The London Underground. The Tube. For over 150 years, it has served as the vessels of the city I call home, transporting Londoners and non Londoners alike to all sections of the metropolis for either living, working, rest or play. The tube can transport you from one side of the city to another with relative ease, meaning that most of London is within an hours travel from almost anywhere else in London. But if your journey is mostly underground, how much of the city do you see? To find out, I decided to walk the length of one of the lines in one day.
For this, we would be walking the length of the Charing Cross branch of the Northern Line, 23 miles from the northern suburbs of High Barnet, passing through the heart of the the city, to the southern terminus – Morden. A true cross section of London, the real London – not just the one you see in Hollywood movies of the city.
I use the Northern line probably the most frequently of all the tube lines. I happen to live towards the southern end in Wimbledon, using the line often to get into the centre of London, and further beyond, up to Archway where my girlfriend lives. How long would it take me to walk from door to door? It was the extension of this thought that led us, on a Sunday morning in at the end of November, to decide to walk the entire section of the branch of the line we used most often to see each other.
The Northern Line – the black one on the map – is a complicated line, with a complicated history. Firstly, you have to picture that each branch and sections of the line were built during a time when each underground line was privately built and privately run, separately from one another. Therefore, what is now the Bank branch, was built earlier and by a different company to what is now the Charing Cross branch. After various extensions, it wasn’t until the 1940’s that the lines were eventually consolidated into one single ‘Northern’ line as we know it today. This history is covered in much more detail elsewhere. (Some links can be found at the end of this blog).
We arrived at High Barnet just after 9am on a grey Sunday morning. For the walk, we had been joined by our good friend, Lorna, who is arguably a bigger tube geek than myself. We had a bit of time to talk about the route on the journey on the train north. I looked at the horizontal graphical map above the blue seats; a single linear version of an evolution of Harry Beck’s famous 1930’s topological tube map that has not changed much in design much since, but is not in any way to scale or geographically accurate. I counted the stops, starting from the end of the line. 32. 32?! Why hadn’t I even counted this prior to starting? It seemed a lot. Rather than researching the tube side of things, I had chosen to plot the route via an online mapping service, to gauge the distance of just under 23 miles, without even thinking about the number of stations we would pass. Although it seemed quite far, it was a distance that didn’t strike fear into me, as I knew that we were mostly walking on pavements with no huge uphill sections.
We set off without any delay, heading south through neighbourhoods of 1930’s built semi detached housing, built to serve the expansion out from the inner suburbs of more central London, fuelled by the rise of the very railway we were following on our walk. We entered a series of parks, following the paths through alongside a small river. The park forms part the Dollis Valley greenwalk, designed to link the Capital Ring and London Loop footpaths, both of which being orbital walks surrounding London I previously walked in stages.
Passing our first couple of stations, we neared the trio of Finchley stations, with the houses changing in appearance to the older Victorian architecture, becoming mainly either terraced or detached in nature after we crossed the North Circular trunk road to join the A1 a little bit further down after East Finchley. We quickly visited the site of the old railway tunnels underneath what is now Highgate, a station on the crest of a hill, and the start of an excellent walk to Finsbury Park along an old railway bed that forms part of the Capital Ring. We started to descend down towards Archway, named for the multi high arched viaduct that once crossed above it, since replaced by a Victorian iron structure, sadly now more famous in London for suicides rather than architecture. Beyond this, we could see the faint distinctive outlines of both the Shard and the dome of St Paul cathedral, silhouetted in the morning haze.
We had a swift pit stop at Liz’s house in Archway, the visuals of the area being largely defined by the ugly Archway Tower – a 1960’s tower built directly over the station, that seems out of place with the relatively low rise residential Victorian built houses in the areas around it. The character of the area is a broad spectrum of demographics, cultures and backgrounds – London in a snapshot. A place you can find a great coffee shop next to a Turkish bakery. An Irish pub next to a fried chicken takeway, or a Mediterranean grocers. At Archway, we turned sharply right, and headed southwest to meet with Lorna’s boyfriend, Rich, was was waiting to join us at the next station at Tufnell Park.
The main road continued, passing Kentish Town. Surrounding each station, each area holds the character of individuality, sometimes like a little village (albeit a busy one), that just happens to be linked to the next village by an underground train and a never-ending sprawl of housing.
We continued to head south, reaching Regent’s Canal and Camden Lock, turning right to walk alongside the tow path to reach the market – a heaving mix of street food stalls, people and alternative shops selling everything from tourist tat to gothic clothes.
Heading further south from Camden, the terraced suburban housing generally fades away as the centre of the city approaches. By the time we reached Euston Square, we had met the busy Marylebone Road, taking traffic away to the west, passing Euston station – another ugly 1960’s development due for redevelopment sooner rather than later. I find in incredible that the authorities of the time were allowed to remove the grand, ornate original architecture (including a grand entrance arch) to be replaced by an anonymous, characterless void of grey that does nothing to inspire or excite people.
From Euston, we crossed Marylebone Road using the subway at the Circle line’s Euston Square, turning left down Tottenham Court Road when we reached Warren Street, following the straight road past Goodge Street and the busy intersection with Oxford Street. The area is currently (2014) in the mist of a mass construction project, having the future Crossrail pass underneath it from 2018, meaning the whole area currently resembles a building site. A busy building site at that.
Not having the desire to wander down Oxford Street, famous for shopping, we instead carried south, past another example of brutal 1960’s design, the CentrePoint tower, down Charing Cross Road and into the heart of the West End.
Now in the bustle of the city; on our right, Chinatown and SoHo, full of cafes, restaurants and bars for whatever a taste. Leicester Square was packed full of tourists, many blinding wandering around, looking at the sights, wondering if that mediocre steak restaurant in front of them is worth a visit. To our left, more of the many famous theatres and cultural attractions and a sneaked glimpse of the Covent Garden market.
As Charing Cross road turns left slightly and opens out into the wide visual of Trafalgar Square. We turned left, passing the National Portrait Gallery and Nelson’s Column to our right, continuing past the 18th century St Martin-in-the-Fields church, crossing the Strand in front of Charing Cross station. The area now considered to by the geographical centre of the city, having shifting westwards from the medieval centre as London expanded outwards throughout the years.
Heading down the busy pedestrian Villiers Street, we passed through Embankment station, and up onto Hungerford Bridge, to be met by the best views of the day – a famous shot of the London skyline away to our left, if only slightly obscured by Waterloo Bridge, but from the opposite angle we had viewed from Archway earlier in the day.
It was now about 2 o’clock, and although we had only just reached geographical centre of the city, we were well over half way in terms of distance and stations visited, stopping on the Southbank for a few minutes to watch the many people walk among the Christmas market that had recently opened along the Southbank. Personally, I much prefer the south side of the river to the north. To me, the north side of the Thames contains much more hustle, the West End can be overloaded with locals and tourists. In the south, I can find quiet streets and quiet pubs. It’s the area I live, so obviously I’m biased, but probably looking in the wrong places in the north side.
From Waterloo station, we passed through railway arches, sneaking a glimpse of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament to our right. We headed south towards Kennington, where the two branches of the northern line meet before heading further south to Morden. We then went past both Lambeth North (on the Bakerloo tube line, so didn’t count for our purposes) and the recently renovated Imperial War Museum. At Kennington, we cut through the attractive Cleaver Square, an oasis of calm in a busy area, with the grand 18th century houses surrounding a square, at odds with the gentrification happing elsewhere around Kennington, simply as it has always been upmarket.
At Kennington, the lines of the tracks start to run directy underneath firstly the busy A3 road, passing firstly Oval – home to the Surrey cricket club – and Stockwell before reaching the first of three Clapham stations, Clapmham North. From this point onwards, we were on the final stretch of our walk, our limbs starting to ache as it started to get dark. After passing along Clapham High Street, we passed Clapham Common, an attractive station on the corner of the large green space of Clapham Common, and one that served as the original terminus of the line before the 1926 extension that took the line south to Morden, having also served as an air raid shelter during the Second World War, a history shared with the next station south – Balham – hit on the 14th October 1940 by a Nazi bomb, killing 64 people sheltering inside.
South from here, all the stations bear the trademarks of the same design; Charles Holden’s 1920’s simple stone faced façades, typically situated on a street corner, now listed buidings. Reaching Balham, we then headed south into one of my favourite areas of London – Tooting. The area, served by Tooting Bec and Tooting Broadway stations, a mass of multiculturalism, an endless choice of world cuisines, tastes and flavours; an area that perfectly encapsulates what London is about – a busy area, with populations multiple backgrounds living and working together. Plus curry. Amazing curry. I didn’t mention the curry. It sounds corny, but I think it’s true.
At Colliers Wood, the underground and the route stops following the road it has done since Kennington. As part of the old Roman road, Stane Street, you can trace the route of this in a near straight line on a map, starting in London Bridge, heading southwest, along the current A3 road above the southern section of the Northern line and onwards towards Chichester, some 50 miles away. I find it fascinating that the basis of the same route laid down by the Romans, nearly 2,000 years ago, has evolved and morphed over time, today marking the route of another mode of transport.
Passing along the slighty run down Merton High Street, with 22 miles down, legs aching we were glad to be reaching the end. We turned left at South Wimbledon station, and on for the final section, a mile past more 1930’s semi detached housing – the conclusion of our walk neatly mirroring the start.
Time for a well deserved pint.
Across the nine hours duration of our walk, we had really gained the understanding of simply just how vast London is, and how different each suburb and area can be to the next one. I feel we have only touched the surface in terms of history of both London and the Underground, but walking the length of one of the lines has left me wanting to explore more.
Northern Line history – firstly, this site is a bit word heavy and a bit geeky, but packed full for information. I’ve bought Christian Woolmar’s excellently recommended book on the history of the underground, but must confess I have not (yet) started to read it (it’s in the waiting list!)
Thanks for both Catherine of London Hiker and Ian of Randomly London for support and inspiration for this walk. Further reading can be found in the form of Mark Mason’s book, Walk the Lines and Mark Moxon’s website, Tubewalker.