and its patients struggled to arrange transport to Hampstead. Still, it’s in keeping with the hospital’s legacy that in the early 1990s, it was converted into social housing.

Old Royal Free Square today.

I wend through traffic past Angel and right onto the Pentonville Road (two light blue Monopoly spaces in a row) which falls steeply downhill towards King’s Cross St. Pancras. I nearly reach 30 mph before the inevitable red light and must crawl behind a Just Eat moped past Euston. I veer onto the pavement to pass more construction works and make a left turn at Warren Street. This is the site of University College Hospital, which I’ve learned a lot about recently in listening to Jim Down’s Life Support, his diary as an ICU and anaesthesia doctor on the frontline during the Covid crisis. His experience at UCH is enormous (he treated murdered Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko) but Down has no answers as Covid-19 overwhelms the largest critical care unit in the UK. His memoir is both harrowing and inspiring; it’s privilege based on the herculean efforts of NHS doctors, nurses and clinical staff that I can go out relatively safely now to make journeys like this.

Shadows start to envelop the back roads en route to Oxford Circus, where the tone shifts from the sombre to the ridiculous. The din of an unhinged preacher cuts through the laughter of shoppers and bar-goers; he shouts something about Revelation 8 and how Jesus really wasn’t a fan of the ‘lukewarm Christians’. I’m not sure those worshipping at the nearby font of Nike (the athletic apparel retailer, not the goddess) would even consider themselves lukewarm. The lifeblood has returned to Regent Street with its shops; I cut through to Piccadilly and briefly consider a visit to Waterstones, but it’s now 4:30 and the start of rush hour – if such a thing still exists.

The deckchairs at Green Park are in high demand as I cross again in front of Buckingham Palace and the Queen Victoria Memorial – of course, this line’s namesake. The current Queen opened the line in March 1969 by travelling from Green Park to Victoria – under her own house – for a fare of just 5d. The line was not only cheap, but characterised late-sixties futurism: it took 24 minutes to ride from Walthamstow to Victoria; the tiling is bespoke to every station; and hump-backed platforms allow trains to save gravitational potential energy when arriving at and leaving stations.

Continuing south, above ground, I am reminded that Britain is a classless society (!) as I watch a shabbily-dressed couple turned away from the seating outside Bbar, whose website description refers to ‘modern colonial décor’. Victoria mainline station emerges, surrounded by coaches and the pristine white facades of Belgravia. I turn left onto St. George’s Drive, an avenue of imposing five-storey mansions – home, no doubt, to the sort of people who think a European Super League is a sound idea. St. Saviour’s dainty Gothic church appears to my right by Pimlico station, and then the surge of evening traffic reappears for Vauxhall Bridge.

Pimlico.

I’m stunned by the development of this area as I cross the Thames. The previously forgettable vista between the green-glassed oblongs of the MI6/SIS building to my left and Battersea Power Station to my far right has been saturated with yet more ritzy tower blocks. I come off a pleasant cycleway to negotiate the chaos of Vauxhall station, and end up crossing the same thoroughfare four times before I find the route south. On my left is the former Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, the epitome of 18th and 19th century high society, but now a much less exciting park. The main road seems to drain of colour on the approach to Stockwell, which is defined by a very grey clock tower and an Underground ventilation tower painted with impressive, yet peeling, illustrations. The whole area feels in need of some TLC.

On the final leg to Brixton I feel hungry – a meal deal awaits – but relaxed, watching Heathrow-bound planes descend amid cloudless skies. Like Walthamstow, Brixton is a noisy multi-ethnic milieu, packed with market stalls along the High Street and famous Electric Avenue. As I stop, another preacher-with-loudhailer, this one I think Pentecostalist, chastises heretics within earshot. Both areas have embraced the post-Covid world; yes, there are face coverings aplenty – most of them not attached to faces – yet the sense of normality is invigorating. There are few better sights than a busy London bathed in sunshine, and the short, sweet Victoria line was a pleasure.

[1] The Waterloo & City line is shorter, of course, but it’s two stops long and can be completed in 10 minutes. It doesn’t deserve a write up yet.
[2] Technically, the Victoria line depot at Northumberland Park is above ground, but all the stations are underground. The W&C, however, stores its trains underground, and if they need major maintenance they have to be winched out of the ground at Waterloo.