Monday, January 04, 2016

For this over-ambitious feature, I thought I'd walk Crossrail. Not the tunnels themselves because they're deep underground and off limits, pending fit-out, but the path of the route on the surface. This blog loves nothing more than following an invisible line across London, and Crossrail tracks a more invisible route than most. Equally there several clues on the surface to spot along the way, most of which are shafts and building sites rather than proper stations, there still being three years to go before project completion. So hell, why not walk it?

I haven't followed the whole of Crossrail because it's ridiculously long, and has several branches. Instead I've decided to walk the first section to open, from Abbey Wood to Paddington, which you should be able to ride by New Year 2019. And I haven't walked the very first bit from Abbey Wood, sorry. I probably should have done, but instead I started on the north side of the Thames because I thought the full 16 miles was a bit far. As it is I walked 12, all the way from North Woolwich to Paddington, which proved quite enough. I followed the approximate line of the tunnel throughout, near enough, and the westbound tunnel rather than the eastbound where the two diverge. I used the excellent Open Street Map to help track the way, but there's also a proper geographical map on the Crossrail website, and I've drawn a (very approximate) Google map here.

» I've taken 120 photos altogether [slideshow]
» Photos from... part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7

0) Abbey Wood to North Woolwich
(4 miles)
[concise version]
From its southeastern terminus at Abbey Wood, Crossrail follows the existing North Kent lines as far as a tunnel portal behind Marmadon Road, then burrows into unstable soil following the line of Plumstead Road. Woolwich station lies at the heart of a new property development, and looks it, before the line ducks directly beneath the Thames.

1) North Woolwich to Custom House
(2 miles)

It's both deliberate and ironic that Crossrail arrives in Newham beneath a doubly abandoned station. The most recent North Woolwich station closed ten years ago as part of a deliberate plan to rebrand Silverlink as the Overground, with the stretch immediately beyond Stratford destined for a DLR extension. That opened five years ago, but the far end was always earmarked for Crossrail, so the first few miles of my walk will be tracking the old line reborn. The older North Woolwich station building was once an offbeat railway museum but is now little more than a heritage shell, its downstairs windows shuttered and upper panes smashed. Cars departing the Woolwich Ferry stream by in waves, and pedestrians walking to the Foot Tunnel sometimes stop and wonder how this attractive survivor isn't flats.

The first of many Crossrail building sites lurks behind, where the platforms used to be, beyond which the tracks are boarded up to create a linear construction corral. The original railway's been here long enough that main roads run immediately to either side, for about a kilometre, one lined with houses and the other with more commercial uses. It's not a particularly attractive spot - no building in North Woolwich under the age of 100 is - and the streets are frequented by less well-off folk who'll see no benefits when Crossrail drives straight past their community. Indeed the new works seem to be going out of their way to be unwelcoming, the blue wooden hoardings switching to higher and more permanent concrete at the precise point where the tunnel will emerge from the ground.

The footbridge that used to cross the tracks midway has been demolished, although there is one brief gap in the wall near Holt Road which might signal a future connection. One thing that hasn't gone away is the sweet smell of hot sugar, courtesy of Tate & Lyle's main refinery looming down over the neighbourhood beyond the tracks. You might also be able to smell aviation fuel, what with City Airport only a few planeswidths away, but Crossrail only stops for Heathrow so here the DLR will suffice. Several short terraced streets lead off the main drag, each with a palpable sense of community, and a rare window into the area's dockside past.

At the end of the long straight, where Silvertown station used to be, an old footbridge provides a splendid vantage point back along the railway towards the refinery. It's evident from up here that Crossrail is now in the track-laying phase, with one and a half sets of rails installed and hundreds of sleepers still to be inserted. Looking in the opposite direction the flats are more modern and the tracks are marginally more complete, curving north to enter Crossrail's sole non 21st century burrow - the Connaught Tunnel. This re-engineered Victorian bore dips below the DLR and then City Airport's private plane apron, where signs beside the public footpath warn of low flying aeroplanes and jet blast. Fear not, I'd say you're more likely to be mugged under the Connaught Bridge than burnt to a crisp.

Bridge, dock and railway all coincide, thankfully at different heights. Focus on the great view across the water towards Docklands, because the northwest bank is a fairly horrible place, essentially a collection of bland hotels and private roadways where the pedestrian is very much not at home. Tread carefully past the roundabout to reach the other end of the Connaught Tunnel, peering over the portal to see the original brick arches that keep the walls of the cutting apart. Whether you'll still be able to get this close when trains are running I doubt, but fingers crossed health and safety doesn't decree some ugly hermetic sealing to hide the last remnants of the 19th century away.

The next excellent view is back from the footbridge at Prince Regent DLR, the old North London line curving down while the light rail viaduct swooshes up and over. We've now reached one end of the ExCel exhibition complex, where Gulf investment butts up against Newham's poorer estates, and only the railway keeps them apart. That's half building site at present, initially simply replacement tracks, then the looming form of a long prefabricated skeleton with glass canopy. And this is an actual Crossrail station, Custom House, the only surface station on the new line's central section. Finally we've reached somewhere you'll be able to board a train, and it's only taken us six paragraphs to get here.

The station's superstructure is already complete, if inaccessible, and is crossed by an austere temporary walkway. Residents on the northern side will eventually have a swish double staircase to ascend, at present only accessible to local cats, rising from a new piazza beside a Chinese restaurant. The adjacent shopping parade is of trifling economic significance, a string of takeaways interwoven with an off licence and nail bar, and targeted precisely on the needs of local community. Quite what those who stay over at the Ibis round the corner make of it I'm not sure, though I doubt they linger long. But when the multi-billion pound transport gateway opens two doors down, and regeneration pressure bursts through uncontained, I'd be surprised if the Golden Sands is still serving egg fried rice long after.

2) Custom House to Canary Wharf
(2 miles)

If you were hoping to see a lot of railway on this Crossrail walk, I'm sorry, that was yesterday. From here on the tracks head underground, so there'll be nothing to see but shafts and worksites on the surface. If it's any comfort, passengers in 2018 won't be seeing much around here either, with most of their ground level passage through Newham screened behind those concrete walls we spoke of earlier. The final portal before Paddington is located between Custom House and Royal Victoria DLR, a little closer to the former, and not easily seen from the footbridge at either. The remainder of the former North London line is currently a building site, and the ideal site for such, inconveniencing almost nobody. Meanwhile a string of pylons strides alongside, confirming this as a key infrastructure highway, and presumably lowering property prices on the upper floors of the two apartment blocks being built alongside.

It's time to cross the River Lea, just the once, but the sweeping meanders on Bow Creek near the mouth mean it's very nearly twice. Crossrail's engineers have taken advantage and taken over a large area of former industrial land overlooking the Limmo peninsula. This huge worksite is well away from housing, has easy road access from the Lower Lea Crossing, and has proved the perfect point to drop two tunnelling machines into the ground. Elizabeth and Victoria were lowered 40 metres down in October 2012, reaching Farringdon in May last year after a five mile burrow. Construction teams are still busy on site, swinging a girder round on a crane as I passed, which'll one day be a crucial part of your everyday journey.

Welcome to Tower Hamlets, and to Leamouth. And it's welcome back to the DLR, with Crossrail taking pretty much the same path to the north of the East India Basin before switching to the line of Blackwall Way. All the buildings are new round here, anything lowrise being from the end of the last century, and anything virulently erect considerably more recent. This cluster of oddly-shaped towers looks like something a barrel-load of over-funded architects would have designed, which is probably precisely the case. The Providence, Ontario and Streamlight Towers are premium almost-waterside developments, very much unaffordable housing, and look like they'll be joined by several even weirder siblings in the medium future.

Below ground Crossrail reaches its lowest point to pass beneath the Blackwall Tunnel, before clipping the corner of a less well-known feature - Poplar Dock. Now a marina, it's had a long history as a goods railway dock and was under the ownership of British Rail until as recently as 1981. The deep tunnels now swing round Billingsgate Market to line up for a direct hit on the full length of the West India Dock. A chain of banks line the privatised waterside, kicking off with Barclays whose employees can be seen through the ground floor windows tapping iPads and sipping on coffees, somewhat surprised that a stranger has decided to walk round their smokers' boardwalk. Meanwhile a skiff of security guards thrusts around the dock below, searching for whatever, because in a place like this you can never be too careful.

Like Canary Wharf on the Jubilee line, the new Crossrail station has been built inside a drained portion of a commercial dock, not least because this means 19th century navvies did much of the digging work. Unlike Canary Wharf on the Jubilee line, the new Crossrail station has been designed to look a bit like a ship in the water, the upper decks a retail and entertainment hub while the platforms lie deep in the hull. You might even have visited - the lower levels were open for Open House in 2014, and the shops and restaurants are open already. Of course they are, because why hold back a shopping centre until the trains arrive?

Crossrail Place, it's called, and contains the kinds of businesses financial workers like to use at lunchtimes or after work. That means coffee and ramen, burritos and juice, plus a BUPA dentist and somewhere to fix a bike. It means a linear roof garden filled with semi-tropical plants, but part-open to the skies so less than welcoming when the rain hits. It means the premier top floor location has been given over to a lobster crabshack restaurant whose name beams down from the prow of the ship as if the name of the station below was in fact Big Easy. And it means a luxury basement cinema where you can splash your bonus on a £17 premier ticket and some wasabi peas to nibble, without the risk of oiks from Stratford sitting behind you and yapping all the way through the film. Catching a train may one day prove to be the cheapest thing to do here.

Those seeking to get prematurely close to Crossrail should make a beeline for the toilets. There appears to be only one set of public conveniences for the entire 250m-long building, and it's been positioned on what's been designated level Minus Three. There are no stairs to level Minus Three, and while there are escalators down from outside the cinema they're currently blocked off. Instead you can only reach level Minus Three by lift, and then from only one of the sets of lifts in the building. It took me a couple of goes to get it right, before locating the westernmost shaft near the main bank of escalators and heading down past a staff-only basement to a sealed-off hallway. The gents were on the small side and nothing special, but a button in the lift confirmed I was only one floor above the ticket hall on level Minus Four, possibly the nearest you can get to Proper Crossrail in 2016.

3) Canary Wharf to Whitechapel
(2 miles)

After Canary Wharf the initial direction of travel is obvious - straight ahead beneath the waters of the West India Dock. That's underneath the DLR at West India Quay, past the hotel and warehouses on the dockside and past the point where the historic SS Robin used to be moored before Crossrail construction work began. Other small boats survive in the water, like for example the delightfully named Knocker White, a Thames Tug now under the ownership of the adjacent Museum of Docklands. At the far end of the dock is Hertsmere House, a bog-standard four-storey office block from the 1980s, or rather was. It's just been knocked down to make way for something more relevant to 21st century Docklands, a 67-storey residential tower which, if planning permission is given, will be the tallest residential building in Western Europe. With a cinema and swimming pool halfway up, and a penthouse only six metres lower than One Canary Wharf, it's not for you.

Crossrail heads beneath the quadrangle of old dock buildings at Cannon Workshops, a rare single storey survivor now used to house a flurry of reassuringly small business, before returning to more ordinary parts of town. The tunnels nudge north to avoid the entrance to the Limehouse Link, crossing into Limehouse proper close to the end of Narrow Street. Initially the local shops are more likely to be estate agents, and the local buildings converted wharves, but before long the more mundane side of Tower Hamlets housing kicks in. In the space of a couple of streets the focus switches from financial workers to the financially inferior, and the hand of the council is increasingly evident. So too is the hand of Hawksmoor in the form of elegant 18th century St Anne's, still flying the White Ensign from the tower, and unexpectedly now the parish church for all those Docklands bankers.

If we're ticking off surface-level points of passage, the westbound Crossrail tunnel passes beneath the Limehouse Cut beside the DLR viaduct, then directly beneath the Limehouse Accumulator Tower, then slap bang under Limehouse Lock at the start of the Regent's Canal. There's about a week's worth of potential blogging in that last sentence alone. Instead best press on across Commercial Road and the far end of the platforms at Limehouse c2c station, to the much much quieter residential quarter behind. These are the Stepney borderlands, where a large number of Victorian streets have survived despite the Luftwaffe's best intentions. York Square is a particularly pleasant End End leftover, its railinged grass bounded on two and a half sides by cosy Victorian terraces and not one but two proper pubs, the Old Ship and Queen's Head, at opposite corners.

We're now approaching the key location where the two eastern branches of Crossrail meet (or in the opposite direction diverge). This convergence lurks in the immediate vicinity of part-Saxon St Dunstan's Church, better known as the Bells of Stepney in the nursery rhyme, which now boasts three separate rail tunnels beneath its churchyard. It won't surprise you to hear that the precise junction is currently a large Crossrail worksite, indeed I suspect engineers drew the line of Crossrail's route with the deliberate intention of linking the lines beneath something they'd be allowed to dig up. In this case that's the entire length of Garden Street, thankfully narrowly avoiding the neighbouring City Farm, hence its donkeys, chicken, sheep and cafe remain in situ.

The Stratford branch of Crossrail joins up here at Stepney Green. I could have walked you this way instead, starting from what used to be Pudding Mill station but is now the concrete ramp down from a yet-to-be-built flyover, but quite frankly the route's not as interesting. It heads beneath the River Lea just north of the Bow Roundabout, ducks under Bow Road by the Post Office, then tracks the c2c railway viaduct round the back of Tower Hamlets Cemetery and passes almost under Mile End Stadium. Maybe some other time.

Now combined, twice as many Crossrail trains will be heading beneath the football pitch at Stepney Green Park, and then the park itself. To keep up, bear off Stepney Green at the clocktower to follow Redmans Road into densely-packed residential territory. A lot of Tower Hamlets off the main drag looks like this, mostly 20th century lowrise flats, but with the occasional unbombed Victorian apartment block for those who fancy something more angular. By now the route is only one street back from the Mile End Road, with a choice of increasingly minor linking passageways for those on foot to follow. As a result, and please forgive me, the next paragraph focuses on everything Time Out would find thrilling about the immediate area.

Lovers of vintage fashion should make a beeline for the amazing East End Thrift Store on Assembly Passage. This repository of classic clothing is concealed up a Whitechapel sidestreet, overlooked except by the hip and those in the know, who exit with bags brimming over with retro bargains their parents used to wear. As a post-retail treat, cross to O'Leary Square and pamper yourself at Rinkoff's. This centenarian Jewish bakery is the spiritual home of the crodough, an impossibly decadent cross between a croissant and a doughnut, and therefore to utterly die for. Check out the tray on the counter and choose between Lemon Drizzle, Peanut Butter and Jam, Salted Caramel and Pistachio or good old plain Custard, and your arteries be damned. If that's not enough, at Dirty Burger across the street you can stuff your face with breakfast bacon and crinkle cut fries, so long as you can keep the tip of your hipster beard out of the Oreo milkshake. Get down here fast before Crossrail opens up the secrets of the full fat East End to all and sundry.

Back in the real world, almost, the new railway crosses the Mile End Road near the William Booth statue, and its newly appointed Catherine Booth counterpart, before clipping the toilets at the back of the Blind Beggar pub. This is the run-up to Whitechapel station, hence the tunnels are now lined up perfectly straight to accommodate the extremely long subterranean platforms. Sainsbury's car park has been landgrabbed by construction work for several years now, with vehicles now parked in a temporary upstairs while engineers drill and drop things down a giant shaft below. Indeed a large part of central E1 is off limits at the moment, including most of Durward Street, making access to the Sports Centre less than ideal.

We're about to reach a significant moment in the development of Crossrail at Whitechapel, as the front entrance to the station is only a week away from being sealed off. Next weekend the entire station will be closed to allow enabling works to take place, and then on Monday 18th a new temporary entrance will open round the back and everyone'll be directed that way for a few years. It'll be an annoying detour for most, but get used to it, because the new Crossrail platforms are all to the north of the existing underground station anyway, indeed further north than all but the very far end of the Overground platforms. You have only seven more days to experience the up-and down-hike from Whitechapel Road, and to ogle the ancient lightbox on the footbridge to the District line. All change, all very much change.

4) Whitechapel to Liverpool Street
(1 mile)

While the District line departs Whitechapel by ducking back beneath the Whitechapel Road, Crossrail is a lot deeper so drives on pretty much due west. It scores an immediate direct hit on Vallance Gardens, an almost square of grass where Tower Hamlets encourages its residents to recreate, and rather more public than the west London equivalent might be. Impressively Crossrail Ltd resisted the temptation to dig the square up - it would have provided a magnificently useful space, not least because there's a rare crossover tunnel between the two bores (which'll allow trains to be terminated and turned at Whitechapel if required).

Up next is Spitalfields, which is a rare treat as daily readers of the Gentle Author will well know. Initially the ambience along Hanbury Street is fairly mundane - it takes a good proportion of its half mile length before achieving full hip kudos status. This eastern end has a 60s tower block and community centre, moving on to 1930s tenements and later flats that look like multi-storey car parks. So completely have the slums been wiped away that it's hard to spot anything especially heritageworthy hereabouts, not unless you count an 0171 fax number on the front of the Al Amin Cash and Carry, in which case there's that.

Things pick up, on my walk at least, because I choose to switch to parallel Princelet Street where Spitalfields proper begins. Crossrail will be passing directly between these two historic streets on its passage, but at such a depth as not to cause issues with some of the more febrile foundations. Princelet Street starts out on the narrow side, and is home to rather a lot of travel agencies that specialise in trips to Asia Minor and flights to Mecca. Bustle spikes somewhat on crossing Brick Lane, where balti staff stand outside imploring you to grab a table even if you're very obviously a table for one, and boutiques attempt to pimp fashionable trinkets to the ubiquitous tourist.

But the real treat is the western end of Princelet Street, a string of tight Queen Anne terraces initially rented out to Huguenots weavers who set up silk weaving studios in the attics. Eventually they became slums and should by rights have been swept away, but forward-thinking conservationists moved in during the 1970s and the area is now a treasured conservation area. Some of the façades shield ultra-modern townhouses behind, while number 19 is the renowned Museum of Immigration and Diversity and looks pretty much as it once did - check rare opening dates for details. Indeed the far end of the street at the junction with Wilkes Street has an authentic shabbiness that resembles a film set... as the house on the corner often is.

Puma Court leads out to Spitalfields Market, or at least the conglomeration of stalls and chain eateries that now passes for the original (Crossrail cuts the corner between Square Pie and the Punchinello Gate). Worse is to come at the London Fruit and Wool Exchange, recently entirely demolished apart from a façade to act as heritage veneer to the office block arising behind (Crossrail passes beneath a gap which used to be The Gun, until it served its final pint last year). If this makes you weep, the subsequent cityscape hasn't quite gone the same way and a comprehensive warren of narrow streets and alleyways survives. It's impossible to do justice to the place in so brief a report, bun Gun Street still boasts a paper bag manufacturer, and Artillery Passage is almost arms-widthly quaint.

Crossrail enters the City of London on Sandys Row, outside The Kings Stores pub (previously singular, now full of craft beer). Across this invisible line buildings suddenly gain a larger footprint, where plots have been merged, demolished and merged again to create office-space-sized blocks. I'd discovered Catherine Wheel Alley before, but never the dog-leg cul-de-sac of New Street with its pubs and restaurants enjoyed almost exclusively by City workers. This leads to the vacuous horrors of Devonshire Square, a "this is not a public right of way" CCTV piazza with covered tables for grazing, and very much the future London's developers would prefer. Don't worry, we're not going there.

We're going to Liverpool Street, the actual street, which joins Bishopsgate where Crossrail swings through. The two tunnel bores spread relatively far apart here, just in time for an actual station. The Westbound misses the Heron Tower to follow St Botolph's Churchyard and New Broad Street, while the eastbound lies much closer to the existing Underground and runs almost directly beneath The Arcade. Weekdays this glass-topped thoroughfare dispenses sushi and styling gel to innumerable office workers, while out of season (if the gates are unlocked) it's somewhere quiet to sleep. Half of Liverpool Street, the actual street, has half vanished beneath a massive Crossrail worksite. One year soon this'll be a tree-lined piazza with a glass-topped escalator descending below, but for now you can peer through windows in the construction wall and look down at a row of giant struts holding the walls of the future concourse apart. Nowhere else in central London is our newest railway quite so plainly displayed.

Crossrail stations are huge, because the trains are two football pitches long, hence Liverpool Street will also have an exit at Moorgate. Between the two lies Finsbury Circus, an oval garden whose bowling green has been kidnapped by construction workers to deliver tons of concrete and other materials down below. It's well ugly, but at least it's only temporary. Some corners of London are being absolutely pummelled by Crossrail, and the immediate vicinity of Moorgate station is one such warzone. Entire blocks have been pulled down to make way for a new station entrance and improved 'public realm', thereby blocking pavements and closing streets and even shutting a Barbican Highwalk. For next time, I think.

5) Moorgate to Holborn
(1½ miles)

When Crossrail opens in late 2018, one thing you're going to have to get used to is the doubled-up stations. Crossrail platforms will be twice as long as is usual on the tube, so add an escalator at each end they can reach out and connect to two consecutive existing stations. Specifically this'll be the case along the northern edge of the City where consecutive Circle line stations lie only 500m apart, so four stations will become two on Crossrail, with Moorgate a second exit from Liverpool Street and Barbican a second exit from Farringdon. Some mighty long subterranean treks are going to become de rigeur, and it's going to become more important to be sitting at the time-efficient end of the train.

On my Crossrail walk I'd just reached Moorgate after a ground level trek through and round Finsbury Circus, which is the extended Liverpool Street conglomerate dealt with. From here I need to continue to Barbican-stroke-Farringdon, which should simply mean crossing the Barbican estate, except that's not as straightforward as it sounds. Yes, we all know the maze of passages can be difficult to follow, but in this case it's become impossible as Crossrail works have sealed off the Moorfields Highwalk. A peculiar escalator used to ascend to the left of the station entrance, but this is being demolished along with the Metropolitan line ticket hall to make way for the 21 Moorfields office development, hence a pedestrian diversion is required. Alas maps outside the station show a longer than necessary diversion because they're only allowed to show public rights of way, and the piazza at City Point (which is the obvious shortcut) is a privatised space with technically limited access rights. I told you this sort of stuff was important.

On the other side of the block, across Moor Lane, a staircase eventually leads up to podium level. It's not the usual entrance to this concrete cathedral, but that's no bad thing, and the elevated panorama is all lengthy grey lines. The inaccessible building opposite retains a very 60s façade with sculpted motif, but sticky-tape crosses in the windows suggest full-on demolition can't be far off. Crossrail passes directly underneath, then runs slap bang through the centre of the postwar development. If you know the Barbican you'll know the half-tubular waterfall at the far end of the lake - the westbound tunnel passes directly beneath, before heading under the Gilbert Bridge and across the front of the Lakeside Terrace. But it turns out this is nothing especially special, the Circle line goes almost exactly the same way (only higher up), and is a more direct hit on the row of fountain wells along the waterside.

Heading down from the highwalk, the existing entrance to Barbican station won't be changing much. Instead the Crossrail connection is being made at the far end of the platforms, down by the signal box, where a considerable building site is apparent. It's even more apparent from Smithfield where an entire block at the far end of the meat market has been completely demolished. The worksite's shield of barriers has been brightened up with Barbican posters and a repeating pattern that's supposed to look like a hedge but is two shades too light, but this can't conceal the lofty crane and gaping hole behind. It seems somehow wrong that this carnivorous corner, silent for so much of the week, will soon be disgorging thousands into the Charterhouse environs, but most will probably find themselves at the other exit from Farringdon instead.

To get there requires passing top nightclub venues, indeed the westbound tunnel is already complete beneath Fluid and Fabric. The walk also includes the entire length of Cowcross Street - that's how long the station is - to arrive at what appears to be the very first completed Crossrail station. Farringdon's modern portal resembles an out-of-town warehouse or aircraft hangar, its cavernous interior seemingly devoid of human-scale features, and presents a stark contrast to the Metropolitan Railway's ornate 1863 original opposite. I know which I prefer. But no, this is merely the Thameslink entrance, because Crossrail will be getting a concourse of its own beneath the bland five-storey office block that's yet to be built in the huge gap at the end of the street.

We'll press on, to cross Farringdon Road which you can see, and the River Fleet and the boundary with Camden which you can't. The diamond district of Hatton Garden lies ahead, and then the street market at Leather Lane which I've never yet seen in action, and whose dowdy canvas is covering only empty tiles when I walk through. The subsequent 'square' at Brookes Market is unfamiliar to me, a peculiar paved rectangle sprouting trees, benches and litter bins and surrounded by a motley collection of residences, including a hostel that used to be a refuge that used to be a convent. Some quite ordinary people still live this close to the heart of London, in what were once less desirable quarters and have yet to be hollowed out.

Gray's Inn is very much a sealed legal quarter, with high walls, barriers and arcane access arrangements, so I have to make a lengthy ground level detour here. I pick up the line of the railway again on Princeton Street, home to the excellent Novelty Automation and the workaday Beck's Cafe. You might be more familiar with Red Lion Square, where Crossrail clips the corner by Bertrand Russell, and below which another crossover will allow passage from one bore of the tunnel to the other. It's been a while since any engineering works have burst through to the surface, so it's no surprise to see familiar hoardings crammed inbetween buildings behind Southampton Row. Two minor streets have been blocked off to squeeze a crane (and a deep shaft) into the demolished space, as yet another random London location succumbs to the cross-capital railway.

6) Holborn to Bond Street
(1½ miles)

Despite scoring an almost direct hit on Holborn station, there'll be no interchange here. It wouldn't do for an express railway to stop too often, and there isn't the money to keep knocking down lots of existing buildings to make way for additional access, so Midtown will essentially be skipped when the purple line comes to town. A peculiarity of the route ahead is that the two tunnels follow quite disparate paths, the horizontal distance between them widening from about 10m to more like 100m as Seven Dials approaches. What's driving them apart isn't immediately clear, it might be geology or some other underground obstruction, but an oddly disjoint half mile awaits. Were I following the eastbound tunnel it'd be a fairly straightforward run along High Holborn from the pancake place to St Giles, but I'm following the westbound and that means heading further south into Covent Garden.

It's tempting to stop for a beer at the Princess Louise, less so the Hoxton Holborn hotel, before heading round the back of both. Some fairly narrow streets remain off the main drag, and even a bona fide primary school plus what used to be the City Lit. We cross Drury Lane approximately precisely where the very first Sainsbury's used to be, then follow Shorts Gardens to a perennial fish and chip favourite of every London listings medium, the Rock and Sole Plaice. Crossrail's tunnels are at their maximum distance apart at this point, namely a considerable portion of Endell Street. Despite being so close to the tourist throng not many visitors reach these parts, whereas neighbouring Neal Street is heaving with them, no doubt tracking down some hip pair of trainers or organic juice... or cheese, with the dogleg back alley of Neal's Yard also directly on the line of travel.

Neither do many people realise there's a pocket park behind Shaftesbury Avenue, essentially the churchyard of St Giles Church, including a corral of playground equipment which might cheer up any stroppy toddler who's just been dragged round the West End shops. This whole area used to be a maze of squalor, the infamous St Giles, where in the 18th century poverty, gin and crime ruled. Echoes of the original street pattern remain, but entire blocks are being merged and replaced by shiny glass as the developers move in, and Crossrail is the catalyst driving the whirlwind. For a start it knocked down the entire block from the Astoria to Oxford Street, of which we have already spoken, and now it's moving in on Denmark Street. Tin Pan Alley's musical heritage is to be swept away by something more appropriate to a location 20 yards from Crossrail's central node, and the neighbouring streetscape ought to be nervous.

Here's a peculiar fact for you. Even though the newly expanded Tottenham Court Road station covers a considerable area at ground level, at no point does the westbound Crossrail tunnel pass directly underneath. Instead it runs beneath the junction of Charing Cross Road and Denmark Street and heads under the first row of undemolished shops, from Starbucks and Superdrug down to the bookshop on the corner. Less unsurprisingly it continues towards Soho Square, which is one day destined to be the crossing point of Crossrail 1 and Crossrail 2. You might recall a lot of construction work here, especially in the roadway around the perimeter, but that's all now been cleared away and the square is once again resplendent in its muddy churned-up pigeon-infested winter finery.

The other exit from TCR station will be in Dean Street, an unfortunate thoroughfare that's been blocked by Crossrail construction for almost longer than any other. Livelihoods have been replaced by a hole, eventually an egress for shoppers onto Oxford Street, because somebody in the planning office at the point of design suggested this was the point of least resistance. The worksite has been damned useful for the deployment of trucks and the pouring of concrete, but it's been a more than challenging few years for the restaurant, betting shop and supermarket hemmed in up the side, which if they can hold out can at least expect a footfall windfall later. The westbound tunnel again won't pass beneath the ground level building, but it is swinging back in now, and by Noel Street is back pretty much alongside the eastbound.

We've reached proper Soho now, a warren of small-scale businesses, courts and mews, where an age-old pub might rub up alongside an upstart concept restaurant with queues down the street. Wardour, Berwick and Poland bring us to Great Marlborough Street, which (with its Great lopped off) is that orange property in Monopoly whose location you can never place. So you now know, it's one back from Oxford Street, joining the Palladium to Liberty, running directly above Crossrail its entire length, and where rents now cost considerably more than £14. Which brings us to Regent Street and the West End proper, which is crossed in the narrow stretch between what used to be Dickins & Jones and what is now the Apple Store. Watch out for the bloke in the oversized hat plugging the legendary Golf Sale, which is still going strong up a sidestreet but which will (so a notice in the window says) be relocating nearer to Marylebone on some unspecified date.

The obvious place for Crossrail to dig its next station was always going to be Hanover Square. This is a rare expanse of open ground in the property jungle of Mayfair, hence nowhere near as controversial as despoiling, say, Grosvenor Square with the American Embassy looking on. Even so nobody's dared to dig up the grassy quadrangle itself, whose benches, palm trees and flowerbeds survive, while traffic is long extinguished from two sides of the square and one of the feeder streets. This spanner-shaped worksite has engulfed all the buildings along one side of Tenterden Street, and stretches to within one shop's-length of New Bond Street, not that the luxury clientèle there will have noticed. There's precedent for the Georgian buildings hereabouts to replaced by something considerably more modern, but the oversized creation destined for Bond Street station's eastern gatehouse resembles a giant silicon chip with a grey blancmange on top, only far less attractive than you just imagined.

Bond Street station's western exit will be rather further from New Bond Street but considerably closer to the existing Bond Street station. This time precisely one block of cityscape has been eliminated, immediately behind the West One Shopping Centre, and barriers have slimmed three of the surrounding streets to narrow passageways. This is the Davies Street construction site, located in an unexpectedly residential area on the northern edge of the Grosvenor Estate. What homeowners must have thought when their neighbours were replaced by a hole and then a crane must have been unprintable, let alone the sight of the concrete lift shaft now rising high to claim thousands of square feet of sky. You should take a look back here after you've been round Selfridges sometime, indeed you'll probably be doing just that in three years' time, bright yellow carrier bags dangling, to head home to wherever you can afford to live by then.

7) Bond Street to Paddington
(1½ miles)

If you've never walked one or two streets back from Oxford Street on the Mayfair side, it's really interesting. A densely-packed grid of streets conceals a myriad of well-to-do townhouses mixed in with small shops and restaurants, plus the odd church and the occasional well-targeted business. You have to be doing well to exist back here, and developmental pressure remains great. The next block past Crossrail's demolition/building site has hoardings up around the ground floor, and signs above the door that still say United Dairies but can't be long for this world. Straight ahead is the most upmarket electricity substation you'll ever see, installed in 1905 on top of the entire length of Brown Hart Gardens. Housed inside a Portland stone shell with Baroque pavilions at either end, the upper terrace is laid out with planters as a public garden and is accessed via some extremely precipitous steps. If you've been out to see Lumiere London you'll likely have visited, it's where the neon birdboxes are, plus there's a swish cafe to entertain the impeccably turned-out on more normal days.

At the far end of the square looms the Art Deco Beaumont Hotel, a model of overnight luxury with a uncharacteristically modern sculpture attached to the exterior three floors up. This is Anthony Gormley's ROOM, which from outside looks like a giant robot standing sentinel, but which inside houses an austere double bed and nothing else, the entire suite yours for only £1575 a night. Crossrail heads beneath the service road to the left of the hotel, where staff from an adjacent hotel pop out for a crafty fag, before crossing bistro-heavy North Audley Street. And then to Lees Place, a street I'd never walked before, indeed its residents would rather I never did. This double dogleg enclave is lined by a motley architectural assortment of narrow four-storey townhouses, behind whose walls no doubt some of the most expensive property in London glistens. The occasional large black motor with personalised numberplates whirrs by, while a group of builders stands around on a break from some mega-refit inside.

At the end of the next mews, a showroom for exotic high performance supercars confirms we must have reached Park Lane. Those on foot are slightly less well catered for than those on wheels, hence crossing the dual carriageway here requires a bit of a detour. On the far side is Hyde Park, specifically the northeast corner closest to Speaker's Corner, Speakers' Corner (the cafe) and Marble Arch. Crossrail burrows beneath the subterranean car park, then onwards beneath a full half mile of grass. As one of Central London's largest open spaces there would have been loads of room here to build a shaft or fence off a large construction site, but the Royal Parks have rather more power than the average landowner and no such project despoils their land.

I made the mistake of attempting to follow the line of the railway, which might have been fine in the summer but at this time of year meant squelching across almost-mud for no particularly good reason. This part of the park is sort-of woody and almost undulating, but otherwise essentially featureless, hence isn't normally on the visitor trail. However I visited over New Year when Winter Wonderland was still in effect, hence the area was rather busier than usual with punters heading for the ferris wheel and fantasy village on the horizon. There were plenty of joggers too, a sure sign of festive excess, several of whom paused for breath to watch a mounted policeman exercising his steed on a rope in a sandy paddock. And there were also plenty of cars along North Carriage Drive, currently a leafy cut-through for taxi drivers and other alert souls, but whose westbound lane is scheduled to be replaced by part of the East-West Cycle superhighway.

Crossrail exits the park just before the Victoria Gate, sweeping round to ensure it's on perfect alignment for the platforms at Paddington. It clips the western end of Hyde Park Gardens, a posh terrace for residents who like having diplomats for neighbours before scoring a direct hit on Sussex Square. This off-grid retreat is surrounded by peculiarly modern flats, at least compared to the age of all the buildings we've passed thus far, and harbours a spacious circular garden at its centre (key holders only, music and dogs strictly prohibited, no unaccompanied children at any time). The next street, Sussex Gardens, is entirely fenced off while two Victorian water mains are replaced, a consequence of Crossrail's tunnelling machines passes underneath in 2012. A large information poster explains to residents how Slip Lining works, and why Continuous is better than Segmental, but not when they're going to get their road back.

Spring Street is a broad thoroughfare lined by restaurants, dry cleaners and estate agents (don't even ask), and a last residential hurrah before we reach Paddington proper. Crossrail's platforms will run parallel to those in the existing mainline station, but slightly further to the west and below ground level, directly underneath the line of Eastbourne Terrace. Major works have been underway here for years, starting with the relocation of the taxi rank, and now with through access for buses and construction vehicles only. A long thin strip immediately adjacent to the entire western side of the station has become a trench filled with hardhats, cranes and cement silos, with signs plastered along the side exhorting the fabulousness of the project and that All Harm Is Preventable. Eventually this chasm will be covered by a glass canopy and filled with deep escalators, public art and a train-length concourse. For now, however, it's a mess and you'll just have to dream on.

I'm ending my walk right here, because it's been knackering, although by rights I should have continued for another kilometre to where the trains emerge. That'll be at the Royal Oak Portal, squashed up against the Westway, close to the point where the Hammersmith & City line ducks below the mainline railway. But I did stumble on a bit further, crossing the bridge at Westbourne Terrace to see if I could see anything from up there. No way, the pavement's on the wrong side of this Manahattan-esque span. But I did brave the traffic pouring off the Westway sliproad to cross to the nomansland on the northern bank (don't try this at any busier time of year) and peer down. A squadron of yellow diggers was lined up immediately above the emerging railway, now a storage space, while half a dozen workmen pondered their next move. The first Crossrail trains will thunder beneath in May 2018, as the project that seemingly never ends finally draws to a close. Until then, why not walk it instead?

» I took 120 photos altogether [slideshow]
» Photos from... part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7

» Proper geographical map on the Crossrail website
» Approximate Google map of route below central London
» ...or follow along on Open Street Map

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