Wednesday, July 31, 2013

VICTORIA: Up the line

From Brixton's buzz the hordes descend, then left or right to board the train;
The siren sounds, the doors slam shut, we're off to Walthamstow again.
Delayed at Stockwell, driver growls "please board the train now please!"
"You, the passenger holding the door!" We turn and glare, he flees.

At Vauxhall more wait to pour on, the line's last punters from the south;
But few spread out, and so they clog the small space by the platform mouth.
It's mostly quiet at Pimlico, the Vic's non-intersection;
But don't stare at the tiles too long, the dots need circumspection.

Victoria's roundel? The 60s writ large, with letters thickly drawn;
"This train is ready to depart", staff cry, but we've already gone.
Beneath the Palace to Green Park; she boards and quickly starts to eat,
The sesame snap goes in her mouth, the wrapper she leaves on the seat.

At Oxford Circus shoppers flock, that's on with bags or off with dosh;
While most push on a few hold back, reluctant yet to join the squash.
To Warren Street on Euston Road, where "doors will open on the left";
It's one of only three like that, the other two I'll let you guess.

Mum waits at Euston with her pram, I wonder if she'll board in time;
It's toddlers first, then front wheels raised, and all pushed through before the chime.
King's Cross St Pancras boasts the longest "change here for" list on the Vic,
Five tubes, plus rails and Chunnel tracks, or British Library, take your pick.

We're emptier now, with seats for all, at Highbury and Islington;
A high pitched whine of tunnel-whizz accompanies as we speed along.
At Finsbury Park a simple link, cross platform to the Piccadilly;
It's hot aboard these new trains with no aircon tech to make it chilly.

Some trains halt at Seven Sisters, diverting off to the depot;
Not us, we pause awhile for time, then door lights fade and on we go.
Our litterbug stands at Tottenham Hale, pretends the wrapper wasn't her,
I try to catch her eye but no, she's gone, and striding off without a care.

At Blackhorse Road the equine tiles resemble branding for Lloyds Bank;
The front of the train remains packed, the rear is almost blank.
We terminate at Walthamstow, so "all change please" and take your stuff.
From SW9 to E17, one Vic line ride is quite enough.

VICTORIA: All change

The Victoria line was built with interchange in mind. All but one of the 16 stations link to another line, or maybe several, making ease of transfer the priority. But just how long do those connections take? I've worked my way down the line with a stopwatch to find out.

n.b. I only walked these one way (walking the other way might be different). I walked from platform to platform (apart from at mainline termini). I timed from the moment I left one platform to the moment I arrived on the other. I walked to the nearest platform, which may not be the platform you need. I did this experiment off-peak. I always walked down escalators, but never up. I walk quite fast. I am not sad, honest.

Walthamstow Central (Greater Anglia → Victoria) [1m10s] The original route down to the Victoria line is direct from National Rail platform 2 (although now there's another entrance direct from the bus station). Head down the steps, through the ticket barriers and down the escalator. If arriving here by tube, it's quickest to sit at the front of the train.

Blackhorse Road (Overground → Victoria) [1m20s] Up to the cheap-looking footbridge, follow the passage into the ticket hall, then double back and head down the escalator.

Tottenham Hale (Greater Anglia → Victoria) [1m15s] It's dead easy to step up to the ticket hall from the northbound National Rail platform (but a rather longer up and over from the southbound). There's a nice row of plants above the escalators.

Seven Sisters (Victoria → Greater Anglia) [2m30s] To interchange here, best sit at the Brixton end of the train. Exit is via a twisting passage with two-way flow, full of awkward blind spots. Then double back in the ticket hall and follow a straight passage to the National Rail platforms. Think functional, not beautiful.

Finsbury Park (Victoria → Piccadilly) [5s] Fabulously swift passage to parallel platform. Thank you, Victoria line designers.
Finsbury Park (Victoria → First Capital Connect) [1m10s] Woo, spiral staircase! 50-or-so steps lead up to a grim passage below the National Rail platforms.

Highbury & Islington (Victoria → Overground) [2m25s] A slower than usual yomp, because they're refurbishing an escalator at the moment, but it's never quick. A lot of up and down is involved.
Highbury & Islington (Victoria → First Capital Connect) [5s] A simple short passage across to the gloomy Moorgate-bound platform.

King's Cross St Pancras Sorry, but this is indeed as complex as you're expecting...
(Victoria → Piccadilly) [50s] Don't follow the signs! Take the sneaky staircase accessed from the 'Euston Road' end of the platform.
(Victoria → Northern) [1m5s] Ditto.
(Circle → Victoria) [1m50s] Not such a bad journey, via the original main escalator link.
(Victoria → King's Cross mainline) [4m] That's four minutes if you follow the signs, and trek the evil long route via the new passages and the Northern ticket hall. Worst interchange on the entire list...
(Victoria → St Pancras High Speed) [6m] ...apart from this, which is worse...
(Victoria → Other St Pancras services) [8m] ...and this, which is godawful. This proves that either a) only mugs follow the official signs or b) St Pancras really is a very long way from the Victoria line.

Euston (Victoria → Northern) [15s] So long as you want the southbound via Bank, dead quick. Not so quick otherwise.
Euston (Victoria → Mainline services) [3m] That's from the bowels of the station to the main concourse, probably battling behind lots of slow people with suitcases.

Warren Street (Northern → Victoria) [1m30s] This is the interchange that feels the most old-school, past some lovely cream and black tiles (and via two escalators).

Oxford Circus (Victoria → Bakerloo) [20s] Another splendidly quick parallel platform passage. They designed this line so well, those 1960s planners.
Oxford Circus (Victoria → Central) [1m50s] A long trek down a long passage past a busker. Interestingly it's much quicker walking in the opposite direction, from Central to Victoria, which takes only half the time [55s]

Green Park (Victoria → Jubilee) [1m20s] This is the 'quick' interchange at Green Park, via steps and a single escalator.
Green Park (Piccadilly → Victoria) [1m40s] This involves a long passage, but it's still a minute shorter than the really long interchange at Green Park, which is (Jubilee → Piccadilly) [2m40s]

Victoria (Victoria → National Rail) [2m] This requires ascent by escalator into a hellish ticket hall filled with milling tourists, then further steps up to reach the mainline concourse.
Victoria (Circle → Victoria) [1m10s] A fairly quick descent, so long as you're at the right end of the platform.

Pimlico There is no interchange here.

Vauxhall (Victoria → South West Trains) [3m10s] A long escalator, a long passage, and then entry into the back of the station where there appears to be absolutely no guidance as to what mainline trains are leaving when from which platforms. A poor experience.

Stockwell (Victoria → Northern) [8s] That's the fifth brilliant connection to an adjacent platform. I say again, the Victoria line was designed with interchange in mind. Don't expect anything anywhere near as good from Crossrail.

Brixton (Victoria → Southeastern) [4m] Riding up the escalator, then walking up the steps into Brixton, takes 1m40s. There are then no signs pointing towards the National Rail station concealed round the corner, which is atrocious signage (unless I missed something) (I don't think I missed anything).

VICTORIA: Tate Britain

It's Tate Modern that gets all the publicity, but Tate Britain's still there in Pimlico, on the river. You can get there by Victoria line (alight at the station with the pop art spotty yellow tiles) or you can get there by New Bus For London (I made that mistake, sweat dripping down my back on the top deck). Centuries of art are displayed round its walls, more of the classical than the modern strange stuff hung elsewhere. The front entrance is closed for renovation at the moment, so you have to go in via the posh ramp down the side, then back up again to view the main collection. Or fork out to visit the specials, £19 for three, including that fine British painter of the north.

Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life (26 June - 20 October)
Laurence Stephen, the rent collector from Salford, still draws the crowds. They've heard of him, they like his style, and they may even have bought that record about him in 1978. Even midweek they stream in, the cultured pensioner classes, grabbing their opportunity before the rest of the world floods the galleries on Saturday. Shuffle along, there's a lot of Lancashire to see. Lowry's canvases are white and bleak, packed with factories and mills, but with collective human interest. There's usually a crowd doing something - walking to work, heading to the football, watching an eviction, following a hearse, whatever. In one painting the scarlet fever van has turned up to take a child away to isolation hospital... which prompted my Dad to tell me that this had happened to him, except he was one of the minority who came home again. Chimneys belch and steam, with the predominant colours being grey, black and more grey. The one shade entirely absent from Lowry's palette appears to be green, and he doesn't much care for yellow either, which helps to tone these industrial landscapes down a few more notches. Many of his buildings break the rules of perspective, and his matchstalk men aren't exactly biologically accurate, but nobody minds. Actually Brian Sewell hates them, virulently, but you'd expect that, and the assembled hordes seem rather keener. I liked them, but as a representation of industrial hardship with a human edge, not necessarily the spotlight of truth.

Patrick Caulfield (5 June - 1 September)
The Tate have paired up the next two artists, possibly because neither is quite strong enough to flog the tickets alone. Caulfield is a product of the Sixties, and his sign-painter style has a certain attractive simplicity. His scenes are composed of bold blocks of paint, generally delineated by thick black lines. Lampshades are a favourite, and curvy chairs, and dining areas of many kinds in foreign countries - these recur through the years. It's almost comic book, but more competently drawn, with bright colours the exact opposite of what Lowry would have used. In later works Patrick taunts his audience by painting one small aspect of the painting, like a casserole dish or a lakeside window, in uncharacteristic picture-perfection, as if to say I could paint 'properly' but I choose not to. Patrick's sweeping canvases transfer well to postcards and memorabilia in the gift shop, and after you've seen the real thing, you just might.

Gary Hume (5 June - 1 September)
And in the three galleries nextdoor, a rather different proposition. Hume's canon is a little more recent, less geometric, much less precise. He uses sheets of aluminium as his canvas, marking out space with a fibre-tip pen and then smearing the gaps with large patches of gloss paint. His subjects are often hard to discern - it took a glance at the guide book to reveal that one pink panel hid the face of Kate Moss beneath Michael Jackson's nostrils. Round the corner there's a fine blackbird (you can see why that's been picked to appear on much of the merchandise), but the more general abstraction makes this a harder ensemble to love.

Look round: Lowry
Look round: Caulfield and Hume

VICTORIA: Underground overground

Passengers on the Victoria line travel entirely underground, because that's where all the stations are. From Brixton to Walthamstow Central, not a chink of daylight is visible from any platform or train. But the trains do run overground, if you know where to look, should you ever want to see them on terra firma. The reason for their emergence is because every line needs a depot, somewhere for trains to be stabled and repaired, and when you have four dozen trains that can't be below ground. Instead the depot was slotted in beside the Lea Valley railway line, close to Northumberland Park, just across from the reservoirs. Additional tunnels were dug from Seven Sisters, bypassing Tottenham Hale and the eastern end of the line, and it's from here that Victoria line trains enter and exit the system.

Seven Sisters has a "secret platform" from which no passenger train ever departs. If your northbound train terminates at Seven Sisters you'll alight here on platform 4 before your empty train rattles on into the tunnel. It could then reverse back and head southbound, or more likely it'll continue onwards quite some distance before emerging above ground alongside the Lee Valley Technopark. Ordinary passengers can't stay aboard, but members of Victoria line staff are allowed to use these trains from platform 4 at Seven Sisters to get to the depot. They look out for the special diamond on the display panel on the side of the train, hop aboard and are shuttled ahead to Northumberland Park for their next shift, or whatever. If this mysterious service intrigues you, please go away now and read The Secret Life of Seven Sisters over at London Reconnections. I'll wait here until you get back (and it's 2500 words long, so you could be some time).

Alighting at Northumberland Park station isn't the best way to see the Northumberland Park depot, not unless you have a staff pass and can enter through the front gates. They're hidden up a dull dead end lined by car parks, enlivened only by a very lovely flower bed at the far end, from which only the walls of the depot can be seen. To see the trains it could be quite a hike out towards Tottenham Marshes, or else take the 192 bus a couple of stops north from Tottenham Hale. This will deposit you at a lonely bus stop called, promisingly, Northumberland Park Rail Depot, whose presence is the only likely reason for getting off here. Look, there it is through the railings. This is the home of the lesser spotted Victoria line train, indeed barely spotted above ground at all. An arc of railway tracks fans out towards a massive blue shed, one of two on the site, this with parallel openings numbered to at least 47. There might be lots of red-fronted trains inside, or the majority might be out doing their thing. A tall white chimney rises up from the trackside, and the occasional empty service rumbles in and out.

But that's not the best vantage point. A few steps away is a footbridge, one of the few means of crossing the tracks in these parts. It's clearly a lowbrow hotspot, judging by the number of discarded lager cans, plus (when I was there) a completely out-of-place cuddly elephant abandoned at the foot of the steps. Climb to the top and you can stare down over the tracks and watch the activity... but only if you're a likes-trains sort of person, otherwise there's no reason to be here at all. Every few minutes a train will exit the shed and edge its way towards a gantry, awaiting the signal to proceed. Then it'll pass on and wait again, if you turn and look through the grating on the other side of the bridge. And finally it'll get the signal to descend into the depths, run down to Seven Sisters and join the other trains providing a public service.

If there's another train coming out, returning to the depot at the end of a shift, you might get to see a rare sight - two Victoria line trains on opposite tracks, one with halogen white lamps at the front, the other with red lights at the rear. It may be hard to poke your camera through the fence, what with the protective wire gauze being rather close-knit. But like I said, if trains do nothing for you, stay away, else the occasional passing local will give you such a hard stare. Proper enthusiasts should note that there's another footbridge a short distance down the line, this with a better view of the subterranean portal. A very gentle slope leads down beneath a concrete viaduct, this carrying a nearby road inelegantly above the tracks. Come at the right time on a weekday and there'll be a couple of trains queueing to slip back into the system, to add capacity or to provide relief. One last chance for the driver to catch a glimpse of daylight, before re-entering the artificial world of London-under-ground.

This vantage point is well connected for the middle of industrial nowhere, with a subway running beneath the tracks linking exactly the same points as the footbridge above. Indeed this is probably the only place in London where you can stand both above and below a Victoria line train, obviously not simultaneously, but close enough. If that last sentence gave you a frisson of excitement, you're probably exactly the sort of person who'd enjoy a trip out to this lonely spot. It's not an attractive location otherwise. Dirty mattresses and charred remains in the undergrowth suggest that the adjacent footway is used regularly as an overnighter for the homeless. Sleep here and you'd be well out of the way of passing pedestrians during the hours of darkness, but the whining of the trains would pause for only brief respite during the early hours of the morning.

If all that staring at trains has made you want to ride one, follow the subway to the east out to the wilds of Clendish Marsh. This is a delightful spot with several acres of long grass dotted with wild flowers (or at least it is at the moment, I can't vouch for February). The first river you meet isn't the Lea, it's the Pymmes Brook, which runs in close parallel for about a mile preventing pedestrian access to its more important sibling. That comes only at Tottenham Lock on Ferry Lane, at which point trainspotters should turn right and approach the bowels of Tottenham Hale station. You won't see here any of the trains you've just seen overground - they enter the network one stop down. But ride to Seven Sisters and wait on platform 5 until a completely empty train arrives, and now you're one of the few who's in on the secret of where it's just been.

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