diamond geezer

 Friday, November 11, 2016

For today's journey, I offer you the A-Z of the tube map.

I'll be travelling from the top of the index to the bottom, that's from the first station in alphabetical order to the last station, entirely disregarding all the stations inbetween.

Before I reveal what the first and last stations in alphabetical order are, have a guess.
Clue 1: Ten years ago the top and bottom stations were different.
Ten years ago the A-Z journey used to be Acton Central to Woodside Park, the first station having been Acton Town before the North London Line was added to the map in the 1970s. I didn't go anywhere near Acton, nor anywhere near Woodside Park.
Clue 2: I travelled from the first to the last without changing trains.
Clue 3: The journey took sixteen minutes.
That was unexpected. Usually these extreme lexicographical journeys sprawl across the capital, but this one's quick and easy.
Clue 4: The first station is often accidentally visited by tourists.
So yes, the first station in alphabetical order is home to this sign...

Abbey Road DLR station is nowhere near the Abbey Road the world knows, the street with the recording studio and zebra crossing in St John's Wood. This Abbey Road is on the western edge of Newham, an ancient thoroughfare across the Lower Lea Valley, and named after an important religious building which no longer stands. Stratford Langthorne Abbey started out as a monastery in 1135, founded by Norman knight William de Montfichet, whose name lives on as a Westfield slip road. The abbey grew rich on milling flour, and owned considerable amounts of land across Essex, at one point hosting the court of King Henry III. By the time of Henry VIII it was the fifth largest abbey in England(!), but he of course dissolved it, and today no buildings remain.

For a trace, head to the end of the northbound platform where a memorial stone has been embedded into the bridge that now carries Abbey Road above the railway. Or exit the opposite platform along Bakers Row, the old road's original alignment, to pass through the site of the medieval gatehouse. Information panels on the fence of Abbey Gardens tell all, including a map, which puts the abbey somewhere beneath the Jubilee line depot sidings, and the abbot's granary slap bang under the railway line. The Gardens belong to a modern allotment collective whose volunteers grow plants and vegetables in raised beds - one specifically devoted to the ingredients of ratatouille - and hold an annual harvest festival. It's a fantastic little project and visitors are always welcome.

The residential streets served by Abbey Road station are a mix of Victorian terraces, postwar flats and the occasional tower block. The mix is very Newham, and generally unimproved, indeed at the Abbey Road Launderette it's easily possible to imagine Dot Cotton inside fussing over a service wash. The local populace can enjoy the Olympic Fish and Chip Shop, a chemists and a Select & Save supermarket, the latter housed in what used to be the half-timbered Spread Eagle pub. A war memorial hints that the area was once more important, a truth reinforced by the size of All Saints' church at the top of the road, another 12th century leftover. This is the heart of West Ham, the original village hereabouts, but inexorably overshadowed by Stratford to the north when the railways came and something of an afterthought today.

Apart from a single row of cottages for workers at Abbey Mills pumping station, almost nobody lives to the west of Abbey Road station. The area remains a mix of industrial and post-industrial development, plus the aforementioned Jubilee line sidings. Brick warehouses and metal sheds nudge up against the Greenway, perhaps somewhere to buy roofing supplies, perhaps somewhere a hip street food company stuffs its wraps. A little further out, along Rick Roberts Way, are the printing presses that churn out The Guardian, plus the Mercedes Benz service centre relocated from what became the centre of the Olympic stadium. There's still very much a pre-Games feel to the immediate location, a bit like Pudding Mill Lane used to be, as if bringing in the DLR has achieved nothing. Indeed by 2016 standards Abbey Road station is an economic failure, inspiring no new housing and generating next to no development income, merely a leftover from a more optimistic era when stations were opened to benefit the local community rather than to instantly attract a new one.

The 16 minute A-Z journey
Abbey Road: The line's busy, the station isn't.
West Ham: Barely quarter of a mile down the line, you could have walked.
Star Lane: Another quiet station serving grateful local residents.
Canning Town: The train arrives on the awkward platform nobody finds convenient.
West Silvertown: Only one passenger is visible on the Dangleway as we duck underneath.
Pontoon Dock: Large tracts of former industry are about to become bland riverside flats.
London City Airport: Its clientèle are in sharp contrast to the surrounding community.
King George V: Really North Woolwich, but that name was already taken when it opened.
Woolwich Arsenal: Finally I've revealed the last station in the tube map index.

Woolwich has two stations, only one of which is currently on the tube map, so Woolwich Arsenal beats Woolwich Dockyard to the crown. The DLR arrived in 2009, 160 years after the station opened, as a cross-river afterthought. I'm always confused by the direction of travel when I arrive, as the 180° bend under the Thames means DLR trains arrive heading west, so I invariably head for the exit I wasn't intending to use. The main exit is up an escalator beneath a tiled coffee percolator (and a guitar, a fork, a globe and various other everyday items in an artwork by Michael Craig-Martin entitled Street Life). "Despite the different scale and function of each object in reality, the tiled artwork renders each the same size, carrying equal importance", if you've ever wondered what's going on.

Straight ahead is Powis Street, which has long been Woolwich's main shopping thoroughfare, now with a thoroughly tired feel. A pawnbrokers and a Greggs welcome you, a charity shop and a slot machine arcade aren't far behind, and Marks and Spencer pulled the plug a couple of years back. It's not all gloom however - the street was busy, and the UK's first McDonalds is still churning out burgers four decades later. The town's heart has nudged fractionally south of late, with the eruption of a mammoth Tesco Extra topped by flats, and the redevelopment of General Gordon Square. Here stepped grass terraces look out towards a giant screen on which the BBC News Channel plays to a depleted semi-engaged audience, and the general populace shuffles by.

To the north of the station is Beresford Square, site of Woolwich's outdoor market (or, if it's a Sunday, a handful of pigeons). The pub here has the name of another tube map station, that's Elephant and Castle, a single storey affair which is rather more Sky Sports than gastro. And the impressive structure at the northern end is the Royal Arsenal Gatehouse, erected in 1829 as the main entrance to one of the southeast's largest ammunition factories. Nobody wants to live quite so close to high explosives these days, though they're more than happy to live there since the MoD moved out. Several of the Royal Arsenal's gorgeous Georgian buildings beyond were converted a while back into highly desirable flats, with a price tag to match. Now the gaps are being filled in with modern towers, at least a dozen in number, and changing the face of the waterfront forever.

Royal Arsenal Riverside is one of Berkeley Homes premier developments, creating "a place for shopping, eating and culture", which says a lot about the priorities of those expected to move in. There's not much here at present, and less since July when the Firepower Museum closed down, which must be why adverts around the site are making such a fuss of the monthly farmers' market. Meanwhile at the heart of the site is a large concrete box, which in a couple of years will be Woolwich Crossrail station, an afterthought added only when the developers agreed to stump up a considerable amount of cash. Large posters on the hoardings promise new tenants "Fine Dining in Central London 19 minutes", whereas the best they can offer locally is "Light Lunch", which appears (from the photo) to be mostly overpriced salad and chips.

The A-Z of the tube map won't change when Crossrail opens, not quite. But the second station and the penultimate station in the list with both be new, and what's more they'll be only one stop apart. Come December 2018 Abbey Road will be followed by Abbey Wood, just down the Elizabeth line, and Woolwich will enter just in front of Woolwich Arsenal. It's all a bit unfortunate, naming wise, because the new Woolwich station will be on the Woolwich Arsenal site, whereas the current Woolwich Arsenal station would be far better named Woolwich, not that this pragmatic swap is ever going to happen. Which means Abbey Road to Woolwich Arsenal remains a single journey, and an intriguing one, should you ever fancy an extreme alphabetical adventure.

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