diamond geezer

 Saturday, October 26, 2013

NORTHERN: Charing Cross (revised)

It's one of my favourite Northern line stations. Not the top level bit, which is an austere subway. Not the ticket hall, which is a wholly unwelcoming brown, coupled with bright blue and green plastic. Not the mid-level passages, which are over-long. But the platforms themselves, both north and south, which have the most delightful monochrome artwork.

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The walls on the Northern line at Charing Cross were decorated by artist David Gentleman in 1978. This station had previously been named Strand. It was closed completely in the mid 1970s as part of the Jubilee line project, and these beautiful panels were installed whilst refurbishment took place. Major works were required to amalgamate Strand with the former Trafalgar Square station, including a new ticket hall and new Jubilee line platforms, tunnelled at right angles to the other lines in anticipation of the second stage along the Strand to Aldwych (which station was also originally named Strand). On completion of the works both Trafalgar Square station and Strand station ceased to exist and were renamed Charing Cross station and the former Charing Cross station that was located at the bottom of Villiers Street was renamed Embankment, which due to its location was far more sensible.

Charing Cross's twin 100 metre murals depict the creation of the feature on the streets above that gives the station its name, the Eleanor Cross. Queen Eleanor was the wife of Edward I, but died on royal walkabout in 1290 at Harby which, although only six miles from Lincoln's city centre, is actually in Nottinghamshire. The king was so griefstricken he erected a stone cross at each of the locations her body rested on the 12-day journey back to London. Rather than travel direct, say via Ermine Street, the cort├Ęge took a circuitous route via large churches or abbeys in which the queen's body could lie overnight. The penultimate cross at Waltham Cross is original, and easily accessible from London. The only two other extant crosses are at Hardingstone on the outskirts of Northampton and at Geddington (also in Northamptonshire) (which is considered to be the finest example, but is more difficult to reach by public transport). The twelfth monument was at what's now Charing Cross, once located to the south of Trafalgar Square where it meets Whitehall, the current ornate pinnacle being a Victorian replacement of the original which was destroyed during the Civil War.

David's wood-engraved cartoon depicts the construction of London's Eleanor Cross and the workers who toiled to create it, in sort-of chronological order from one end of the platform to the other. There are quarrymen, rough-hewers, masons, mortarers, layers, setters, carpenters, thatchers, scaffolders, labourers, crane-men, apprentices, hodmen, drivers, horsemen and boatmen, plus a few incidental animals as well. If the platform's empty enough you can follow the entire story, from the quarrying of the stone to the lowering of a statue of Queen Eleanor onto the cross at the far end. It's a charming concept, lovingly realised, and entirely upper-class-free apart from one bit which shows the master mason presenting his design to the king, which is about as upper-class as you can get.

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A particularly unusual thing about Gentleman's design is the holes. Back in the 1970s it was perfectly natural to have litter bins on Underground platforms, so David embedded his into the overall design. Every now and again the picture breaks and there's space for a rectangular slot, say in the middle of a woodpile or workbench. Below the gap is the word LITTER in black Johnston capitals, entirely anachronistic but necessarily functional. But then came the IRA bombing campaigns, or rather then came health and safety risk reduction rules related to potential terrorist outrage, and all the litter bin slots were boarded over. They weren't even artfully boarded over, with a vinyl panel of a vaguely similar colour bolted in across the top. Some look neat-ish, but others look more forced, creating an untidy white void in the middle of Gentleman's mural.

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Perhaps more evocative, harking back to a simpler age, are the boxes labelled STAFF LETTERS. Up to the mid-1980s internal mail was carried by train in the care of the guard, who would post letters in reusable envelopes in the "staff letters" boxes on platforms. These were located opposite the guards position in the last carriage, so nobody at the station needed to meet the train, thereby enabling time displacement. If the destination station was off that particular train's line then things were more complicated, using dedicated workings as "Despatch" trains. So for example train XX would leave Upminster at 0600 and station staff along the route would meet it and put any letters on board, at St. James's Park the whole lot was put off for the Mail Room in 55 Broadway. Mail from, say, the south end of the Northern Line would be collected by train as far as Embankment, then met by staff and taken up to the District Line for onward travel to St. James's Park. As well as 'ad hoc' individual staff letters there were Revenue Dispatch bags to Edgware Road, used tickets in wicker baskets to the Ticket Sorting Office at Harrow-on-the-Hill, lost property in padlocked cases to Baker Street; plus line correspondence to the four Divisional Managers Offices in 'DMO' envelopes. All of these had their own routes, and the used tickets even 'ran' to their own cross-line printed 'timetable'. All of this might seem a bit hit & miss or overcomplicated but it actually worked quite well for many years, and only came to an end upon the introduction of One Person Operation on trains from 1984.

Underground mail services are no longer required now that communication is instantaneous, so all the STAFF LETTERS boxes are boarded up too. It would be unthinkable to have accessible cavities behind vinyl panelling today, and while you could argue that no bomb has ever exploded in an opaque litter bin on the underground, you could also argue that's solely because there aren't any. Never mind, ignore the modern intrusions and revel instead in David Gentleman's effortlessly excellent artwork. DG even has a print of the entire mural hung on the wall in his Camden home. One expects Queen Eleanor would be proud.


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