Cycling the London Underground, Part V


The District Line at Earls Court, from: https://www.architecturaldigest.com

District Line – Saturday 25th September, 10:30am
Stations: 60
Distance: 64km (by train); 99.3km (by bike)


It’s taken five months of my challenge to meet this true test of endurance, the District line. I didn’t expect it would take this long, but post-pandemic life – summer holidays, birthdays, crowded rooms of real people, spending beyond my means – intervened. From a convenient base at the fulcrum of the line in Hammersmith, I set out to tackle a Tube which, while not the longest (the Central takes that accolade), has the most stations at sixty. It is also one of the trickiest to navigate, alongside the Metropolitan, with a tangle of tributaries at its western end. The District is shaped like a tall, bare and toppled shrub: linear as it reaches east into the earthiness of Essex, but a jumble of five leafy branches in the western suburbs of Richmond, Ealing, Kensington, Wimbledon and Paddington. The most compact route, I figured, would take me from Edgware Road to Olympia, down to Wimbledon, across the Royal Parks to Richmond, up to Ealing and then retracing through The City to Upminster, having completed an indulgent 150% of the actual track length.

I wake fresh and positively determined, despite several wines at a school reunion the previous evening. Hammersmith is smothered in a low, heavy mist, characteristic of the London “pea soup” fog of the 1950s rather than befitting the climate-collapsing 2020s. I’m on the verge of chilly as I take the Hammersmith and City line to Edgware Road. On board I wolf down an unconventional breakfast of dried mango pieces, Pepsi Max and a chicken tikka and mango chutney sandwich. This project has converted me to the twin causes of mango-as-instant-energy-source and the Tesco meal deal. The entry of hot bacon or sausage baps and chicken nuggets into Sainsbury’s £3 offering shook my faith, but Tesco’s range of sandwich, wrap, salad, samosa, and snack still trumps all before it. Not that the multi-billion-pound conglomerate needs my publicity.

District line map. From: london.wikia.org

I emerge at the Edwardian condominiums of Edgware Road and head west into the construction works that I assume used to be Paddington. While the volume of roadworks seems unchanged since I completed the Bakerloo line in April, the hordes of tourists have returned – to their chief pursuit of gawping and wandering aimlessly in the bike lanes. I recently watched the excellent Netflix series Pretend It’s a City, where American humorist Fran Lebowitz regales Martin Scorsese with a lifetime of observations from life in New York; the title refers to the line she’d like to shout while in my position, facing a packed sidewalk. She might be 70 years old and female, but it seems that Lebowitz is the judgemental yet good-humoured muse I’ve been missing.

Amid grand residences en route to Bayswater, I find one of the Underground’s lesser-spotted landmarks at 23-24 Leinster Gardens. The white stuccoed exteriors are hard to differentiate from the buildings adjacent, but are, in fact, not houses at all. They are five-foot deep false façades which hide a District and Circle line ventilation shaft: a relic from the Metropolitan Railway’s construction here in 1868. The locomotives which originally ran on these tracks needed to store their steam in the tunnelled sections and "vent" at such outlets as Leinster Gardens, so as not to asphyxiate their customers. I doubt that TfL have either the money or imagination to fill in other gaps in the cityscape today (although the extension to Battersea has just opened to give me even more of the Northern line to review).

Leinster Gardens from the front and behind. From: londonxlondon.com and dailymail.co.uk

The path through to Notting Hill Gate is marked by artisan cafes and more palatial townhouses. I ponder who actually lives here and, judging by the preponderance of 4x4s and Voi scooters, settle on a combination of a) the remnants of the Cameron-Osborne-Gove axis, b) Momentum activists, and c) Russian oligarchs (which is to say, nobody for 50 weeks of the year, but it’s a very useful place to register one’s Grand Cayman hedge fund account). The line turns southward and I make quick downhill progress to High Street Kensington, a thoroughfare of international department stores from Hema to Uniqlo. I turn right towards Kensington (Olympia), which sits on a lonely District line shuttle service to Earl’s Court, open only during weekends and occasional shows at the Olympia Centre. While I head past, the exhibition hall is host to The Fertility Show, which somehow fails to entice me. I proceed, rather, to get lost in the environs of West Kensington for about 15 minutes.

Eventually I find Earl’s Court, the station through which every District line voyager is destined to pass. A leafy blanket is beginning to form in the curved, arboreal lanes of Philbeach Gardens and Eardley Crescent. West Brompton adjoins the famous Brompton Cemetery, final resting place of Emmeline Pankhurst, but memorable to us philistines for its use in the 2003 film Johnny English. Rowan Atkinson’s witless secret agent mistakes a family funeral in the cemetery as part of a French conspiracy; hilarity and embarrassment ensue.

Fulham fails to live up to my expectations, with its back streets of peeling terraces, traffic pileups and unsettling aroma of manure. Perhaps it’s to be expected so close to Stamford Bridge on a matchday. I’m forced to perform some dicey acrobatics between gridlocked buses to find Fulham Broadway station, from which I immediately turn right and dismount to cross the child-infested Eel Brook Common. Parsons Green is more pleasant, but I’m soon picking up Fulham High Street again, which will take me to the Thames at Putney Bridge.

I remember little of architectural note at this point, only retrospectively logging Fulham Palace to my right. This medieval site, complete with botanic garden, was formerly the residence of the Bishop of London. I need the patience of a bishop on the crawl into Putney town centre. Waiting at about my 57th red light, I dart off-piste through Volvo-littered avenues to East Putney. Uphill, over the Tube on a pedestrian bridge, and onto another gridlocked road: it’s starting to get ridiculous. Then the reason for the perpetual standstill hits me. Fuel panic buying. You can always rely on Brits to make a crisis out of a temporary petrol shortage (and engage in our national pastime, queuing, in the process). I’m looking forward to the self-inflicted apocalypse when we don’t have enough turkey at Christmas.

Everything begins to calm down as I pass Southfields and enter Wimbledon Park, which is situated next to the station of the same name (not always guaranteed with the Tube). Saturday morning football, yoga and athletics is savoured in the shadow of the boating lake and, behind the trees, the All England Lawn Tennis Club. Minus the brooding grey skies, the vista would be idyllic. If I were to live in London, and have the money – which is to say, this is pure fantasy – Wimbledon would make my top two locations to buy a house, second only to Hampstead. It’s quiet, leafy, attractive, well-connected both to city and countryside, and with the added benefit of being home to my favourite sporting tournament.

Wimbledon Park lake on a sunnier day. From: thecapabilitybrownsociety.com

Wimbledon station is situated on a well-appointed high street, although the real character of this suburb is found at the top of a rather punishing hill, in Wimbledon Village. I pass through a high street of gastropubs, bakeries and fragrant restaurants whose pricing suggests a preference for a certain class of clientele – or Grand Slam winners. The “village” opens onto Wimbledon Common, which I must traverse gingerly, since the paths are unpaved and eventually turn to an impassable sand. There is a small monument for “Caesar’s Camp”, which you’ll be disappointed to discover refers not to a resting place for the Roman emperor but is a generic name for many Iron Age hill forts across the country. And there’s not a Womble in sight.

Still, I pass quite happily on my green bridge between Wimbledon and Richmond, making fast progress on the paved and cyclist-heavy lanes of Richmond Park. The Park was formerly used as the monarch’s deer-hunting playground, which might explain its deceptive volume; it takes me a good half-hour to cross and – notwithstanding the number of city-dwelling explorers – feels as far from London as one could imagine. I’m lost in a state of unthinking contentment until a diversion from the path at the Pen Ponds. A supercilious, gilet-wearing gentleman shouts, ‘You do know cycling is not allowed?’, in a tone that would suggest I’d kidnapped his family. It takes every remaining sinew of my law-abiding soul, so worn down by successive Covid lockdowns, to say ‘Okay’ and walk my bike back to the path. I allow the morality police this small victory; they’ve been fighting a losing battle since Charles II (who loved this park) brought back Christmas from the Puritans.

Richmond is another beautiful town; leaving the park, I glimpse a view to the west, far above the snaking Thames towards Ham House and Twickenham. Reuniting with the District line, my next stop is Kew Gardens; the station is suitably nestled among botanists and a few streets from the eponymous Royal gardens. Through the iron railings, its trees and flowers take on a supernatural hue in the lingering mist.

Back across the Thames to Gunnersbury, I’m forced back into a congested, industrial area, bisected by the A4. The station itself is squeezed between and beneath some of the ugliest concrete structures in London: two multi-storey car parks and a tower housing the suitably unglamourous British Standards Institution. I pick up the North Circular Road and turn right to Acton Town. It seems to be teeming with students heading for their immersion in the Great Covid Education Experiment. A nondescript avenue directs me north-west towards Ealing Common – a striking Charles Holden-designed station, like those at the Morden end of the Northern line – and the far-western terminus of Ealing Broadway. I stop briefly for some dried mango in the green across from the station and contemplate the long haul east to Upminster. Just another 50 kilometres to go.

I retrace the path to Acton Town but turn left, passing warehouses and tech companies: the Silicon Valley of Chiswick. Chiswick Park is another grand Holden structure, out of keeping with the corrugated roofs and Sainsbury’s car park across the road. I follow the snaking Acton Lane past several parks to Turnham Green, named after the momentous Civil War battle of 1642. At Turnham Green (which is actually closer to Chiswick Park than this station) the Parliamentarian army secured a stalemate against Charles I’s Cavaliers, which was nonetheless an important strategic victory in allowing them to keep control of London and force Charles to retreat to Oxford, rather than build a flank to Royalists in Kent. I thank A-Level History for that fact.

A painting of the Royalist siege of Brentford, the day prior to Turnham Green. From: brentfordandchiswicklhs.org.uk

Along leafy Chiswick High Road, and it’s impossible to find the correct left turning to Stamford Brook (another new underground tributary of the Thames). I get held up by a family loading a moving van and a group of runners crossing Ravenscourt Park. It’s about 1:30 by this time; my stomach is calling as I come full circle and enter Hammersmith. My phone is close to death, so I head back to pick up my charger and pick up a classy lunch of samosa, crisps and two cream doughnuts en route.

I spend half an hour resting in a small park, empty but for one solitary walker who makes a cursory attempt at jogging whenever I look up. It’s still cool, but my legs feel strong as I follow the back route from Charing Cross Hospital to Barons Court. This is still the tennis-y part of London; Queen’s Club, which hosts the men’s grass-court tune-up event to Wimbledon, is immediately to my right. Andy Murray has won the singles here five times, a standalone record eclipsing the likes of such titans as McEnroe, Becker and Andy Roddick with four apiece. Continuing east, West Kensington appears in a flash – a few more hipsterish cafes befitting of the local stereotype – and then I am corralled back onto the Cromwell Road expressway to Earl’s Court.

From Gloucester Road, the District is twinned with the Circle line all the way to Tower Hill, so I shan’t steal all the interesting bits. I’ll save the history of the cultural quarter of “Albertopolis” between here and South Kensington and mention instead John Haigh, the acid bath murderer. In Year Eight I did an extended creative writing piece on Haigh (I’m not sure why nobody intervened), who between 1944 and 1949 murdered potentially nine victims from the Gloucester Road area by bathing them in sulphuric acid. Having liquefied his victims, Haigh, an ex-convict for fraud turned accountant, sold their possessions for money. My piece focused on his final victim, the wealthy widow Olive Durand-Deacon, who was befriended by Haigh and shot in the back of the neck prior to being placed in the acid bath. He was quickly linked to the murder and confessed to the others, pleaded insanity, and told prosecutors that he drank the blood of his victims. Haigh was sentenced to death, but his story lives on in popular culture. From A is for Acid starring Martin Clunes, to the second episode of hit series Breaking Bad, there’s something in an acid bath that fires the morbid streak in our imaginations.

Sloane Square and Victoria pass in a flourish of opulence. A woman on a Boris bike demonstrates an Olympian difficulty manoeuvre at Eaton Square: jumping a red signal while holding a drink and talking on her phone. Between a sixties shopping arcade and the eccentric, neo-Byzantine Westminster Cathedral, I turn left to find 55 Broadway, home not only to St. James’s Park station but London Underground itself. This Portland stone, art-deco monolith was designed by a now familiar Tube celebrity, Charles Holden, and was the network’s headquarters from 1933 to 2020. (Operations have since moved to the Stratford Olympic Park, so the building will now be converted to luxury apartments – plus ça change.) 55 Broadway is undoubtedly of its time; once the tallest office building in London, today it stands Soviet grey against the dark sky. It is bizarrely decorated at each compass point with a sculpture of a crouching, naked figure. North Wind by Eric Gill looks comically like Donald Trump, while Jacob Epstein’s Day, on the east façade, caused a ruckus which almost precipitated the resignation of the Tube’s managing director and ended with Epstein agreeing to take 1.5 inches off the penis of one of the figures.

North Wind (left) and Day (right), from: commons.wikimedia.org

I’ve written enough in my time about Westminster, so let’s pass along the north bank of the Thames, and its well-appointed cycle lane, to Embankment. Here I find an intriguing group of mostly male marchers, carrying insignia I’d usually associate with mining communities, protesting the Northern Irish Protocol. It’s interesting to note the constant press coverage of Extinction Rebellion, blocking this road or that square, and yet I can find nothing on this protest – on an issue which poses a grave short-term threat to peace across the Irish Sea. I have a water and gawping break at Temple, and then separate from the Thames to tick off Blackfriars, Mansion House, and Cannon Street in the space of about five minutes. Here, in the financial heart of the city, it’s quicker to walk than take the Tube, even if Harry Beck’s schematic map would suggest otherwise.

Just after the turning for London Bridge, I can glimpse the Monument on the right: a commemoration to the victims of the Great Fire of London in 1666. It is close to the site of the famous Pudding Lane bakery, where the fire originated, and henceforth spread over three days as far north as Moorgate and west as Temple. Within the city walls – the Square Mile today – the fire destroyed nearly 90% of homes. The city was rebuilt on the same medieval road pattern, quite unfit for 21st century life. I follow one such winding street east to Tower Hill, which looks south over perhaps London’s most famous landmark: the location of my first bike theft. You can also see the Tower of London.

At Aldgate East, I join a cycle superhighway and switch off for a while, following the undulations of this tree-lined thoroughfare from the dense, glass skyscrapers of the City to the brick tenements of Whitechapel and Stepney Green. This area carries the whiff of gentrification: a new gym here; a “bean and leaf” café there. Queen Mary University stretches to my left, and then I pass beneath a curved bridge of shrubbery which connects the halves of Mile End Park. This is nearly 80 acres of green space – formerly industrial wasteland devastated in World War II – that follows the Regents Canal from Limehouse north to the much larger Victoria Park. From Mile End station, my path becomes decidedly less floreated and more brutalist; this is epitomised by the ugly beige magistrates’ court adjacent to Bow Road. Here the District and Hammersmith and City lines surface from beneath the A11 and dive south, which gives me another opportunity to get lost.

Estates in every shade of brown envelop the streets of Bow; only the metal skeletons of market day on Stroudley Walk remain as the clock ticks to 4pm and still the dark clouds, spitting occasionally, linger on. Bromley-by-Bow is one of the more hideous stations I’ve visited; it is situated on the A12 dual carriageway between a construction works and an orange apartment block. I use a filthy underpass and presently negotiate the hooting mob in line for Tesco petrol station. Here, the roads desert me, and I follow a dirt footpath over Three Mills Island towards the “Urban Greenway” which runs from this mechanised land of gasholders and water pumps towards West Ham.

Three Mills Island in the sun. From: saltertonartsreview.com

A messy mismatch of semi-detached houses takes me further east to Plaistow. The atmosphere of unkempt griminess only increases once I emerge onto the high street in Upton Park, by way of the loading bay for a shopping centre. The scale of deprivation here in the heart of Newham – London’s poorest borough – is palpable, and yet Upton Park’s main thoroughfare is a hive of noise and activity. Market traders abound along Green Street and over to my next stop, East Ham, where an elaborate welcome arch has been constructed over the high street. I count South Asian supermarkets, Bulgarian and Romanian convenience stores, and Halal butchers alongside – naturally – a branch of Greggs.

I’m totally ignored by motorists in noxious people carriers on the queue east to Barking. The less said about Barking the better – and it’ll be my distinct honour to revisit the town at the start of the Hammersmith and City line. But in a perfect example of pathetic fallacy, the moment I leave Barking, the wall of cloud shifts and glorious sunshine emerges. I savour the opportunity for a drinks break in an area of Upney named for the Labour politicians of yore: there’s a Lansbury Avenue (for leader George, grandfather of the star of stage and screen, Angela); Keir Hardie Way (founder); Bevan Avenue (creator of the NHS); and Margaret Bondfield Avenue (first female cabinet minister – I was quite proud of recalling that one as I pedalled past).

The sprawl of interwar flats and semi-detacheds from Upney, spreading east to Dagenham, is the Becontree Estate: the largest council-built housing estate in the world. 26,000 homes were constructed from 1921 to 1935, with two aims: to rehouse those impacted by slum clearance in the East End; and to honour the pledge of “homes fit for heroes” – with inside toilets, plumbed water, gas lighting and the rest – for veterans of the First World War. There were drawbacks of course; the estate was built without provision for industrial or commercial development, and – as I saw while weaving between parked cars – without foresight for the boom in vehicle ownership after 1945. Becontree station, and its neighbours on the District line, proved the primary means for residents to return to the city for work, until the chemical company May & Baker and – most famously – Ford Motors, opened factories in Dagenham.

The Becontree Estate. From: www.hidden-histories.org/becoming-becontree

I follow a tediously slow Audi across the speedbumps of Ivyhouse Road to Dagenham Heathway, which is marked by a shopping centre and a rare tower block amid the sprawl. It’s getting hard to maintain my interest after 50-odd miles on the board. The style continues – semi-detached, brown-brick residences – through to Dagenham East, where I take a wrong turning to the londoneast.uk Business and Technical Park. This is the first sign of something more rural, and indeed, Western Avenue opens out onto the first sustained forest and heathland I’ve seen since Richmond Park. The scale reminds me of the remaining slog and, for the first time, my legs feel heavy.

Elm Park is another Becontree-like, toneless suburb, despite the vibrancy of the evening light in a suddenly cloudless sky. The only notable feature in my trudge towards Hornchurch is the transmogrification of the larger townhouses into garishly painted bungalows. So many miles of East London and yet, frankly, so little of interest. I am desperate for the finish line when the universe decides to throw me a Boss Level challenge: a steep uphill climb from Upminster Bridge. It’s agony and yet, with such a short distance left, I force everything into my lactic-laced legs and crawl to the summit. I topple left past a Pizza Express, and unglamorously flop off my bicycle outside Upminster station. Seven hours later, with a constitution considerably more like jelly than when I started, the line is complete.

I’ll save the story of my fraught 2-hour Tube journey back to Hammersmith for another day; suffice it to say that I don’t want to hear the words ‘signal failure at Plaistow’ again as long as I live. But here are some final musings on the District line. It’s fiddly, initially rather attractive, but ultimately a slog. After West Ham, to the east, the monotony and the injustice of “urban sprawl” really sets in. I can’t imagine today living in these charmless, identikit estates, commuting every day – and yet, in 1930, they must have felt like heaven compared to a Whitechapel slum. This final 20 kilometres or so made the line my most mentally challenging so far; I either went thoughtlessly through the motions or fought an impulse to stop. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the experience: the guest appearance of the sun; the southwestern suburbs; Richmond Park; reminiscing about acid baths. And now, as the autumn light fades and cold weather beckons for future lines, there’s no time to rest on my mango-strewn laurels.