Wednesday 27 March – Clapham High Street (Square F4 on the Tube map), Clapham Junction (E4), Clapham North (F5), Clapham South (F4), Cockfosters (A6), Colindale (A4), Colliers Wood (F4)
The Man on the Clapham Omnitube woke up this morning and found he had set himself a target. He – that is me – is going to complete the first full column of tube stations in TfL’s Index to Stations on the back of the Tube map by the end of March. OK, there are six columns of stations and the end of March is the end of the first quarter of the year. But the last two columns are short.
A target! A target! A spurious target! Could anyone wish for more in this age of relentless target-setting? Then, I remember. Easter is Icumen In. (Loudly sing, Cuckoo!) As sure as eggs are eggs, TfL will have made life difficult for me …
Good old TfL. You know where you are with them. Easter Weekend, loudly sing, Rail Replacement Bus! I’m going to have to get to Croxley (Square A2 on the Tube map) by the ‘end of play’ tomorrow.
No problem. Today, I will gather the nineteenth century rainments of Gauthier de Clagny about me. Gauthier, he of From Paris to Nice in Eighty Days. He who epitomises the adage that it is better to travel than arrive. I will focus on the journey rather than the stations.
I catch the 9.45 Overground to Canada Water. I look eastwards towards Shooter’s Hill and Oxleas Woods. We pass through Honor Oak Park. I look westwards at the near green mound and many trees of One Tree Hill. The train settles into a cutting and I sense rather than see sports pitches and cemetery up there. There’s backs of terraces on both sides and we’re through Brockley. The Overground sways slightly. We dip into another cutting, trees close green and dark on either side.
Alight here for Goldsmith’s College, the young woman on the train intercom announces pleasantly. She says it every time the train is pulling into New Cross Gate. She’s always pleasant. She never slips up. I don’t know how she does it. It must get so boring.
Alight! What a lovely word. None of your, Get off, oh no. That would be an order. Alight is an invitation. You know, I day-dream, I rather think I will alight here. Perhaps, dear lady, you would care to partake in a cup of coffee with me?
The Inner Curmudgeon snorts. Now the laddie is fantasising about getting off with a recorded voice!
The Wee Professor answers on my behalf. Don’t be so crude. You can rely on the Wee Professor. He’s not only a professor, a pedagogue and a pedant, he’s one hundred per cent proof prude.
The landscape between New Cross Gate and Surrey Quays is spectacular in an awful way. It’s all railways, sidings, marshalling yards, blank grey concrete bridges, grey metal pallisade fencing, banged-up skips banged-up in wastelands surrounded by pallisade fencing, containers banged-up likewise, metre-cube bags of Type 1 and ballast, a rogue digger (bucket poised), stacks of concrete railway sleepers, lengths of rusted rail, those concrete blocks they use to narrow the lanes on motorways, ugly grey galvanised CCTV camera masts watching the banged-up skips banged-up in their pallisade compounds …
There’s a long corrugated tin shed, as long as a train, with four train lines going into it. Presumably that’s where they wash the Overground trains or repair them.
There’s a tower block shrouded in scaffolding and dirty grey plastic. Everything is dirty, functional, encrusted with salt and grime. There’s the imaginatively-named Operational Building Complex, a modern building faced with perforated mustard-coloured steel and surrounded by a concrete car park. There’s another block shrouded in dirty green netting.
Over everything looms the dirty grey stack-and-slab of the South East London Combined Heat and Power Station. It’s a massive incinerator. Every year it burns up hundreds of thousands of tons of rubbish. Rubbish, The Wee Professor chips in, is known in that particular business sector as ‘municipal solid waste’.
I’m not sure about this focusing-on-the-journey lark. It’s a relief when the train dives into Surrey Quays station. Change here for Overground trains to New Cross and Clapham Junction! Well thank you, Emma, I reply – I can’t think of her as some disembodied voice. She is a person, a thespian of the air-waves. Thank you, Emma, I do believe I will change here.
I feel a buzz of excitement. I am venturing into the unknown. It’s my first time on the Overground Clapham Junction spur first to Clapham High Street and then on to Clapham Junction itself. It’s ridiculous, I know. I’m a grown man and here I am behaving like a wee boy.
At first a narrow linear park runs by the side of the Overground but this soon gives way to sixties housing estates, Victorian terraced streets, back gardens, one or two modern blocks, back yards, lots parked up with cars for scrapping or salvage. We cross under the mainline into London Bridge and join the old London Bridge to Victoria loop. We go under the railway from Nunhead and sail past the huge beat-up six storey warehouse before Peckham Rye station.
Later we pass through Denmark Hill station in its deep cutting then shoulder past King’s College Hospital. It’s vast and has what looks like its own electricity sub-station.
Soon the track rises. We’re at roof level, sailing across London. As we come into Brixton we rise again, above the Victoria to Orpington line, over Brixton station. It’s wonderful. It’s a first.
Put it down in your bloody notebook, the Inner Curmudgeon grumbles. And get a life! This is only a train journey, a suburban train journey, a piffling suburban train journey at that! A piffling, depressing …
I get off at Clapham High Street station (Square F4) at 10.25 am. I walk all of fifty yards to Clapham High Street and take a photo of the station. There’s a bar under the railway arches called Secondo which styles itself as a Café Bar and Vintage & Retro Clothing. I peer through glass arch. It’s closed down: there is a drift of unopened letters inside the door. Further back there’s an immaculate Triumph Herald with two-tone livery and rubber bumpers. A floor brush is propped against its bonnet as though someone has just popped out for a second.
I get the next train to Clapham Junction. At first we pass between backs of gardens. Then, after Wandsworth Road station we swing down and east, jogging between train depots, bus depots and a concrete-mixing site where concrete, aggregate, sand and building materials are loaded onto goods wagons. The train dives under the multiple tracks running towards Waterloo. Gracious me! I feel another thrill as the train slips into Clapham Junction station (Square E4) at 10.55 am.
This is another lackadaisically named station. This isn’t in Clapham. To the south are the shops and restaurants of St John’s Road and Battersea Rise; to the north, the grim tower-block land of Battersea. This is where I’m heading, more specifically to the depressing local shopping centre.
I’m taking notes on my iPhone today. ‘It’s cold,’ I record, ‘and the sun has gone in. I’m walking through a seventies’ shopping centre, very small local centre, with octagonal blocks of ribbed concrete, ageing badly … It’s bleak … miserable … drab. There’s one café open with lurid-yellow and faded-pink plastic bucket seats, but most of the shops are closed. It’s a very unsuccessful shopping centre and it’s not hard to see why.’
I’m back at Clapham Junction and into the Overground by 11.15 am.
There’s a copy of the Metro on a seat. Killed by a pack of ‘mad dogs’ Oh my gosh. It’s the terrible story of a 14-year old school girl in Wigan who was left alone at a friend’s house where she was mauled to death by a pack of dogs as she ate a meat pie. Oh dear.
The Overground crosses the Thames. I change at West Brompton on to the District line for High Street Kensington, change again at Earl’s Court for the other branch of the District line, change again at Victoria on to the Victoria line, then change at Stockwell onto a southbound Northern line train.
Despite all these changes it takes only twenty minutes to get to Clapham North (F5). I walk the fifty yards back and look towards Clapham High Street station.
I walk a further hundred yards down Clapham High Street (the street). The Socialist Party has a shop here. I look in and tut-tut at their window display. ‘They really don’t look after their window display,’ I say mournfully, ‘which is a shame.’ I walk back to Clapham North.
There’s a ‘Thought of the day’ in the station, my first since Archway. It reads: ‘Yesterday’s faults become today’s lessons. Today’s dreams become tomorrow’s reality.’ This wisdom comes courtesy of a B J Neblett. I ask the Station Attendant at the Information Window if he knows who B J Neblett is. He misunderstands me. ‘Oh no. It is not a saying from one of us. We get it from a book.’
I take the two stops to Clapham South (F4). It’s got a lovely booking hall with a central raised roof with windows. I’m about to take a photo of it when I spot an ‘Insight of the Day’. Well, blow me down. They’re like London buses: you wait an age, then two come along at once. This one states: ‘You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.’ It’s ascribed to Dr Seuss.
Two uplifting thoughts for the day in the space of twenty minutes. Can the world get any better? Oh yes it can. I walk out and the sun is out. Not fully out, but almost full. It’s warm. I’m not talking Meditteranean warmth here, I’m talking normal-for-end-of-March-beginning-of-April in England warmth. That’s good enough for me.
I mosey around in the warmth. I do a Customer Inspection of the big newish Tesco. I walk south down Balham Hill. Majestic Wine Warehouse where I bought my first case of wine thirty years ago is still there. I walk back to Clapham South and inspect ‘The Drum’ – a series of deep level tunnels extending the tube into an underground shelter. It was built during World War 11 as V1s and V2s fell overhead. It was still in use after the war – for billeting trooops, then as hotel accommodation for the Festival of Britain and finally as a temporary home for some of the first immigrants arriving from the Caribbean on the MV Empire Windrush. Pause, think, consider. (See, even I’m getting the exhortation bug.) World War 11. Festival of Britain. MV Empire Windrush. This is probably one of the most significant ‘monuments’ to British 20th Century History and no-one knows about it.
I leave Clapham South at 12.35 pm. I take two stops northbound and change on to the Victoria line for ten stops, changing at Finsbury Park on to the Piccadilly line and another eight stops to the end station, Cockfosters (A6). The Man on the Clapham Omnitube is off visiting relatives.
I’ve taken copious notes during my journey. I note the quiet of the carriage broken at Green Park when a party of teenage tourists board, calling and tra-la-la-ing to each other. I am reminded of the laughter-like yaffle of the green woodpecker.
Later, the tube surfaces at Arnos Grove. It’s only when the tube breaks free from its underground habitat that one gets any sense of topography. Underground one moves through a region where there is no depth or height, where we exist on one plane only. Sometimes we sense the tube negotiating a bend. It’s a magical form of journeying. The three dimensions of space are suspended and we journey through the arrow of time.
After Southgate tube we’re out in the open, again above roof line. The skies are grey with an occasional hint of blue and there is residual snow on the ground. After Oakwood there’s sidings and sheds to one side of the line, woods and greenery to the other, northern side. I arrive at Cockfosters at 1.30 pm.
I’ve never been to Cockfosters. It’s got shops and restaurants at first down only one side, then down both sides, of a long main road. It’s got that feel which end-of-the-line places sometimes have, a feeling of self-sufficiency. Mind you, it helps that it’s obviously pretty affluent. I stroll down the road. To the west the land falls away and then rises beyond to a cold grey horizon.
I buy some coffee at Jamaica Plantations, coffee importers and roasters. I am served by the Asian woman running the shop. She came here from Kenya with her family in the 1960s. She’s the third generation of her family in the business. ‘Coffee is in our blood,’ she says. She has other business and asks her son to finish serving me, to grind my coffee. ‘So you will be the fourth generation in the coffee business,’ I say to him. ‘No,’ he says, shaking his head. ‘No, this isn’t for me. I’m only helping out. I’m an actor. That’s what I am.’ I find out that some years ago he was nominated for a prize at the Ian Charleson Awards which reward the best classical stage performance by an actor under thirty. He’s a serious actor.
I stroll back to the tube. I’ve got another long tube journey in front of me: 21 stops by Piccadilly and Northern lines to Colindale. It takes an hour. Throughout the journey I smell the sharp sweet poignant smell of coffee.
I think of the different sounds that the different underground trains make – the sounds of their engines and of the air as its pushed through the tunnels, the whistle and grind of the wheels against the rails, the jostles and clangs across points, the click-clacking and slurring. Then there’s the hiss and sough of the brakes, the background humming of ventilation, the creaks of furniture and the shudder of the doors.
Each line, I think, sounds different. Part of this is to do with speed: the Victoria and Jubilee lines are faster. Their sound is harsher, more sibilant. At times Jubilee trains shriek as though their wheels don’t quite fit the tracks. At times it’s a tympani symphony.
Plus, of course, there are the different recorded voices announcing the next station. However did we find our way around without the multitude of auditory and visual directions and prompts? I wonder how Emma is doing. Probably somewhere she is saying, Alight here for …
It’s been a year since I was last at Colindale station (A4). Blocks of flats were being pushed up as though there was no tomorrow. They’re all pushed-up now. Whoever’s doing the pushing-up is pushing up more blocks.
I turn and walk east. From the tube, I’ve noticed sports grounds, an athletic track and a collection of ugly buildings in a vast compound. I walk past high railings with no signs at the gates. I pass another set of gates. I go up to the security control room. A security man comes out. Gosh, I think, he’s a big boy. He’s about seven foot tall and three feet wide and built like a barn. It’s the police academy at Hendon, he says, but not for much longer. We’re trying to sell it off. We need to make savings.
There’s a problem here: there are no shortage of takers, but the Met got the land free from the RAF and there are legal covenants to jump through.
As I’m making my way back to the tube, I notice a splendid building across from the station. It’s huge, stately, purposeful. It’s on the road towards the A5.
It’s the British Library’s Newspaper Archive. I go into the small lobby. To one side there’s a cloakroom. There’s none of the usual security apparatus. An elderly gentleman comes tripping down the stairs to collect his coat and umbrella. He looks like a slightly worried rabbit. Is that because it’s unusual to see a new face? That, since time immemorial, he, the cloakroom attendant, the librarians upstairs and – perhaps – Jorge Luis Borges have been the only inhabitants of this stately building?
I ask what the procedure is for accessing the archive. There isn’t a procedure, not really. One turns up with one’s card, asks for what one wants and waits for the goods to be delivered. Before I get too enthusiastic I’m told that the building is closing. The archive will be housed somewhere in Yorkshire. Everything will still be available but you’ll have to order it in advance. That’s not the same, not at all. And the building itself? You’ve guessed it. It’ll be sold for flats.
I’m leaving Colindale Station when I get yet another surprise: a third Thought for the Day. Gracious me! Have they cottoned on to me? Are the Station Attendants at Clapham North phoning ahead to their colleagues at Clapham South who in turn ring Colindale? This thought is courtesy of the Hollywood film star, Lilian Gish: ‘You Can Get Through Life With Bad Manners But It’s Easier With Good Manners.’
I scurry, rather like the White Rabbit, down the tube. One hour and 22 stations later, having hopped from the Northern to the Victorian line at Euston and back on the Northern at Stockwell I’m at Colliers Wood (F4).
I cross the main road and find my way into the Wandle Meadow Nature Park. This is another linear park. It’s got lovely trees and pylons striding off towards the horizon. Harald and I walked here, or very near here, following the Wandle about the same time last year. It was much warmer then, warmer and drier. People were walking around in their t-shirts then. Some were hiding their hose-pipes.
But it’s getting cold. I turn back to the tube. There’s a horrible ugly black slab of an office block by Colliers Wood which has been empty for years. It looks like an advertisement for the apocalypse or something out of the darker reaches of Cormac McCarthy’s imagination. I ask the Station Attendant about it. They’re turning it into flats, he tells me, but there’s planning difficulties.
I try to laugh but it comes out all hollow like the laugh you get as you crash round the switchback tracks of the Ghost Train.
Think positive, the Inner Curmudgeon says. Think Thought for the Day! He’s being ironic, of course. That’s the Inner Curmudgeon for you, he’ll kick a man when he’s down.
I head for home, 19 stations on the Northern, Jubilee and Overground lines.