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

Friday Fun with photos, singing lessons & biscuits

There is a plethora of TfL fun this week. Obviously, you’ll already have seen the football themed underground map? But, have you ever wondered what the map might look like in German? No, neither had I, but thanks to Katie E for sharing a link with me, we all can!

The map is a large one – excluding the DLR and Overground, there are 270 stations. Such a vast number of locations can be tricky to memorise (though it’s got to be said, I’ve never tried). However, there’s now a song to help you! Fellow TfL nerd and comedian Jay Foreman has written a song that features all 270 stations. [You may remember Jay from his fabulous Unfinished London videos – one on the Northern Line, the other on a road building scheme. Both are fascinating.] So your challenge is to learn them:

But it’s not just the tube that’s had all the attention – this week has seen the launch of a website on which you can track the movement of buses across the capital. A transfixing and addictive occupation. Pick a route and voila! The current location of every bus currently moving along it. (For visual purposes, I’ve chosen the most scenic route in London – the RV1.)

Live RV1 Movement

Nicely segueing into my next discovery is this very early photograph of a Metropolitan Line train:

Metropolitan railway steam locomotiveMetropolitan Railway Train. (Credit.)

This is one of a set of photos from the National Media Museum collection, taken with the world’s first consumer-accessible camera – the Kodak No.1. It has to be said, I’d no idea that the first photos were circular! The set is fascinating, not least because the photographers had no form of view-finder, they simply pointed the box and hoped for the best. This was a favourite, as it looks like it was taken not too far away from my flat:

Hansom cabI’m disappointed that the caption’s been cut off – I’m nearly positive it’s Mecklenburgh Square.

Penultimately, we have a rather retro site – in that it doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2002 – that still has a great deal of charm. I have to thank Andy S for this find (I’d love to know what he was doing when he discovered it), as it’s a peculiarly compelling series of biscuit reviews (that link will take you to a page featuring the utterly awesome Tunnocks tea cake). Obviously, it’ll make you crave biscuits – so why not follow the direction of the website name and have a nice cup of tea and a sit down while you watch my final offering?

To round off this week, I highly recommend sitting down (with your tea and biscuits) and enjoying this for the phenomenal comedy that is Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Merchant & Joseph Gordon-Levitt having a lip-synching contest. SO many genuine laugh out loud moments – trust me! Anyone who can mime to Boom Shake the Room has my respect for an eternity…

How lovely is your dwelling place…

…oh, London Transport.

Today, I spent three exceptionally pleasant hours in the dwelling place of the history of London Transport. Astonishingly, given that:
(i) I love London Transport and all its works
(ii) I live just 10 minutes walk from its location
this was my very first visit to its premises in Covent Garden. Also surprisingly, when I mentioned the museum in yesterday’s Friday Fun, I had absolutely no idea that I’d be visiting it the following day. Unsurprisingly, I had a jolly good time.

Well, who wouldn’t? I got to drive three different types of tube train and a bus. (My tube driving improved slowly. By the third line, I’d mastered the art of stopping within the station – no mean feat on the Jubilee Line extension, I’ll have you know!) Needless to say, the driving was simulated – though the controls were exactly the same as the trains. In fact, if I can be permitted to gripe, the simulators are not suitable activities for small children – wielding the controls requires quite a strong right arm and three year olds don’t tend to possess such a thing.

Northern Line SimulatorComing up to the station. (I definitely overshot this one.)

Actually, another gripe regards the bus. A transport museum frequented by geeks of the first order is not the location in which to make a bus faux pas. The bus behind whose wheel one could sit was a number 9 on the outside, but a RV1 on the inside. As it was a modern double-decker, it would be impossible for it to be a RV1 as that particular route (which runs along the river – hence the ‘RV’) is only a small single-decker. [I’m not just being geeky, it happens to be one of my favourite routes.]

Bus driving joysSuper excited sitting on the driver’s seat & the peculiar bit of a bus for driving.

Anyway, the whole thing was a delight. From the lovely ticket office lady who allowed me a student ticket despite my lack of ID (I had a plethora of library cards and a believable story about being a student vicar); to the woman at the end who chatted with us while we completed her survey, it was lovely. The current exhibition of posters was as brilliant as I’d hoped – this was a favourite:

Heels - safety firstThe dangers of wearing heels..

We had clearly been identified as childish adults, as we each received a stamp card presumably designed to amuse children as they wend their way around the displays. Finding the relevant stamps certainly added a frisson of excitement to the visit.

Completed stampcardNote the presence of too many stamps in the bottom right corner. Someone couldn’t quite get the hang of the stamping machine…

There are myriad forms of London Transport – I guess that might be obvious – plus a fairly comprehensive history of how London Transport as an entity came to be. Given that I’m a geek, a lot of it wasn’t news, but it was terribly exciting to sit in old train stock and explore ancient buses. (I’m easily pleased.)

IMG_9861Ladies only to Rickmansworth

LT Roundel Coffee TableRoundel coffee table – I *need* this in my life!

On the Circle LineOn the District/Circle Line

Bus blinds What bus blinds look like when unrolled – I’m staggered they’re this long!

To be honest, my only disappointment was that there wasn’t anything about my favourite area of transport geekery – ghost stations. Surely that would be fun for all the family? Similarly, there was virtually nothing about the darker side of the transport network. There’s a small section on the two world wars and a blink-and-you’d-miss-it mention of the 1987 King’s Cross fire, but I didn’t spot any mention of 7/7. I guess it is a family destination, but plenty of other places manage to balance the harder aspects of history with the light-hearted.

Floating SignageFloating signage

Anyway, the brilliant thing about my ticket is that it lasts an entire year, so I can go back and practice my tube driving skills until I can safely drive a train, and catch up on all the artefacts and gems I no doubt missed. Normally I’d slightly resent paying £11.50 for a museum trip, but not when there’s plenty of scope for return visits. Oh, and ironically – given how many times I’ve visited it before – we didn’t have time to go to the shop, so that needs to be done too.

(There are a few more photos on Flickr.)

Tranquillity in the midst of chaos?

Tube strikes are a perennial hazard of London life. They’ve blighted my commute sporadically ever since I began travelling into town age 11 and coincided with some very important events – like my graduation. As with many aspects of London life, you develop ways of dealing with the frustration and overcoming the obstacles. (Though it would help if someone formalised my theory on bus queue ethics.)

Today’s strike barely bothered me at all.
Partly thanks to a pre-arranged ‘out of the office’ day on the South Bank (meaning I didn’t have to mission it to Baker Street) and great luck with the weather, I ‘endured’ just over an hour’s walk along the Thames Path to my office-for-the-day at the National Theatre (excellent source of free wi-fi and sockets). I love walking along the river, the sun was shining, Radio 1 was amusing, it was excellent exercise and I didn’t have to cram myself into a sardine can – what’s not to enjoy?

Coming home was similarly peaceful – a little bit of shopping in Covent Garden before catching the lovely RV1 that originates there [the key to catching buses on strike days is to get as close to the start of the route as possible] and travelling back along the river before getting off at Tower Bridge and walking the rest of the way home. All in all, I walked 6 miles today (4 this morning, 2 this afternoon) – I almost wish I had the time to do that every day!

I didn’t observe a huge amount of transport chaos. In South London stocks of Boris Bikes seemed to be plentiful (including a full rack behind Tate Modern) and buses didn’t appear to be inordinately full. [Although, much of the southern part of the city relies upon trains rather than the tube usually anyway, so that might explain it.] The media has the usual stories, but actually, if you read the comments on the Guardian, most people seem to have taken in in their stride.

Which also seemed to be the case 38 years ago – when London Transport was brought to a standstill by an unofficial strike. The wonderful Pathé film below shows commuters using a whole range of transport options (personal favourites are the roller skates and bowler hat wearing jogger) as well as illustrating the wonderful gender divide of the early 60’s – two women are filmed climbing out of a car boot and are described as “second class passengers”. Thank goodness times have moved on.

If the strikes scheduled for October and November materialise, I reckon I’ll give up the idea of working from home (or from my South Bank ‘office’) and invest in a horse…

A minor rant

London Transport and I generally have a pretty good relationship. It gets me to work smoothly – most of the time. It gets me home at unearthly hours courtesy of the ever-eccentric night bus. I’m never far away from a bus that will get me somewhere useful.


Have you tried travelling anywhere in London at the weekend? It’s a minefield of entirely closed lines, partially closed lines and shut stations. My line – the newest of the entire network – has had some sort of closure almost every weekend for about two years. It’s got to the point now where you assume it won’t be working, so that when it is it’s a huge excitement. I can’t face looking at the 6 monthly guide for closures any more, it’s far too irritating. Instead, I function on a week-by-week basis, checking the posters when they appear every Monday.

Last night my friend and I uttered audible groans when we spotted this week’s poster – the entire line’s out all weekend – wonderful.

The Jubilee line’s fabulous when it works. When it doesn’t it’s a huge pain and frustration. It’s especially ridiculous that the newest bit (on which I live) is shut so often when it’s barely a decade old. Hmphhh. For your benefit, I’ve just looked at the 6 month pdf and sure enough, it’s closed entirely over Easter and the first May Bank Holiday. We get a weekend’s respite just after Easter (handily, I’ll be out of London) and then it begins again. It’s officially rubbish.

Yesterday, I got to the station after another weekend of closures, to discover that the line was suspended Waterloo-Finchley Road thanks to a ‘defective train at Green Park’. After half an hour of going slowly through 3 stations, we got to Waterloo to discover the line was open again – a relief, but it still made me late when (unusually) I was running early.

In fact, yesterday was just a catalogue of TfL frustration. Emerging from Canada Water (having spotted the weekend closures already) I discovered that its bus station was being dug up – no warning of this happening the night before! The bus station is pretty handy – from right outside the tube, under cover & with great lighting, I can catch one of three buses home which is great after a late night out.

In their wisdom, TfL have moved the bus stops round the corner on to the road about 5mins walk away. Locating the relevant bus numbers on the map, I discovered that my 3 buses were now divided between 2 stops. Reaching the new location, it emerged that whilst near each other, they weren’t quite close enough to run between them depending on which bus appears at the top of the road. To make things worse, one bus begins at that stop and is usually standing there, waiting for its appointed time – if you’re looking up the road for the other buses, you’ve got your back to that one, making it all too easy to miss it should the driver suddenly decide it’s ready. It’s sheer stupidity.

Apologies. Just needed to get that off my chest – thanks.

The world is your Oyster – unless it’s a Saturday or Sunday, obviously.
[Incidentally, this is my new Oyster card holder, courtesy of Doris at Christmas – genius.]