CIRCLE: Outer Circle
The Circle line dates from 1884, when the final link in the subterranean circuit was added. Initially it was known as the Inner Circle, with services also running on an Outer Circle and a Middle Circle. The Outer Circle had been running since 1872, via a not-quite complete loop from the City through West London and back again. Kicking off from Mansion House, Outer Circle trains followed the usual westbound route to Earl's Court, then veered off onto what's now the Overground via Kensington Olympia. Further now-Overground tracks led Outer Circle trains via Willesden and Dalston Junctions, eventually pulling into Broad Street close to what's now Liverpool Street station. Trains ran every 30 minutes, and the service survived for over 30 years until 1908. If you want furtherdetails, and a map, click for details. If you'd like to join me in an attempt to follow the Outer Circle today, read on.
MANSION HOUSE: Few trains terminate at Mansion House today, but between 1871 and 1884 they had no choice because this was the end of the line. That's why this station is larger than most, with an additional platform available for terminating trains (where few terminate today). I always find this station a bit quiet, even during the supposed rush hour, and the exit always feels like a mighty long trek too. If you look beyond the end of platform 2 you can see a rare set of hydraulic buffers, a Heath Robinsonesque contraption with a great long metal arm. It's actually best seen from platform 1 on the eastbound, with its cute little reservoir tank on top - thankfully rarely used. You could walk from here to Liverpool Street in less than 15 minutes. Instead, let's take a train that hasn't existed since 1908.
EARL'S COURT: To follow the route of the Outer Circle it's important not to take a Circle line train from Mansion House. The Inner Circle turns off after Gloucester Road, and we're not going anywhere Edgware Road. Instead you need to wait for a District line train, any District line train, and hop off at Earl's Court. It also needs to be the weekend, unless you deliberately turn up in the evening for one of the two trains that run to Olympia on weekdays. It always feels a bit random standing here on the westbound island platform. District line trains run to four entirely different destinations, rarely from a predictable platform. What with District line passengers swapping trains and Piccadilly line escapees looking wholly lost, Earl's Court is one of the Underground's more chaotic interchanges. Hurrah then for the old school arrowed Next Train Indicators, which occasionally signal services to Olympia, no better than every 20 minutes at weekends. When the ghost train does turn up most look on wistfully, wishing it were heading somewhere useful, while others less familiar with the station leap aboard, scan the empty carriage, realise their error and hop off. But if you do want to travel this way, as we Outer Circlers do, oh the luxury.
KENSINGTON (OLYMPIA): This runty outpost, then known as Addison Road, was first served by the Outer and Middle Circles in 1872. These weren't true Underground services, they were run by the London & North Western Railway, here joining trains run by other companies using the West London line. Kensington (Olympia) closed to the public during the war, with District line trains arriving only in 1946. They still feel like somewhat of an afterthought, edging into their bay platform and stopping not quite close enough to the exit. A modern revolution swept in here three months ago with the introduction of (gasp) ticket gates for the first time. Previously you could sneak out of the system for free, or cross the footbridge unhindered, now only the latter is still possible. TfL adjusted their plans at the last minute and split the footbridge in two, so now one half is for Oyster-enabled passengers and the other for residents taking a short cut. It's not elegant, but it works. To follow the Outer Circle, cross the platform and await the next train to Stratford. Whilst Overground users enjoy a decent Next Train Indicator, that provided for District passengers remains stubbornly blank. They instead have to rely on something quaint and old-fashioned called a "timetable", a paper-based information medium largely phased out across the remainder of London's Underground network.
SHEPHERD'S BUSH: Prior to 1940 the station at Shepherd's Bush was called Uxbridge Road. It was the last station before the Middle Circle curved off to join what's now the Hammersmith and City line at Latimer Road - those tracks long since lost beneath a motorway and housing. The Outer Circle continued, as the Overground does today, but stopping at the wonderfully named St Quintin Park and Wormwood Scrubs station. This wooden halt above North Pole Road was lost in an air raid and never rebuilt, which is a shame, because the north end of Kensington could really do with a replacement. In the meantime Overground trains still always stop around SQPAWS, for a few seconds at least, to allow the driver to switch current from DC (south) to AC (north).
HIGHBURY AND ISLINGTON: Sorry, we've jumped a bit there. A long run via Willesden Junction (High Level) all the way around the top of London via Hampstead Heath. You know it as the Overground, a Victorian would have known it as the Outer Circle. Plus ça change. But here at Highbury and Islington we have to change trains because the modern Overground has introduced a disconnect. All eastbound trains run on to Stratford, while the line down through Whitechapel and beyond has become a separately timetabled entity. If only those buffers weren't there, if only the tracks hadn't been lifted, we might be enjoying a 21st century Outer Circle even today.
SHOREDITCH HIGH STREET: This elevated station is very new, and the Outer Circle never passed this way. Instead it ran all the way down the Kingsland Viaduct through Haggerston and Hoxton, as did all trains bound for Broad Street. That viaduct was severed five years ago (close by at New Inn Yard) to allow construction of a newbridge over Shoreditch High Street. The break point is now marked by a car park, if you're willing to call a scrappy fenced-off patch of tarmac by that name. A brief chunk of the original viaduct still stands beyond Holywell Lane, this topped off by VillageUnderground, the famous artists' studios fashioned out of two graffitied tube carriages. The bridge beyond has been lost, then the viaduct reappears across Great Eastern Street for its final elevated burst. Trees and undergrowth have had years to colonise the disused tracks, creating an impromptu nature reserve surrounded by workshops, brick terraces and lockups. One last bridge crosses the end of Plough Yard, dark and forbidding underneath, and then the wrecking balls have been busy. The viaduct lies broken, a red and white stripe its last hurrah, before a building site opens up beyond. This enormous space will one day be the Principal Place development, a 15-storey mixed-use scheme consisting of offices, flats and retail outlets. It's being branded as Shoreditch meets the City - imagine bankers in sneakers, that sort of thing. And, if I read the artist's impression properly, the old viaduct is going to be opened up and turned into some sort of sky garden. It's already got some fully grown trees, which is excellent, if unintentional, forward planning.
BROAD STREET: At the start of the 20th century Broad Street was the third busiest railway terminus in London. By the 1980s it was the quietest, its nine platforms reduced to one, and demolition was assured. The Broadgate development arose in its place, a vast complex of offices built to extend the City during the Big Bang years. Its architecture is highly regarded by some, but I find Broadgate a horribly soulless place, ruled over by security presence in uniform and unseen. The original station lay roughly where the winter-only ice rink is today, although no trace remains of the platforms into which the Outer Circle arrived. Instead cross the road to Liverpool Street and hop on today's Circle, and you can be back at Mansion House in no time.