Ode to the London Underground

October 1, 2012 by


Smelly, often overcrowded, really uncomfortable in hot summers, London’s Underground is actually quite a fascinating place. Its map is probably one of the most beautiful pieces of graphic design you can get your hands on. Unlike other cities where most lines and trains are all pretty much standard, in London, the various Underground lines each have a flavour, more often than not fairly unsavoury. But still distinct. There’s a deep vein of history and eccentricity flowing through it.


The Underground Map

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History of the British Empire in 75 words or less

I’ve actually done a little bit of research, which more often than not is an uncomfortable experience, as I feel it interrupts the flow of my thoughts. But some bits of the Underground are distinctly old and, if one looks carefully, thoroughly Victorian (that’s Queen Victoria for those of you with no knowledge of British royalty, which you should not be worried about – like a knowledge of Roman emperors it will not help you in a survival situation).

She was a big steely Queen (stop giggling – she was married to King Albert who she loved so much she made a big music-hall venue for him called the Albert Hall and then a monumental gold statue of him looking at the big round music venue, which sits in Hyde Park and has been freshly painted in gold so it really sparkles at present). So Queen Victoria was on the throne and all the little Englanders were roaring around the globe going, that’s mine! That’s mine! I’ll have that and that and that and… it’s a bit of a bog but since I can have anything I want I’ll have that as well. Thank you very much.

Yes the British Empire and with that the city of London was growing fast and was no doubt full of carriages and horses and traffic jams (I am using creative imagination here but I know for a fact that Rome in the time of the Romans had awful traffic jams with horses and carts, so no doubt London was the same and the roads have certainly always been narrow enough – small rant – I cannot understand why after the Germans bombed the place to the ground that they didn’t take advantage of such destruction to build some decent boulevards like Paris. Instead they kept the same pitiful street plan that just breeds traffic and traffic lights – but really what do I know).

London under water? Straight to DVD

I did hear on one of those ‘what the apocalypse will be like’ documentaries that they pump 35,000 cubic (not absolutely sure of this figure heard it a few days ago) meters of water out of the Underground system every day – it’s below the Thames – in fact some lines pass under the Thames and some over (I have to say I prefer going over – the District line to Richmond is a good one for going over the Thames). At this point the Underground has turned into the overground but with all the rattling charm of an underground train. But the water is actually ground water that apparently, if the pumps failed, would flood the system and bubble up to street level and flood loads of the streets in a matter of hours. There is a creeping paranoia in London that one of these days the whole place is going to get inundated, but that’s from a huge tidal surge from the North Sea – they made of film of it – went straight to DVD I think.

Tips for the London Underground novice

Yes, so some of the underground is distinctly old and slow. In particular the Hammersmith and City line (coloured pink on the map) and the Circle line (coloured yellow) which goes in a circle both ways. As a tourist who is not trying to catch a flight, these are the ones to travel on.

london airport transportation heathrow airport shuttles london underground

Please, c’mon, seriously, mind that gap!

The Hammersmith and City line has all the charm of a Notting Hill Rastafarian from the 1970s (pre the wholesale rapacious buying of the area by international bankers and generally the extremely wealthy). I say this because it is charmingly laid back and in some ways cosy – it has the rhythm of a classic Bob Marley song and it is one of the old lines – the way to tell it is old is when you can see that the tube is passing through a deep sort of trench-like affair instead of a tunnel, you can guess that this used to be run by steam powered trains belching out filthy smoke so needing some ventilation (it must have been pretty foul). The Circle line goes a little faster but is still slow and you have to wait often some time but the rewards are a chilled well-to-do atmosphere as it passes through many of the more genteel areas of London (such as Sloane square and Kensington).

Underground tips for emulating a depressed Londoner

For speed stick to the Piccadilly, Central, Jubilee and Bakerloo lines, or the Victoria line, which is a little utilitarian in atmosphere but damn fast. The Piccadilly has a working sophistication to it and its characters are on the whole civilised and on the way to do something that appears to be constructive. The Bakerloo provides perhaps a good entry level line into what a depressed Londoner looks and feels like.

It joins some of the rougher spots of London (Elephant and Castle to the south and to the north – Willesden – there is no reason to go here but people on the line will be and they are not happy on the whole and some are damn right angry).

If the Central line has cheery workers then the Northern line is a living example of something out of Brave New World. I suggest you take it during rush hour on a Friday just so you can say ‘I felt the despair of working Londoners’. I think the line runs quite deep underground compared to others but there is a grimness to the tired computer blinded, suited workers that is unmatched anywhere else. Unfortunately these depressed commuters sometimes decide to end their lives on the tracks – like a final feeble attempt to disrupt the system that has sucked them dry – and is often a reason for delay. Apparently Victoria and Kings Cross are favourite spots – stole that off another blogger.

Happy Tubing

Oh and the lovely District line in green – very nice for visiting Kew Gardens and Richmond – and again not hugely efficient but a lovely ride with civilised people – a bit like your aunt taking you out for a Sunday lunch. Prone to slight delay but really only wanting the best for you.

For me, though, it’s the Hammersmith and City line every time, especially going west. It will take you right over Portobello Road high up in the air. And if the sun is shining the light is wonderful (the windows are south facing). Happy tubing and don’t forget to mind the gap and those rails – the voltage is horribly strong – and don’t feed the mice – they have a feast as it is.

Laurence Belgrave

5 Responses to “Ode to the London Underground”

  1. anjeeta Says:

    I live in NYC, but I travel frequently to London and I am in fact writing this comment while sitting in my family kitchen in South London. I just wanted to add that before you embark on a London Underground trip on a weekend be sure to check the transport for London website for any planned engineering works which could hamper your plans. There are always engineering works going on on weekends on various different tube lines and this can cause massive problems to your commute.

  2. Scott Mc Says:

    Thanks Anjeeta, good point. Here’s a link to check the London Transport schedules.

  3. Tom Berger Says:

    I can’t be bothered to count, but your history of the British Empire must be more than 75 words?

    And of course, what one wants from a trip to London is to be able to say in all honesty, “I felt the despair of working Londoners.” Wait, what? If I wanted to feel a worker’s despair I’d stay home and stare at my own omphalos.

  4. spobin Says:

    I use http://lasttubetimes.com to find out the last tube back. It works great on my iPhone too.