diamond geezer

 Thursday, May 02, 2013

PICCADILLY: Down the line

Another month, another tube line, another end-to-end journey. Except the Piccadilly allows an end-to-end and-back-again journey, for added value, if you ride around the Heathrow loop halfway though. So please join me on a trip from Cockfosters to the airport and back again (unless I get bored before that and get off early).

Cockfosters is a gorgeous station. Like so many on the Piccadilly it's one of Charles Holden's, with a street-level building that could be an elongated bus shelter, and a cavernous interior for terminating trains. The concrete canopy struts across the trainshed like a computer chip, straight and rigid, perfectly symmetrical. Technically there are four platforms, although 2 and 3 share the same tracks up as far as the pot plants and only the doors on 2 open. There's even a special waiting area with wooden benches just past the ticket barriers, where I hovered to await the correct train. Most don't pause because they don't care about the ultimate destination, they're not going anywhere past Acton. But I needed the train to Heathrow Terminal 4, a numerical secret divulged only by the automated announcement and not by the display, so I hung back. I reached my seat aboard the train just as the cleaner nipped off sharpish before the doors closed. Three hours would elapse before I could be right back here again.

The trees on the approach to Oakwood look like silver birches and pines, not oaks, although maybe these once grew alongside where the train depot once stands. Another characterful station this, with white concrete features midway and barbell-style lamps at the end of the platform. There appear to be rather a lot of contours ahead, first a cutting, then a viaduct between suburban rooftops, then plunging deep into tunnel. That makes Southgate the first of the Piccadilly's underground stations, with high ceilings above the platforms, and cream tiles we'll see much more of down the line. It's also where my carriage becomes rather full, because the doors have lined up perfectly with the entrance to the platform, and people don't like walking any further down, do they?

Straight back out into daylight, and swiftly above chimney level for the elevated curve through Arnos Park. It's impossible to see the arched viaduct up here, but our train is unmissable to anyone kicking a football or picnicking down below. Arnos Grove is famously architecturally magnificent, although there are only hints of this in the modern design of the platform canopy and slatted benches. There's just time to spot the North Circular beyond (actually don't bother) before the train submerges again for almost an hour. Bounds Green is the first of several consecutive cream-tiled stations, this with solid orange borders while Wood Green has dashed borders in a gentle shade of peppermint.

All the seats have now been taken, as central London draws outer residents into its clutches. At Turnpike Lane they board clutching generic coffee, whereas later it'll be Costa and paper-wrapped cookies. At Manor House bodies squeeze into the gaps where the luggage goes, which is OK because there's no luggage yet. If you know the illustrated map that Piccadilly line trains have posted by the door, we've just crept onto that. The first significant exodus of passengers comes at Finsbury Park where the Victoria line does what it was built for and siphons off the traffic. This is also the point where we switch from the 1930s extension to the original 1900s section of line, so prepare for change.

Arsenal is the first of the Leslie Green stations, which means subtly polychromatic tiling patterns and the original name, Gillespie Road, laid out in purply hues. Check out Doug Rose's website if you'd like detailed background information on these Edwardian treasures, or come along and worship in person. The patterns at Holloway Road are subtly different, and browner, while Caledonian Road edges more towards mauve. Watch out too for the giant red roundel at the front end of the southbound platform, it's a century old, and nobody's ever been stupid enough to replace it.

From here to King's Cross St Pancras is a long run, which means unfamiliar travellers head for the door three minutes early and stand there like lemons. Here passengers duly pour aboard, as do the hotel crowd at Russell Square. Even at weekends this section feels like the rush hour, with passengers dutifully standing and shuffling awkwardly close. If anything Holborn is worse, but I'm sitting smugly having boarded ten miles back. The track curves noticeably as we head round to Covent Garden, because this is the line's fulcrum where north-south turns to east-west. "This station is busy at weekends", warns the notice on the tube map, but nobody either notices or cares, so off they plod to queue for the lifts.

It's barely worth the driver accelerating on the brief jaunt to Leicester Square, this (as you surely know) the shortest inter-station journey on the underground. Gradually those aboard are becoming more cosmopolitan, one woman flicking through the Tate's Lichtenstein catalogue, another three discussing honeymoon etiquette. Then at Piccadilly Circus the first suitcase appears, already tagged with a LGW label, but heading inexorably for LHR. I'd say an older demographic disembark at Green Park, or perhaps a little more moneyed, what with Mayfair on the doorstep. And by Hyde Park Corner almost nobody I rode in with from Haringey remains on board.

Knightsbridge has silvery-panelled platforms, reflecting the incoming bling above rather than the area's earlier heritage. But only at South Kensington does the carriage finally empty enough to offer seats for all, such is the draw of the museums at weekends. The last beautifully tiled station is Gloucester Road, again with ceramic Way Out and No Exit motifs inside ticket window-style borders. There are now four suitcases in my carriage - some petite, some bulging, one with hand luggage resting precariously on top. And brace yourself, because after Earl's Court we're firing back into daylight.

If you're not familiar, Barons Court is the best place to change between the District and Piccadilly lines if you're lugging luggage, the platforms being narrower here than at Hammersmith up the line (plus there are much nicer benches to sit on). It's also good to swap lines before the Piccadilly goes express. The railway has four tracks on the viaduct to Chiswick, allowing the blue train to nip down the middle and skip a few stations. We reach Acton Town about an hour after leaving Cockfosters... that's 'we' as in the driver and me, I doubt anybody else has lingered.

Stuff Uxbridge, we're taking the long run out of town to the airport. The train's now once again between suburban back gardens, even the odd set of allotments. South Ealing and Northfields are ridiculously close together, so lucky you if you live nearby. Some trains exit the system here to rise up a ramp to the depot alongside. Then comes Boston Manor, which is the first station with a semi-rural feel, so long as you ignore the M4 carving through the neighbouring park on concrete stilts. A golf course, a canal and a cricket club line the long ride to Osterley, another very open station. And that's where I'll pause, if you don't mind, for important narrative reasons. Sorry, the Piccadilly line goes on, and on, and on.


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