Why I ♥ London Transport

Two weeks ago, I was in a job interview type scenario [incidentally, no news on that front - this particular exploration didn't work out] where I was asked what I liked doing for fun. Via a mutual friend, the interviewer had discovered my love of all things London Transport and so when I mentioned TfL geekery in response to this question, he wanted to know why. Given the context, I was keen to make the point that I wasn’t an anorak wearing, notebook toting geek – but what could I say?

I’m not sure I’d ever had to answer the question before. Possibly because in London, most people share the enthusiasm – it’s to do with being so utterly reliant upon a service, even though it drives us all nuts at times – life in London without public transport would be impossible. And that’s definitely where my passion began…

Bus GinBus AND gin! [Incidentally, the LT Museum now has a limited edition gin!!]

I was 11, had just started secondary school and had acquired a commute that involved a bus journey from the wilds of North London all the way to my school in Marylebone. In case of detours, terrorist action, rain or simply the eccentricities of London Transport, my mother suggested I get to know a few bus routes that might be useful. By the time we left London three years later, this had turned into a somewhat encyclopaedic knowledge of North London bus routes.

Westminster Station at Twilight

While the practicalities might begin a fondness for London Transport, they’re not enough to fuel full-on geek-dom. For me, the number one factor is the aesthetic – the font, the artwork, the style. Paris might come close, but honestly (and semi-unbiasedly) London wins in a contest of global public transit systems. It’s the simple things, like the Johnston font that became universal across the tube when it unified in 1933, and is now found wherever TfL rules the roost. And the roundel, introduced in 1933, which isn’t just a logo or an indication of a station, but a design classic.

Bethnal Green Roundel ClockThis clock is just one example of London Transport’s commitment to its house-style.

Cities like Paris and New York might keep their stations almost entirely underground, but not London. Possibly thanks to the evolution of the network over time, combined with the aesthetic passions of those in charge, the underground has a network of stations that are nearly entirely architectural icons. The earliest stations, with their platform canopies and painted columns, remain classic a century and a half on. Line extensions and renovations enabled some of the country’s best architects to leave the city with a lasting legacy.

Temple Station platform

Take Charles Holden – architect of Senate House and 55 Broadway (still, but not for much longer, TfL HQ) – he’s responsible for the northern end of the Piccadilly Line’s style. Arnos Grove, Bounds Green, Cockfosters – all slightly different, suited to their context and location. Oh, and he did the southern end of the Northern Line too, and would have done the north too, had the war not interfered with getting his plans completed. What I love too, is that time hasn’t changed London Transport’s design values either. The architecture of the Jubilee Line extension is just as impressive, but in a completely different way. All of the stations on the network seem to reflect the age in which they were created.

Charles Holden Piccadilly LineFound here.

Then there’s the inside of the stations. Every single one is different. True, there might be a particular colour palette for a certain line, or a particular style – like the red tile accents along parts of the Central Line – but each one has its own motif. The Bakerloo at Baker Street has Sherlock Holmes tiles. Finsbury Park’s Piccadilly Line platforms has the ascending hot air balloon mosaics. Charing Cross on the Northern Line is the home of Chaucer-like characters. You could spend days exploring the art gallery that is the London Underground. (And that’s before visiting the regular art exhibits at Gloucester Road!)

To the trainsI’m pretty sure this is Russell Square – it’s certainly the colour & style of that part of the Piccadilly Line.

But, the fire that helps this passion burn is the history. Seriously, if I’d thought about it sooner I’m sure there are many PhDs to be had out of TfL geekery! The art, design and architecture all contributes to its history, but the very simple fact that it’s been around for over a century and a half gives it huge status for a history nerd!

It’s the contribution it makes to London’s social history – how transport has been used, by whom and where. The fact that changing populations and two world wars impacted the way the network worked, and where its stations were. It’s charted the progress of technology and engineering, from horses, to tramlines, to driverless trains and hydrogen buses. Within all of this, obviously, are the fascinating worlds of disused stations and maps…

Embankment 1980's MapEmbankment’s 1980′s map.

Ah, the psycho-geography of London Transport!

I love walking down a street and knowing that there’s an abandoned station along it. That once upon a time, this was a place deemed worthy of a station. But that once upon a time, a few years later, it wasn’t. [Or, in the case of Aldwych, was never really worthy of a station in the first place!] Perhaps the building’s still there; perhaps it’s been converted into something else, but still bears the tell-tale brickwork or signage; or perhaps it’s just a memory and a chapter in the nerdy book station of the London Transport museum.

Aldwych StationThe side entrance of the now unused Aldwych.

And that’s the final thing. I love London Transport because it loves itself! As we approach the end of the Year of the Bus (and the inevitable museum shop new year sale in which I think I will be very happy), a year that followed the tube’s 150th birthday, it’s clear that its history really is worth celebrating. I think knowing and understanding the history helps Londoners to appreciate what they have. We still use the same stations built 151 years ago. I regularly stand on a platform at the start of a tunnel that Brunel built in the 19th Century. The tube’s map still has a huge amount it owes to Beck, despite regular changes and updates.

Year of the BusYear of the Bus celebrated on Regent’s Street.

Honestly, where would we be without you London Transport??

1950s Map1950′s Map

The legacy of November 22nd

If you were alive at the time, it’s accepted convention that you know exactly where you were on this date 51 years ago, when news broke that JFK had been assassinated. I was not alive, but I do remember exactly where I was on 21 years ago, on the 30th anniversary of the event – in bed, with the flu, listening to a Radio 4 documentary about the assassination. [I was 12, I'm pretty sure Radio 4 wasn't my choice.]

It stuck in my mind for a few of reasons:
1. I was 12, and I’m pretty sure this would have almost been the first time that I was properly aware of the events of 1963.
2. In the same documentary, I discovered that C.S. Lewis had died the same day – a death that was completely overshadowed by events in Dallas. To my 12 year old, Narnia-loving mind, this was a travesty.
3. Being ill had meant that I missed out on my best friend’s 13th birthday party. [12 year old priorities...]

Over the years, obviously, I heard more and more about the disputed and theorised events of November 22nd, 1963. It became pretty much the only thing I knew about Dallas. In fact, in 2008 when my Dad visited the city, he sent me a postcard with this famous photograph on it, and a note on the back that “this is still the only thing that Dallas is famous for…”.


To be honest, he was right! I’m too young to remember Dallas and quite honestly, didn’t know the city for any other reason than the terrible events on Dealey Plaza. When the trip to Dallas appeared on the horizon, I figured I’d make a pilgrimage to the spot at some point – because I like my history and US Politics – I did not expect to be looking out upon it for day after day…

I was in Dallas because it’s recently become the US hub for Matryoshka Haus (the missional community/social enterprise incubator I’m a part of). An element of that ‘hub’ is a desk at The Grove, a collaborative co-working space in downtown Dallas that’s situated on the corner of Elm and North Houston, just across the street from Dealey Plaza. About a month before I visited, a fellow Matryoshka Hausien was among the first to visit the desk, and tweeted about the view from its window:

Rachel & the grassy knoll

And the view?

Dealey Plaza

I really was not expecting to come face-to-face with a site of history – or at least, not quite so frequently. For several days I sat either at our desk or one near by, overlooking a site that many would argue changed the course of world history. [What would the world look like if Kennedy had lived? Would he have won a second term? What would have happened in Vietnam? In Cuba? To civil rights in the US? To his brother? Endless questions...] On my final day at the office, this was my view:

Texas School Book Depository

This is what used to be the Texas School Book Depository Building. The window on the far left, second floor down, is the corner in which Lee Harvey Oswald stood (or did he??), with the gun pointed out of the window looking out of the front of the building. The 6th floor is now a museum dedicated to the events of 51 years ago, complete with a large quantity of conspiracy theorising. You can’t get away from the theories…

Heritage sign, Texas School Book DepositoryThe heritage sign outside the museum – note the underlining of ‘allegedly’.

To be honest, I’m not a great one for theorising. The fact remains that JFK was killed and the world had to find a way to move on from that point. But, it turns out that pretty much everyone you talk to has a different theory on why he was killed  - and these range from possibly illogical, to virtually insane. No one will ever know the reasons behind the assassination, but that doesn’t mean that people will stop trying to find out! The museum is worth a visit – I was surprised at how anxious I became as the chronology moved towards the shooting. But I got bored with the long section at the end about the various Commissions and rehashing of evidence. It’s also very protective of the windows in question, you’re not allowed to take photos at all on the 6th floor, which of course only fuels speculation further. I had a much better view from over the road!

X Marks the SpotX marks the spot on the route of the motorcade.

I’ve returned home with a pile of fridge magnets and postcards, all showing the same view of the Texas School Book Depository building, and the plaza:

TSBD & GroveNot because I feel the need to be reminded of the events of 22nd November 1963 every day – but because in the photo, you can see the window that the Matroyshka Haus desk is next to. The building across the street from the book depository is unchanged, save for the loss of a fire escape, and if you count four floors up (where ground = 1) on the side adjacent to the depository, you find ‘our’ window.

An evening amongst my fellow countrymen – and oddly shaped balls…

It’s unusual for anyone who knows me even remotely well not to know the circumstances of my birth. Or, to be more specific, the location of my birth. It comes up in conversations about birthdays (because I have two); about passports (because mine gets scrutinised for having a peculiar place of birth); and whenever anyone asks what my middle name is (it’s Lesieli – no, that’s not English).

Long story short: I was born on the island of Tongatapu, the largest island in the island kingdom of Tonga, in a hospital on the outskirts of its capital, Nuku’alofa. My parents were Methodist Mission Partners there and I was born 6 months before the end of their 3 year period of service. No, I don’t have a Tongan passport (not eligible, although I’m sure I could claim political asylum should I need it). No, I can’t speak the language (bar a few random phrases). Yes, Tonga is pronounced the way I say it – it’s not an emphasised ‘ng’. No, my sister wasn’t born there – she lays claim to the glamorous London borough of Brent.

Tongan beachDon’t you want to step right into that photo??

Tonga isn’t known for many things. In fact, I can think of four that might possibly spring to readers’ minds:

1. Queen Salote of Tonga’s appearance at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. (One for older readers.)
2. Jonah From Tonga – Chris Lilley’s politically incorrect portrayal of a teenage islander in Australia.
3. Tonga’s monarch (the king who died in 2006) being the heaviest monarch in the world – according to the Guinness Book of Records. [Warning: Daily Mail link - the only paper likely to include the title in the headline of their obituary!]
4. The Tongan rugby team.

The latter has usually been my most successful channelling of Tongan-ness – for a start, as they usually qualify for the World Cup, many of my rugby loving friends have actually heard of the country. Plus, it’s without question the sport in which Tonga excels the most (although they did have an athlete in the Winter Olympics…) and therefore I can claim a certain level of pride in being a Tonga fan. Having said that, supporting Tonga against England in the first round of the 1999 Rugby World Cup in a student bar during my first week at university was possibly not one of my wisest decisions. (England scored over 100, Tonga did not.)

When the fixture list for the 2015 Rugby World Cup was released (a very long time ago) I noticed that there were some great Tonga matches in the line up – against New Zealand in Newcastle and a match in my former home city of Gloucester. Through my sister’s school connections, she and I acquired tickets for Tonga V Georgia at Kingsholm (in doing so, being the only ones in our circle of friends to have RWC tickets!) next September – the excitement was palpable.

Thanks to a Maths teacher with both a good memory and membership of a rugby club, Mim discovered that we could have an international rugby dress rehearsal at the same ground, 10 months early. Tonga were set to play the USA at Kingsholm and her colleague remembered my connection and passed on a flyer for tickets. And thus, last Saturday, we joined a throng of rugby fans as they marched through the city towards the ground.

Luckily, we had in our party someone who actually knew the rules of rugby properly! Sally may have been older than the rest of us by some way, and might not have looked like a rugby fan, but she knew her stuff. Not that we didn’t – we knew some things! (Well, at least I knew more than I did about American Football!) We were comforted that we were by no means the most ignorant in the crowd when this exchange was overheard behind us:
American woman: “It’s interesting that every time a team scores a goal, there’s an advert for ‘Try’ on the screen.”
Her husband: “That’s because it’s a try, not a goal.”

I’d already had a bit of a chat with the couple as they’d commented on the commentator’s pronunciation of ‘Tonga’ as the players streamed on to the pitch – I explained about the dipthong and they asked how I knew. We found it amusing that a US born person and a Tonga born person were sat adjacent to each other at a match between the two countries, in Gloucester.

Goal! That’s what I call a great view!

As for the rugby, well, it was thrilling! We were right behind those posts that look a little like Quidditch goals, but aren’t. [I jest.] Literally, right behind – second row with no one in front, dead centre. Instead of being thrilling, penalties and conversions became terrifying as oval missiles hurtled up and then down towards our heads. During the first half, when it was Tonga’s goal, we greeted each with a “Yay!!! Come on Tonga!! Ooooooohhhhhhhh” *Covers head and ducks* 

'Ikale TahiThe ‘Ikale Tahi in action.

The crowd were unpartisan, cheering both sides at every opportunity, but once it was apparent that Tonga would dominate, cheers of “Tonga! Tonga! Tonga!” emanated from around the stands. Combined with the fact that many Gloucester rugby fans chose to wear their usual Cherry & White attire, thus matching Tonga’s colours, and it could almost have been a home match. As for us, my friends and family joined in the fun and wore red and white – bobble hats; a Tonga flag; my new RWC Tonga T-shirt; and a Tongan scarf Amazon had suggested Juliet buy when she bought the flag – an early Christmas gift for me.

Doris & Flag

There were others with Tongan flags too. I’d thought we might be the only papalangi [Tongan for white people] cheering on the ‘Ikale Tahi [the Sea Eagles - the Tongan team's name] with flags and t-shirts, but others seemed to have discovered the flag was only £2.80 online and decided to acquire one. Perhaps they assumed that Tonga would be the underdog to the USA and deserved some extra support. Not so, this was a match Tonga should have won and they did! USA are 5 places below Tonga in the international rankings (when have you seen the USA play rugby??) and sure enough, the final score was 12 to 40.

Match Panorama

For two hours, I found myself amongst more Tongans than I had been since probably 2008 (my most recent trip to New Zealand and a service in a Tongan church). I had good cause to celebrate my island of birth and once again was grateful that my parents chose to bring me up with a healthy appreciation and knowledge of my unusual birthplace.

Friday Fun with maps, stats & improv

The rain’s pouring down outside and there are still 5 hours of the working week left to work. But fear not, there is fun!

For a start, we have a lot of London-related fun. Firstly, let’s celebrate the end of a commuting week with some photos of just how beautiful the tube can look when not full of commuters:

Beautiful TubeQuestion is, can you guess the station? In fact, make the slideshow more fun by turning it into a game! 

A favourite element of Friday Fun is the combining of maps and statistics. Helpfully, the Guardian recently compiled some of the best London infographics, which was then followed up this week by the BBC doing the same – but with different maps. [All come from the same source – London: The Information Capital.] In fact, the BBC article breaks the infographics down a bit, so is potentially a better read. Favourites of mine included:

Heathrow lost & foundLost property at Heathrow in 2013. 

British passport holders by countries of birth Passports 2

The BBC article actually explains this very badly. From the census question cited, this ought to be a representation of the countries Londoner’s hold passports for. The article captioned the graphic as being the countries in which London residents were born. If it’s the latter, I’m proud to be a member of a group of only 1.200 people! 

Returning to London transport, via maps, readers of Londonist (an incredibly helpful repository of London related information) have contributed to make a tube map where the station names actually relate to their location:

LondonistAlternativeNamesV5Currently, I’m deriving a lot of fun from my latest London Transport geek purchase: a skirt with London buses on it. Yes. Buses. Since the summer, Cath Kidston has had a range in a lovely bus print and I’ve been biding my time to make this purchase once some of it ended up in the sale. My mother has pointed out that I need to not go overboard with the print (less is more, apparently) – I have the book bag and the skirt and I reckon there’s still room for a couple of cushion covers and a pencil case or purse. Right?


Finally, what happens when hundreds of people in the same location listen to the same mp3 file & follow its instructions simultaneously? If you’re part of Improv Everywhere, this:


The Tower, surrounded

96 years ago, at 11am, the guns fell silent on one of  the bloodiest wars in history. Countries across the world were left counting their dead and facing up to a reality that four years of conflict had achieved comparatively little. In Britain and the Commonwealth, that number was 888,246 – excluding the 306 British soldiers shot for cowardice and the thousands of weakened men killed subsequently by the Spanish Flu epidemic.

It’s a difficult number to visualise, especially as now, nearly a century on, no soldier who fought in that conflict remains alive. But that is why Tom Piper’s installation of Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red has had the impact it has. As of today, 888,246 poppies stand in the moat of the Tower of London, and its impact has been incredible.


I’ve paid three separate visits to the Tower since the poppies first appeared, and I’ve been surprised at the way in which the different visits have affected me. The first was really just to see what was going on – it was mid September so the moat hadn’t begun to fill up yet. I was on my own and it was a flying visit while I happened to be in the vicinity. The second, nearly a month later, was in the company of American friends on a busy Sunday afternoon.

When Robin burst into tears at her first glimpse of the wave of poppies over the moat, my British nature cringed. She sobbed that it was a waste, a brutal destruction of young men. And do you know what? Even though it’s complete against my character to cry in public, I entirely agreed with her. What this phenomenal installation demonstrates more than anything is the sheer scale of the sacrifice made by a generation of young men. Like anyone who has studied the war in some depth, I know that there is little that can be credited to it – it wasn’t ideological, it was territorial power struggle between imperial powers in their twilight years; its peace process set the stage for an even bigger conflict barely two decades later; and it brought grief to millions upon millions of people across the globe.

On that afternoon, the sun shone brightly and everything looked beautiful. You might say it was perfect conditions for poppy observation. We spent some time jostling with the crowd, paying our respects and watching even more flowers being added.

Adding poppies

Poppies Oct 2014

Poppies Oct 2014

But this past weekend I returned and discovered I was wrong, they hadn’t been the perfect conditions. Perfection, for this installation, is a state that brings home to you some of the reality of the nightmare the fallen soldiers, and their comrades who survived, faced on a day to day basis. We visited late in the evening, after dark and after several torrential downpours. The massive crowds of preceding days had dissipated, but large puddles had taken up their places in front of the fences. Rain still fell, and damp (from an hour in the rain waiting/watching fireworks) continued to pervade our shoes and coats.

As I stood, taking in the sight of an almost complete installation, I realised that much of life in the trenches involved damp, rain, discomfort and noises not dissimilar to (but much more threatening than) the fireworks we could hear in the distance. But our dampness would only last as long as it took us to get home and into dry clothes. For the people represented by the poppies, the conditions of the trenches lasted for days and weeks – on repeat. It was a humbling realisation for a group of people who had been bemoaning their wet shoes only a couple of hours earlier.

It may have been dark, but it was still easy to see how the poppies had spread since my previous visits. On the river side of the Tower, I spotted the point at which I’d taken a photo of a small run of poppies back in late September. The difference was staggering.

Moat, September 2014

Moat Nov 2014

But the biggest difference to my previous visit in early October was the response of the public. I don’t mean the crowds of visitors, or the fact that virtually everyone within reach of London has posted photos of it on Facebook, I mean the memorials. On the fence surrounding the Tower, personal memorials have appeared – laminated sheets containing dates, a century old photo of a young man in uniform and a few pieces of information; or a small wooden cross. All of a sudden, the poppies had names.

I don’t know of anyone in my immediate family who fought in WW1 – I don’t have any names or dates that I could share at the Tower. The names I can ascribe to the poppies are those I know from history, literature and other people’s family stories. Like the elderly woman I met when I was 7 or 8, who had a photo of a man in uniform on the wall of her room in the old peoples’ home where my parents were chaplains. She explained that he had been her fiancé, but was killed in the war, and she had never married anyone else. [For the impact of the loss of a generation of men upon women, read Singled Out – I can’t recommend it highly enough.] As we stood by the fence, Anne (mother of dear friends Jenni & Gill) told me about her grandmother, who lost her fiancé in the war – but who did marry subsequently. Here were names. Name, after name. Nowhere near 888,246 of them, just a splash in the ocean of red.

In MemoriumThe poppies will start to disappear after today, although the wave and the cascade from the window will stay until the end of November. These sections will then tour the country, before eventually making their home at the Imperial War Museums in London and Manchester.

Politicking stateside

As today is mid-term election day in the US, it feels appropriate to share some political gems from my recent travels. If you’re American and reading this, please tell me you’ve voted?? I was very proud that the American travelling with us made the most of our time in her voter registered district and acquired one of these in early voting:

Voting 2014Incidentally, PLEASE could the UK get voting stickers?? They’re such a good idea! 

I love a bit of American political geekery. It’s potentially an odd fascination for a Brit to have (especially as it was fostered pre-West Wing), but it’s largely thanks to lessons on the War of Independence during a summer in Boston aged 10, and half the syllabus of my Government & Politics A-level. [And the fact that aforementioned syllabus was taught by a young and - in a girls' school context - attractive male teacher who was passionate about the subject.] As that A-level was studied during a period of time that saw Clinton’s near impeachment, it easily became the most exciting subject I studied in school.

To be honest, I hadn’t anticipated that politics would become such a significant theme on this trip. Yes, I expected a certain amount of political discussion and cross-cultural engagement between the politics of Texans versus a tribe of leftie Londoners – that’s one of the joys of building relationships there. Yes, I knew that I’d definitely be visiting the site of JFK’s assassination – because Matryoshka Haus’ new Dallas workspace looks out over it. But did I expect a full on geek out at Presidential libraries and government buildings? No! 

IMG_7797King George leaves the stage…

Looking back, it seems the tone for the trip was set on my very first day in Houston. Saturday morning saw me sitting in a cool church building watching an educational theatre troupe perform an account of the founding of the USA. Because nothing says “welcome to America” like an hour of hearing just how terrible the British were!! Hours later, I attended a dinner party in honour of the Brits, featuring a menu designed to honour the War of Independence. In retaliation to one British jibe, I shared the conclusion of an essay I’d written for my Imperial History MA in which I’d argued that if we hadn’t got rid of the 13 colonies, the British Empire wouldn’t have been the force it was… Never mess with an Imperial Historian!

Texas CapitolThe Texas Capitol looks a little similar to the Federal one, but is shiny & pink.

Somehow, upon arriving in Austin, a trip to the capitol building was placed on our itinerary.  [Didn’t know Austin was the capital of Texas? Clearly you need these educational cookies!] We had a slightly more cynical tour guide than the official ones (God bless our wonderful Austin friends who make us Brits feel at home with their irony and sarcasm), who nonetheless covered a decent amount of Texan history and put it into the context of the current election. For example, did you know that there have only been two previous female governors of Texas? [Miriam A. Ferguson, 1925-27 & 1933-35 and Ann Richards, 1991-95 - both were Democrats.] Today, Wendy Davis (the epic Wendy Davis who taught a new generation the meaning of the word ‘filibuster’) is in the running to be the third. Happily, we were able to explore most of the building at leisure, including the House of Representatives – election season meant that little state business was on the agenda.

Governor balconiesGubernatorial balconies [I love that word!] – we worked out that there’s only space for another 7 or 8 governor portraits…

Press RoomThe press room, where I may have had a bit of a CJ moment behind the mic.

To be honest, I’d have been happy if the political geekery had ended there! I’m not one to impose my political geekery upon others and I’m sure there are lots of things we could have done the following morning, left to our own devices in Austin. But when one of my travelling companions suggested the LBJ library, it seemed churlish not to approve this idea enthusiastically!

LBJ Library

The Presidential Library concept is a curious (and comparatively recent) one. Since Hoover, a presidential archive has been established for each president, often at an academic institution, and usually in their state of origin. In fact, Texas boasts more of these institutions than any other state (thanks to two Bush administrations and Johnson’s) – three out of thirteen. LBJ’s happens to be on the University of Texas, Austin campus and also happens to be quite the excellent museum. Well, if you discount the rather perturbing animatronic LBJ…

A video posted by Liz Clutterbuck (@lizclutterbuck) on

Given that our next destination was Dallas, it felt appropriate to experience the LBJ Presidency knowing that we’d soon visit the point it at which it had begun. All three of us left the museum with a new level of respect for him, and a lot of questions about other Presidential libraries. Presumably they all did a propaganda job on that presidency? Was there a library for William Henry Harrison (who died a month after catching pneumonia at his inauguration)? [Answer: no, because the system only began with Hoover and only 'significant' previous presidents have been added.] And, what on earth was the George W. Bush library like??

George W Bush library

The last question was, in theory, easy to answer given as it stands on the Southern Methodist University (SMU to locals – and daughters of theological college principals who have spent a month there…) campus in Dallas. The rest of the British contingent had left Texas by the time I got a chance to visit it and unfortunately, I still can’t really answer our question. I came, I saw the outside of the building and I browsed the gift shop. I didn’t choose to go past the airport style security (including liquid restrictions!) that preceded the ticket office. To be honest, I felt incredibly uncomfortably the entire time I was there.

I have friends – good friends – who voted for Bush at least once. I meet many people on my travels in Texas who think he was a great president and who decry the Obama administration that most of the rest of the world rejoiced in. It’s a difficult conflict to navigate, except by agreeing to disagree. While in the museum’s gift shop, I was very conscious of being surrounded by retired WASPs who were enthusiastically stocking up on Bush memorabilia. I, on the other hand, couldn’t find anything I’d want to buy – not even ironically. By all accounts, the dominant theme in the museum is the war on terror and honestly, I couldn’t face a glorification of military endeavours. You can take the pacifist left-winger out of Britain, but you can’t take pacifism & left-leaning thoughts out of the Brit…

Go Wendy Davis

Travelling in election season brings these differences to the fore. While having a pedicure one afternoon, I watched a number of political ads on the local news channel. Party Political Broadcasts they were not! No careful unpicking of the opposition’s manifesto, just straight out attacks on the other candidates – like a Republican ad arguing that electing Davis would be tantamount to electing Obama (and that that would be a bad thing). On my final evening, we went out for tacos at a place that happened to have political themed tacos (I know!!). I went for the Democrat, owing to its inclusion of beef & cilantro, and observed it happened to be 20c pricier than any of the others. “Of course!” my host replied, “everything’s more expensive under a Democratic administration!” We laughed.

This is why I love travelling the way I do. I don’t hide in sterile hotels that are the same the world over, I experience life the way locals live it. I ask lots of questions along the way, and get lots in return too. Life would be very dull if we were all the same – it’s the differences that makes things interesting!

DARTing around Dallas

As a professed London Transport nerd, I do take a peculiar joy in experiencing public transportation elsewhere in the world. Thus far in my Texan adventures (across 2012 and this most recent trip) I’d yet to encounter any public transport at all – but this changed in Dallas.

So, how does the DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit) compare to good old London Transport? Well…

1. Some of it is free! In London, nothing’s free – aside from the odd journey when an Oyster reader isn’t working. Dallas possesses at least two free transportation options – the delightful McKinney Trolley line, using antique trolley buses from around the world and the D-link bus which is only really notable for its bright pink colour and its free-ness. (And the fact that it links the city with the Bishop Arts neighbourhood which is well-worth visiting.)

McKinney Trolley

McKinney TrolleyMy only experience of the McKinney trolley was on Matilda – who formerly graced the streets of Melbourne.

2. The main DART network is easy enough to navigate and is good value at $2.50 for a two-hour ticket or $5 for an all-day one. Plus, you can download an app on your phone that you can use instead of a paper ticket and use to buy monthly tickets. There are no ticket barriers, but inspectors are frequent – I was checked on at least half my journeys.

DART Inspectors A flurry of DART inspectors all in one carriage. 

3. The DART is effectively a glorified trolley service, running along streets in the Downtown area of Dallas. [Liz's irrational fear #453: that while crossing a trolley-bus dedicated street, a trolley-bus will appear as soon as she steps onto the tarmac, mowing her down.] This means that it’s very easy to see where you are; where to get off; and how to find the train – none of this wandering around underground tunnels and navigating staircases.

4. I was pleasantly surprised that the family with whom I was staying were within easy reach of a DART station – and used it. Admittedly, the pleasant 1 mile walk from their house to the station had a minimal quantity of sidewalk, but it did pass through some glorious countryside. The line took me straight into the city and took under 20 minutes. Beautiful.

DART en route

5. But, just because some people I knew used the DART, like most of my experiences of American public transport (NYC excluded) the vast majority of passengers were those who could not afford cars, and used public transit out of necessity not choice. I used it one evening and wasn’t entirely sure that I should have – in fact a rather lovely female ticket inspector spent a long time chatting to me in what appeared to be an effort to make the only white woman in the carriage feel safe. [I didn't feel unsafe - just aware that I was conspicuous, something that in London can be unsafe.] In fact, I came across the same woman the next morning – she’s the white haired one in the above photo of the many inspectors on one train.

6. My illogical fear of crossing the DART lines was exacerbated by the fact that it was the main way of reaching the correct platform. I had no desire to become strawberry jam on the tracks of a suburban station!

DART Crossing

 6. Just because there are DART stations, doesn’t mean that they’re easy to find! None of this illuminated logo business that you find in London, Paris and New York – just the occasional sign like this:

DART SignIf the DART ever visited London, I think it would feel hard done by.

7. They need to come up with some more creative names for stations and lines. I’ll admit that naming the station after the road its on is logical, but it would be nice to know what else it’s near. For example, Mockingbird station is also the local station to Southern Methodist University (home to the George W. Bush Presidential Library – more on that one anon) – yet you’d never know it was, unless you looked it up on a map. The lines are simply colours – “the next Red Line train will arrive in 5 minutes”…

Mockingbird Station

Ultimately though, the DART really is not to be sniffed at. Public transport is rare in a state where the car is king (and the jeep is emperor), so finding a system that works is somewhat miraculous. As of this August, it also now goes out to the airport (I know, they took their time!), which is exceptionally useful. It helped me be almost as self-sufficient as I like to be in London and that means a lot on a trip that lasted two full weeks and might otherwise have driven an introvert to distraction!


The American dream

Adventures in Texas continue. There has been a lot of work and even more fun (the main event I’ve been working on happened on Thursday, so prep and follow up is keeping me busy in amongst the fun). One exceedingly excellent element of fun was a night living the suburban American dream. A night engaged in a truly all-American activity. An evening of almost incomprehensible entertainment. My very, very first High School Football game.

The Wildcats join the pitchThe Wildcats join the field.

Most of my reference points for this experience were drawn from American TV shows (any Friends episode featuring football and that Glee episode when Kurt did the Single Ladies dance for a goal kick) and High School movies (turns out the school’s team shares its name and colours with that of High School Musical’s Wildcats). However, it turned out that the football was very much the secondary entertainment for our friends and hosts – they were all about the school band. It turns out that they, and Shannon – our Texan connection – are band geeks. Full on, uniform wearing, flag twirling, drum hitting and clarinet playing band geeks. Fabulous! [Of course everyone knows the main cultural reference point for high school band. “one time, at band camp…”]


En route to the game, struggling to find anyone who could explain the rules of football to me, I asked whether it was anything like Quidditch. The car, en masse, laughed at me – yet, after an hour in the stadium it was clear that actually, it wasn’t that far fetched a question.

  • For a start, like Hogwarts’ favourite sport, football contains myriad terms that make absolutely no sense to the outsider. Quaffles and quarterbacks; bludgers and buttonhooks; snitches and scrimmages…I could go on for quite a while.
  • The goal pole thingys are really quite similar. Admittedly, football doesn’t involve hoops, but they look more Quidditch-y than soccer goals.
  • There are people wearing peculiar clothing. Various members of the band wore tartan sashes (I didn’t ask) or sequinned ones, over their black uniforms that were distinctly robe-like. The drill team wore short white cowboy boots and sequinned cowboy hats (plus clothes in between, obviously). Even the crowd was bedecked in the school colours of red, black and white.
  • Then, there was the coordinated movement – not so much on the pitch, but before, during and after the sport. The drill team’s display (I have learnt the important difference between drill team and cheerleaders) was as bewitching as a Veela’s dance – especially as it was special ‘Daddy-Daughter day’ and their fathers danced with them. At one point, an entire section of the crowd performed some routine they’d been working on for some time. It was weirdly impressive.

Daddy-Daughter drill teamDaddy-daughter routine.

But, like I said, it turned out that we were not there for the football, but for the half-time show incorporating the two teams’ marching bands. I had not realised that band was such a big thing – apparently these shows can cost tens of thousands of dollars! The students have to be at school for practice at 6am every weekday; then there are contests on weekends; then there’s extra rehearsals…it even costs parents extra to have their child in the band. It’s a far cry from my school’s orchestra, that’s for sure! [But, as they say, everything's bigger in Texas.]

Every team’s band has a routine that they’ve worked on all summer, ready for the autumn football season. There are sectional, regional, state and national competitions (terminology that is familiar to those who have watched Glee – what works for glee clubs also appears to work for marching bands). Members rise up the ranks, only achieving significant positions when deemed good enough. The musical standard is exceptionally high, but so is the requirement for being able to move in a coordinated fashion. It was all I could do as a student to play my clarinet moderately well, while seated on a wooden chair – had marching and dancing been added into the mix, all clarinet playing ability would have vanished!

Oh, and the routines have themes! The opposing team on Friday night did one involving gondolas and Venetian canals (no, I have no idea either). ‘Our’ team, on the other hand, had a rather wonderful Superheroes number – complete with Wonderwoman themed flag wavers (I forget their correct name).

SuperheroesSuperheroes in action.

Whenever I travel, I’m on the look out for an authentic local experience, and this was most definitely that. It was awesome, despite not knowing what was going on for most of the time, because everyone around us was so into it and it was clearly such a huge element of local life. But I was surprised at how quickly I found myself adhering to the stereotypes I’d witnessed over and over again on TV and in movies. On one trip back from the concession stand, our way up the stands was blocked by a gaggle of drill team members, who (thanks to the commentary) I knew to be the captains of the squad. All of a sudden, despite being 15 years their senior, I felt unable to untie my tongue and ask them to move aside. Which was utterly ridiculous – especially as when one of the young men chatting with them spotted us, he immediately moved the group to the side of the stairs and the squad captain turned to me and uttered the words: “I’m so sorry ma’am, let me get everyone out of your way.” 

It was a ridiculous response! I am not a teenager in High School. I’m not even American. For me, the American dream is just that – a dream. But sometimes it’s nice to pretend that’s not the case for a few hours.

Falling in the South

As of yesterday (or rather, the day before yesterday as it’s currently 5am UK time…) I’m in Texas for 2 weeks of work, rest and play. It’s a little bit different to my last trip two years ago – fewer dips in rivers and drinking frozen cocktails and a bit more actual work. Plus, it’s ‘fall’ and the locals aren’t frequenting the rivers so much.

It’s bizarre being somewhere so hot in October – but it shouldn’t be.

Obviously, Texas in October was still going to be on the warm side. Today’s temperature was 88F (31C), dropping to around 60F in the evening. Yet, in Gap and Target the rails were full of lovely winter coats, jumpers and cardigans. As three Brits rushed around Target, it was clear that we were the only ones exclaiming over chunky knitwear and woolly hats. I picked up three pairs of over the knee cosy socks – from a choice of about 12 – and pondered who on earth they thought would buy any of this stuff?

According to one Texan friend the answer is no one, except those going on holiday somewhere cold. Although that doesn’t mean that they don’t dream about buying such items. As another Texan friend commented a few weeks ago: “It’s 90 degrees out, so naturally I’m dreaming about a new coat from Anthropologie.”

Then there’s all the ‘Fall’ merchandise: the accessories, decorations and abundance of pumpkins. All in the reds, browns and oranges of turning leaves – except the leaves aren’t turning here. Who needs a Pumpkin Spice Latte in weather that’s the equivalent of a London heatwave? 

Of course, it’s all perspective. As we landed in Atlanta [incidentally, do all you can to avoid changing flights there, it's another circle of hell] the pilot informed us that “it’s a perfect fall day with a temperature of around 80 degrees”. A temperature of 27C in the UK would be a balmy, fabulous summers day to be spent in as little clothing as possible, probably drinking beer. While having my nails done this morning, a fellow customer commented on wanting a “fall colour” given that it was going to be “so cold” that evening.

A couple of weeks ago, while the UK was having a freakishly fabulous Indian Summer, it was easy to spot the tourists in London because they were the ones wearing hats and coats, while the locals kept their flip-flops in use for as long as possible. Temperature is all relative.

To be honest, I’m not complaining. I’ve got a bonus two weeks of summer and tomorrow morning I have the option of a Sunday morning outdoor swim.

Houston blue skiesBlue skies, palm trees & iced tea. Note: no one else is sitting outside. 


The joy of detective work

I’ve said it before and no doubt I’ll say it again: it pays to be public about your tube geekery. Only weeks ago it resulted in the delights of the Embankment map, this week it’s gifted me an old map discovered while clearing out a father’s belongings. With no date on it, it was ripe for a bit of detective work…

As I mentioned with the Embankment map, there are plenty of clues to the age of a tube map – you just need to find them and start sorting through them in order to come with a date window. So, for this one (which is a corker) I’m going to give you the map first and let you play. If you want to try and work out the date yourself, go ahead! The process of deduction I went through will be shown below the photo, so feel free to maximise the photo and get busy with all your accumulated tube knowledge and the aid of Wikipedia. Honestly, it’s a lot of fun!

Here’s the map:

Antique MapOk, it’s not brilliant quality – I blame the unfortunate combination of iPhone & artificial light.

When I first opened this up, my first observation (mainly just because of how I unfolded it) was that we were looking at the network before the creation of the separate East London and Hammersmith & City Lines – both were still in the beautiful purple of the Metropolitan Line. But, as I looked, I saw plenty of other matters of interest that could help me with the date.

  • Missing lines are a MASSIVE indicator of age. What’s missing from this map? The Jubilee and the Victoria Lines – immediately (once you’ve checked the date of the Victoria’s opening) you’ve gone back decades.
  • Are any lines longer or shorter than they are now? The Piccadilly Line is pre-Heathrow; the Central carries on up to Ongar; the Metropolitan goes all the way to Aylesbury; and the Bakerloo includes Watford.
  • Is there anything else completely random that takes you by surprise? In this instance, I was taken aback by the inclusion of Finsbury Park as a branch on the Northern Line.
  • Are any lines different colours compared to modern maps? See above for the ELL and H&C, but on this map the Waterloo & City is white, not teal.

Once you’ve got your list, it’s time for the vortex that is the Wikipedia London Transport portal. Simply looking up the name of a line or a station will answer most questions about dates – its reliable thanks to the hoards of geeks who update the articles. And thus, I was able to establish these key facts:

  • The Victoria Line opened in 1968.
  • Hatton Cross (the precursor to the Heathrow stations) opened in 1975.
  • The Epping-Ongar extension closed in 1994.
  • The Metropolitan extension to Aylesbury closed in 1961.
  • Finsbury Park left the Northern Line in 1964 (ready for the Victoria Line).

Thus, I was able to arrive at an latest possible date of 1961. Could I get any more specific? Well, while Googling the colour of the W&C Line, I discovered a rather fabulous website that chronicles the changes of the tube map, complete with as many examples as possible. There wasn’t a map published in 1961, so it was a choice between the 19561958, 1959 and 1960 versions. My deductions continued…

  • 1958 and 1960 had ‘River Thames’ written on the river, mine did not.
  • 1956 was labelled ‘Railways’; 1960 ‘Underground’ – mine was the latter.

It therefore seemed clear that what I held in my hands dated back to 1959. A map that was over half a century old!

1959 Tube Map

It’s a special thing – not least because it’s one of the last to have actually been designed by Beck (1960 was his last – apparently London Underground disagreed with his proposal for how to insert the Victoria Line). It’s also special because it’s been annotated. My friend Sally’s Dad clearly used it well, noting down times and prices on its cover and obliterating Shoreditch station. (For good reason, apparently it was ‘often closed’ – Wikipedia doesn’t get more specific about why, unfortunately.) It’s a real map, used for actual travelling, and for that reason I utterly love it!