diamond geezer

 Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Underground 150 King's Cross → Farringdon

This is the last of six inter-station walks along the original Metropolitan Railway. It's also the longest, at well over a mile, as the tracks turn and head towards the City. [map] [old map] [20 photos]

From King's Cross to Clerkenwell the railway follows the Fleet valley, although not the precise alignment of the river. Along much of this stretch, unusually for central London, the Underground runs in open cutting. Up until this point it's run directly beneath the New Road, which required years of digging up the roadway then covering over the tracks. But here it breaks out on its own, scything one by one through a series of parallel streets. Leeke Street offers a good opportunity to see the disused Thameslink platforms. Britannia Street marks the point where the deep curve straightens out. Wicklow Street is very quiet and very cobbled. Swinton Street is a busy part of the local one-way system. And Acton Street is your last chance to see the railway before it plunges into a proper tunnel.

If you want to peer over the brick walls along each bridge to see the railway, you need to be quite tall. Six foot or more might be enough, but I'm not quite there so I could only wave my camera above the parapet, click and hope. My pictures revealed a deep brick chasm, arched along each edge and with metal struts inserted to keep the opposite sides apart. Every so often a train rumbled through, but I wasn't able to capture a front or back, only a less interesting silver top. The issue's of more importance if you're trying to spot the 150th anniversary steam train running along the line over the next two weekends, because you only get one shot at getting that right. Ian's been out surveying the best places to stand, most of them much further west, and recommends bringing a step ladder if you can.

The Clerkenwell Tunnel is 728 yards long, making a straight dash beneath the hillside ahead. It crosses below the foot of Wharton Street's elegant Georgian villas, then (for contrast) passes directly underneath the delivery road round the back of the Travelodge. The railway then returns to the main road beneath the Union Tavern, and runs along the edge of what's now the Mount Pleasant Sorting Office. In 1863 this was the site of the Middlesex House of Correction, a strict and fearsome prison, which maybe explains why the Metropolitan Railway chose not to build a station here. It would have made an ideal break along this uninterrupted section, but over the last 150 years no intermediate station has ever been forthcoming and this corner of Finsbury remains undeservedly rail-inaccessible.

The road junction by Clerkenwell Fire Station, near Exmouth Market, was the site of a serious flooding incident in 1861 when a water main burst into a construction shaft. Potentially more serious, the following year, was the collapse of the Fleet sewer a short distance to the south. Heavy rain had forced twelve feet of water into the tunnel, and workmen were only just evacuated in time before the brickwork gave way.
"Scarcely had the last man reached the surface than the whole mass of brickwork and timber appeared to be bodily lifted up in the air, and fell into one heap of ruins. Several hundred yards of tunnelling and arches were totally destroyed, while the water was flooding the ruins in all directions. The scene presented the appearance of a destructive earthquake. The water came pouring down from the high level in torrents, flooding that portion of the tunnel still remaining standing, destroying the gas-mains in Ray Street, inundating the cellars of houses, and appearing to have uncontrolled power over the whole portion of that low-lying district. The destruction of property is very great, and the accident will cause a delay of three months in the opening of the railway." (The Guardian, 20 June 1862)
The Fleet sewer was quickly reconstructed, to a more sturdy specification, and a section of it still flows through an iron pipe near the end of the tunnel. The railway returns to daylight opposite Ray Street, this the Fleet Valley proper, and rises gently above the Thameslink tracks. Four lines then run south, beneath Vine Street Bridge, past Clerkenwell Green, to the final station on the original line.

Farringdon station: But that's not the original station in use today, not in any way at all. Instead the southern terminus of the 1863 railway ran in alongside Farringdon Road, beneath what's now a hideously blocky modern building. And this is where the Metropolitan's directors stopped for a celebratory banquet at the end of their first ride down the line, precisely 150 years ago this afternoon.
"At 3 o’clock an elegant déjeúner was given to the large company invited by the directors at the Farringdon Station. For this purpose the arrival and departure platform was enclosed, the sides and roof being tastefully draped with scarlet and white, ornamented with numerous flags and banners. The upper table, at which were seated the more distinguished guests, was placed on a raised platform, and at right angles there stretched three rows of tables, where covers were laid for 630." (The Times, 10 January 1863)
Passenger numbers on the new railway were high enough to encourage the immediate construction of two more tracks, these now the Thameslink lines, and a brand new train shed was completed in 1865. That's where trains stop today, and that's how the original Farringdon became the Underground's first disused station as early as 1866.

A century and a half on, Farringdon is undergoing a (very) major revamp. The twin-arch elliptical wrought-iron roof is being restored, so a large blue canvas covers the majority of the station interior. All four platforms have been spruced up, with the Thameslink platforms extended south to accommodate 12-carriage trains. That's bad news for waiting passengers when a 4-carriage train rolls in at the front, forcing many an unsuspecting soul to chase swiftly and inelegantly up the platform. During reconstruction a glass wall has been erected between the two halves of the station, with the only two staircases between Circle westbound and Thameslink southbound now unsigned and surprisingly hard to spot. Instead passengers are directed via the tubular footbridges at the northern end of the station, which is quite a climb, especially if it's unnecessary. They're most modern-looking bridges, very swish, added to improve the circulation and to link to the new rush-hour-only station entrance on Turnmill Street.

Massive expansion is required at Farringdon because Crossrail is coming, and in 2018 this will be one of the most important interchanges in London. Change here for Barking, Hammersmith, Chesham, Heathrow, Bedford, Peterborough, Cambridge, Brighton, Sevenoaks, Dartford and Canary Wharf, to name but a few. That's why there are now two contrasting station entrances facing one another across Cowcross Street, one elegant and old, one stark and new. The 1923 entrance is another of Charles Clark's rebuilds, complete with raised lettering across the front and along the side, and former retail units restored at street level. Thameslink's 2011 entrance features umpteen ticket gates across an echoing hall, with a glass frontage destined one day to gain an office block on top.

150 years on much has changed, all along the original line but especially here at Farringdon. So how appropriate that the Smithfield sidestreet selected as the terminus for London's first underground railway should now be transforming into the hub of a 21st century rail network. Past, present, future, the Metropolitan's legacy rolls on.

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