diamond geezer

 Saturday, October 05, 2013

NORTHERN: Down the line

The Northern line is essentially two entirely separate lines. That's not historical, it's a position TfL have been slowly edging towards with an eye on increased capacity. Outside peak hours they've split the line at Kennington, with trains on the Charing Cross branch turning back via an underground loop. If only Camden Town station could be upgraded then the line could be split full time, but TfL have never had the planning permission and sufficient money to make the break. Which means I can take a ride back down the line from Edgware and only repeat three of the 32 stations I travelled through yesterday on the way up.

Edgware was little more than a village when the Northern line arrived in 1924, but today the surrounding area's anything but. A run of decent shops is broken by the station's pillared frontage, with a taxi drop-off circle in front and a bland bus station tucked behind. Head inside and down the stairs and three spacious platforms are to be found beneath a wide iron arch. It feels like a proper terminus at the start of a journey to somewhere exciting, which may or may not be your description of Kennington 40 minutes hence. The indicator board offers no clues to how long it'll be before the next train departs, so you might rush unnecessarily, or you might saunter and miss the beeping doors. We'll assume the former.

The run to Burnt Oak is indicative of what's to come - the backs of gardens, the occasional overbridge, plenty of trees. The station's typical too, accessed from above down gentle steps to an island platform. The same at Colindale, though a little busier here, perhaps with folk departing the RAF Museum up the road. Thus far you've been allowed to take your bike on the train but no further. Ahead is a brief tunnel to negotiate beneath the M1 and bits of Hendon, only a minute long but enough for TfL to bar two-wheeled steeds forthwith. Before the tunnel portal watch out for the Met Police's Hendon training centre, and yes that really is a blue police box through the fence alongside the cadets' perimeter road.

The tracks emerge into cutting at Hendon Central, then skirt the longest edge of Hendon Park. Crossing the North Circular provides a grand panorama, from a hilltop spire round to Wembley's arch, plus the largest shopping centre in northwest London. Brent Cross isn't quite ideally located for its eponymous mall - that's on the opposite side of a brutal arterial roundabout, which is what happens when you open the tube station first rather than second. Nice station entrance, by the way, very Edgware-esque, which unusually you can see clearly from the train window above. We roll into Golders Green at rooftop level, this a busy multi-platform station with several platforms (and gold clocks, and benches with integrated roundels, and timber canopies, and lovely).

That's it for above ground. Immediately ahead is the entrance to a tunnel, and shortly after that the deepest point below ground on the entire tube network, 69m beneath Holly Bush Hill. Close by is the lost station that never opened, that's North End, its platforms slipping by unnoticed in the dark. Hampstead station's deep too, 320 steps to the surface if you're either very fit or borderline suicidal. This is the start of another run of Leslie Green tiling, with a design on the platform walls that looks a bit like the Millennium bug. Belsize Park's pattern is a richer brown and a little more involved, while Chalk Farm's struck me as more of a sawtooth, although Leslie probably had something completely different in mind.

I made this journey on a Sunday afternoon, hence the platforms at Camden Town were mercifully clear. Entrance from above is barred for four and a half hours while Camden's streets and markets are flooded with yoof, so only those changing between branches stand waiting. One consequence of this shutdown is hordes lined up at Mornington Crescent, this the only time the station's busy, waiting to board en masse with designer bags a-dangle. As the doors start to close one surly shopper jams her torso through, delaying our progress, and another dozen latecomers take the opportunity to squeeze inside.

Next is Euston, approached via completely different tunnels to those on the City branch, indeed almost perpendicular. The platform walls here are decorated with an abstract red, blue and yellow design based on some shield or coat of arms that's locally relevant. All is explained in an information panel for the benefit of inquisitive passengers, but reading that would have involved getting off so I continued in ignorance. Warren Street is the only station on the Northern line where the accent colour is pure black, and which according to Mr Green's tiles still goes by its former name of Euston Road. As for Goodge Street its most notable feature must be the ridiculously overdone pronunciation of "Goooodge" on the in-train announcements, which had two American tourists in fits.

Tottenham Court Road looks a mess, with splashes of mosaic to brighten extensive surfaces of pre-Crossrail concrete. It also signals the start of a flurry of West End activity, lots getting off, lots getting on, ditto Leicester Square. Two grannies make a play to grab adjacent seats, but fail, which is about as exciting, characterfully, as my entire journey gets. I like the black and white mural at Charing Cross, a selection of medieval craftspeople toiling to build the Eleanor Cross above, courtesy of David Gentleman. And from here it's barely any distance at all beneath Villiers Street to Embankment, indeed a mere 260 metres, making this the second shortest journey on the underground network.

We pass beneath the Thames in the vicinity of Hungerford Bridge (Ian can tell you about the sealed-off Northern line loop beneath the river). A mass exodus of passengers departs at Waterloo, because there's only one destination left, and that's South London. It feels quite a long way to the next station, but that's only relative compared to the baby steps we've taken through the West End. And this is Kennington, the 90%-of-the-time end of the line, where every traveller disembarks. A few leave to rise to the streets of Lambeth, but most walk through the cross-passage and onto the next Morden-bound train, departing now. Nobody stopped to check the train was empty, so I should have stayed aboard to ride the Kennington Loop round in a great circle... to emerge on the other side of the station as the next northbound train. But enough already.

(+10 years)

From here the train continues through what used to be the Kennington Loop. The carriages are rammed, as usual, with socialites and boutique shoppers heading to MallAsia in Battersea at the end of the line. The tunnel follows a roundabout route to extension station one, that's Barclays Nine Elms, with its characteristic lightbox adverts all along the platform. Nobody's yet seen anyone from the adjacent US Embassy alighting here, because they go everywhere by car, but the American security guards by the automatic smartcard barriers still give every departing passenger an X-ray once-over. Our driverless service has one more stop to go. "We are now arriving at Prada Battersea MallAsia. Please remember to take all your purchases with you when leaving the train." Most take the lifts, because it's less effort than walking to the escalators. And their final destination is the glass boulevard through the old power station, where the chimneys used to cast their shadow. Such prosperity, such conspicuous consumption, even if there's barely a true Londoner in sight. Whatever your view of the half billion overspend, the Johnson Line Extension has sprinkled its magic dust on Battersea.

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