L ND N

 Thursday, January 10, 2013

Underground 150 Paddington to Farringdon

In January 1863 the Metropolitan Railway opened the world's first underground railway beneath the streets of London. Construction had taken three years, and the political machinations and fundraising much longer. The original plan had been to link London's northern rail termini to the City, but that final destination proved elusive and the line was forced to end at Smithfield. To save money most of the line was built beneath roads, rather than buildings, using the cut and cover method. The railway followed the Marylebone and Euston Roads, which had themselves been carved across the outskirts of the capital a century earlier, then hooked down to Farringdon through cutting and tunnel.

I'll not go into enormous detail about the construction of the line because you can read about that elsewhere. Instead I thought I'd take you for a walk along the original line, all nearly four miles of it, at modern day street level. It's not one of London's greatest walks, to be honest, given that most of it involves breathing in six lanes of carbon monoxide. But bear with it, because it heads past some of the capital's more interesting places, and because I'll be dipping down into the stations too. Let's start at the Paddington end, and probably not at the Paddington station you're expecting...


[map] [old map]


Bishop's Road station: There are currently two underground stations at Paddington, both called Paddington, linked only by a pink and yellow stripe on the floor. The original is the current Hammersmith & City line station, at the far end of the mainline platforms, not the rather nicer District line station at the Praed Street end. The Metropolitan Railway snuck in where it could, which meant the unwanted space between the local lines and the Grand Junction Canal, with access from the Bishop's Bridge Road. What had once been a footbridge where anglers dipped their rods in the River Westbourne became a far mightier span when the Great Western Railway Company dug a steaming chasm through the area in the 1830s. Three decades later the Metropolitan Railway terminus opened out onto this bridge, more an apologetic outpost than a fresh station at the heart of the community.
"Bishop's Road occupied an awkward position between the main line station and the Great Western Railway coal depot alongside Paddington canal basin, further restricted by an approach road to the Great Western goods depot. Bishop's Road bridge was partially demolished to make room for the station building, set back behind a forecourt for cabs and omnibuses. The structure had a gable at each end with high pavilion roofs and balustered parapets. Platforms were built in a cutting between blind-arcaded brick retaining walls, beneath a bow girder and plate glass roof of 62ft span. Stairways and offices were set into the walls at platform level and a footbridge stood towards the east end of the platforms. From the westbound side there was a subway to the Great Western station."
The old Bishop's Road station has long been wiped away, with a complete rebuild in 1933 and another underway. I think there's a stack of original brickwork beneath the bridge, adjacent to the very modern emergency exit staircase, but little else to make this anything other than a depressing place to wait. The platform's gloomy at one end and exposed at the other, with a single Next Train Indicator in the centre giving inadequate advance warning of escape. It's worse than usual at the moment because blue walls surround the main staircase while rebuilding continues. A couple of new staircases have gone in, leading up to an airy ticket hall with circular patterned windows and a long bank of barriers. Apart from the glass there's not much to like, but at least passengers should be swift enough sweeping through.

The latest rebuild of the Hammersmith & City line station is in preparation for Crossrail, even though that'll pass through on the opposite side of the mainline. This part of the Paddington Integrated Project should be complete by 2014, ensuring that increased passenger numbers have been prepared for. Those with suitcases will be glad to discover a new taxi rank has already been built alongside. It's a bit of a trek to reach the picking-up point, because that's at the far end, but much easier to reach (from the H&C) than previous arrangements on Eastbourne Terrace. Scores of taxis sweep in via a special ramp from Bishop's Bridge, with all non-cab traffic prohibited, and a marshal in a box at the top of the slope halts any pedestrians attempting to enter. [More from London Reconnections]



An alternative exit for pedestrians is up a short flight of steps to the canal. Straight out onto the towpath, no less, which is a novel way to leave a station, but in this case fully justified. The Paddington Basin development lies to the right, and Paddington Central to the left. The latter is built on the site of the old Great Western goods yard, hemmed in between the water and the Westway, and has covered several acres with concrete. Here a cluster of soulless office blocks encircles a central green "amphitheatre" ringed with shops, while to one side a boulevard rises to a dead end beside a Novotel. The developers' blurb claims this is "a Place with life and energy 24 hours a day, seven days a week" but, having visited over New Year, I can assure you it's not.

If I've got this right, the original entrance to Bishop's Road station was located where the taxi rank disgorges, opposite the barriered gateway to Paddington Central. It's not somewhere you'd currently want to hang around, although there is a good view across the entire mainline station from further along the bridge. Alas there's no easy access to the rebuilt station, bar an unsignposted diversion through the new development via the canal, so you could that argue public transport access has gone into reverse here since 1863. But Crossrail will be here soon, and it is gloriously appropriate that at both ends of the original line, 150 years on, another groundbreaking project is underway.


Underground 150 Bishop's Road → Edgware Road

The world's first underground railway exits Paddington along the edge of the Grand Junction Canal. You can trace its path by leaving the new entrance to the Hammersmith & City line station, turning right and following the towpath. Ignore the modern footbridge leading office workers to their desks at Paddington Basin and continue along the cobbles. You're now entering what's officially private property, the back end of St Mary's Hospital, but ignore that too. Along the water's edge are various departmental outposts housed in a motley collection of outbuildings - marking the point where the railway beneath curves round and heads east. The hospital continues along South Wharf Road, almost all the way to the end - this a relatively quiet backstreet apart from the occasional ambulance neenawing to A&E.

The original St Mary's building appears shortly on the right, where a gilded plaque reveals the world-changing event which took place within. For it was here in 1928, in a laboratory on the second floor, that Alexander Fleming spotted a peculiar mould in a petri dish and inadvertently discovered penicillin. That laboratory is now a museum, which I've always meant to visit but have never yet been passing by at the right time (if you're ever here Monday to Thursday between 10am and 1pm, you might still beat me to it). The windows of the hospital's maternity ward, overlooking the street, have been transformed by a pair of artworks by Julian Opie (not the last we'll be hearing of him) in his own inimitable stickwoman style. A rather more peculiar piece is the bronze statue located outside the Queen Mother wing. This is 'The Messenger' by Allan Sly, and (for some reason) depicts a man taking a stone out of his shoe.



At the end of South Wharf Road is a very thin former Truman pub, wedged into the inside of the junction with Praed Street. This is the point where the two arms of the Circle line meet, one from Bayswater, the other from Hammersmith, at a railway junction perfectly mimicking the roadways above. Here too is another opportunity to visit Paddington Basin, a 19th century canal unloading zone now entirely dominated by 21st century office blocks. It's not a lovely transformation, to be honest, although somewhat rescued by two elegant footbridges - one shaped like a corkscrew and the other of which curls up like a snail (every Friday at noon).

The A5 requires careful crossing, at a junction watched over by a Metropole hotel that looks like some scary alien insect. The Circle line station's not on the Edgware Road itself, but beyond on quieter Chapel Street, past an M&S ideally located for the multitude of wealthy foreign visitors hereabouts. Adjacent is the start of the Marylebone Flyover, rising from ground level to carve through West London on concrete stilts. At the entrance are all the usual roadsigns but also one I've never seen anywhere else before which can only mean "no horses and carts allowed". Must be a terrible problem in the locality, I guess.



Edgware Road station: Edgware Road is a lovely station, so long as you only want to stand outside it, not use it. The exterior is rather special, very similar to Farringdon at the other end of the line, featuring a row of elegant raised lettering on a frieze below the cornice. But it's not quite as old as you might think, having been rebuilt in 1928, and what looks like stonework on the upper storey is a ceramic simulation.

An adjacent building, overlooking the platforms, was transformed at the end of last year into TfL's newest permanent artwork. This is "Wrapper", an installation covering every surface of the building with geometric patterns, and the largest vitreous enamel artwork in Europe. The patterns are sourced from elements of the surrounding environment - an idea which could look awful, but instead the colour, variety and precision combine most effectively.

Access to the ticket hall is along a long tiled passage, past a sad looking alcove labelled "Telephones" (which remains barely true). Beyond the barriers stands a pot-plant jungle, lovingly tended, alongside one of the most old-school Next Train Indicators in London. Eerie red letters pick out the next departure on each platform, not always with much advance warning, while a camera relays this vision to a video screen on the platform below. If TfL had any money they'd replace this ancient display system, but better next train information will have to wait for a major upgrade of signalling. They'd also love to improve the minor footbridge across the heart of the station, where tourists fresh off the Heathrow Express meet their luggage nemesis. So many trains now terminate at Edgware Road that unwary visitors are forced to trek up and over to non-adjacent platforms, and any hope of step-free access remains a distant dream. The 21st century has yet to penetrate the depths of Edgware Road, but one day, one day.


Underground 150 Edgware Road → Baker Street

Transportationally speaking, the road from Edgware Road to the City is pioneeringly important. Not only did the world's first underground railway pass this way, so did London's first bus service - George Shillibeer's horse-drawn omnibus in 1829. Originally the "New Road" had been constructed as a London by-pass, a turnpike for cattle and sheep to reach Smithfield market through the fields of Marylebone. That was in 1756, since when the capital had expanded northwards to reach and then engulf this increasingly important outer orbital. Today it's one of the most important roads in central London, keeping the through traffic flowing and marking the northern edge of the Congestion Charge zone. Just try not to breathe in too often, because pollution levels along here are amongst the worst in the capital.

Edgware Road station is the last time the Hammersmith & City line sees daylight until beyond King's Cross. Trains head into a tunnel beneath the junction of Marylebone Road and Old Marylebone Road, and stay there, following the line of the tarmac. The road's wide, so pedestrians following above ground need to decide which side to walk on. I'd suggest the southern pavement because it has more interesting buildings... but only just. We start with the new Westminster Magistrates Court, a sturdy edifice through which those accused of extradition and terrorism offences pass. It's barely been open a year, but was built on the site of Marylebone's original court house which is older than the underground. Further along are the headquarters of BHS and NCR, that's British Home Stores and National Cash Registers. And then the former Marylebone Town Hall, now renamed Westminster Council House and home to the local Register Office. It's a magnificent municipal citadel, the kind of building where Paul McCartney would get married, and has done twice.

Several residential streets cross at right angles, some important thoroughfares, others quieter echoes of Georgian expansion. And behind The Landmark Hotel is a place you might have thought the new underground railway would stop, but doesn't. It's Marylebone station, one of five mainline termini located along the New Road, and the only one the Metropolitan completely ignored. And that's because Marylebone wasn't here when the first underground was built, it arrived as late as 1899, in time only for the Bakerloo to drop by. Never mind, it's only a short walk to...

Baker Street station: Ah, the pride of the Metropolitan Railway. And still the pride of TfL today, who've managed to preserve as wide a range of heritage features at Baker Street as you'll find anywhere. No crappy Metronet revamp here, but a proper full restoration of the cut and cover platforms, for which we can be truly thankful. Stand here beneath the gently vaulting ceiling and you can easily imagine Victorian gentlemen in top hats waiting for a train, their cigarette smoke mingling with the steam from the tunnels. It was undoubtedly less romantic than that, but TfL's anniversary celebrations will involve the return of steam to this sacred space, and many a tube aficionado will be along to worship. Let's ask someone who knows what they're talking about to wax lyrical.
The platforms are covered by the 1863 broad segmental buff-brick barrel vault of 16 main bays, each with deep lunette set into flanks, clad internally in modern white tiles. Vault soffit repaired 1985 matching original. Footbridges to E and W end. E footbridge lined with glazed brick faience tiling, incorporating oculus inscribed 'MR', probably remodelling of earlier (possibly 1868) bridge. 1911 footbridge at W end, of reinforced concrete, has segmental rusticated arch, and also retains internal tiling, as does stair on N side. Behind this is the 1863 tunnel portal with roll-moulded arch. Remains of basement of 1863 entrance building survive behind N staircase.
If you want the full heritage detail, I strongly suggest you check out this page on TfL's urban design website. But let me tell you anyhow about some of my favourite features. The Metropolitan Railway iron crests pinned to the walls - part of the 1983 restoration and highly evocative. The benches in the alcoves - none of your off-the-shelf metal seats here. The "secret" overbridge at the western end of the platform - which turns out to have been the main entrance in 1863, via two station buildings on opposite sides of the Marylebone Road. And the glazed blue signage above the main entrance to the eastbound platform - originally installed for crowd control reasons for the British Empire Exhibition in 1925, and retained ever since.

Head up the stairs to the main ticket hall, and the hint of a golden age remains. Lettered tiles spell out the name W H Smith & Son above a ticket window and machine, while nextdoor is a similar dedication to "Luncheon & Tea Rooms". That would have been the Chiltern Court restaurant above, a demure dining space much beloved by John Betjeman, but since transformed into a less erudite Wetherspoons (which reminds me - Metroland, 10pm, Thursday 10th January, BBC4, be there). Look up as you climb the remaining staircase to see an elaborate Metropolitan Railway keystone dated 1912. And on the Portland stone wall facing the roadway, where you might not think to look, are two commemorative plaques. One was unveiled by Met chairman Lord Aberconway at the station's rebuilding, the other on the underground's 100th anniversary. I showed you that the other day, remember. It's a proud reminder that out of sight, just beneath the thundering traffic, is where everything started. And continues.


Underground 150 Baker Street → Portland Road

The area outside Baker Street station is dominated by Madame Tussauds. It wasn't here when the station opened - Marie's waxworks was originally located quarter of a mile away at the 'Baker Street Bazaar'. In 1883 her grandson moved the galleries to their present location on the Marylebone Road, and they've been a major crowd-pleaser ever since. They come from far and wide, particularly far, because few of the folk queueing up at the entrance are from Britain. They're here to get up close to their favourite celebs, and to bustle round the pavements afterwards buying souvenirs, waffles and sightseeing bus tickets. Adjacent is the copper dome of the London Planetarium, which began its presentations of the night sky in 1958. But these weren't the stars the international tourist market wanted to see, and the building now hosts a science-free tribute to Marvel superheroes.

For something more educational cross the road to the University of Westminster, built on the site of the Marylebone Work House, or walk a little further to reach the Royal Academy of Music. This august body moved in just over a century ago and now trains 700 students a year in preparation for solo or orchestral performance. Alongside is the Academy's museum, a fairly modern affair, and free to enter. The first floor has a display of stringed instruments (Stradivarius plus) while the top floor's all historic pianos (including a Steinway). It's not a large collection but it's very well presented, and also offers a chance to mingle with students exiting from their adjacent practice rooms.

Across the road is the latest incarnation of St Marylebone parish church, whose foundation stone was laid 200 years ago this summer. It has a striking neo-classical design, with three-storey steeple, and would have been very familiar to Charles Dickens whose son Walter was baptised here. The church is at the top of Marylebone High Street, where once stood the Tyburn Manor House (used by Henry VIII and Elizabeth I as a hunting lodge). A more impressive sideroad is Devonshire Place, very much a four-million-a-house sort of location, and next up is Harley Street. Between the two is The London Clinic, a huge independent hospital ideally located for those referred from the private doctors hereabouts.

For a brief breath of green, the Marylebone Road enters what ought to be the foot of Regent's Park. Instead the gardens either side have been locked behind railings for the sole use of local people, the residents of Park Square and Park Crescent, who live somewhere almost as grand as inner London allows. Nash's stuccoed façade remains hugely impressive, but is now a veneer hiding expensive modernised flats behind. At the centre of the radius is the entrance to Regent's Park tube station, located where the Bakerloo ducks north-south beneath the Circle. The latter doesn't stop because it was built first, and it already had another station a very short distance ahead...

Portland Road station: Located at the very top of Great Portland Street, this station was initially called Portland Road. It was built on a traffic island, counterbalanced by Holy Trinity church opposite, and is still surrounded by circulating traffic. The station building is elliptical, a 1930 rebuild by Charles Clark, and is currently all but invisible behind sheets and scaffolding. At ground level are a ring of retail units, once home to a car showroom, now ideal if you need a cup of coffee, a watch battery or a handbag. Step inside and enter the rotunda, which is supported by eight columns above a brown and cream patterned floor. Compared to Euston Square, the next stop down the line, this is heaven.

Two staircases lead down a level - ignore the directional signs and take your pick - then two more lead down to the platforms. The footbridge between the two is wide and characterful, and, unusually, has windows in the centre allowing you to look straight down across the tracks. The platforms are similar to those at Baker Street so ought to be most impressive but somehow aren't quite. Whereas its neighbour was restored properly by London Underground, Great Portland Street was a guinea pig for Metronet's contractors and they did a cut-price job. Electric cables have been stashed behind a ridged plastic shield which runs the length of the station, lessening the visual impact of the vaulted brick ceiling. The alcoves fill with puddles when it rains. As for the walls, whilst most were restored, Metronet slapped biscuit-coloured vinyl panelling across the rest to avoid repairing what was underneath. The entire eastern end of the station is an unsympathetic hybrid of 1863 and 2004, ditto the area immediately underneath the footbridge, and the result is an ugly synthetic anachronism. Shame.


Underground 150 Portland Road → Gower Street

Great Portland Street station lies at the point where the Marylebone Road morphs into the Euston Road, and where Westminster turns into Camden. It's also where the road changes from green and regal to grey and urban, so don't expect much in the way of loveliness. Along the southern side of the road are a series of shops and businesses which would be more at home in a semi-suburban street, certainly more ordinary than anything we've seen thus far. Key shops, small restaurants and office supplies, nowhere you'd be rushing any long distance to visit.

On the opposite side of the road, things are very different. British Land have been busy creating Regent's Place over the past few years, and they've nearly finished. This is yet another village of highrise office buildings in steel and glass, much like Paddington Central and Paddington Basin earlier in the walk, and no lovelier. Tens of thousands work here, including everyone at Santander HQ, piled up beside a central boulevard dotted with public art. On one wall is an electronic Julian Opie figure, forever walking slowly to the left (except at weekends, when it appears she's switched off to save money). And straight ahead is the Euston Tower, which has been here since 1970 but fits easily into its new environment.

The Euston Road has widened now, to make way for a major underpass and two sliproads. This thunders through parallel to the Circle line, which flows along the southern side of the chasm not far below street level. It looks deep, but the Northern and Victoria lines run deeper, and pause on the corner of Tottenham Court Road at Warren Street station. So many underground lines don't join up because they were originally dug by competing companies, and as a result few visitors to London realise that rising to street level might be the quickest interchange.

The Euston Underpass continues beyond, rising slowly, the entire road wider still. An air vent pops up alongside, too modern to be from the Circle line, and so awkwardly positioned that a cycle lane has to swing around it. Alongside, across an entire city block, is University College Hospital. This rebuild dates back to 2005, and includes a tall tower plus a lower block in clean white and medicinal green. In its previous incarnation A&E was a Victorian warren, but the new model is all crisp corridors and swinging doors.

Gower Street station: Euston Square might be better named were it still called Gower Street, because the top of that road is where it is. It's not alongside Euston Square, which is the large expanse of grass 'gardens' outside Euston station. Again the Metropolitan chose not to serve the mainline terminus directly, and so we users of the Hammersmith & City get to take a long walk to catch our trains north. Only when, or if, High Speed 2 is ever completed will a subway be dug to link the two direct.

Euston Square has no surface structures today, the closest being a new entrance in the corner of the Wellcome Trust building. But there used to be ticket offices on either side of the road, first when the world's first underground railway was opened, and again in the 1930s courtesy of Charles Clark. Neither was very large, but there was always room for a tobacconists (for gentlemen who couldn't travel by rail without a pack from Finlay & Co). Road widening put paid to those, at the point where the underpass finally ascends to street level, and now there's just a roundel sticking up on the north side and some steps down.

Below the surface, however hard I try, I can't find Euston Square endearing. The best part is probably the stairwells leading down from the ticket barriers to the platforms, where there's original decorative 1920s tiling. But the platforms themselves are unexpectedly spartan, at least in comparison to Baker Street and Great Portland Street up the line. No broad brick vault here, no vintage walls, just a long low space with iron girders overhead and plain white tiled walls. It's nothing terrible, and as good a place to wait as any, but it's surprisingly hard to conjure up the spirit of 1863.


Underground 150 Gower Street → King's Cross

Annoyingly, depending on where you're going, the exit from Euston Square is at the non-Euston end of the platforms. Rail-bound passengers then get to walk along the Euston Road between two Portland stone-clad buildings. On the southern side is the Wellcome Collection, home to an extensive and always-interesting exhibition of medical curiosities. And on the northern side is NASA Headquarters, or was. 30 Euston Square was built as the head office of the National Amalgamated Approved Society - an insurance company, until nationalised in 1948 - and has very recently transferred to the Royal College of General Practitioners.

Euston Square Gardens aren't at their best in the winter. They used to stretch along both sides of the road, but Friends House (the Quakers' HQ) now covers much of the southern half. The frontispiece to Euston station is mostly grass and mud, plus a bus station and what looks like two small gatehouses. These are two of the four lodges which once guarded the Euston Arch, that is until British Rail demolished the latter to make way for a major 1960s rebuild. If the Euston Arch Trust get their way the 70 foot Doric propylaeum will be reborn at the front of the gardens, where the number 18 bus parks up. But until then only the lodges remain, carved with a list of rail destinations from Aberdeen to Wolverhampton, now serving craft beers and ciders to a small but discerning clientèle.

The Euston Road continues with interesting features unabated. An Arts and Crafts Fire Station, likely to see out its 111th year without ending up on the austerity hatchetlist. St Pancras New Church, a world away from the 4th century site of its predecessor in Somers Town. The Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital for Women, now an outbuilding for Unison head office next door. A nasty lilac Premier Inn, whose restaurant appears to be named Pukes, except this turns out to be bad typography for 1 Dukes Road. Camden Town Hall, whose neoclassical heart is attached to a far less lovely annexe. The piazza outside the British Library, which is deemed so hazardous that risk managers insist on slapping warning signs on every step and pavement. And the British Library itself, which is a phenomenal treasurehouse where you can walk from the Magna Carta to the lyrics of Yesterday in 30 seconds flat.

St Pancras station remains a wondrous creation. So loved is the Midland Grand Hotel that you'll invariably spy several people with cameras aloft attempting to capture its Gothic beauty, especially when the sun's out. Getting inside the hotel is harder, unless you're a permanent or temporary resident, or fancy some five-star refreshment from the former ticket hall inside. Even a cup of tea will set you back £4.50, plus service charge, assuming you can find room on the comfy seats (and assuming the concierge will let you through). King's Cross used to be the ugly sister, but that's coming out of its shell now that the 1970s British Rail canopy out front is being removed. It's mostly gone already, revealing Cubitt's bold brick façade with two glass arches staring forward like an insect's eyes. By the end of this year a new public piazza should have emerged and the station's long transformation will be complete.



King's Cross station: St Pancras wasn't here when the Metropolitan Railway arrived. It opened five years later, so it might seem odd that the Metropolitan underground station is located almost directly outside. There is a good reason for this, which is that the current platforms aren't the originals. They were opened as recently as 1941, nudging the tracks outwards to create a central void for two platforms and a circulatory space. That central space has grown further in the last few years with a major revamp, although the platforms still feel a little narrow when the full commuter and suitcase brigade invade. Upstairs the ticket hall has insufficient ticket windows and ticket machines to cope with the full Eurostar/Inter City onslaught, so many tourists' first experience of London is a lengthy queue. At least entrance to the H&C platforms is relatively direct, rather than the devious switchback detour TfL use to divert deep-level passengers to their respective destinations.

But the 1863 platforms are elsewhere. They were located 450 metres to the east, on the opposite side of King's Cross station, past The Lighthouse. Here the Metropolitan Railway pulled the same trick as at Edgware Road and nudged their tracks out from beneath the road into the open. The original King's Cross station lay in a cutting between Pentonville Road and Gray's Inn Road, curving gently round to head onwards to Farringdon. It wasn't long before these tracks were doubled, allowing mainline trains to enter and head City-ward. Two platforms remained for underground trains while the other two are what (eventually) became King's Cross Thameslink. A new road was built where the footbridge has stood, this was named King's Cross Bridge and still carries traffic round the one-way system today. The King's Cross Cinema, now better known as The Scala, was built directly above the open platforms. Meanwhile a new station entrance was built on the opposite side of the road, which somehow still exists in a very rundown way, sandwiched between Royal Pizza and American Cosmetics.

And if you want to see the original Metropolitan platforms, or at least the early 20th century version, you can. Find St Chad's Place, a quiet sideroad just before the Travelodge, and walk down to the junction with Wicklow Street. A narrow cobbled street spans the cutting, and if you look over the edge through the wire fence the two railway lines are clearly seen below. The platforms you can see belong to Kings Cross Thameslink, labelled "Do not alight here" since 2007 when the station relocated, while the lines alongside follow the curve of the original underground. Look left towards the back of the Scala, and down, to see where westbound trains stopped until 1941. That's what a true heritage platform looks like - abandoned, uneven and mossy. The beating heart of King's Cross station has long since departed.


Underground 150 King's Cross → Farringdon

From King's Cross to Clerkenwell the railway follows the Fleet valley, although not the precise alignment of the river. Along much of this stretch, unusually for central London, the Underground runs in open cutting. Up until this point it's run directly beneath the New Road, which required years of digging up the roadway then covering over the tracks. But here it breaks out on its own, scything one by one through a series of parallel streets. Leeke Street offers a good opportunity to see the disused Thameslink platforms. Britannia Street marks the point where the deep curve straightens out. Wicklow Street is very quiet and very cobbled. Swinton Street is a busy part of the local one-way system. And Acton Street is your last chance to see the railway before it plunges into a proper tunnel.

If you want to peer over the brick walls along each bridge to see the railway, you need to be quite tall. Six foot or more might be enough, but I'm not quite there so I could only wave my camera above the parapet, click and hope. My pictures revealed a deep brick chasm, arched along each edge and with metal struts inserted to keep the opposite sides apart. Every so often a train rumbled through, but I wasn't able to capture a front or back, only a less interesting silver top. The issue's of more importance if you're trying to spot the 150th anniversary steam train running along the line over the next two weekends, because you only get one shot at getting that right. Ian's been out surveying the best places to stand, most of them much further west, and recommends bringing a step ladder if you can.

The Clerkenwell Tunnel is 728 yards long, making a straight dash beneath the hillside ahead. It crosses below the foot of Wharton Street's elegant Georgian villas, then (for contrast) passes directly underneath the delivery road round the back of the Travelodge. The railway then returns to the main road beneath the Union Tavern, and runs along the edge of what's now the Mount Pleasant Sorting Office. In 1863 this was the site of the Middlesex House of Correction, a strict and fearsome prison, which maybe explains why the Metropolitan Railway chose not to build a station here. It would have made an ideal break along this uninterrupted section, but over the last 150 years no intermediate station has ever been forthcoming and this corner of Finsbury remains undeservedly rail-inaccessible.

The road junction by Clerkenwell Fire Station, near Exmouth Market, was the site of a serious flooding incident in 1861 when a water main burst into a construction shaft. Potentially more serious, the following year, was the collapse of the Fleet sewer a short distance to the south. Heavy rain had forced twelve feet of water into the tunnel, and workmen were only just evacuated in time before the brickwork gave way.
"Scarcely had the last man reached the surface than the whole mass of brickwork and timber appeared to be bodily lifted up in the air, and fell into one heap of ruins. Several hundred yards of tunnelling and arches were totally destroyed, while the water was flooding the ruins in all directions. The scene presented the appearance of a destructive earthquake. The water came pouring down from the high level in torrents, flooding that portion of the tunnel still remaining standing, destroying the gas-mains in Ray Street, inundating the cellars of houses, and appearing to have uncontrolled power over the whole portion of that low-lying district. The destruction of property is very great, and the accident will cause a delay of three months in the opening of the railway." (The Guardian, 20 June 1862)
The Fleet sewer was quickly reconstructed, to a more sturdy specification, and a section of it still flows through an iron pipe near the end of the tunnel. The railway returns to daylight opposite Ray Street, this the Fleet Valley proper, and rises gently above the Thameslink tracks. Four lines then run south, beneath Vine Street Bridge, past Clerkenwell Green, to the final station on the original line.

Farringdon station: But that's not the original station in use today, not in any way at all. Instead the southern terminus of the 1863 railway ran in alongside Farringdon Road, beneath what's now a hideously blocky modern building. And this is where the Metropolitan's directors stopped for a celebratory banquet at the end of their first ride down the line, precisely 150 years ago.
"At 3 o’clock an elegant déjeúner was given to the large company invited by the directors at the Farringdon Station. For this purpose the arrival and departure platform was enclosed, the sides and roof being tastefully draped with scarlet and white, ornamented with numerous flags and banners. The upper table, at which were seated the more distinguished guests, was placed on a raised platform, and at right angles there stretched three rows of tables, where covers were laid for 630." (The Times, 10 January 1863)
Passenger numbers on the new railway were high enough to encourage the immediate construction of two more tracks, these now the Thameslink lines, and a brand new train shed was completed in 1865. That's where trains stop today, and that's how the original Farringdon became the Underground's first disused station as early as 1866.

A century and a half on, Farringdon is undergoing a (very) major revamp. The twin-arch elliptical wrought-iron roof is being restored, so a large blue canvas covers the majority of the station interior. All four platforms have been spruced up, with the Thameslink platforms extended south to accommodate 12-carriage trains. That's bad news for waiting passengers when a 4-carriage train rolls in at the front, forcing many an unsuspecting soul to chase swiftly and inelegantly up the platform. During reconstruction a glass wall has been erected between the two halves of the station, with the only two staircases between Circle westbound and Thameslink southbound now unsigned and surprisingly hard to spot. Instead passengers are directed via the tubular footbridges at the northern end of the station, which is quite a climb, especially if it's unnecessary. They're most modern-looking bridges, very swish, added to improve the circulation and to link to the new rush-hour-only station entrance on Turnmill Street.

Massive expansion is required at Farringdon because Crossrail is coming, and in 2018 this will be one of the most important interchanges in London. Change here for Barking, Hammersmith, Chesham, Heathrow, Bedford, Peterborough, Cambridge, Brighton, Sevenoaks, Dartford and Canary Wharf, to name but a few. That's why there are now two contrasting station entrances facing one another across Cowcross Street, one elegant and old, one stark and new. The 1923 entrance is another of Charles Clark's rebuilds, complete with raised lettering across the front and along the side, and former retail units restored at street level. Thameslink's 2011 entrance features umpteen ticket gates across an echoing hall, with a glass frontage destined one day to gain an office block on top.

150 years on much has changed, all along the original line but especially here at Farringdon. So how appropriate that the Smithfield sidestreet selected as the terminus for London's first underground railway should now be transforming into the hub of a 21st century rail network. Past, present, future, the Metropolitan's legacy rolls on.


My Underground 150 gallery
There are 100 photographs altogether


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