diamond geezer

 Sunday, April 14, 2013


There are no solely-H&C line stations. There used to be, before the Circle line stretched out to Hammersmith in 2009, but not any more. The closest the Hammersmith & City comes to exclusivity is a short curve of track to the east of Aldgate, close to Aldgate East. So let's go and visit this pleasantly abnormal normal station where the pink line bends...

Aldgate East forms one vertex of the Aldgate triangle. The District to Tower Hill is the base, the Circle to Liverpool Street is whatever the mathematical name is for the hypotenuse in a non right-angled triangle, and then there's the H&C on top. Most of the top bit is shared, and it's only when Aldgate's platforms hove into view that the Hammersmith & City veers off. Trains for far-flung Chesham and Uxbridge are lined up waiting, but we swing past into the blackness... and wait. There's often waiting here, whichever direction the H&C is heading, because the tracks are designed that way. Westbound, hang around while a train pulls out of Aldgate, and eastbound hang around while a District line train takes priority and sneaks into Aldgate East ahead. Sometimes you get through without stopping, at other times, let's just say the Hammersmith & City isn't quick.

But while you're waiting, enjoy the fact that you're actually sitting in the old Aldgate East station. Opened in 1884, it lay between Aldgate and Commercial Street, and was almost named after the latter. But the subterranean platforms were so close to Aldgate station that the curve proved problematic, so the triangular junction was enlarged as part of London Transport's New Works Programme. A bigger junction meant more space to park trains and a better interlocking of traffic as a result, hence greater throughput and efficiency. Aldgate East's original platforms closed on 30th October 1938, coincidentally the very same day Orson Welles broadcast his War of the Worlds radio drama on the other side of the Atlantic. I've looked out of the window and tried to spot the original Aldgate East, without much luck, but there is definitely a larger space than usual to either side.

A new set of platforms opened to the east of Commercial Street the following day, and that's the Aldgate East we know today. It has a feeling of space you don't normally get on the underground, with a broad one-and-a-half-storey space running straight between the two opposite platforms. Part of that feeling of space comes from the cream coloured tiles lining the walls, a covering that disappeared for a couple of bleak years when Metronet took them down for refurbishment and then promptly went bust. Thankfully they're back, the tiles that is not the freeloading maintenance infraco, because scattered amongst them are some absolute gems. A special set of relief tiles was commissioned from Poole Pottery for use here and at other contemporary stations (such as Bethnal Green). Some of Harold Stabler's designs depict obvious things like the Houses of Parliament or St Paul's Cathedral, others include the London Transport roundel and LT's Broadway HQ. The remainder are a little more mysterious, part of some coats of arms maybe?

Ah yes, one trio of blades represents the county of Middlesex, the other Essex, and elsewhere there's Hertfordshire, and Kent, and even Sussex where the Underground absolutely definitely doesn't go. One odd tile with a potentially-griffin thing represents the county of London, while five seagull-type profiles over water hint at the River Thames. If you're ever waiting for a train here you can have fun a) trying to work out what all the different designs might be b) attempting to count how many different designs there are. To answer the latter question I'm fairly certain there are more than ten, but I couldn't give a precise figure.

When your time comes to leave the platform and rise to the surface, a bit like at St James's Park, Aldgate East offers exits to the surface at each end. They're even signposted on the platform in a very 1938 manner, one to the Whitechapel Art Gallery, the other to Toynbee Hall. It's likely that 2013's passengers know little of the latter, a social centre kickstarted in Victorian times to support the poorest East End folk, and whose mission alas remains more than relevant today. Instead the western exit of the station is dominated by building works and tall towers, or at least spaces where towers will one day be built if the economy picks up. Having seen the plans for Altitude and the Aldgate Tower, I think we'd all agree the holes look better.

The station's eastern exit is unusual in that it emerges surrounded by an art gallery. Not actually inside, nor indeed was this always the case. The Whitechapel Gallery grew in 2009 to swallow up the old Whitechapel Library nextdoor, so passengers from the tube now emerge up steps between the main entrance and the restaurant. The restaurant nods towards the richer incomers hereabouts, while the gallery has always had more of an eye on enlightening the locals. On show at the moment is a particularly mainstream retrospective remembering 'Black Eyes and Lemonade', an exhibition of popular art first shown here in 1951. Curator Barbara Jones assembled a collection of ordinary objects, both hand- and machine-made, and revelled in the everyday appreciation of their designs. Much smaller, this time around, but evocative all the same.

Meanwhile, back inside the station, two small treats at either end. First up is a 1930s roundel set into the curved wall above each landing as you descend. The letters at either end of UndergrounD are larger, as was the fashion at the time, and the words London Transport are written in the central semicircles where today it's always blank. And then, just past the ticket barriers, comes a clear view down across the tracks from between the top of the two staircases. If that's a Hammersmith & City line train coming in you'd better hurry, there may not be another for ten minutes, and there's only so many times you can count the tiles.

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