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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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…
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.
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.
Honestly, where would we be without you London Transport??