diamond geezer

 Thursday, August 01, 2013

DISTRICT: Down the line

It's time to take an end-to-end journey on the District line. From Upminster as far as you can go, which would be Richmond (fractionally ahead of Ealing Broadway, fractionally ahead of Wimbledon). That's a journey of 27 miles in approximately an hour and a half. I fear we may have to do this in two bits.

For those of you who've never been, Upminster is the furthest east you can travel by train within London. It's a long way from Central London, which is why most passengers starting their journeys here give the District line a wide berth. They accumulate in large numbers on the c2c platform and wait for the fast train to Fenchurch Street - there'll be none of that slow bumbling on the Underground for them. The far end of the platform is crossed by a quiet footbridge, used by District line drivers heading off shift, and site of the station's secret Next Train Indicator. It's an old lightbox, silently announcing the platform of the "First Westbound Train" by illuminating a single digit, 5, 4 or 3. There's no indication of destination, because nobody this far out's going anywhere near as far as Earl's Court, let alone beyond. But I am, from the roundel-less platform below. Let's go.

Upminster Bridge is one of the least busy stations on the Underground, and the last you could describe as attractive for several stations to come. The platforms have splendidly chunky curved red benches, and of course there's that swastika tiled on the floor of the ticket hall, not that you can see it from the train. By Hornchurch there are only two of us in the carriage, me at one end and another bloke at the other, so it's a surprise when a man with a labrador boards and sits down immediately opposite me. He settles but his dog doesn't, pacing and turning in the confined space as far as his lead will go. I'm not the sort who'll lean down with a smile and go "oooh, sweet doggy, lovely doggy", so I try hard to ignore the invasion, which works for at least thirty seconds. Suddenly there's a damp muzzle on my knee as the labrador attempts to make my acquaintance, which is the very last thing I want and my body language announces so. The owner correctly interprets the situation, then surprises me by wandering to the other end of the carriage to sit with the other bloke, then at Elm Park alights.

It's a long way to the next station as the District line cuts between estates, then across open heathland and the River Beam at The Chase Nature Reserve. Behind a whopping green fence a group of unflustered horses mopes around beside a dusty pond, then a lone footbridge carries nobody in particular from one side of the country park to the other. The fence used to support signs warning local vandals that a helicopter was watching their trespassing antics from above, but the signs have gone now so I assume the surveillance has ceased too. At Dagenham East a particularly rotund footballer boards and squeezes into one of the single seats, then at Dagenham Heathway we're invaded by a bloke who's just bought a large fishing net. It's getting busier now in my mid-train carriage, but things are rather more packed at the rear of the train. By some quirk of design, this stretch of the District line has eight consecutive stations where the entrance to the platform is at the very far east end, many of them reached down a long sloping ramp from the road above.

Becontree is another of the eight, and another station where the platforms are massively longer than they need to be. That made sense when mainline British Rail trains stopped here, but now the far ends (and two entire adjacent platforms) lie fenced off and overgrown. On we travel between pebbledash terraced cottages and brief back gardens to Upney, a station which has seen better days. The turquoise paint is peeling, the benches look worn, and nobody's been round to give the pillars a brush-up for many a year. Coming up shortly on the right is the Hammersmith & City line depot and then things get complicated, with tracks dipping down and under and round to end up at the correct platform at Barking. This is another major interchange, where those seeking faster trains nip off and those needing to travel locally local hop on. We're full now, every seat taken, as the driver weaves his way across a flyover and around the c2c depot, across the River Roding and into Newham.

East Ham is a lovely old station, mostly. Some glorious ironwork from the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway remains, if you glance up into the wooden canopy, predating the birth of the London Underground by five years. Here too a lightbox Next Train Indicator survives, somehow, and there's a charming "Tea 2D Per Cup" advert painted at the top of a brick pillar. A shame then, that back in 2005 Metronet slapped a vinyl wall along the edge of the westbound platform, both here and (even uglier) and Upton Park. This is the nearest station to West Ham football ground and will be for three more seasons, after which Saturdays will get quieter and the local police can breath a sigh of relief. Plaistow sees a return to prettiness, again with Victorian ironwork and this time with a clear view through to any Southend trains rushing by. They stop for real at West Ham, a station with modern exposed island platforms. One or two magenta "Olympic Park" signs survive, but the temporary 2012 footbridge is long gone.

After miles through mostly housing, the Lea Valley brings scenic respite. The line cuts through a rare swathe of undeveloped land, then past a clump of gasholders and the glories of Three Mills. Tall cranes are busy turning the site of the first Big Brother house into a sewage tunnel, and alongside is the white elephant lock built for the Olympics that almost no boats ever use. I've been travelling for half an hour now as my train pulls into Walford East, sorry, Bromley-by-Bow. Staff here have been busy beautifying their station with bunting and flowers, plus a gothic golden "150" painted onto certain roundels to celebrate the Underground's sesquicentenary. Good luck in the annual Underground in Bloom competition, folks. Beyond is the last decent view for a bit (the towers of Canary Wharf) before the train whistles and we descend to street level at Bow Road. My local is a rare half-open, half-underground station, propped up by a series of fluted columns as it tucks in beneath the A11.

And then to the station half those aboard have been waiting for, that's Mile End, where the hordes storm off to enter a Central line train waiting patiently on the adjacent platform. The drivers don't normally wait, not any more, so my journey today must be blessed. Stepney Green's platforms are in gloomy contrast to what's gone before, the East End hidden now that the line's properly subterranean. There's a brief open-air gap at Whitechapel, long enough for those with urgent phone calls to start up a conversation they'll never finish. A crane now rises here as part of the long-term remodelling of the station for Crossrail, with the central tracks long since closed in preparation for the creation of a mega-wide District line platform. Expect much greater awkwardness when the front entrance closes for an extended period early next year.

Aldgate East is the last station shared with the Hammersmith & City, so some souls troop off here to wait for the infrequent service round the bend. Those who stay with the District catch sight of the end of the Metropolitan line at Aldgate before rumbling into Tower Hill, where the character of the line instantly changes. Up until now it's been mostly Londoners aboard, but now the tourists pile in because "Tower of London" is always on their shortlist. They mill at the foot of the staircase, they dash for the remaining seats in the carriage, and some even work out that the train waiting on the adjacent platform isn't going to be the next one out and so they should switch trains sharpish. And at Monument I'm going to pause for today because that's 21 stations down, and there are still 21 to go. Nobody rides the entire District line for any sane reason (apart from the drivers, that is).

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