diamond geezer

 Friday, August 02, 2013

DISTRICT: Down the line

I'm continuing my journey down the District line, from Upminster as far as you can go, which is Richmond. So far I've reached Monument, which is halfway. Sorry, yes, only halfway.

Cannon Street station is closed. Or it was when I passed through. The driver crept through at the regulation 5mph, before speeding up a bit once his cab was in the tunnel, which I suspect isn't entirely within the rules. Cannon Street is the only station left on the Underground network that closes on Sundays... as well as after 7.30pm on Saturdays and after 9pm on weekdays. There is good reason for this. Southeastern rail services from Cannon Street close down outside those times, almost to the minute, and anyone who really wants to get here can walk the short distance from Monument or Mansion House instead. The latter station isn't exactly busy either, not outside the City's working hours, and yet your train will often linger here for an extra minute... isn't there a kitchen or a toilet or something at the front end of the platform into which the driver can nip for swift relief?

Blackfriars is the odd station out along this southern edge of the Circle, entirely rebuilt in the 21st century so brighter and cleaner and shinier than everywhere we've just been through or are just about to go. Whereas Temple is proper old school, and pleasingly simple. Two platforms facing each other across a gentle curve not far beneath the Embankment, almost how stations are in Paris, although the pillars supporting the ceiling have a defiantly Victorian English flair. It's at this point that the bloke who's been sitting next to me since Whitechapel finally looks down to try to work out what the hell I'm writing. Obviously I take notes on trips like this, I'd never remember all the minutiae otherwise, but I do scrawl sufficiently that my writing is deliberately barely legible. I consider jotting down the phrase "the bloke sitting next to me is looking at what I'm writing" but decide against, that is until he stands up and goes to sit in another seat... was it something I said?

I've never understood how Embankment can support quite so many newsagent/sweetie kiosks on the District line platforms - two on the eastbound and another two on the westbound. Is it that the station happened to be built with these tiny rooms in the walls, or is there an innate need for Mars Bars and copies of Private Eye in this particular location? The train gets more touristy at Westminster, its dark silver walls in complete modern contrast to St James's Park - the next stop down the line. As the station beneath TfL HQ you'd expect it to look special, and there's a 30s timewarp quality that almost makes you expect a man in a greatcoat and bowler hat to walk down the steps with a pipe at any minute. But the WHSmith kiosk here closed long ago... perhaps Embankment's Kit Kat sellers put it out of business.

Victoria is the busiest station on the line, and so it proves. A throng of people line the platform, some of whom stand back and wait for a Circle line train while others charge aboard. My section of carriage is targeted by a Polish family on tour, six-strong, each member lugging a suitcase and a substantial item of hand luggage. There should be space for their belongings in the flip-up space, but the current occupant just stares into his phone and refuses to budge. Instead the family plonk down all around me, chatting loudly as if I don't exist. By Sloane Square the eldest teenager has plugged into some soft rock number and is playing air guitar. By South Kensington his brother has unwrapped some tinfoil and is stuffing his face with a cooked meat sandwich. And at Gloucester Road a Japanese family joins them, forcing the displacement of a 'Power Metal' rucksack. I think I preferred the labrador.

The next stop is the hub of the line, that's Earl's Court, where District line trains run in a record-breaking five directions. A Wimbleware is stationed in the platform alongside (heading towards Wimble', rather than 'ware, as the heritage arrowed indicator above makes clear). We're now properly out in the open air again, and staying that way to the end of the line. The train halts at West Kensington for some considerable time, but the driver doesn't play the "We are being held at a red signal" announcement - you don't hear that so often any more, do you? If I were heading to Heathrow I'd alight at Barons Court - the platform's narrower and the benches much finer - but my Polish colleagues choose Hammersmith. That 'Power Metal' rucksack nearly swipes me on the head as its owner stands, and the family are still dragging gymbags off the trains as the door slides shut.

We're on the slow tracks now. Piccadilly line trains take the express route along the viaduct to Acton Town, but the District line stops at all the stations, much to the relief of residents in the general Chiswick area. Ravenscourt Park is the first of a trio on the elevated viaduct, with fresh tubs, smart niched benches and a gabled canopy. Stamford Brook is very similar, except one of the canopies is designed from a flat slab of concrete, and there are no platforms in the centre of the station where regular Heathrow-bound trains speed through. Canopy design reverts to all-wood at Turnham Green, where some of the roundels announce "For Bedford Park" as an admission that this isn't the closest station to Turnham Green, that'd be Chiswick Park, and there isn't a park called that, and we're not going there either. Instead the train veers off down a curve past the nature reserve onto the final branch line.

If there were a competition for London's ugliest Underground station, Gunnersbury would make the shortlist. A bleak platform sits in a canyon alongside a zigzag concrete car park, with an entirely uninspiring 60s tower block looming at one end. To be fair this isn't a TfL station, it's owned by Network Rail, a legacy of the Overground line that also runs through to Richmond. Things then improve, sharply, with a bridge across the Thames and a fine fluvial panorama, for anyone who chooses to look up from their phone. The tide's out, and I spot much beer being quaffed at The City Barge. There's another pub on the platform at Kew Gardens - I think that's unique on the tube network - plus a set of semi-tropical tubs as a nod to the nearby botanical gardens. And that's almost it, bar a slow crawl past the backs of gardens and buddleia into the platforms at Richmond station. The crowd that pours off is very different to the East London demographic that filled the carriages an hour back down the line. But the District's egalitarian like that, and you never know who's been sitting in your seat earlier in the journey... unless you sit in it all the way.

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