WALK CROSSRAIL 7) Bond Street to Paddington (1½ miles)
This is the final section of my surface-level walk above Crossrail from North Woolwich to Paddington. It's a 12 mile trek, and took me seven hours, whereas come 2018 trains are going to manage the same journey in less than 25 minutes. Most of the way Crossrail's tunnels are hidden from sight, but occasionally shafts and worksites appear on the surface, and of course there's major building work at the stations along the way. Bond Street is the seventh of these I've passed, and one more remains before the tracks break to the surface and head for Reading. If you'd like to follow the route for yourself then the official Crossrail geographical map is here, Open Street Map is here, and my Google Maps approximation is here.
If you've never walked one or two streets back from Oxford Street on the Mayfair side, you should, it's rather interesting. A densely-packed grid of streets conceals a myriad of well-to-do townhouses mixed in with small shops and restaurants, plus the odd church and the occasional well-targeted business. You have to be doing well to exist back here, and developmental pressure remains great. The next block past Crossrail's demolition/building site has hoardings up around the ground floor, and signs above the door that still say United Dairies but can't be long for this world. Straight ahead is the most upmarket electricity substation you'll ever see, installed in 1905 on top of the entire length of Brown Hart Gardens. Housed inside a Portland stone shell with Baroque pavilions at either end, the upper terrace is laid out with planters as a public garden and is accessed via some extremely precipitous steps. If you've been out to see Lumiere London you'll likely have visited, it's where the neon birdboxes are, plus there's a swish cafe to entertain the impeccably turned-out on more normal days.
At the far end of the square looms the Art Deco Beaumont Hotel, a model of overnight luxury with a uncharacteristically modern sculpture attached to the exterior three floors up. This is Anthony Gormley's ROOM, which from outside looks like a giant robot standing sentinel, but which inside houses an austere double bed and nothing else, the entire suite yours for only £1575 a night. Crossrail heads beneath the service road to the left of the hotel, where staff from an adjacent hotel pop out for a crafty fag, before crossing bistro-heavy North Audley Street. And then to Lees Place, a street I'd never walked before, indeed its residents would rather I never did. This double dogleg enclave is lined by a motley architectural assortment of narrow four-storey townhouses, behind whose walls no doubt some of the most expensive property in London glistens. The occasional large black motor with personalised numberplates whirrs by, while a group of builders stands around on a break from some mega-refit inside.
At the end of the next mews, a showroom for exotic high performance supercars confirms we must have reached Park Lane. Those on foot are slightly less well catered for than those on wheels, hence crossing the dual carriageway here requires a bit of a detour. On the far side is Hyde Park, specifically the northeast corner closest to Speaker's Corner, Speakers' Corner (the cafe) and Marble Arch. Crossrail burrows beneath the subterranean car park, then onwards beneath a full half mile of grass. As one of Central London's largest open spaces there would have been loads of room here to build a shaft or fence off a large construction site, but the Royal Parks have rather more power than the average landowner and no such project despoils their land.
I made the mistake of attempting to follow the line of the railway, which might have been fine in the summer but at this time of year meant squelching across almost-mud for no particularly good reason. This part of the park is sort-of woody and almost undulating, but otherwise essentially featureless, hence isn't normally on the visitor trail. However I visited over New Year when Winter Wonderland was still in effect, hence the area was rather busier than usual with punters heading for the ferris wheel and fantasy village on the horizon. There were plenty of joggers too, a sure sign of festive excess, several of whom paused for breath to watch a mounted policeman exercising his steed on a rope in a sandy paddock. And there were also plenty of cars along North Carriage Drive, currently a leafy cut-through for taxi drivers and other alert souls, but whose westbound lane is scheduled to be replaced by part of the East-West Cycle superhighway.
Crossrail exits the park just before the Victoria Gate, sweeping round to ensure it's on perfect alignment for the platforms at Paddington. It clips the western end of Hyde Park Gardens, a posh terrace for residents who like having diplomats for neighbours before scoring a direct hit on Sussex Square. This off-grid retreat is surrounded by peculiarly modern flats, at least compared to the age of all the buildings we've passed thus far, and harbours a spacious circular garden at its centre (key holders only, music and dogs strictly prohibited, no unaccompanied children at any time). The next street, Sussex Gardens, is entirely fenced off while two Victorian water mains are replaced, a consequence of Crossrail's tunnelling machines passes underneath in 2012. A large information poster explains to residents how Slip Lining works, and why Continuous is better than Segmental, but not when they're going to get their road back.
Spring Street is a broad thoroughfare lined by restaurants, dry cleaners and estate agents (don't even ask), and a last residential hurrah before we reach Paddington proper. Crossrail's platforms will run parallel to those in the existing mainline station, but slightly further to the west and below ground level, directly underneath the line of Eastbourne Terrace. Major works have been underway here for years, starting with the relocation of the taxi rank, and now with through access for buses and construction vehicles only. A long thin strip immediately adjacent to the entire western side of the station has become a trench filled with hardhats, cranes and cement silos, with signs plastered along the side exhorting the fabulousness of the project and that All Harm Is Preventable. Eventually this chasm will be covered by a glass canopy and filled with deep escalators, public art and a train-length concourse. For now, however, it's a mess and you'll just have to dream on.
I'm ending my walk right here, because it's been knackering, although by rights I should have continued for another kilometre to where the trains emerge. That'll be at the Royal Oak Portal, squashed up against the Westway, close to the point where the Hammersmith & City line ducks below the mainline railway. But I did stumble on a bit further, crossing the bridge at Westbourne Terrace to see if I could see anything from up there. No way, the pavement's on the wrong side of this Manahattan-esque span. But I did brave the traffic pouring off the Westway sliproad to cross to the nomansland on the northern bank (don't try this at any busier time of year) and peer down. A squadron of yellow diggers was lined up immediately above the emerging railway, now a storage space, while half a dozen workmen pondered their next move. The first Crossrail trains will thunder beneath in May 2018, as the project that seemingly never ends finally draws to a close. Until then, why not walk it instead?