diamond geezer

 Friday, January 04, 2013

Underground 150 Paddington → Edgware Road

This is the first of six inter-station walks along the original Metropolitan Railway. It's one of the shortest stretches, and the most atypical, so make the most of the peace and quiet before things get far busier. [map] [old map] [15 photos]

The world's first underground railway exits Paddington along the edge of the Grand Junction Canal. You can trace its path by leaving the new entrance to the Hammersmith & City line station, turning right and following the towpath. Ignore the modern footbridge leading office workers to their desks at Paddington Basin and continue along the cobbles. You're now entering what's officially private property, the back end of St Mary's Hospital, but ignore that too. Along the water's edge are various departmental outposts housed in a motley collection of outbuildings - marking the point where the railway beneath curves round and heads east. The hospital continues along South Wharf Road, almost all the way to the end - this a relatively quiet backstreet apart from the occasional ambulance neenawing to A&E.

The original St Mary's building appears shortly on the right, where a gilded plaque reveals the world-changing event which took place within. For it was here in 1928, in a laboratory on the second floor, that Alexander Fleming spotted a peculiar mould in a petri dish and inadvertently discovered penicillin. That laboratory is now a museum, which I've always meant to visit but have never yet been passing by at the right time (if you're ever here Monday to Thursday between 10am and 1pm, you might still beat me to it). The windows of the hospital's maternity ward, overlooking the street, have been transformed by a pair of artworks by Julian Opie (not the last we'll be hearing of him) in his own inimitable stickwoman style. A rather more peculiar piece is the bronze statue located outside the Queen Mother wing. This is 'The Messenger' by Allan Sly, and (for some reason) depicts a man taking a stone out of his shoe.

At the end of South Wharf Road is a very thin former Truman pub, wedged into the inside of the junction with Praed Street. This is the point where the two arms of the Circle line meet, one from Bayswater, the other from Hammersmith, at a railway junction perfectly mimicking the roadways above. Here too is another opportunity to visit Paddington Basin, a 19th century canal unloading zone now entirely dominated by 21st century office blocks. It's not a lovely transformation, to be honest, although somewhat rescued by two elegant footbridges - one shaped like a corkscrew and the other of which curls up like a snail (every Friday at noon).

The A5 requires careful crossing, at a junction watched over by a Metropole hotel that looks like some scary alien insect. The Circle line station's not on the Edgware Road itself, but beyond on quieter Chapel Street, past an M&S ideally located for the multitude of wealthy foreign visitors hereabouts. Adjacent is the start of the Marylebone Flyover, rising from ground level to carve through West London on concrete stilts. At the entrance are all the usual roadsigns but also one I've never seen anywhere else before which can only mean "no horses and carts allowed". Must be a terrible problem in the locality, I guess.

Edgware Road station: Edgware Road is a lovely station, so long as you only want to stand outside it, not use it. The exterior is rather special, very similar to Farringdon at the other end of the line, featuring a row of elegant raised lettering on a frieze below the cornice. But it's not quite as old as you might think, having been rebuilt in 1928, and what looks like stonework on the upper storey is a ceramic simulation.

An adjacent building, overlooking the platforms, was transformed at the end of last year into TfL's newest permanent artwork. This is "Wrapper", an installation covering every surface of the building with geometric patterns, and the largest vitreous enamel artwork in Europe. The patterns are sourced from elements of the surrounding environment - an idea which could look awful, but instead the colour, variety and precision combine most effectively.

Access to the ticket hall is along a long tiled passage, past a sad looking alcove labelled "Telephones" (which remains barely true). Beyond the barriers stands a pot-plant jungle, lovingly tended, alongside one of the most old-school Next Train Indicators in London. Eerie red letters pick out the next departure on each platform, not always with much advance warning, while a camera relays this vision to a video screen on the platform below. If TfL had any money they'd replace this ancient display system, but better next train information will have to wait for a major upgrade of signalling. They'd also love to improve the minor footbridge across the heart of the station, where tourists fresh off the Heathrow Express meet their luggage nemesis. So many trains now terminate at Edgware Road that unwary visitors are forced to trek up and over to non-adjacent platforms, and any hope of step-free access remains a distant dream. The 21st century has yet to penetrate the depths of Edgware Road, but one day, one day.

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