It's possible to travel through ten consecutive underground stations, all beginning with the same letter of the alphabet, without changing trains. But how?
You'd not think Hounslow East was anything special from platform level. A long open space on an embankment, peering down towards the town's bus station. A canopy that's longer on the eastbound than the westbound, because that's where the majority of commuters wait in the morning. And stairs... leading down beneath a honeycombceiling to, ooh, a very modern slanting ticket hall. The station building is only ten years old, so it's even got a lift (which is good for the outer suburbs). As for the bus station I mentioned earlier, that was built on the site of a former tube station called Hounslow Town (now deceased). Services hereabouts used to be terriblycomplicated, with trains running down twin reversing loops to Hounslow Town and back to Hounslow Central, at least until 1909 when Hounslow East was opened. Oh yes, there really are an awful lot of stations beginning with H around here.
It's not far on the modern Piccadilly to Hounslow Central, although when there are small children aboard it can feel like forever. Mum had led these three aboard a little earlier, one in a pushchair, two others considerably more mobile, each bribed to keep quiet with a packet of crisps. She appeared to be in the middle of a long phone call about nappies, but broke off occasionally to yell at the kids to sit down. But she didn't yell when one of them walked up to the door at HounslowCentral and casually threw his crisp packet down the gap between the train and the platform. I considered giving her a piece of my mind, but chose the passive aggressive option instead by moaning about her behaviour online afterwards.
This is the last chance to check your flight information. All Piccadilly line carriages contain notices advising you to check your correct terminal during the 23 minutes after Barons Court while the train is above ground. From Hounslow West onwards it dips below, and the message changes to audio. "Customers for Terminal 5 should change here..." Until 1975 this used to be the end of the line, and a flat fare bus was required for the short hop to Heathrow. Instead I'm sharing the carriage with five solo air passengers, with luggage varying from a small shoulder bag to a massive blue holdall, atop which the owner slouches legs astride.
A long run underground follows, apart from a sudden brief visit to the surface purely to pass above the River Crane. At Hatton Cross the "Customers for Terminal 5 should change here..." message plays again, because it's good to give tourists who don't speak English very well a second chance. There's no mention that it might be best to change here for Terminals 1, 2 and 3 as well. We're heading there eventually, but we're going the long way round the forthcoming loop and won't be there for almost twenty minutes. Plus Hatton Cross isn't a bad place to get off and wait. Admire if you will the central pillars on the platform, each tiled in bright orange and decorated with a dynamic triple Speedbird design reminiscent of BOAC.
Nobody has need to ride the next section of line unless they're flying from the airport or working there. It's three minutes out to Heathrow Terminal 4, which is a most peculiar underground outpost. It's the only station on the entire network with a one-way service. It's one of a tiny handful of stations which have only a single platform. It boasts a rather splendid minimalist '4' logo carved into the concrete on the platform walls. And "trains wait here for up to 8 minutes before continuing" (as mentioned on the on-board line map) which gives drivers the opportunity for a well-earned rest. The effect on arriving passengers is unfortunate, however. They see a train waiting ahead as they approach the ticket barriers, they rush and puff and hurl their luggage aboard, and then they sit there for up to 8 minutes as the train goes nowhere. Welcome to Britain, suckers.
The train has ridden to Heathrow Terminals 1 2 and 3 the long way, round the loop, so we arrive to a mass of suitcases at the far end of theplatform. Almost everyone crams aboard the rear carriage, which soon resembles a cargo hold, whereas airport workers have the sense to wander down the train a bit. I watched three guys in hi-vis trousers slouch down separately and fall asleep, while two probably-stewardesses sat together for a polite gossip. The smell of engine oil hung heavy in the air, I thought, or perhaps that's a perfume they pump through the ventilation to remind you you're at an airport. All aboard for the slow-but-cheap non-express route into central London.
The loop is closed at Hatton Cross, second time around. Opposite me a German couple are studying a folded copy of the tube map, repeatedly pointing at station names and reading them out. They spot Oxford Circus and London Bridge, but it's "Errols Court" they keep returning to, and eventually that will be where they get off. At Hounslow West local people start to board again, diluting the airportiness of the assembled throng. London's rooftops reappear by Hounslow Central, plus a bowling green and a patch of allotments by Hounslow East. This urban landscape is the first sight millions of international visitors get of Britain, and always lifts my heart a little if I'm returning from abroad.
And that's ten consecutive stations beginning with the letter H. The next begins with O, so wrecks the pattern, but ten is a far better coincidence than any trivia hunter might possibly expect. Just trust me that it's possible to ride this way, don't waste your time proving it.