Wednesday, May 01, 2013

PICCADILLY: Ten line facts
The Piccadilly line was created from plans for two other railway projects - the Great Northern & Strand Railway and the Brompton & Piccadilly Circus Railway, joined by a extra bit of tunnel between Piccadilly Circus and Holborn.
Construction of the Piccadilly line took place in three stages: a) the original section from Hammersmith to Finsbury Park in 1906 b) extensions to Cockfosters, Uxbridge and Hounslow in 1932/33 c) nudges out to Heathrow in 1975, 1977, 1984 and 2008.
Not that such a word exists, but the Piccadilly is probably London's unstraightest tube line (other than the Circle line, obviously)
The Piccadilly line has seven non-consecutive disused stations, at York Road, Aldwych, Down Street, Brompton Road, Park Royal & Twyford Abbey, Osterley & Spring Grove and Hounslow Town. (You can hunt them down on Dylan's splendid map of Disused London Tube Stations)
Off-peak, travelling east, over 85% of trains go all the way to Cockfosters rather than terminating at Arnos Grove. Travelling west, twice as many trains go to Heathrow as head up towards Rayners Lane.
The voice of the Piccadilly line ("alight here for Buckingham Palace") is Julie Berry. (She's also the voice of Southern and Southeastern trains, Merseyrail and various other rail lines)
The Piccadilly line's official colour is Pantone 072
Piccadilly line trains have only six carriages. Each contains 38 seats plus extra luggage space, and is about 17½m long.
During World War II the Aldwych branch's eastern tunnel was used to hold valuables from the British Museum, while the western tunnel was used as an air-raid shelter.
The Piccadilly line has 35 listed stations - more than any other line. Of these, Oakwood, Southgate, Arnos Grove and Sudbury Town are Grade II* listed - that's twice as many as any other line.
[full line history here]

PICCADILLY: Down the line

Another month, another tube line, another end-to-end journey. Except the Piccadilly allows an end-to-end and-back-again journey, for added value, if you ride around the Heathrow loop halfway though. So please join me on a trip from Cockfosters to the airport and back again (unless I get bored before that and get off early).

Cockfosters is a gorgeous station. Like so many on the Piccadilly it's one of Charles Holden's, with a street-level building that could be an elongated bus shelter, and a cavernous interior for terminating trains. The concrete canopy struts across the trainshed like a computer chip, straight and rigid, perfectly symmetrical. Technically there are four platforms, although 2 and 3 share the same tracks up as far as the pot plants and only the doors on 2 open. There's even a special waiting area with wooden benches just past the ticket barriers, where I hovered to await the correct train. Most don't pause because they don't care about the ultimate destination, they're not going anywhere past Acton. But I needed the train to Heathrow Terminal 4, a numerical secret divulged only by the automated announcement and not by the display, so I hung back. I reached my seat aboard the train just as the cleaner nipped off sharpish before the doors closed. Three hours would elapse before I could be right back here again.

The trees on the approach to Oakwood look like silver birches and pines, not oaks, although maybe these once grew alongside where the train depot once stands. Another characterful station this, with white concrete features midway and barbell-style lamps at the end of the platform. There appear to be rather a lot of contours ahead, first a cutting, then a viaduct between suburban rooftops, then plunging deep into tunnel. That makes Southgate the first of the Piccadilly's underground stations, with high ceilings above the platforms, and cream tiles we'll see much more of down the line. It's also where my carriage becomes rather full, because the doors have lined up perfectly with the entrance to the platform, and people don't like walking any further down, do they?

Straight back out into daylight, and swiftly above chimney level for the elevated curve through Arnos Park. It's impossible to see the arched viaduct up here, but our train is unmissable to anyone kicking a football or picnicking down below. Arnos Grove is famously architecturally magnificent, although there are only hints of this in the modern design of the platform canopy and slatted benches. There's just time to spot the North Circular beyond (actually don't bother) before the train submerges again for almost an hour. Bounds Green is the first of several consecutive cream-tiled stations, this with solid orange borders while Wood Green has dashed borders in a gentle shade of peppermint.

All the seats have now been taken, as central London draws outer residents into its clutches. At Turnpike Lane they board clutching generic coffee, whereas later it'll be Costa and paper-wrapped cookies. At Manor House bodies squeeze into the gaps where the luggage goes, which is OK because there's no luggage yet. If you know the illustrated map that Piccadilly line trains have posted by the door, we've just crept onto that. The first significant exodus of passengers comes at Finsbury Park where the Victoria line does what it was built for and siphons off the traffic. This is also the point where we switch from the 1930s extension to the original 1900s section of line, so prepare for change.

Arsenal is the first of the Leslie Green stations, which means subtly polychromatic tiling patterns and the original name, Gillespie Road, laid out in purply hues. Check out Doug Rose's website if you'd like detailed background information on these Edwardian treasures, or come along and worship in person. The patterns at Holloway Road are subtly different, and browner, while Caledonian Road edges more towards mauve. Watch out too for the giant red roundel at the front end of the southbound platform, it's a century old, and nobody's ever been stupid enough to replace it.

From here to King's Cross St Pancras is a long run, which means unfamiliar travellers head for the door three minutes early and stand there like lemons. Here passengers duly pour aboard, as do the hotel crowd at Russell Square. Even at weekends this section feels like the rush hour, with passengers dutifully standing and shuffling awkwardly close. If anything Holborn is worse, but I'm sitting smugly having boarded ten miles back. The track curves noticeably as we head round to Covent Garden, because this is the line's fulcrum where north-south turns to east-west. "This station is busy at weekends", warns the notice on the tube map, but nobody either notices or cares, so off they plod to queue for the lifts.

It's barely worth the driver accelerating on the brief jaunt to Leicester Square, this (as you surely know) the shortest inter-station journey on the underground. Gradually those aboard are becoming more cosmopolitan, one woman flicking through the Tate's Lichtenstein catalogue, another three discussing honeymoon etiquette. Then at Piccadilly Circus the first suitcase appears, already tagged with a LGW label, but heading inexorably for LHR. I'd say an older demographic disembark at Green Park, or perhaps a little more moneyed, what with Mayfair on the doorstep. And by Hyde Park Corner almost nobody I rode in with from Haringey remains on board.

Knightsbridge has silvery-panelled platforms, reflecting the incoming bling above rather than the area's earlier heritage. But only at South Kensington does the carriage finally empty enough to offer seats for all, such is the draw of the museums at weekends. The last beautifully tiled station is Gloucester Road, again with ceramic Way Out and No Exit motifs inside ticket window-style borders. There are now four suitcases in my carriage - some petite, some bulging, one with hand luggage resting precariously on top. And brace yourself, because after Earl's Court we're firing back into daylight.

If you're not familiar, Barons Court is the best place to change between the District and Piccadilly lines if you're lugging luggage, the platforms being narrower here than at Hammersmith up the line (plus there are much nicer benches to sit on). It's also good to swap lines before the Piccadilly goes express. The railway has four tracks on the viaduct to Chiswick, allowing the blue train to nip down the middle and skip a few stations. We reach Acton Town about an hour after leaving Cockfosters... that's 'we' as in the driver and me, I doubt anybody else has lingered.

Stuff Uxbridge, we're taking the long run out of town to the airport. The train's now once again between suburban back gardens, even the odd set of allotments. South Ealing and Northfields are ridiculously close together, so lucky you if you live nearby. Some trains exit the system here to rise up a ramp to the depot alongside. Then comes Boston Manor, which is the first station with a semi-rural feel, so long as you ignore the M4 carving through the neighbouring park on concrete stilts. A golf course, a canal and a cricket club line the long ride to Osterley, another very open station. And that's where I'll pause, if you don't mind, for important narrative reasons. Sorry, the Piccadilly line goes on, and on, and on.


It's possible to travel through ten consecutive underground stations, all beginning with the same letter of the alphabet, without changing trains. But how?

You'd not think Hounslow East was anything special from platform level. A long open space on an embankment, peering down towards the town's bus station. A canopy that's longer on the eastbound than the westbound, because that's where the majority of commuters wait in the morning. And stairs... leading down beneath a honeycomb ceiling to, ooh, a very modern slanting ticket hall. The station building is only ten years old, so it's even got a lift (which is good for the outer suburbs). As for the bus station I mentioned earlier, that was built on the site of a former tube station called Hounslow Town (now deceased). Services hereabouts used to be terribly complicated, with trains running down twin reversing loops to Hounslow Town and back to Hounslow Central, at least until 1909 when Hounslow East was opened. Oh yes, there really are an awful lot of stations beginning with H around here.

It's not far on the modern Piccadilly to Hounslow Central, although when there are small children aboard it can feel like forever. Mum had led these three aboard a little earlier, one in a pushchair, two others considerably more mobile, each bribed to keep quiet with a packet of crisps. She appeared to be in the middle of a long phone call about nappies, but broke off occasionally to yell at the kids to sit down. But she didn't yell when one of them walked up to the door at Hounslow Central and casually threw his crisp packet down the gap between the train and the platform. I considered giving her a piece of my mind, but chose the passive aggressive option instead by moaning about her behaviour online afterwards.

This is the last chance to check your flight information. All Piccadilly line carriages contain notices advising you to check your correct terminal during the 23 minutes after Barons Court while the train is above ground. From Hounslow West onwards it dips below, and the message changes to audio. "Customers for Terminal 5 should change here..." Until 1975 this used to be the end of the line, and a flat fare bus was required for the short hop to Heathrow. Instead I'm sharing the carriage with five solo air passengers, with luggage varying from a small shoulder bag to a massive blue holdall, atop which the owner slouches legs astride.

A long run underground follows, apart from a sudden brief visit to the surface purely to pass above the River Crane. At Hatton Cross the "Customers for Terminal 5 should change here..." message plays again, because it's good to give tourists who don't speak English very well a second chance. There's no mention that it might be best to change here for Terminals 1, 2 and 3 as well. We're heading there eventually, but we're going the long way round the forthcoming loop and won't be there for almost twenty minutes. Plus Hatton Cross isn't a bad place to get off and wait. Admire if you will the central pillars on the platform, each tiled in bright orange and decorated with a dynamic triple Speedbird design reminiscent of BOAC.

Nobody has need to ride the next section of line unless they're flying from the airport or working there. It's three minutes out to Heathrow Terminal 4, which is a most peculiar underground outpost. It's the only station on the entire network with a one-way service. It's one of a tiny handful of stations which have only a single platform. It boasts a rather splendid minimalist '4' logo carved into the concrete on the platform walls. And "trains wait here for up to 8 minutes before continuing" (as mentioned on the on-board line map) which gives drivers the opportunity for a well-earned rest. The effect on arriving passengers is unfortunate, however. They see a train waiting ahead as they approach the ticket barriers, they rush and puff and hurl their luggage aboard, and then they sit there for up to 8 minutes as the train goes nowhere. Welcome to Britain, suckers.

The train has ridden to Heathrow Terminals 1 2 and 3 the long way, round the loop, so we arrive to a mass of suitcases at the far end of the platform. Almost everyone crams aboard the rear carriage, which soon resembles a cargo hold, whereas airport workers have the sense to wander down the train a bit. I watched three guys in hi-vis trousers slouch down separately and fall asleep, while two probably-stewardesses sat together for a polite gossip. The smell of engine oil hung heavy in the air, I thought, or perhaps that's a perfume they pump through the ventilation to remind you you're at an airport. All aboard for the slow-but-cheap non-express route into central London.

The loop is closed at Hatton Cross, second time around. Opposite me a German couple are studying a folded copy of the tube map, repeatedly pointing at station names and reading them out. They spot Oxford Circus and London Bridge, but it's "Errols Court" they keep returning to, and eventually that will be where they get off. At Hounslow West local people start to board again, diluting the airportiness of the assembled throng. London's rooftops reappear by Hounslow Central, plus a bowling green and a patch of allotments by Hounslow East. This urban landscape is the first sight millions of international visitors get of Britain, and always lifts my heart a little if I'm returning from abroad.

And that's ten consecutive stations beginning with the letter H. The next begins with O, so wrecks the pattern, but ten is a far better coincidence than any trivia hunter might possibly expect. Just trust me that it's possible to ride this way, don't waste your time proving it.


Across the road from Uxbridge town centre, World War II was won. And if you're thinking that sounds rather too grand a claim, see what you think later...

They hid Bomber Command well. You turn left out of the tube station, walk straight past the shopping centre and dip underneath the roundabout. A few years ago you'd have reached the gates of RAF Uxbridge, but the MOD closed that down in 2010 as part of a cost saving exercise. Its 110 acres are destined to become a vast housing estate, if the market ever picks up, under the overall mantle of St Andrew's Park. But for now the gates are locked, and the security fence remains, and 1000+ homes remain unbuilt.

Except look just to the left of the gates and there's a remarkable public footpath. Step through and you get to walk amidst the mothballed remains of an air force base for almost half a mile. Don't expect runways and hangars, this is the barracks end of the site, so what you'll see is mostly utilitarian residential architecture. Some of the forces families hereabouts got to live in dull flats, while others lived in council house-style terraces. They're looking rather worse for wear by now, some lining partly-overgrown streets, others with their doors flapping open to the weather. Continuing down the slope the site opens out to leafy parkland where the river Pinn runs through the valley, although there's no getting through for now, nor has there been for some time.

The path turns beyond the river, near a sign for "The Pub" which no longer sells subsidised pints. A few new foundations are ready, and workmen with vans and diggers are busy doing minor building work even at the weekend. Keep going past the civilian entrance for cars, and veer right towards a white-painted mansion. This is Hillingdon House, whose estate the government compulsorily purchased in 1915, and which would later become HQ to Bomber Command. The developers have it pencilled in as a hotel and restaurant, but for now it stands out of reach beyond temporary fencing. You may be doubting you're on the right road by now, but that was the idea, and helped ensure the Germans never suspected. On down the horse chestnut avenue, through the gates, past the car park, and stop beside the Hurricane. That unassuming shelter down the steps, there's a whole wartime bunker under there.

The Battle of Britain Bunker has been open to the public by appointment since 1975, but only recently has The Curator opened up the place to allcomers. For three months (ending at the end of June), it's open each weekend between 10am and 4pm, and all you have to do is get here. Volunteers will welcome you, accept any donations you care to give, then direct you down into the earth. The staircase has more than seventy steps, in case stairs aren't really your thing, and they're lined with quotes and photos and facsimile posters. And then you're into the bombproof corridors, protected beneath umpteen feet of earth and concrete.

Beyond a mini exhibition, take your seat for a 12 minute film in the former Signals Room. It's nicely informative, as you'd expect when The Curator is presenting, yet cut together with a certain endearing amateurism. And when that's over you get to enter the Operations Room, which is the heart of things, and where (if you're lucky) you'll get a proper explanatory talk. In the centre of the room is a sloping table with a map of southern England - the area covered by No. 11 (Fighter) Group. It's set out to show the aerial situation at 11:30am on 15th September 1940, a time when Churchill himself was present, and which turned out to be the peak of the Battle of Britain. Up on the walls is a complex system of lights, one vertical set for each squadron at each participating airfield base. By watching these change, and matching them with the coded tokens being pushed about on the table, instant decisions were made that helped change the course of British history.

Those decisions were taken in the room above, behind the curved glass, from the green swivel chair. A separate window shields the Royal Box - an unexpected luxury added for a visit by the King and Queen... who then never turned up again. This upper level now holds a museum, and a comprehensive one at that, full of pictures and documents and general ephemera. Some relate to the bunker itself, others to organisations like the Observer Corps which used to be based up above on site. I particularly liked the homemade chess set where a cartoon Hitler faced a cartoon Churchill across a map of northern Europe, with bombs for pawns on one side and radar towers on the other. But most of all I loved the reality of being somewhere very very important, beneath the ground, in the middle of suburbia.

If you'd like to experience this unique space, get yourself out to Uxbridge one weekend in the next two months. It's not yet certain whether regular access to the bunker will continue after that, but keep your fingers crossed that funding is available and The Curator approves.

» the Bunker's website
» Hillingdon invites you
» History of the bunker
» 21 photos from inside and out
» Virtual tour
» Ian's visited, and so's Pete

PICCADILLY: Park Royal & Twyford Abbey

The Piccadilly line has more than its fair share of abandoned stations. The more well known are in the centre of town (Aldwych, Down Street, Brompton Road, York Road) but there are also plenty further out. This one's in a corner of Ealing and, just its luck, closed before the Piccadilly even arrived. Let me run you through a history in three parts.

Twyford Abbey
You'd think, if there was an abbey in West London, you'd have heard of it. But Twyford Abbey's hard enough to spot, let alone experience. To be fair it's not really an abbey at all, that's just the name given to the manor house when it was rebuilt by a wealthy coachman 300 years ago. The house then lent its name to the surrounding area, a small group of houses round a 13th century chapel, before being taken over by a group of monks in 1901. They used it as a nursing home, at least until 1988 when they ran out of money and relocated, leaving Twyford Abbey empty. And, somewhat unexpectedly, it's remained empty to this day. There are developers in situ, there are vague plans, but it's difficult to do anything dramatic with a Grade II listed building, and even more so when the building's becoming increasing derelict. One suspects the developers are hoping the building will fall down one day, but it hasn't yet, and remains a not-quite crumbling shell with ambiguous potential.

There is a front gate, but it's firmly locked. Signs attached to the railings warn "Keep Out", "Strictly No Admittance", and the gatehouse is still occupied by a security guard. The drive beyond the gates is sufficiently long and leafy to shield the house from prying eyes, so for a view you need to walk round the houses. At the far end of Brentmead Gardens, almost at the North Circular Road, stands St Mary's Church. It could be an electricity substation, this postwar erection, were it not for the tower and the statue of Mary over the door. But walk up the side through the churchyard and there's the old 13th century chapel tacked onto the back, extended from a capacity of 40 to service the growing population. And beyond that, past the trees and through the hedge, there's the best view you'll get of Twyford Abbey.

It looks a bit like a castle, although those are fake crenellations, and the entire façade has an air of pastiche. The boarded up windows and detached clockfaces don't help. But the surest sign of decay are the yellow and blue-striped awnings flapping from the balconies. Some are intact and extended, others bluntly ripped, others blown up onto the roof above. It's like someone closed down a hotel a quarter of a century ago and whisked the guests away, which in effect they did. The gardens are extensive but now widely overgrown, with cedars rising above, and with tree roots destroying foundations. You could squeeze hundreds of flats into this abandoned space, but as yet nobody has, and so Twyford Abbey decays unseen.
» Four sets of photos from inside Twyford Abbey
» David's video from 2008, stepping through the hedge to explore

Park Royal & Twyford Abbey station
Park Royal earned its name in the same way as did Queen's Park - from the Royal Agricultural Show. The organisers were tired of moving this annual extravaganza round the country so bought a permanent 100 acre site in West London nudging up to Twyford Abbey. The first show at Park Royal opened on 23 June 1903, also the first day that a new station opened alongside on Twyford Abbey Road. The Metropolitan District Railway used the occasion to launch their new extension from Acton through to South Harrow, that's the vertical blue line to the left of a modern tube map. The station was wasn't built with longevity in mind, more a staircase up to a pair of wooden platforms, but it did the job. The Show was attended by King Edward VII, Princess Alexandra and numerous fine specimens of cattle, sheep and pigs. All the latest advances in agricultural machinery and breeding techniques were showcased, and 65000 visitors came along to take a look.

Attendance dropped in 1904, perhaps because West London was so far from the rural heartland. The Royal Agricultural Society attempted to lease parts of the site to other users, but only Queen's Park Rangers could be tempted, moving their home ground (briefly) to the horse-ring. Alas 1905 proved even less successful, with only 24000 visitors turning up, so the Society cut their losses and sold up. The site found more favour with industry, being ideally located for road, rail and canal transport, and eventually grew into the largest industrial estate in southern England. Most notably the horse-ring that had been QPR's home was reborn as the Guinness Brewery, at one point the most productive brewery in the world, but closed in 2005 and since entirely demolished.

And all trace of the station has vanished too. It closed on 6 July 1931 when a new temporary station was opened on Western Avenue half a mile to the south. At this point the trains were still part of the District line - the Piccadilly didn't take over until July 1932. Park Royal & Twyford Abbey was then completely dismantled, with some of its girders transported to Devon to create a footbridge at Dawlish station. A patch of parkland now exists alongside, providing grassy slopes for marketing folk at Diageo HQ to sit on over lunch. It's strangely bland, but rather prettier than the decaying factories hereabouts until not so very long ago.
» A history of Park Royal and Twyford Abbey

Park Royal station
That temporary station on Western Avenue was soon replaced by something permanant, and majestic. Park Royal is a thrusting 30s masterpiece in an Art Deco/Streamline Moderne style. It looks like a Charles Holden, but is actually the work of his proteges Herbert Welch and Felix Lander. The architecture fits together like a set of building blocks - a cuboid for the tower, a cylinder for the ticket hall and a curved quadrant for the shops alongside. Park Royal's brick tower dominates the A40 alongside, rising to mega-roundels only on the sides the public can see. One of the flats above the shopping arcade extends into the foot of the tower, making this one of the most desirable properties in London for the tube-obsessed modernist. The ticket hall is double height with high level windows, its roof supported by symmetrically arranged fluted piers. A cascade of clerestory windows leads each staircase down to platform level. And here, halfway along the northbound, is one of the most delightful waiting rooms on the network. It's more of a shed really, with narrow internal benches and a door that slides shut to keep the winter at bay. In spring, with blossom all around, I can think of few finer stations to dally at.

PICCADILLY: Harringay (St Ann's Road)

There are several long gaps between stations on the Piccadilly line. Sometimes that's because the intermediate station was closed, as with Brompton Road (in Belgravia) and York Road (north of King's Cross). But head to Green Lanes in Haringey and there's a mile and a half's gap because the station in the middle was cancelled by order of the Chief Executive Officer and never built. Let's do the half hour walk.

Manor House
We like Manor House station. The platforms are tall and deep, with cream tiles and blue-bordered Way Out enamel. Watch out for the jet black ventilation grilles, each with an identical representation of bucolic horticultural charm. A pillared gate leads to a verdant garden with a trio of doves a-cooing by their cote, which isn't what you expect to see high on a station wall. Up the escalator is a ticket hall with a bobbly ceiling, semi-resembling the Tardis circa 1975. And check out one of the pillars for an impromptu photographic museum featuring various black and white shots of the station and its environs circa 1935. They've been stuck up with yellowing sellotape, but where else are you going to see the original cylindrical Fares tables, and a tram pulling in above. If all tube stations had this personal touch, you might love your local a little more.

Manor House is the only Underground station in the borough of Hackney (and then only just, because the stairs to the northwest come up in Haringey). It's also one of London's entirely underground stations, built beneath a whopper where Green Lanes crosses the Seven Sisters Road. Never ever attempt to cross this monster diagonally. Beside the non-Hackney exit is a grand gated entrance to Finsbury Park, plus the less imposing Park View Cafe. I was unimpressed by their outside food kiosk, partly because their "Egg Benedict" sounds a trifle weedy, but mostly because they dare to sell "Panini's".

The long walk to the next station begins along the upper edge of Finsbury Park. This is the nice bit, so make the most of it. Ahead is the New River, now only a few months short of 400 years old, and a corner of the park designated for hockey and baseball only (because they're big round here). The Arena Shopping Centre looks like retail nirvana, judging by the busy-ness of the car park, but the shops coming up next along Green Lanes have hugely more character. We're entering Little Turkey, a dash of London with a flavour of extreme eastern Europe. It seems such a friendly place, or maybe that's because every other shop serves up food of some kind and teems with people. Maybe meze, perhaps baklava, and possibly some of whatever that floury thing is being bashed out by the lady in the shop window by the bus stop.

Disney's are celebrating their centenary this year - that's the two floor furniture showroom on Grand Parade, now looking surprisingly out of place. But it's easy to see where all those tables and sofas might end up if you turn off the main drag and head up one of the parallel streets. This is the so-called Harringay Ladder, a twenty-rung residential district whose smart terraces must have estate agents aflutter. Only two features link these hillside avenues - one the New River threading through, the other a narrow pedestrian alleyway that runs for almost a mile between sequential houses.

Harringay (St Ann's Road)
And now we reach the junction where the Piccadilly line could have had a station, but doesn't. St Ann's Road crosses four railways on its long curve down towards Stamford Hill, but merits no station on any of them. One was planned here at the western end but Frank Pick, Chief Executive of the London Passenger Transport Board, turned it down. He thought this street corner already had a good enough bus and tram service, which may have been the case then, but is only half true today. Instead the majestic Salisbury Hotel, now a restored pub, remains unserved. Its French Renaissance façade dominates the exterior, while inside are Art Nouveau motifs and a cast-iron columned bar. Again it's slightly at odds with the distinctly non-English non-Victorian nature of most of the surrounding businesses, but that's the joy of this cosmopolitan neighbourhood.

The Piccadilly line may not be obvious on the surface, but this long run between stations necessitated the appearance of a ventilation shaft a little further along. Check the corner of Colina Road for a boxy brick building rising to a dark grille at rooftop level. On one side a verge of flowers is blooming an almost appropriate shade of blue, while on the other is the car park for the outlet store nextdoor. Why go to Jermyn Street for your posh Hawes and Curtis shirts when you can pick them up cheap or wholesale in cufflink-unfriendly N8? But for the tube connection to Piccadilly Circus walk on. The shops at last give way to flats and houses, and only the occasional Bulgarian Breakfast bar, before reaching the confined expanse of Duckett's Common. And at the far end of that...

Turnpike Lane
We like Turnpike Lane even more than we like Manor House. That's mostly because it has exterior presence, and has it in spades, if a Modernist touch is what you like. The main ticket hall is a lofty cuboid lit by blue-rimmed windows, above which rises a tower with louvred ventilators and a flagpole on top. It has to be by Charles Holden, and it has to be Grade II listed, and rest assured it's both. A restaurant and a pawnbrokers have taken the original retail unit to one side, while the busy modern bus station has been carefully hidden round the back. The main pedestrian entrance is down globe-lit steps beneath a low curved slab. But there are feeder subways elsewhere, with each caged entrance labelled "TURNPIKE LANE STN." in white capitals on brown.

The interior of the ticket hall is dramatic, raised to double height with strong horizontal features. Above the ticket window is a blue clock in ITV Schools Programmes style, and in the centre a classical bowl-shaped uplighters. There are more of these down the escalator, and a subtly different version on the lower concourse with what looks like a white ceramic loudspeaker blooming on top. They're only a minor architectural tweak, but they add such panache to the circulation space. And finally the platforms, which are remarkably similar to those at Manor House, as you might expect for stations opened on the same day. Again there are jet black ventilation grilles, again depicting the station's name literally, so this time with horse-drawn traffic approaching a turnpike tollhouse. And if you've enjoyed this trip, just three minutes on the next train south and you can go round again.

PICCADILLY: the tiles

Dylan loves them. He's the Piccadilly line driver you might have seen on The Tube documentary on BBC2 last week, and he loves the tiles down the Piccadilly line. That's the original tiles on the original platforms, added to give each station a visual identity for the benefit of the illiterate. As Dylan says, here, "what more simpler method could you use?"

To find these tiling patterns you need to travel on the original section of the Piccadilly line, designed by Leslie Green, that's between Hammersmith and Finsbury Park. There's no point looking on the overground section of the line, obviously, so the first point of call at the western end should be Earl's Court. Except no. The underground station's been part-modernised over the years, so there's not so much of the original decoration left. Bands of mauve tiles still loop overhead, and there's a row of toothpaste green along the top of the platform wall. But the signature patterns along the full length are long gone, replaced by white, so best not to start your architectural safari here.

Gloucester Road, on the other hand, oh yes. Here the tiles are a deep rich green, be that in rings overhead or in parallel stripes along the platform. The station name appears in big bold lettering, another key part of the waymarking strategy from 1906, because the London Underground roundel hadn't yet been invented. By modern standards it uses the wrong font, but hurrah for that - there's no forcible requirement to upgrade our heritage.

Gloucester Road doesn't boast the most exciting of the patterns down the line, but the design is bold. Only one colour has been used - there's no additional accent hue as elsewhere. And the design does have a pleasing symmetry, created as you can see by inserting fractional tiles in each row. This wasn't just thrown together, you know.

We're not stopping at South Kensington, because that's had a Natural History Museum makeover. And we're not stopping at Knightsbridge because that's gone 21st century silver.

But we are stopping at Hyde Park Corner. This is a lovely station, entirely below ground, with escalators leading passengers down to a circulation lobby between the two platforms. The connecting passages contain tiled signs directing passengers 'To the trains', either 'To Finsbury Park' or 'To Hammersmith'. Most endearing. The key colour on the platforms is brown, the sort of brown that DIY paint manufacturers might brand as chocolate or mahogany. Notice the colons which appear between each word of Hyde:Park:Corner - either a grammatical aberration or a fine decorative touch.

At this station the additional colour is yellow, a little wishy-washy perhaps, but in complete contrast to the dark green at Gloucester Road. The tiles cluster in groups of four, there's no need for fractions here. But not all of the pattern is visible. Advertising posters cover much of the platform wall, including most of the yellow pattern, but also (sad face) one of the station names.

Best ride past Green Park and Leicester Square, there are no Edwardian tiles down here. Inbetween is Piccadilly Circus, again new, but which has the best modern take on bright tiling simplicity.

Covent Garden is the heritage-tiled station that most visitors to London will have seen. As they pour off to visit the market above, they'll see stripes and hoops coloured caramel and custard. Delightful. But look closer and it's clear this isn't the original tiling, it's not even old. This is a 2008 makeover, completed to strict like-for-like guidelines, but almost too perfect. The lettering's the thing, it's got a computer-generatedness that the originals don't have, so the font is too sharp and a touch too thin. And where did the colon go?

At least the custardy yellow is brighter than at Hyde Park Corner. I like the pattern here too, it's a little more intricate than elsewhere, and with a greater expanse of blank space inbetween. Again the adverts get in the way a bit, so Dylan's view as he speeds through the platform isn't what it could be, but needs must.

Holborn's not tiled any more. But it does have two chipolata penises on the northbound platform, if you look carefully.

To Russell Square, with the most in-your-face of the surviving designs. This utilises a relatively complex chain-like pattern, laid out in a dark shade that might even be black. Surrounding this is a turquoise border, and then an intermediate stripe underlining below. These aren't the pastel shades we see at Leslie Green's other Piccadilly line stations, so is Russell Square the odd one out, or have all the other bold designs been replaced over the last century?

The turquoise stripes also continue up the stairs and round the passageway to the foot of the lift shaft. It's detail like this that helps make the London Underground the design triumph we know and love today. Even the sign pointing the way "To The Lifts & Stairs" is glazed inside a blue surround, with a comet-like arrow beneath and the flourish of an ampersand within. Next time you're waiting at a slightly lesser station, wish you were here.

Skip King's Cross St Pancras, it's been entirely modernised. And you won't spot York Road, that's long closed.

Caledonian Road is a below-ground tiling extravaganza. The ox-blood façade at street level is mighty fine too, but there are plenty of these around London, and downstairs ticks different boxes. The chosen colour here is mauve, in two closely coordinated shades, rippling in zigzags down the wall. Compared to some of the other stations we've visited the effect is quite muted, definitely less polished. There's been no recent wholesale restoration here - indeed close-up investigation reveals a few long-term imperfections. Let's call it character.

If you're looking for the way out, Cally Road offers a choice of signage. The usual modern enamel panels are here, all terribly pristine and normal, but also much more ornate WAY OUT panels tiled beside the exits. The words appear inside a design that could be a ticket window, but is more correctly a free-standing picture frame - the correct term is 'aedicular'. Other exits are marked NO EXIT, similarly framed and glazed. You'll find these aedicular signs at all the other stations I've highlighted, but some of those here are unreconstituted Leslie Green originals.

Head to the far end of the northbound platform to see an original all-red roundel, almost hidden, beyond a staff telephone near the signals. There's another at Covent Garden if you don't want to trek this far out, but again beyond the passenger barrier so best seen from a passing train.

Holloway Road is best seen just after a train has left, with the cylindrical platform empty and brown hoops overhead. That's assuming you like brown. Leslie Green chose two shades of brown as his Holloway Road colours, one richer and darker, the other verging on orange. The lighter hue is used on the platforms to create a bold diagonal design, broken by a broad vertical dark strip. This polychromatic branding continues along the exit passages, even up the steps to the spiral staircase... but not all the way to the top.

A most well preserved station, this, both above and below, and the second in a row with a Grade II listing. It's the attention to detail, the small things, that make the difference. Take the interconnecting passage, for example. Today it's only useful to anyone changing between northbound and southbound trains, which should be nobody, but in its day this was an entrance at the foot of the stairs. Which way to go? The tiling tells you, left To The Trains Hammersmith, right To The Trains Finsbury Park. And all in brown, of course, lovely brown.

Tottenham fans should look away now.

It made perfect sense in 1906 to call Arsenal station Gillespie Road. A fairly minor road, admittedly, but entirely descriptive of the ticket hall's location. It's nowhere near the platforms, though. A long gentle ramp slopes down from the entrance, and down, and down, before reaching a cavity dug out beneath the East Coast mainline. Arsenal football team didn't move in nearby until 1913, and the station name didn't change until 1932. Today the ramp down to the platforms is part barriered-off to provide a protected contraflow system on matchdays, but look behind the metal bars and Leslie Green's striped tiles remain.

Strange colours, though. Purple and green don't really go together, especially when the purple's a wishywashy mauve and the green's dark emerald. You'd expect red and white because those are Arsenal's colours but, like I said, the tiles predated the team's arrival. And the old station name survives on the platforms, with GILLESPIE ROAD written in large flowing capitals at each end. Who cares if that's not what it's called any more, rejoice that it's still here. A century on, the Piccadilly's tiling vision endures.

Finsbury Park rounds off the original line, but has no original tiling. The station's platforms were radically reworked in the 1960s to allow cross-platform interchange between the new Victoria line and the Piccadilly. Instead you can enjoy the sight of six hot air balloons, created in mosaic by artist Annabel Grey, bobbing curvaceously along the length of the platform.

To end this tour, why not enjoy 28 Piccadilly tiling photos on Flickr?

 PICCADILLY: anagram quiz

Here are anagrams of 40 Piccadilly line stations.
How many can you identify?

  1) Acidic Crispy Cull
  2) Ah Enormous
  3) Alien Throng
  4) As Governor
  5) Bird Eggs Think
  6) Carbon Tours
  7) Castle Equerries
  8) Corrugated Sole
  9) Craven Tonged
10) Dark Creepy Horn
11) Dully Hubris
12) Eel Story
13) Ego Wonder
14) Fondle Shirt
15) Forces Stock
16) Gasoline Hut
17) German Hunter
18) Hack Mine
19) Hallo Doorway
20) Hog Statue
21) Ibex Drug
22) Internal Puke
23) Math Shimmer
24) Mini Parlours
25) Monsoon Brat
26) Nearly Snare
27) Nil Holding
28) Nocturnal Wholes
29) Noel's Washout
30) Nonstick Grass Scraps
31) North Coasts
32) Oncoming Male
33) Port Lane
34) Rare Locust
35) Red Anaconda Oil
36) Squealers Slur
37) Two Cannot
38) Two Tenders
39) Unborn Edges
40) Unhooks Nettings

(Answers here)

PICCADILLY - Sudbury Town
Before we leave the royal blue line, let me take you to one of my favourite stations. That's Sudbury Town on the Uxbridge branch of the Piccadilly line, on the border between Brent and Ealing. Although the station's now 100 years old, the station building's a replacement octogenarian. It was designed by Charles Holden, who did so much to amaze on the outer extremities of the Piccadilly. He created what's essentially a brick block, rising tall at the end of a broad cul-de-sac, with clerestory windows below a flat concrete slab roof. The interior of the ticket hall contains smoothly curving kiosks and a minimalist modernist waiting area. High on the wall are a smart blue clock and a barometer, because Holden credited the station's passengers with a bit of nous. And if you think the signage looks a bit odd, a bit spiky, you'd be right. Sudbury Town's lettering is a variation on the standard London Underground Johnston typeface with slightly curvier corners, a 'petit-serif' font developed by Percy Delf Smith. This alternative lettering also crept out at Arnos Grove and Cockfosters but wasn't deemed a success, so Sudbury Town is its last hurrah. I took a few photos of the station that I'm not proud of, so instead I've curated a Flickr gallery of other people's shots for you to enjoy virtually. Do step inside and admire.

PICCADILLY - London's shortest tube journey

Covent Garden stationLeicester Square to Covent Garden on the Piccadilly line. It's the shortest tube journey in town - less than 300 yards long. It's the briefest tube journey in town - just 45 seconds from platform to platform. And it's also the most expensive tube journey in town - four quid to travel a mere quarter of a kilometre. But does this deter thousands of tourists every year from making the trip? Of course not.

London Underground are worried. Tourists are irresistibly drawn to Covent Garden, teeming as it is with fashionable boutiques, silver-faced mime artists and juggling unicyclists. But Covent Garden station is 100 years old this year, and its limited facilities are struggling to cope. There’s no space here to install escalators, so every year 16 million people have to fight their way in and out via the lifts and stairs. A major infrastructure upgrade is long overdue.

In a short term attempt to limit passenger numbers at Covent Garden station, TfL have resorted to an unlikely poster campaign. Please don't "follow the crowd” to Covent Garden by train, they plead. Please consider all the advantages of getting off the train somewhere else and walking the last bit of your journey above ground. It's a strange request. But desperate measures are needed, it seems, to persuade tourists that Leicester Square and Covent Garden are far closer in real life than they might appear on the tube map. Indeed, as I can independently verify, to walk from one to the other takes no more than four minutes on foot.

But is London's shortest tube journey actually quicker than a street level stroll? I decided to undertake a proper timed experiment to find out. I set off from the main entrance to Leicester Square station, armed only with an Oystercard and a stopwatch, and headed down into the bowels of Soho to discover the truth.

The Piccadilly line platforms at Leicester Square proved considerably deeper than I expected. It took me 30 seconds just to reach the ticket barriers, then another 45 to walk down the second longest set of escalators on the entire tube network. I had to negotiate my way along a further series of passageways past herds of ambling shoppers (oh come on, come on!), but was then fortunate enough to step straight onto a waiting eastbound train. Perfect - except that my journey underground had already taken a full two minutes.

The doors slammed shut and London’s shortest tube journey began. Some of my fellow passengers were still trying to find a seat, unaware that it would hardly be necessary. A disembodied voice kicked in to announce "The next station is… Covent Garden." even before our carriage had entered the tunnel. There was just enough time to add a downright lie - "alight here for London's Transport Museum" - before the driver slammed on the brakes. We slid through the briefest of darknesses into our destination station, and the train slowly ground to a halt. By the time the doors finally opened, a total of nearly three minutes had elapsed. Could there still be a chance of reaching the surface before my four minute time limit was up?

tiles at Covent Garden stationAlas, Covent Garden isn’t an easy station to escape from, especially when you’ve alighted at the wrong end of the platform. I had to trudge slowly towards the exit passage behind a mass of excitable tourists, led by those who'd been lucky enough to be sitting in the fifth carriage. Valuable seconds ticked away - 3½ minutes and counting.

And then the crucial decision faced by every passenger attempting to leave Covent Garden station. Lift? Or stairs? Should one of the lifts be ready and available, then the choice is a no-brainer. But if the lift doors are stubbornly closed, or beeping shut, then the spiral staircase can look very tempting. I have an important piece of advice for you. Never ever, under any circumstances, take the stairs. Don't do it because you think it might be quicker than waiting for the lift - it won't be, and the ascent may destroy you. There are 193 steps altogether, and that’s the equivalent of climbing to the top of a 15 storey building. The only sensible way to tackle the Covent Garden staircase is from the top down. It's enormously satisfying to trip nimbly past a succession of hapless souls stumbling breathlessly upwards, especially those with the added misfortune to be carrying heavy shopping. But on this occasion, because I was attempting to ascend, the lifts were my only viable option.

Covent Garden station has four lifts, each capable of packing 50 sweaty souls inside. The majority of departing passengers stop and wait for the nearest of the four, so I was able to sneak past and dive into the farthest lift just before the doors closed. Unfortunately some impatient upstart behind me then attempted a similar entrance [doors opening] [doors closing], thereby prolonging our departure still further. My four minute deadline approached, and passed.

And then a different kind of nightmare ascent began. My fellow internees and I groaned audibly as the impossibly chirpy tones of Johnny Vaughan suddenly echoed all around the lift carriage. We cringed as he told us, in a voice befitting a detergent commercial, how best to reach various thrilling local attractions on leaving the station. And we grimaced as, oozing with breakfast DJ sincerity, he urged us to get our tickets ready for a fast exit. Believe us, Johnny, our exit could not have come soon enough.

The lift doors eventually opened to bring silent relief, but further seconds ebbed away as we queued patiently to shuffle through a bank of claustrophobic ticket barriers. Only then did I finally escape into the street… into the waiting arms of an orange-jacketed charity worker who attempted to interest me in saving the planet by direct debit. She was sorely disappointed.

My subterranean journey had taken a total of 5½ minutes –almost 50% longer than the equivalent journey at ground level. But it had been the down and the up which had devoured my time, and not the 45 second tube ride. Transport for London are right, it seems, to recommend that we walk to Covent Garden rather than taking the train. But if they really want to cut passenger numbers at this station I'd like to suggest an alternative angle to their advertising. Just warn us in advance that we'll be sharing our lift journey with Johnny Vaughan, and they'll soon have us all walking the streets instead.

First published in Time Out, 18th April 2007

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