diamond geezer

 Friday, October 04, 2013

NORTHERN: Up the line

According to my 1971 Guinness Book of Records, the world's longest continuous vehicular tunnel is the London Transport Board underground railway line from Morden to East Finchley via Bank. In use since 1939, it is 17 miles 528 yards long. Alas the record didn't hold into the 1980s, thanks to burrowing in Moscow, but this is still the longest continuous tunnel on the tube network. The ex-record-breaker provides the setting for the majority of today's end-to-end end journey up the Northern line, bar half a dozen open-air stations at the Barnet end of the line. By which I mean sorry, most of what follows is underground, so don't expect narrative excitement.

Morden is as far south as the Underground goes, so it's somewhat ironic that the station's on the Northern line. Charles Holden's consummate entrance is embedded in a parade of shops and offices, with passengers sweeping in beneath a chandelier, through a circular ticket hall and down to the platforms. There are five of these, but only three tracks, making Morden one of the few stations on the network where doors open on both sides. For the full tunnel experience make sure it's a High Barnet train you board, and so long as it's not rush hour you'll almost certainly be riding the correct route via Bank. The tunnel portal rears up only a few hundred yards beyond the station, extinguishing daylight for what'll be just under an hour.

South Wimbledon is the first of a number of very similar-looking stations. That's tiled and tubular, mostly white but with turquoise and then silvery grey tiles bordering each advertising panel. The roundels here have a slightly peculiar font that doesn't quite look the way you'd expect to see today, and at least one sign still says South Wimbledon (Merton), because that's really where this station is located. Colliers Wood has the same turquoise-grey-white pallete, plus a border of blue around the roundel board to complete the pattern. Then Tooting Broadway's the same (but busier), ditto the wonderfully named Tooting Bec, ditto Balham (gateway to the south). Even the adverts are much the same on every platform, but shuffled into a different order, from the latest Jessie J album to an Irish American Football game. By Clapham South (ditto) I have resorted to counting the number of consecutive high pitched beeps that play out every time the doors are about to shut. I make it 28, and I do not waver in that assertion further down the line.

Whoa, Clapham Common! Its island platform is almost unique on the underground, a long straight refuge with trains pulling in on both sides. I suspect there are several local residents who refuse to use this station, so queasy does the narrow giddying platform make them feel. I suspect that's also why so many passengers wait at the foot of the steps and then bundle into the rear carriage, to save having to negotiate past those lingering awkwardly further along. Clapham North looks much the same, but with a distinct kink - this the only other tube station still with its original island platform because nobody's ever had the money to dig anything wider. By now the train is probably rather full, as south London's residents crowd aboard the only rail service that can take them to the heart of town. But Stockwell acts as a release, its ever-so-convenient Victoria line connection attracting many from their seats. It also doesn't have that turquoise-grey-white look, having been upgraded to a more modern Victoria-like design in the 1960s.

Oval has that familiar colour scheme again, as does Kennington, but this time with a twist. Kennington's where the Northern line divides, one branch through the West End and the other through the City. These days trains rarely run directly onto the former, so another exodus sees passengers slipping across the passage to continue their "via Charing Cross" journey. Look, now there are seats again, and not that many people dashing aboard to sit on them. The decor at Elephant & Castle has been upgraded, almost sympathetically, with a more modern vinyl strip along the top of the platform. Borough meanwhile is a symphony in black, with the tiling detail for once reflecting the Northern line's designated colour. And it turns out London Bridge is precisely half an hour from Morden, almost all of which has been spent travelling directly beneath the same road (that's the A24/A3).

Here we are at Bank, the station that's going to see a major upgrade over the next few years. This northbound tunnel will survive, but had we been travelling south the tracks would eventually be converted to a passenger concourse. I breathe a sigh of relief at Moorgate because, after seventeen stations, finally an interesting group of passengers board who I'll be able to write about. They're a Japanese family - mum, dad and two young sons - who immediately pose for a thumbs-up photo (as tourists do on the tube). The youngest son is grinningly excitable and starts to squawk, which mother isn't at all keen on. "If you scream," she says, "a policeman will come and catch you and take you to jail." He squawks again, and indeed again, having ascertained that arrest is not imminent, but so endearingly that the rest of the carriage merely smiles.

By Old Street the social mix has switched from those departing South London to those journeying North. Trainers are swisher, carrier bags are hipper, and the tone is only lowered (at Angel) by a middle-aged man entering with a rolled-up music magazine protruding somewhat suggestively between his legs. I note that King's Cross St Pancras has brand new white-on-black tourist signs above the platforms pointing towards the British Library. These'll be really useful if you ever alight here, because now you can always follow these yellow arrows to avoid TfL sending you on an unnecessarily devious route to your destination. Interchange is much easier at Euston, a simple switcheroo across to the northbound Victoria line platform (although admittedly rather more complicated if heading anywhere else).

At Camden Town the last set of doors will not open. A recorded message announces this in advance of arrival, but the volume's not especially high and I think I was the only person in the last carriage to hear it. I deduced this when 21 people stood at Camden Town and walked towards the last set of doors, including the Japanese family who'd boarded earlier. They stood expectantly as absolutely nothing happened, then twigged they'd need to walk down the carriage to the penultimate doors to escape. Turning round the Japanese toddler proved problematic, blocking progress for a few crucial seconds, so when the door beep came there were still six would-be market-goers trapped aboard the train. This half dozen continued to Kentish Town (Chalk Farm wouldn't have been so bad), unexpectedly good-natured about their unnecessary diversion. But when quite so many people fail to spot an important announcement about not being able to alight, you have to wonder if there's a better way to get the message across.

The train's much emptier by Tufnell Park, or :TUFNELL:PARK: as the tiling on the platform wall has it. We're in the middle of a run of three Leslie Green stations, each with marvellous tiling similar to that seen on the original Piccadilly line. Kentish Town's signature hue is a darker brown, whereas Tufnell Park's is lighter, the colour of smokers' fingernails. Archway goes for emerald, and then Highgate breaks the pattern entirely with a much more clinical white and green, in matching style to the southern Hainault Loop.

And that's it for underground. We've been in the former record-breaking tunnel for 56 minutes as we emerge into daylight at East Finchley. This is a lovely Art Deco station, another of Charles Holden's, with semi-spiral stairwells rising (inaccessibly) within curved glass buildings on the platforms. At last there are views of London to enjoy, this the thick of suburban Barnet, as allotments, rooftops and a series of arched road bridges roll by. Finchley Central's flowerbeds are still blooming strong, alongside an array of pot plants and a small wishing well which would look more at home outside a bungalow. Ahead the tracks strike out for Mill Hill East, but the mainline veers right and the banks become a little woodier.

West Finchley has an almost rural air, Woodside Park definitely so. Both have short gabled shelters on their platforms with green and white wooden canopies, both have a lattice footbridge, and one even boasts a period signal box. Not so much happens passenger-wise this far up the line, not off-peak northbound, apart from a few local souls nipping aboard to go shopping in Barnet. Thence to Totteridge and Whetstone, one of the longest station names on the network, with the unexpected appearance of plain brick as the dominant building material. And then we're nearly at our destination, rising up on a viaduct at Underhill before waiting to dive into cutting once a final platform becomes available. The station at High Barnet is distinctly low, with a long ramp to climb to escape upwards towards the town centre. An hour and a quarter all told, joining two sides of London, to the most northern the Northern line gets.

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