Monday 16 September – Ruislip Gardens (Square B1 on the Tube map), Ruislip Manor (A1), Russell Square (C5), St. James’s Park (D4), St. John’s Wood (B4), St. Paul’s (C6)
Outer and Central London destinations are juggled in the traditional TubeforLOLs alphabetic manner, this time coming up with two Jeremiahs, two trios (the first of hospitals, the second of Saints), two ways of experiencing London (the approved TubeforLOLs approach and the non-approved) and a piece of hallowed turf – well, not turf exactly, more like tarmacadam painted black and white. The weather matches with bright autumnal sunshine, lowering clouds, hailstones, lashing rain and a glorious late-afternoon return of the Sun King. Everybody’s laughing, everybody’s happy …
There’s an early but satisfyingly autumnal bite to the day, with bright sun breaking through the trees and shrubs of the Albion Millennium Green, as I make my way to Forest Hill station. The Weather Forecast noted temperatures 4ºC below average: October is a month early.
Fifty minutes out of Forest Hill (via Overground, Jubilee and Central lines) I’m at Ruislip Gardens (Square B1). It’s 10.25 am. The sun is out but there’s a cold snap of wind from the north.
I’ve passed this way only once before and that was but ten days ago on a walk with chums, tracking the Yeading Brook from North Harrow southwards to its confluence with the River Crane. The last of the summer heatwaves was upon us. We continued south and westwards, skirting the perimeter of RAF Northolt. No more than five minutes walk from the station we ate the most luscious blackberries – sweet, juicy and baked to perfection – from the bushes on the southern-facing side of the path.
Stop! STOP! STOP!! The Inner Curmudgeon yells. What’s this got to do with TubeforLOLs? That was you out enjoying yourself. Nothing to do with this malarkey! Get on with it, Sunny Jim!
The station itself is a no-shop station but there’s a neighbourhood centre northwards. The two facing parades cater for all ages downwards – from the undertakers, through the pub (‘The Bell’), the off-licence (‘Bottle Neck’), past all the usual suspects, to two outlets of ‘Baby Boom 2000’ in different parts of the parade. I guess that’s a giveaway to the priorities at Ruislip Gardens.
I’m accosted by an Indian resident. Wiry, quizzical, a touch pataphysical and with an excess of energy belying his seventy-plus years, he’s lived here for over thirty years. London has changed, he says. This place has changed. It is not so friendly, people do not know you. These days we have to put up notices, ‘Please, no parking in the driveway’. He’s into his stride now and leans forward. We are not getting the same calibre of people coming in these days, he confides. I was talking to a friend who was over here from India, an MI5 officer, I was explaining the changes to him. As an instance, we have all these [CCTV] cameras but I hear that only ten per cent are effective. Then there are all these people looking at screens and the British taxpayer is paying thousands for this.’ He shakes his head and disappears with his prescription into the chemists.
It’s 10.40 am when I return to the station. My next station is, I guess, less than a mile away. I take the Central line six stops east to North Acton and one stop west to Ealing Broadway then the District line one stop east to Ealing Common where I board a westbound Piccadilly nine stops to Ruislip Manor (A1). I arrive there at 11.45 am.
Looked at in one way, humans – indeed all sentient life – are but elongated tubes: resources enter at one aperture, are processed (and turn into energy, thought and so on), and then exit by a second, usually lower, aperture. This post follows that great genteel literary tradition of not dwelling on the latter aperture. Clearly, however, gentlemen of a certain age cannot journey around London for hours at a time without occasionally availing themselves of such facilities as are – even today – sometimes offered to the travelling public. Now, I draw my experience in the facilities at Ruislip Manor the station to your attention, dear readers, only because that may have coloured my subsequently downbeat assessment of Ruislip Manor the place. To put it in a nutshell and without spelling out the noisome details, the toilets were the worst I have been in for many years. They were so bad, well, you know I nearly broke down and cried.
All I will say of the High Street at Ruislip Manor is that, though the Council are attempting a makeover of pavements and streetlamps, it is a run-down and down-at-heel hanging basket-free zone, with more than its fair share of charity outlets and shuttered-up shops. In addition to a thriving undertakers, there are two Harlington Hospice charity shops and a Mobility Centre: perhaps when the people at Ruislip Gardens have finished baby-booming, they come here to die?
I talk with a Council Operative who is bagging up rubbish from a large multi-part recycling bin each into polythene bags. He has a weather-beaten face. His wire-framed glasses hang on his nose at a tilt. They’ve got to do something about London, he says. It’s all going downhill. The small shops, the ones that are starting up new, they don’t stand a chance. He says this in a number of different ways with different illustrations. With each iteration, the register and tone of his account heads steadily doom-wards. It’s different in the centre, I say. There’s money in the centre. He looks at me as though I haven’t been listening, then nods. In the West End, right. It’s crazy prices in the West End. Even in the likes of Queen’s Park. But there’s no money out here. The implication is clear: the West End is sucking money – sucking life itself – out of the suburbs. While the West End becomes a rich man’s playground the rest of London suffers.
The Inner Curmudgeon is kicking me. Let’s get out of this hole, he’s shouting. There’s nothing here except an old guy like yourself enjoying himself saying how bad things are.
I’m at Russell Square station (C5) by 1.10 pm. It’s spitting with rain. West of here is Bloomsbury and the British Museum. I head east past Coram’s Fields to Lamb’s Conduit Street. Despite the steady expansion of the three hospitals nearby – the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital, the UK’s only National Treasure of a Hospital, the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital (patron saint: Charles the Third, the Blithering Pretender), and The National Hospital for Neurology & Neurosurgery – it has retained its individuality.
The rain has stopped so I buy a frittata with salads (rocket, cous-cous, chick peas, etc.) at The People’s Supermarket. This is a worker’s co-operative and, while it has a seventies’ wholefood shop atmosphere (which is both good and bad in my book), its fruit and vegetables are top-notch. As is its frittata and salads. Except … except, there’s a slight problemette. It’s raining again and I have to eat outside. I sit, then stand, under the trees in Queen Square.
The rain turns heavy. Then it turns to hail. I’m soaked by the time I’ve finished my lunch.
I was looking forward to visiting St. James’s Park station (D4) – only 20 minutes down the tube despite two changes – mainly because the park is one of my favourites. I want to, I want to visit so bad – but the rain’s so heavy. Intead, I wander around the ground-level marble-and-brushed-metal halls that hosts the ticket office and the ‘Broadway Shopping Mall’.
Don’t be fooled by the up-market moniker: this is a fairly bog-standard station shopping parade. There’s a florist (pricey), cafés and eateries (pricey), an estate agent (don’t ask) and a betting shop (always pricey). Sure, it also hosts the Headquarters of London Underground Limited behind its art-deco doors. But LUL is only part of the Tube. If I must pay obesiance, it is to the Mighty Ones at Transport for London.
My next stop is only another twenty minutes away: St. John’s Wood (B4). It’s 2.10 pm and the rain has stopped. There are only two good reasons for visiting St. John’s Wood – to partake of the cricket at Lord’s or to stop the traffic on Abbey Road. There’s no cricket today so I can’t have my cake and eat it. I head for Abbey Road and find two gents in hi-viz gilets either side of the famous pedestrian crossing. They are both photographers, both here to take photos of fans copying their gods, The Beatles.
One of them is a young Russian from Estonia sporting dreadlocks. He’s been taking photos here, he says, for the past seven months. I work 28 days a month, he announces. He has a cover of The Beatles Abbey Road LP beside him with the headline: FREE PHOTOS. How come? I ask. I was selling photographs but I was visited by the Westminster Council. They told me I had not got a license and that I could not sell photographs. So I take photographs for free and if people like them they give me money. One pound, two pounds. Sometimes, of course, they do not pay me.
That’ll be people like you, The IC sneers, meaning me. You never give them your money.
I’m flabbergasted. The IC has always done jokes, but that’s a cultural reference.
My Estonian friend continues: For the last three months I have worn this [the hi-viz gilet] and it has been better. I can understand why: he stands out and he looks official.
If he chopped off his stupid hair extensions, yells The IC, he’d do even better.
Sometimes, I think, The IC just doesn’t get it. If he dispensed with his dreadlocks, he wouldn’t be himself, he might not even have emigrated from Estonia.
There’s a sudden torrential down-pour and I scurry, shoulders hunched, back to the tube.
My last stop – a mere 15 minute tube ride – is St. Paul’s (C6). I came here on holiday when I was a boy but I have only the smudgiest of memories. The rain has blown away. Here comes the sun. The cathedral is thronged. It’s filled with the soaring harmonies of the choir practising for evensong. It’s wonderful. I pay my £16 for entry and it’s still wonderful – though slightly less so.
I climb the 582 steps past the Whispering Gallery (there’s too much racket going on from down below to hear the whisper but the choir sounds superb from up here) to the Golden Gallery where there are sublime views across London. By chance I am with a thirty-something couple from upstate New York, bright and brimming with curiosity, doing the full tourist package. I find myself pointing out the British Telecom Tower (ex-Post Office Tower), Hampstead Heath, the Walkie-Talkie (now the Walkie-Scorchie), the Shard, Crystal Palace radio masts … The full tourist panoply.
They ask what gifts they should take back. I suggest, rather lamely, tea. Then I catch myself. What’s this? I think. I should be advising them to visit Ruislip or Abbey Road – the DLR station not the zebra crossing – or Becontree or Carpenders Park or … I should be recommending that they take cheese home as gifts. Where has my TubeforLOLs esprit-de-corps gone, whither my steely TubeforLOLs determination and rationale?
The Inner Curmudgeon digs me in the ribs. Stop kicking yourself, Craig! You’re always kicking yourself! You don’t have to carry that weight. Enjoy yourself! There’s nothing wrong with enjoying yourself!
Bank station is closed because of a fire alert and I have to detour via Whitechapel to get back homeward. I’m back at Forest Hill station at 5.35 pm. It’s raining stair-rods. Once there was a way to get back homewards …