Thursday 28 March – Covent Garden (Square D5 on the Tube map), Crossharbour (E7), Crouch Hill (B6), Croxley (A2)
Only four stations and five journeys (including the return to Gingerbread Cottage) today. The weather is, as usual, cold but there are hints that the sun might break through. I catch the 10.20 am Overground to Canada Water, change for the Jubilee to Waterloo, change there for the Northern to Leicester Square and then change there for the Piccadilly one stop to Covent Garden. That’s four changes and 13 stops. One change every 3.25 stops.
That’s an awful lot of changes. Wouldn’t it have been better to take the Jubilee to Green Park and change there on to the Piccadilly line? 14 stops but only three changes. Ahh! But what you don’t know is that I’ve got a plan, a cunning plan.
I want to answer definitively the question that haunts tube aficionados: is it quicker to get off the Northern line at Leicester Square and walk to Covent Garden or change on to the Piccadilly line and let it rumble you there?
It takes me six minutes to get from the Northern line platform at Leicester Square, walk to the Piccadilly line platform, wait for a train, and get off at the Covent Garden platform. Of these six minutes, a little over two minutes are spent waiting for a Piccadilly train. The train is in movement for 42 seconds. It doesn’t ever get to cruising speed, certainly not top speed. It accelerates for 21 seconds, then deccelerates for 21 seconds.
I get the lift and walk back from Covent Garden station (D5) to Leicester Square. As I’m walking back I record on to the iPhone. ‘Everyone knows what Covent Garden looks like. And for everyone who doesn’t there are endless travel guides to London that’ll put you in the picture. I’m not going to do that here.’
Ho! Strong stuff, Sandy, barks the Inner Curmudgeon. At them, boyo.
I’m at the entrance to Leicester Square in four minutes. Working on the assumption that it takes the same time to get from platform to street at Covent Garden as at Leicester Square, this shows that it’s quicker to walk. Unless, of course, you’re lucky and get to the Piccadilly platform at Leicester Square as a train is drawing in.
The Wee Professor clears his throat. As you well know, Sandy, your experiment is not statistically significant. You should extend the study to include, at the least, fifty tests. This would include for those iterations when the Piccadilly train arrived at the platform at, or near, the time you arrived from the Northern line platform. And your assumption – about the timing of ascents from platform to ticket hall levels at the two stations – is, at best, dubious.
The Inner Curmudgeon barks with delight. Holed under the water-line!
I am dismayed. The Kafkaesque – or is it Borgesean? – nightmare of repeatedly walking through Leicester Square tube from Northern to Piccadilly, the false lull of that 42 second journey to Covent Garden, walking back along Long Acre …
To make matters worse The Inner Curmudgeon has broken into his theme song, Sunshine over Leith. He’s a Hibs supporter but there’s really no call for that!
I leave Covent Garden at 12.05 pm for Crossharbour on the DLR. That’s one stop on the Piccadilly to Holborn, three stops on the Central to Bank, one set of stairs up, two down, one long corridor, an escalator and another corridor from the Central line platform at Bank to the DLR platform (I think I may have missed an escalator there), then eight stops on the DLR.
I enjoy the DLR journey. We’re quickly above-ground and pass over Leman Street – see earlier post, Down Memory Lane (Part One) … We’re raised above the mainline from Fenchurch Street on our left, Cable Street two floors below us to the right. There’s blocks of flats – old, new, newer, some between-the-wars LCC or Peabody estates with external balconies, one or two sixties’ tower blocks.
After Shadwell the blocks of flats are joined by offices and warehouses, some Victorian streets and terraces. The little DLR is going straight as an arrow. At Limehouse we seem to be higher off the ground, perhaps three storeys up, travelling through the landscape. After Limehouse we cross the Regents Canal. Limehouse Basin to our right looks both stark and, somehow, ritzy. Then we cross the Limehouse Cut. After Westferry we pass a curious pink, grey and yellow brick structure – the exit, I think, from the Limehouse Tunnel.
The DLR jinks to the right and we enter the Metropolis of Canary Wharf. Skyscrapers to left of me, skyscrapers to right, onward rode the … Whoops! The DLR executes a ninety degree turn on the proverbial sixpence, then charges forward like a Welsh scrum-half jinking past the standing stones of the English forwards. Though that’s probably the first time that the skyscrapers at Canary Wharf have been compared to either English rugby players or to neolithic monuments.
A ticket inspector, a petite blond, inspects our tickets. Two men don’t have tickets. She threatens them with a penalty charge. One – an old white guy a little the worse for wear – says, I haven’t got any money. I’ve lost my job. I can’t pay the fare. What makes you think I could pay the penalty charge? The other a young, tall, cool African with a noble bearing stares at the inspector. He says something to her that I can’t hear. At best he is indifferent to her; at worst, insolent. She sticks to her guns. It’s not fair on others when people don’t pay, she says. She makes sure they both get out at Canary Wharf. The young guy makes as if he was going to get out there anyway. The old guy heads straight for a seat on the platform.
I’m a child of the fifties, when Dixon of Dock Green ruled the air-waves. Somehow I thought that when fare-dodgers were caught, they raised their hands in the air and said, It’s a fair cop, guv’nor. But it’s not like that. No-one raises their hands in the air these days. No-one says, it’s a fair cop. No-one. Not government ministers, merchant bankers, Russian oligarchs, television executives, newspaper editors, major and minor celebrities … As a society, we’ve gotten out of the way of admitting wrong-doing. With it has gone a bit of our soul.
He’s off again, the Inner Curmudgeon remarks to the Wee Professor. It’s his hormones, I expect, acting up. Some bio-chemical imbalance in the endocrine system.
There’s more right angle turns on a sixpence after Heron Quays and again after South Quay. The tower blocks of business start to give way to blocks of flats and a more domestic landscape.
As I’m waiting to get off I compliment and sympathise with the ticket inspector. One wasn’t so bad, she says, the other was, frankly, insulting. Sometimes there’s nothing I can do. In some places I can call for help. But other times … She says this matter-of-fact. She’s left the incident two stops back at Canary Wharf. Very Zen, totally Tao.
I arrive at Crossharbour station (E7) about half past twelve. The station used to be known as Crossharbour & London Arena, but the London Arena has long since closed down. It still looms over the area waiting, no doubt, to be reincarnated as flats. There are modern blocks of flats to the west of the station, one sitting on a Tesco express which displays in its window the notice: What burgers have taught us. Needless to say, the notice doesn’t tell you what burgers have taught Tesco. To find out what burgers have taught Tesco you’re going to have to pick up a leaflet.
The Inner Curmudgeon goes through his snorting routine. You can take the Tesco out of the horse, he says, but you can’t take the horse out of the Tesco. He laughs. He thinks it’s a great joke. He’s off his bat.
I dither over and scrutinize the waters of Millwall Outer Dock. I’m not the only one. Three Martians on the dock opposite are giving the waters the once-over. It’s cold out there; cold, black and bleak. Who knows what monsters lurk in the deep. On a good day I can see the Martians diving in and doing a couple of quick lengths of the Dock. But not today. No front crawl for them today.
I walk back and go east of Crossharbour. It’s an area of streets of older two and three-storey flats and houses, a working class estate, with a pub (The George) and a parade of shops facing an empty square with, behind the shops, a line of Boris bikes in their stations.
I pass a van with Silly Slogan 93 on its side: An office without plants is like the Amazon without the rain-forest. I’ll save Plant Design’s blushes over that one by not giving them a name-check. Oops!
A man is walking a dog in a high-visibility jacket. The man that is, in the hi-vis jacket, not the dog. But they are such a natural pair that I think that the dog should be wearing a matching jacket. Both have more than a passing resemblance to the dog in the Churchill adverts. I stop the dog-walker.
‘You know your dog really should have a high visibility jacket too,’ I say.
‘Oh, he’s got one, he’s got one,’ the dog-walker replies. ‘But he doesn’t like to wear it. When he goes out in it and someone passes by, he turns his head away.’
The man mimics the dog turning his head away. The dog looks up at me. I can see he’s reliving his shame.
‘He won’t wear it any more.’ I can’t say I blame the dog.
My next two journeys are long ones. It’s three stops on the DLR, change at Canary Wharf on to the Jubilee, three stops to West Ham, change on to the District or Hammersmith & City line (whichever comes first) four stops east to Barking, then loop back west nine stops on the Overground to Crouch Hill. I’m on my way a little after one o’clock.
This Overground train sounds like what it is: a suburban diesel. It shifts up and down gears. It vibrates while it waits at stations, a deep below-bass vibration. But it’s delightfully warm. Outside, the sun comes out and shines down on east London – on Wanstead Park and Leytonstone and Leyton. We sail at roof level through Victorian streets and back lots. We pass a city farm. I look down upon incongruous pink pigs.
Mainly, though, it’s houses, an ocean of houses, houses jostling each other like Chinese Junks at anchor. We diesel through Blackhorse Road adding our fumes to the grim surroundings, then the train scutters and throbs over the Lee Valley. With the main road beside us, we squeeze between reservoirs and cross canals. Pylons march up the valley like the wayward uncles of the dockyard Martians. Old canal buildings and willows crouch and sway in obeisance.
And, in hardly a blink of the eye, we pass over, like the Israelites across the Red Sea, from east London to north London. It’s not quite the promised land. Perhaps, as Canaan was for the giant-fearing tribes of Judah, Crouch Hill will be forty years away. Or the ten years it took Odysseus to cross the wine dark sea from Troy to Ithaca.
The Inner Curmudgeon snorts. This isn’t an epic, sonny, it’s a blog. And you’re no Jewish prophet or mythical Greek hero. You’re journeying the London underground alphabetically. Madness!
I arrive at Crouch Hill (B6) at quarter past two. Crouch Hill is, basically, a long shopping street stretching south to Stroud Green and Finsbury Park. There’s plenty of Victorian roads with good Victorian houses running either side. There’s an up-market coffee place called the Old Dairy. It’s got a Quiz Night on Tuesdays which it announces with a pun that is as appalling as any I can muster. The Quiz Night blackboard says: Tuesdays. Not Just An Udder Quiz. 8 pm.
I’m back at Crouch Hill station for quarter to three. Next stop Croxley. Where? Croxley, penultimate stop on the Metropolitan line to Watford. That’s two stops west to Gospel Oak, change on to the Overground eastbound four stops to Highbury & Islington, then the Victora line one stop to King’s Cross, change for the Metropolitan line and 14 stops to Croxley.
This is now the fifth time in less than three months, the fourth time in less than a fortnight, I’ve boarded the Metropolitan line and travelled to the far north-west reaches of Greater London. It’s a familiar scene. The same serried ranks of houses stretching to the horizon, rising and falling with the incline and dip of the land.
My mind turns to Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie, a series of essays about her trips to the Arctic, to St Kilda, to the far island of Rona and elsewhere. In a sense, like Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, they are a pilgrimage, an exploration both of the outer world and of what lies underneath. They are acts of seeing, and acts of describing what she’s seeing. That’s what I’m trying to do here. I’m finding that the seeing part is more difficult than I’d first thought.
It is Jamie’s essays on St Kilda and, particularly, Rona which clutch at my heart as well as the intellect. Islands once inhabited, then abandoned. Rona tells the story of a pod of killer whales cruising round the island, of the Leach’s petrels that need Rona only to mate on and of the sudden crash and end of Rona’s humans, no-one knows how or why, some time around 1680.
I’m looking out over the sea of houses that’s Harrow and Pinner and Northwick. I’m thinking of all the lives bustling in those neighbourhoods. I’m wondering whether a similar fate could descend on them. It seems daft to consider a similar fate descending on London. But why not? I think of two or three why nots.
One. In the seventies and eighties London was in long-term decline. People were moving out by the hundreds of thousands – to the suburbs and beyond. Eight million plus inhabitants shrank to seven and a half million then seven million. Factories shut down. Industry moved out. Schools and hospitals became surplus to requirement.
And then, sometime in the nineties, London’s population started increasing again. It continues to do so to this day, is projected to do so in the future. So why consider London’s population crashing, the streets and squares of the City and West End becoming populated only by foxes, squirrels, parakeets, rats and the like?
Because if we look hard, we see that change is all around. And, try as hard as we can to see, we can’t see what will happen. We can’t foresee.But we do know that Britain’s, and London’s, wealth over the past thirty years has been built on North Sea Oil and that, sooner or later, that’s going to run out. Building your house on oil may not be as bad as building it on sand but, in the long run, it’s a close run race.
Two. One of the projections of global human demographics suggests that the human population is levelling off at around ten or eleven billion. It suggests that increasingly that population will grow older … There’s a limit to how old a population can get before the numbers start falling…
So, third reason to consider. Because we are so damn sure of ourselves, so certain and so proud. A little humility, I think, would be good for us. Shelley’s great sonnet floats through my mind as we pass Wembley Stadium:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
He’s got it bad today, says the Inner Curmudgeon, skeetering from the Arctic to the sands of Arabia and all we’re doing is tubing it up through North London.
The Wee Professor shakes his head. The sands of Egypt, he says, not Arabia. Ozymandias is another name for Ramesses 11. Ramesses 11, possibly, the Pharoah in the Bible.
Whatever you say, Prof. What the old chap needs is a wee bit of a pick-me-up, a slug of the Buckie’s.
I arrive at Croxley station (A2) at quarter past four. For a second the hint of a hot flush descends on me. I’ve made it, I’ve made my target, I think.
I venture left out of the station. There’s a parade of shops down there. And, weirdly, a large group – perhaps as many as thirty – teenagers. They come closer, yacking to each other in American accents. For a second I wonder if they’re the Croxley Amateur Dramatical Society (Junior Division) honing their American accents for an upcoming production of Guys and Dolls. But no! They’re American teenagers. American teenagers in Croxley – now that really is some quest.
I watch as they try to cross the road to Croxley station. There’s a constant flow of traffic passing both ways and there’s no pedestrian crossing. Good Golly Miss Molly, I think (or thoughts to that effect), there’s going to be an accident here. And then the unthinkable happens …
The cars on both sides stop. Their drivers open their windows. They wave their hands in the unmistakeable gesture of International Waving Hands language. Please cross, the hands say. And the waters parted and the American teenagers passed over to the Promised Land.
Good old Croxley, I think. Toot toot! Toot-de-bloody-toot!
I walk round in a daze for the next few minutes. I’m enjoying Croxley even though there’s nothing special to Croxley. But, perhaps, that’s what I’m enjoying. That what is special is that there’s nothing special.
I walk back to the station. It’s 4.30 pm. I arrive back at Forest Hill at 6.00 pm.