WALK CROSSRAIL 4) Whitechapel to Liverpool Street (1 mile)
On my twelve mile walk following the route of Crossrail from North Woolwich to Paddington, I'm now about halfway. At least the journey to the next station is shorter than the three jumps I've made so far, because the railway stops more frequently as it approaches the central area. If you're trying to follow along, then the official Crossrail geographical map is here, Open Street Map is here, and my Google Maps approximation is here.
While the District line departs Whitechapel by ducking back beneath the Whitechapel Road, Crossrail is a lot deeper so drives on pretty much due west. It scores an immediate direct hit on Vallance Gardens, an almost square of grass where Tower Hamlets encourages its residents to recreate, and rather more public than the west London equivalent might be. Impressively Crossrail Ltd resisted the temptation to dig the square up - it would have provided a magnificently useful space, not least because there's a rare crossover tunnel between the two bores (which'll allow trains to be terminated and turned at Whitechapel if required).
Up next is Spitalfields, which is a rare treat as daily readers of the Gentle Author will well know. Initially the ambience along Hanbury Street is fairly mundane - it takes a good proportion of its half mile length before achieving full hip kudos status. This eastern end has a 60s tower block and community centre, moving on to 1930s tenements and later flats that look like multi-storey car parks. So completely have the slums been wiped away that it's hard to spot anything especially heritageworthy hereabouts, not unless you count an 0171 fax number on the front of the Al Amin Cash and Carry, in which case there's that.
Things pick up, on my walk at least, because I choose to switch to parallel Princelet Street where Spitalfields proper begins. Crossrail will be passing directly between these two historic streets on its passage, but at such a depth as not to cause issues with some of the more febrile foundations. Princelet Street starts out on the narrow side, and is home to rather a lot of travel agencies that specialise in trips to Asia Minor and flights to Mecca. Bustle spikes somewhat on crossing Brick Lane, where balti staff stand outside imploring you to grab a table even if you're very obviously a table for one, and boutiques attempt to pimp fashionable trinkets to the ubiquitous tourist.
But the real treat is the western end of Princelet Street, a string of tight Queen Anne terraces initially rented out to Huguenots weavers who set up silk weaving studios in the attics. Eventually they became slums and should by rights have been swept away, but forward-thinking conservationists moved in during the 1970s and the area is now a treasured conservation area. Some of the façades shield ultra-moderntownhouses behind, while number 19 is the renowned Museum of Immigration and Diversity and looks pretty much as it once did - check rare opening dates for details. Indeed the far end of the street at the junction with Wilkes Street has an authentic shabbiness that resembles a film set... as the house on the corner often is.
Puma Court leads out to Spitalfields Market, or at least the conglomeration of stalls and chain eateries that now passes for the original (Crossrail cuts the corner between Square Pie and the Punchinello Gate). Worse is to come at the London Fruit and Wool Exchange, recently entirely demolished apart from a façade to act as heritage veneer to the office block arising behind (Crossrail passes beneath a gap which used to be The Gun, until it served its final pint last year). If this makes you weep, the subsequent cityscape hasn't quite gone the same way and a comprehensive warren of narrow streets and alleyways survives. It's impossible to do justice to the place in so brief a report, bun Gun Street still boasts a paper bag manufacturer, and Artillery Passage is almost arms-widthly quaint.
Crossrail enters the City of London on Sandys Row, outside The Kings Stores pub (previously singular, now full of craft beer). Across this invisible line buildings suddenly gain a larger footprint, where plots have been merged, demolished and merged again to create office-space-sized blocks. I'd discovered Catherine Wheel Alley before, but never the dog-leg cul-de-sac of New Street with its pubs and restaurants enjoyed almost exclusively by City workers. This leads to the vacuous horrors of Devonshire Square, a "this is not a public right of way" CCTV piazza with covered tables for grazing, and very much the future London's developers would prefer. Don't worry, we're not going there.
We're going to Liverpool Street, the actual street, which joins Bishopsgate where Crossrail swings through. The two tunnel bores spread relatively far apart here, just in time for an actual station. The Westbound misses the Heron Tower to follow St Botolph's Churchyard and New Broad Street, while the eastbound lies much closer to the existing Underground and runs almost directly beneath The Arcade. Weekdays this glass-topped thoroughfare dispenses sushi and styling gel to innumerable office workers, while out of season (if the gates are unlocked) it's somewhere quiet to sleep. Half of Liverpool Street, the actual street, has half vanished beneath a massive Crossrail worksite. One year soon this'll be a tree-lined piazza with a glass-topped escalator descending below, but for now you can peer through windows in the construction wall and look down at a row of giant struts holding the walls of the future concourse apart. Nowhere else in central London is our newest railway quite so plainly displayed.
Crossrail stations are huge, because the trains are two football pitches long, hence Liverpool Street will also have an exit at Moorgate. Between the two lies Finsbury Circus, an oval garden whose bowling green has been kidnapped by construction workers to deliver tons of concrete and other materials down below. It's well ugly, but at least it's only temporary. Some corners of London are being absolutely pummelled by Crossrail, and the immediate vicinity of Moorgate station is one such warzone. Entire blocks have been pulled down to make way for a new station entrance and improved 'public realm', thereby blocking pavements and closing streets and even shutting a Barbican Highwalk. For next time, I think.