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  • Writer's pictureChris Rogers

Going underground

Until Wednesday one of the ‘Secrets of the London Underground’ was when, exactly, Crossrail would open, but TfL’s announcement that day helpfully allowed Tim Dunn and Siddy Holloway to get on with their new series of that title without being the subject of jokes. Instead, revealing more hidden tunnels, abandoned alignments and closed passageways reminded me of just how impressively engineered the tube has always been. It also prompted thoughts of how intimately it threads its way through Londoners’ lives.

We all have our tube stories. Mine include being stuck in a stalled train on the way to work one morning for over an hour, asking a complete stranger for a lift when the whole of north west London was shut by snow and finding myself sitting next to my neighbour one evening as we both headed home from entirely different places. There have been bagpipers, almost-escaped kittens, hoped-for romance and much more besides. It’s hardly a surprise really because the tube does what it was designed to do, bringing children to school, workers to the office and everyone everywhere that it reaches. I suspect most of these have their sense-memories as a result – the smell of wood-finished carriages when wet, the feel of now-vanished moquettes,

the sadly still-present screech of wheels on rails. And those lost ways beloved of Tim and Siddy live on even without telly coverage. I recall seeing ‘Strand’ on a station nameplate during a childhood trip well before the complex re-weaving of Charing Cross/Embankment/Trafalgar Square that featured on this week’s programme, and still mourn the Paolozzi mosaics at the head of Tottenham Court Road’s main escalators; within weeks we will all be wondering what they have done to Bank, when the latest reconstruction project on the existing network is opened to the public.

It’s powerful stuff then even before developing a specialist interest in the architecture, design and planning. From Charles Holden’s suburban brick boxes to the technology of the Victoria line to Harry Beck’s famous map there are endless angles to explore, including the idea of ‘ghost’ or closed stations which I first discovered a few decades ago. Lengthy walks to photograph their faded exteriors followed and led to tours of a few before that was a thing, such as Down Street in Mayfair and Wood Lane in Hammersmith – the latter also featured this week, but now lies buried beneath the Westfield complex. Talk, too, of the Kennington Loop reminded me that not only was core of the Northern line the very first deep-level, bored railway in the world when completed as far back as 1890, but that line as we know and, er, love it today is actually a child of the 1920s when two separate lines were merged, tunnels enlarged and Camden Town reconstructed.

As much as Paris and its Metro or New York and its subway, the tube really is London. In fact it is that city in miniature, with all its achievements, foibles, conveniences and randomness squeezed into a couple of hundred miles and not many more stations.

Doesn’t explain the armrest hogging though.

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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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