Thursday, August 01, 2013
DISTRICT: Down the line
It's time to take an end-to-end journey on the District line. From Upminster as far as you can go, which would be Richmond (fractionally ahead of Ealing Broadway, fractionally ahead of Wimbledon). That's a journey of 27 miles in approximately an hour and a half.
For those of you who've never been, Upminster is the furthest east you can travel by train within London. It's a long way from Central London, which is why most passengers starting their journeys here give the District line a wide berth. They accumulate in large numbers on the c2c platform and wait for the fast train to Fenchurch Street - there'll be none of that slow bumbling on the Underground for them. The far end of the platform is crossed by a quiet footbridge, used by District line drivers heading off shift, and site of the station's secret Next Train Indicator. It's an old lightbox, silently announcing the platform of the "First Westbound Train" by illuminating a single digit, 5, 4 or 3. There's no indication of destination, because nobody this far out's going anywhere near as far as Earl's Court, let alone beyond. But I am, from the roundel-less platform below. Let's go.
Upminster Bridge is one of the least busy stations on the Underground, and the last you could describe as attractive for several stations to come. The platforms have splendidly chunky curved red benches, and of course there's that swastika tiled on the floor of the ticket hall, not that you can see it from the train. By Hornchurch there are only two of us in the carriage, me at one end and another bloke at the other, so it's a surprise when a man with a labrador boards and sits down immediately opposite me. He settles but his dog doesn't, pacing and turning in the confined space as far as his lead will go. I'm not the sort who'll lean down with a smile and go "oooh, sweet doggy, lovely doggy", so I try hard to ignore the invasion, which works for at least thirty seconds. Suddenly there's a damp muzzle on my knee as the labrador attempts to make my acquaintance, which is the very last thing I want and my body language announces so. The owner correctly interprets the situation, then surprises me by wandering to the other end of the carriage to sit with the other bloke, then at Elm Park alights.
It's a long way to the next station as the District line cuts between estates, then across open heathland and the River Beam at The Chase Nature Reserve. Behind a whopping green fence a group of unflustered horses mopes around beside a dusty pond, then a lone footbridge carries nobody in particular from one side of the country park to the other. The fence used to support signs warning local vandals that a helicopter was watching their trespassing antics from above, but the signs have gone now so I assume the surveillance has ceased too. At Dagenham East a particularly rotund footballer boards and squeezes into one of the single seats, then at Dagenham Heathway we're invaded by a bloke who's just bought a large fishing net. It's getting busier now in my mid-train carriage, but things are rather more packed at the rear of the train. By some quirk of design, this stretch of the District line has eight consecutive stations where the entrance to the platform is at the very far east end, many of them reached down a long sloping ramp from the road above.
Becontree is another of the eight, and another station where the platforms are massively longer than they need to be. That made sense when mainline British Rail trains stopped here, but now the far ends (and two entire adjacent platforms) lie fenced off and overgrown. On we travel between pebbledash terraced cottages and brief back gardens to Upney, a station which has seen better days. The turquoise paint is peeling, the benches look worn, and nobody's been round to give the pillars a brush-up for many a year. Coming up shortly on the right is the Hammersmith & City line depot and then things get complicated, with tracks dipping down and under and round to end up at the correct platform at Barking. This is another major interchange, where those seeking faster trains nip off and those needing to travel locally local hop on. We're full now, every seat taken, as the driver weaves his way across a flyover and around the c2c depot, across the River Roding and into Newham.
East Ham is a lovely old station, mostly. Some glorious ironwork from the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway remains, if you glance up into the wooden canopy, predating the birth of the London Underground by five years. Here too a lightbox Next Train Indicator survives, somehow, and there's a charming "Tea 2D Per Cup" advert painted at the top of a brick pillar. A shame then, that back in 2005 Metronet slapped a vinyl wall along the edge of the westbound platform, both here and (even uglier) and Upton Park. This is the nearest station to West Ham football ground and will be for three more seasons, after which Saturdays will get quieter and the local police can breath a sigh of relief. Plaistow sees a return to prettiness, again with Victorian ironwork and this time with a clear view through to any Southend trains rushing by. They stop for real at West Ham, a station with modern exposed island platforms. One or two magenta "Olympic Park" signs survive, but the temporary 2012 footbridge is long gone.
After miles through mostly housing, the Lea Valley brings scenic respite. The line cuts through a rare swathe of undeveloped land, then past a clump of gasholders and the glories of Three Mills. Tall cranes are busy turning the site of the first Big Brother house into a sewage tunnel, and alongside is the white elephant lock built for the Olympics that almost no boats ever use. I've been travelling for half an hour now as my train pulls into Walford East, sorry, Bromley-by-Bow. Staff here have been busy beautifying their station with bunting and flowers, plus a gothic golden "150" painted onto certain roundels to celebrate the Underground's sesquicentenary. Good luck in the annual Underground in Bloom competition, folks. Beyond is the last decent view for a bit (the towers of Canary Wharf) before the train whistles and we descend to street level at Bow Road. My local is a rare half-open, half-underground station, propped up by a series of fluted columns as it tucks in beneath the A11.
And then to the station half those aboard have been waiting for, that's Mile End, where the hordes storm off to enter a Central line train waiting patiently on the adjacent platform. The drivers don't normally wait, not any more, so my journey today must be blessed. Stepney Green's platforms are in gloomy contrast to what's gone before, the East End hidden now that the line's properly subterranean. There's a brief open-air gap at Whitechapel, long enough for those with urgent phone calls to start up a conversation they'll never finish. A crane now rises here as part of the long-term remodelling of the station for Crossrail, with the central tracks long since closed in preparation for the creation of a mega-wide District line platform. Expect much greater awkwardness when the front entrance closes for an extended period early next year.
Aldgate East is the last station shared with the Hammersmith & City, so some souls troop off here to wait for the infrequent service round the bend. Those who stay with the District catch sight of the end of the Metropolitan line at Aldgate before rumbling into Tower Hill, where the character of the line instantly changes. Up until now it's been mostly Londoners aboard, but now the tourists pile in because "Tower of London" is always on their shortlist. They mill at the foot of the staircase, they dash for the remaining seats in the carriage, and some even work out that the train waiting on the adjacent platform isn't going to be the next one out and so they should switch trains sharpish. And at Monument that's 21 stations down, and still 21 to go.
Cannon Street station is closed. Or it was when I passed through. The driver crept through at the regulation 5mph, before speeding up a bit once his cab was in the tunnel, which I suspect isn't entirely within the rules. Cannon Street is the only station left on the Underground network that closes on Sundays... as well as after 7.30pm on Saturdays and after 9pm on weekdays. There is good reason for this. Southeastern rail services from Cannon Street close down outside those times, almost to the minute, and anyone who really wants to get here can walk the short distance from Monument or Mansion House instead. The latter station isn't exactly busy either, not outside the City's working hours, and yet your train will often linger here for an extra minute... isn't there a kitchen or a toilet or something at the front end of the platform into which the driver can nip for swift relief?
Blackfriars is the odd station out along this southern edge of the Circle, entirely rebuilt in the 21st century so brighter and cleaner and shinier than everywhere we've just been through or are just about to go. Whereas Temple is proper old school, and pleasingly simple. Two platforms facing each other across a gentle curve not far beneath the Embankment, almost how stations are in Paris, although the pillars supporting the ceiling have a defiantly Victorian English flair. It's at this point that the bloke who's been sitting next to me since Whitechapel finally looks down to try to work out what the hell I'm writing. Obviously I take notes on trips like this, I'd never remember all the minutiae otherwise, but I do scrawl sufficiently that my writing is deliberately barely legible. I consider jotting down the phrase "the bloke sitting next to me is looking at what I'm writing" but decide against, that is until he stands up and goes to sit in another seat... was it something I said?
I've never understood how Embankment can support quite so many newsagent/sweetie kiosks on the District line platforms - two on the eastbound and another two on the westbound. Is it that the station happened to be built with these tiny rooms in the walls, or is there an innate need for Mars Bars and copies of Private Eye in this particular location? The train gets more touristy at Westminster, its dark silver walls in complete modern contrast to St James's Park - the next stop down the line. As the station beneath TfL HQ you'd expect it to look special, and there's a 30s timewarp quality that almost makes you expect a man in a greatcoat and bowler hat to walk down the steps with a pipe at any minute. But the WHSmith kiosk here closed long ago... perhaps Embankment's Kit Kat sellers put it out of business.
Victoria is the busiest station on the line, and so it proves. A throng of people line the platform, some of whom stand back and wait for a Circle line train while others charge aboard. My section of carriage is targeted by a Polish family on tour, six-strong, each member lugging a suitcase and a substantial item of hand luggage. There should be space for their belongings in the flip-up space, but the current occupant just stares into his phone and refuses to budge. Instead the family plonk down all around me, chatting loudly as if I don't exist. By Sloane Square the eldest teenager has plugged into some soft rock number and is playing air guitar. By South Kensington his brother has unwrapped some tinfoil and is stuffing his face with a cooked meat sandwich. And at Gloucester Road a Japanese family joins them, forcing the displacement of a 'Power Metal' rucksack. I think I preferred the labrador.
The next stop is the hub of the line, that's Earl's Court, where District line trains run in a record-breaking five directions. A Wimbleware is stationed in the platform alongside (heading towards Wimble', rather than 'ware, as the heritage arrowed indicator above makes clear). We're now properly out in the open air again, and staying that way to the end of the line. The train halts at West Kensington for some considerable time, but the driver doesn't play the "We are being held at a red signal" announcement - you don't hear that so often any more, do you? If I were heading to Heathrow I'd alight at Barons Court - the platform's narrower and the benches much finer - but my Polish colleagues choose Hammersmith. That 'Power Metal' rucksack nearly swipes me on the head as its owner stands, and the family are still dragging gymbags off the trains as the door slides shut.
We're on the slow tracks now. Piccadilly line trains take the express route along the viaduct to Acton Town, but the District line stops at all the stations, much to the relief of residents in the general Chiswick area. Ravenscourt Park is the first of a trio on the elevated viaduct, with fresh tubs, smart niched benches and a gabled canopy. Stamford Brook is very similar, except one of the canopies is designed from a flat slab of concrete, and there are no platforms in the centre of the station where regular Heathrow-bound trains speed through. Canopy design reverts to all-wood at Turnham Green, where some of the roundels announce "For Bedford Park" as an admission that this isn't the closest station to Turnham Green, that'd be Chiswick Park, and there isn't a park called that, and we're not going there either. Instead the train veers off down a curve past the nature reserve onto the final branch line.
If there were a competition for London's ugliest Underground station, Gunnersbury would make the shortlist. A bleak platform sits in a canyon alongside a zigzag concrete car park, with an entirely uninspiring 60s tower block looming at one end. To be fair this isn't a TfL station, it's owned by Network Rail, a legacy of the Overground line that also runs through to Richmond. Things then improve, sharply, with a bridge across the Thames and a fine fluvial panorama, for anyone who chooses to look up from their phone. The tide's out, and I spot much beer being quaffed at The City Barge. There's another pub on the platform at Kew Gardens - I think that's unique on the tube network - plus a set of semi-tropical tubs as a nod to the nearby botanical gardens. And that's almost it, bar a slow crawl past the backs of gardens and buddleia into the platforms at Richmond station. The crowd that pours off is very different to the East London demographic that filled the carriages an hour back down the line. But the District's egalitarian like that, and you never know who's been sitting in your seat earlier in the journey... unless you sit in it all the way.
DISTRICT: Next Generation
Something amazing has happened at Bromley-by-Bow station this week. A Next Train Indicator has appeared in the ticket hall. It's like the 21st century has suddenly arrived.
Whole sections of the Underground are entirely Next Train Indicator free. Head east of Barking and there's not a clue what's on its way. Stand anywhere between Uxbridge and Rayners Lane and no useful destination or time will ever flash up before you. Between Paddington and Hammersmith they have to announce the next trains over the loudspeakers because there's nothing to see. My local section of the District line isn't quite that bad, we do have signs that indicate the next train's destination, sometimes even with a minute's notice. But there's no indication of how far away the train is, nor what might be following behind. So awful is the signalling through E3 that at Bow Road even TfL's Departure board webpage can't cope, it's always blank - "There are currently no details for this platform."
So it's a complete surprise to see this little beauty popping up in my part of town. Bromley-by-Bow's platform still has its job-lot dot matrix indicator, but the ticket hall just got a swish electronic screen. Down below we get one next train and where it's heading, but up top we can see the next four trains in each direction AND how long until they get here AND where they are now. It's a quantum leap in terms of display technology, and probably leapfrogs whatever you might have in the ticket hall at your local station.
Westbound - Platform 1 1. Wimbledon
- 2. Richmond
Between West Ham and Bromley-by-Bow
1 min 3. Richmond
At Plaistow platform 1
6 mins 4. Hammersmith
Between East Ham and Plaistow
It shouldn't be rocket science, this sort of thing. TfL know where all their trains are at any given time, obviously, and network technology should allow this information to be sent wherever it's required. Indeed there are already apps that can do this "lots of next trains and where they are now" stuff with panache, so it's not surprising the same detail now appears in public display.
Admittedly the screen is relatively small. You should be able read the bigger yellow letters as you stride into Bromley-by-Bow station, assuming your eyesight's good, but the white text would be entirely illegible unless you get up really close. Something about the location of the display close to the ticket office makes me think the intended target audience is a member of station staff, not passing members of the public. Indeed, health and safety usually prevents TfL from announcing to passengers that a particular train is "In platform" in case they might dash to catch it and trip on the stairs and injure themselves.
Whatever, rejoice. After years of being told almost nothing, we local travellers now know that the next service to Hammersmith's the fourth train, arriving in seven minutes, which is excellent to know. And this is no one-off. I've seen an identical screen at Chiswick Park, again on the District line, again near the ticket window where the station supervisor stands. This level of information could easily be rolled out to a station near you, maybe, if the budget and the intention are there. The Next Generation Next Train Indicator, coming soon?
DISTRICT: Gunnersbury Triangle
You'll not spot in on the tube map, because the tube map doesn't do shapes. But there's a near-equilateral triangle of railway lines near Gunnersbury, whose sides comprise two branches of the District line and a bit of the Overground. It's quite a big triangle, encompassing six acres all told, packed full of one of London's more unusual nature reserves. You can see it from the train, if you know what you're looking out for and where. But you don't enter from the Gunnersbury end, because that would be too obvious.
The way into the Gunnersbury Triangle nature reserve is very close to Chiswick Park station. A short distance along Bollo Road (named after a lost river, no less) is a gap in the wall and you just wander in. This is the volunteer hub of the operation, with a hut to boil a kettle, and presumably somewhere to entertain school groups. A group of lovely ladies were busy maintaining stuff when I arrived, offering a smile rather than an officious welcome. Head down the slope, and round the corner and you're in. This is the eastern tip of the triangle, and the one point where the main path runs right up alongside the railway. This is the District line round to Richmond, as the tracks descend from the viaduct after Turnham Green, where a big sign announces the presence of the reserve to all who care to look. It's easier to read in winter, I'd expect, and the fox on the logo looks a little pinker now than the brown I suspect he started out.
If you've picked up a leaflet, or if you can follow the posts in the ground, a Triangle Trail leads you round the site. Don't worry otherwise, most of the points of interest are labelled, from the silver birches in the introductory woodland to the insect-friendly towerblock habitat made from five stacked pallets. Things get a little willowier by the frog pond, which is pretty but nothing extensive, and susceptible to drying out during periods of summer drought. Lift a stump to spot a stag beetle, signs urge, which is just one of the child-friendly activities if you have a toddler who likes urban jungle.
In the southwesternmost part of the triangle is a clearing created by coppicing, on the face of it less interesting than the preceding woodland, but a different kind of space more suited to wild flowers, caterpillars and other creatures. Straight ahead is the farthest corner of the site, not immediately accessible by path but not entirely overgrown by undergrowth either. This is the point where District meets Overground, and it feels a little odd to be on the inside of the tracks for once. There's a much clearer view of the yellow trains from a mound further north, once an abutment on which a bridge into the site rested, now accessed via a recently repaired wooden staircase. Close by is the reserve's largest pond, created on the site of a former gravel working, and currently the prettiest location on site. Purple loosestrife blooms above the boardwalk, and a variety of insects skim across the waterline.
In the northwest corner is an extensive area of meadow, mostly fenced off to prevent incursion by humans, which I scanned in vain for green woodpeckers and voles. The path then bends round to follow the third side of the triangle, a dusty track which has an unexpected history. This used to be a railway line, a link on the London & South Western allowing passage from South Acton to Hammersmith. But the Acton Curve closed in 1965, long enough ago to have almost completely vanished, but just late enough for it to form the precise boundary between the boroughs of Ealing and Hounslow. The acidic soil provides yet another different habitat for nature to colonise, from butterflies to oak saplings, as further signs along the path make clear.
Immediately to the north, on what used to be industrial land, a mixed use development has recently encroached. These flats could look a lot worse, but it's still a bit of a jolt to see them up close to what's otherwise a green and rural sanctuary. Equally it's rarely quiet here, as trains rattle by on all sides with consummate regularity. You'll not see most of them, the woodland's thick enough, plus the one remaining railway line to the north is some distance away on the other side of Bollo Lane. Whatever, this is a site to treasure, and hopefully Gunnersbury's green triangle will hold further encroachment at bay for many years to come.
Meanwhile I can't leave the area without waxing a bit lyrical about Chiswick Park station. This opened in 1879, but was substantially rebuilt in the early 1930s when the Piccadilly line pushed through. The District line platforms were set back to allow the passage of two non-stop tracks down the middle, and it's a long way across from one to the other. Passengers wait beneath cantilevered concrete canopies, possibly finding space for a sit down inside a narrow glass shelter. It's a bit bleak, or else it's entirely charming, depending on your point of view. But surely everybody loves the main station building, one of Charles Holden's finest, with its double-height brick drum somewhat reminiscent of Arnos Grove. The curvature is offset by a stout tower topped off by a roundel, rising high enough to announce the existence of the station to those on Chiswick High Road. I'm convinced it's impossible to take a decent sunlit photo of the station from the other side of the mini roundabout without getting at least one car, parked-up bike or loitering pedestrian in shot, but maybe I just haven't hung around for long enough yet. I haven't hung around for too long inside the ticket hall either, because there's only so long you can pretend to be interested in the windows at the hairdressers or the dry cleaners before station staff get suspicious. But the space is gorgeous, an unexpected horseshoe with a gold-lit roof. One arm being a complete dead end is the only clue that Holden didn't built it this way, the central ticket office is a slightly more modern addition, but thankfully a sympathetic one. A little further on are a pair of cream-enamelled heritage signs dating back to the 1930s announcing the major stations in each direction. The Westbound remains unsullied but a plaque below the Eastbound warns passengers that this sign has been retained for heritage reasons and "Mark Lane station is now called Tower Hill". Not that this has stopped some employee at some point in the station's history from slapping a "Tower Hill" nameplate over the top of "Mark Lane", in not quite the right sized font and slightly indented, to destroy the illusion. But the rest of Holden's vision at Chiswick Park stands as testament to his architectural imagination. And at least it isn't Gunnersbury.
The London Loop [section 22]
Harold Wood to Upminster Bridge (4½ miles)
This is an easy stroll, with some interesting bits (and some less interesting road-walking). Section 22 runs through one of London's least known corners, the "beyond Romford" bit of Havering. It follows the Ingrebourne Valley, or tries to, because sightings of the river are alas infrequent. And it ends up at the least busy station on the District line, which is why I'm walking it this month. [map]
In a few years Harold Wood is going to be the last Crossrail station inside London heading east. For now it's rather quieter - just three of us alighted on Sunday afternoon, emerging onto the delightfully-named Gubbins Lane. The Loop heads into a quiet estate, past a self-service supermarket oddly titled "Bargain Booze", and a bevy of auto services outlets. Archibald Road is a one-sided gravel drive facing out across some allotments - the last road in London before the countryside takes over. At the end is the also-delightfully-named Cockabourne Bridge, with the narrow river Ingrebourne flowing beneath. It's quite pretty, in a minimalist reedy way, although you'll only get the chance to peer over if you deviate from the Loop's nearby path.
Harold Wood Park is a pleasant greenspace, bounded by trees, and well used. It's the only park I've ever seen with Oral History Waymarker Boards, where locals recount their memories of playtimes gone by, and also the only park I've ever seen with a specific "Teenage Area". Appropriately-aged sportspeople were all over the place, including a very-official all-girls cricket match, and what looked like a herd of One Direction clones kicking a football about. I passed a Scooby-Doo themed ice cream van dispensing blue-filled cornets to grateful infants, then walked on to cross a footbridge above the Ingrebourne. There's supposed to be a welcome arch here, a St-Louis-shaped curve made from wood and painted in rainbow colours, but that's mysteriously disappeared.
The 'Welcome' is for entry into Pages Wood, the Forestry Commission's largest plantation in these parts. They've been building up patches of woodland over the last decade or so to create Thames Chase, one of the UK's twelve community forests, down the eastern side of the borough of Havering. Pages Wood started out as recently as 2001, and its hundred thousand trees have now sprouted high enough to make the end result sort-of imaginable. For now they grow behind a protective fence, but a network of all-weather paths slink through across the site, ideal (and very safe) for junior cyclists. The air was filled with thistledown, and the low grass brimming with teasels. At one point there's a bench shaped (sort of) like a duck, at another a track leads across the river to an expansive but overlooked meadow. The more I uncover of Thames Chase the more I like it, although it's rarely seemed busy, and I suspect only those fortunate enough to live out this way know of its delights.
Hall Lane should be a total misery to walk along, not least because the Southend Arterial Road cuts through partway down, but somebody official has ensured not. A broad shared footpath and cycleway runs along one side, avoiding all unpleasant sliproad crossings bar one, thanks to what seems to be a Sustrans project to create a safe attractive bike-friendly route all along the Ingrebourne Valley. I was especially intrigued by the view to the west, with farmland down to the river below, then meadows specked with horses, with the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf and the City clearly visible as silhouettes on the horizon. I'd arrived on harvest day, so in one field the combine harvester was at full pelt with clouds of chaff billowing behind, while baling was taking place in another. Although most never seek it out, London truly has its rural fringe.
A red double decker at the next road junction signalled a return to urbanity, this the northern residential edge of Upminster. Close by is the legendary Upminster Tithe Barn Museum of Nostalgia, which I swear I'll visit one day, except it only opens on alternate weekends and I've never yet managed to hit the right one. Close by also is Upminster Court, an Edwardian mansion built for a wealthy industrialist, very recently restored at great expense for use as a corporate HQ, but alas described as "Upmister Court" on the heritage plaque on the gatepost. But the Loop doesn't pass either this or the Tithe Barn, instead plunging down River Drive (which has some quirkily old lampposts with swan neck brackets and sodium lanterns). Squeeze between the posts at the foot of the drive to enter thick descending woodland, the best minute of the entire walk, where the path must double up as a drainage channel in particularly wet weather.
At the foot of the slope, beyond a brief clearing, a footbridge crosses the river. If you've been following the official Loop route this is only the second time you'll have seen the Ingrebourne, and it's also the last, because it's about to disappear inside a golf course. Instead enjoy the walk along the edge of five fields, the first all grass, the second a school playing field, the third a carpet of waving wheat. You'll have to visit quick to see that, because the fourth and fifth have already been harvested so are now rather stalkier. I should have been enjoying the fresh air, except two local old boys had bonfires going, including the bloke with the horse and two goats in his back garden. And apparently I should have turned round at the top of the final slope to spot Upminster Windmill over the rooftops, but I only read that bit of the instructions later, and I'd been distracted at this precise point by 2013's first sighting of blackberry pickers.
That's it for pretty - a narrow litter-strewn alleyway leads the Loop back to suburbia. I stopped at the parade of shops, causing the member of staff standing outside the convenience store to chuck away her cigarette and dash inside, only for me to buy a can of drink that probably cost less than her discarded fag. Wingletye Lane is the sole road hereabouts to cross the single-track railway line between Emerson Park and Upminster, so the Loop has to go this way, and then it's a short trudge to the District line station. This is Upminster Bridge, named after a river crossing on Loop section 23, and one of the few stations on the network where TfL no longer deem it necessary to run a ticket office. The 'ticket hall' is splendidly 1930s, with purple glassbrick skylights, K6 red telephone box and the notorious swastika tiling on the floor. Rest awhile on the unique curved benches on the platform, if you're heading home, or else it's only four miles to continue along the Loop to Rainham, and you'll actually see the river this time.
» London Loop section 22: official map and directions; map
» Who else has walked it? Stephen, Oatsy, Tim, Mark, Tetramesh, Richard
» See also sections 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 12, 15, 17, 20, 23, 24
DISTRICT: The South Acton shuttle
The District's a very branchy sort of line, with trains shuttling off in all sorts of directions. But until 1959 there was another branch line, a stumpy little curve heading less than a mile through Acton. Whatever were they thinking?
There'd not seem to be much call for a train between Acton Town and South Acton. The area's built up, but not excessively so, and who'd genuinely want to get from one to the other? But the first railway line here wasn't for passengers, it was for freight, opened in 1899 with the sensible idea of linking the District to the North London Railway. Passenger services began in 1905, with trains running up from Hounslow through Acton Town and along the spur to South Acton. Here you could change for services down to Richmond or up to Willesden Junction, rather than have to change trains twice round the Gunnersbury Triangle to get to your destination. It wasn't busy.
World War 1 halted services, and when trains restarted they ran only one stop. By now the line had been disconnected from other the services at Acton Town and also reduced to a single track. The trains that shuttled back and forth had only one carriage and no guard - indeed they were the first driver-only operated services on the London Underground. Drivers knew this as the "Tea Run", because it's said they could start a kettle going when they set off from Acton Town and still get back again in time before it boiled. And this charade continued until 28th February 1959, when dwindling passenger numbers finally led to the line's permanent closure.
South Acton station still exists, but now it's only on the Overground. And it's still a very quiet station, with barely half a million passengers a year, because there are all sorts of other Acton stations nearby with better services to more useful places. Trains whirr in from Richmond or Stratford or wherever, and not many people get out and melt away into the surrounding streets. A small canopied building on the northbound platform is the only hints of the station's Victorian history. Indeed, look down from the footbridge spanning the tracks and the platforms and their surroundings look surprisingly modern. That block of flats immediately behind the station in particular, they're a 21st century intrusion, and built over the precise location of the former District line platform. Ah well, nothing to see here.
Two sets of tracks run south from South Acton station, both of which lead immediately to level crossings, which is very rare for nearly-central London. But there used to be three, the third being the spur line we're focusing on today. It's completely vanished, although it would have run through the allotments at the end of Stanley Road, and they're locked - firmly gardeners-only. An old block of flats stands empty alongside awaiting demolition, windows smashed, and a single light fitting dangling bare from each abandoned ceiling. The invisible track continues through an industrial estate, past the site of the former Express creamery and milk bottling plant, although business is more tool hire and auto services around here now.
And then finally, at the junction of Colville Road and Bollo Lane, there's something to see. This spur line didn't have a level crossing, it had a bridge, and the brick abutment survives. One side's straight, the other side's curved, and a single pillar rises up from the top where the tracks once ran. It's a substantial remnant of redundant infrastructure, which I suspect has survived because it stands at the entrance to London Underground's Acton Works, a Tube Lines depot catering for the needs of railway stock. Indeed most of the long strip of land between Bollo Lane and the railway embankment appears to be taken up with train-related offices and workshops, so there's no further visible trace of the South Acton branch line's progress.
Until Acton Town, that is, the station at the end of the line. This has four platforms but it used to have five, and platform 5 is where the runty train from South Acton used to stop. If you look, there's still a footbridge across from ticket hall level, but you can't get across that way any more. Instead the closest you can get is looking across from platform 4, the eastbound District line platform, from which there are clues. A strip of grass by the fence, gradually widening the further along you walk, that's where the old tracks used to run. As for the old platform, that was only short, and now lurks behind the screen of advertising boards near the footbridge. That's now part of Bollo House, the Piccadilly line's western HQ, so you're not going to see it unless you join the crew. And you're never going to travel along this former bit of the District line either, far too much of it's been built over. Should Acton Town to South Acton ever be a connection you need to make, the quickest way's probably to walk.
Are TfL trying to kill off the District line service to Kensington (Olympia)? That's either deliberately, or by default through a policy of passenger neglect. Here's some evidence for the prosecution.
1) On weekdays, only seven District line trains run from Kensington (Olympia) station. Five of these trains depart before 7am, so are essentially useless. Then there's a massive gap until 7.58pm, and the seventh and final train departs at 8.38pm. That's an incredibly passenger-unfriendly service.
2) On weekdays, only two District line trains run to Kensington (Olympia) station. The first of these is at 7.45pm, and the last is at 8.25pm. There are absolutely no trains to Kensington (Olympia) outside this single 40 minute period. That's a beyond-incredibly passenger-unfriendly service. (And OK, there is a reason for this. Earl's Court is such a complex junction that in 2011 TfL chose to withdraw most weekday services to Kensington (Olympia) to improve reliability and services on the other branches, the branches 99% of passengers actually use)
3) At weekends and on bank holidays, trains run to and from Kensington (Olympia) every 20 minutes. That's not a great service, but it's not a bad service all told, if only passengers were advised to use it.
4) An Olympia service also runs (every 30 minutes) for "some Olympia events only". But which Olympia events are these? Nobody's ever willing to tell. If you've been to the Great British Beer Festival this week, yes, there was an Olympia service. If you went to the 50+ Show last month, no there wasn't. There are never any posters to announce that a weekday Olympia service is running, nor any signs at any stations. And there's no information on the TfL website either, not unless you fire up the Journey Planner for your chosen day and see if an Olympia train comes up or not. It would be very very easy to have a webpage announcing which days the service was running, or to stick up a sign in a station somewhere, but TfL choose not to. Any weekday Olympia service is a secret service, discovered by accident, as if TfL would really rather you didn't use it.
5) If you go to the Olympia exhibition centre's website, they don't know whether the District line is running either. You'd think it would be important to them, but no, either they don't know or they're not going to tell you. Indeed, they go out of their way to discourage you from using the District line by placing it sixth on a list of rail lines you might use. Top of the list is the Overground, because that has the station's most frequent service. Second, unbelievably, is the Central line, which gets you to Olympia if you change at Shepherd's Bush for the Overground. Their third suggestion is the Piccadilly line, a 9 minute walk away, followed by the Circle and Hammersmith & City lines, "a 5 minute bus ride or 15 minute walk away". The District line limps in in last place, and even then the website recommends arriving via West Brompton or making an 8 minute walk from West Kensington. The dedicated shuttle appears only as an apologetic afterthought. "There is also an occasional service from Earls Court on weekends, and for some major events. Please check before you travel". Most Olympia exhibitions span the weekend, and at weekends the District line shuttle is one of the very best ways to get here. But nobody says that, nobody admits this is the case, because it seems nobody wants you to arrive this way.
6) If you turn up at Kensington (Olympia) to see if the District line is running there's only one clue - is there a District line train in platform 1 or not. If there is, great, go and sit on it. But if there isn't, is that because the train has departed or because there aren't any trains today? There are no clues on the platform, and the District line service never appears on the station's next train indicators even when it's running.
7) If you turn up at Earl's Court to see if the Kensington (Olympia) service is running there are a few clues. If the next train's going there, an arrow flashes up next to Olympia on the heritage Next Train Indicator board, bingo. If a train's heading there in the next 10 minutes or so, it appears on the smaller modern Next Train Indicator on the platform, hurrah. But if the next train's further away then there's silence. Does that silence mean no train soon, or no trains at all?
8) There is a Kensington (Olympia) timetable poster upstairs at Earl's Court, which you might see on your way in (but you won't see if you're changing trains). This features the normal weekly timetable (ie two trains on weekdays and trains every 20 minutes at weekends). But it doesn't say whether or not the Kensington (Olympia) service is running today if today is a weekday. The only message (in small print) is "Services also run to Kensington (Olympia) during some Olympia weekday events. For details visit tfl.gov.uk/journeyplanner or speak to a member of staff". I'm told that members of staff are often pretty clueless, offering vague, incorrect or conflicting advice. So good luck with that.
9) But there are big signs at Earl's Court to tell you how to get to Kensington (Olympia), hung high above the platforms between the Next Train Indicator arrows. These signs urge you get to Olympia in two steps, first taking a Wimbledon train to West Brompton, then changing there for the Overground. That works on any day of the week, no question. But it also takes at least three times longer, and that's only if you make a perfect connection. It also requires you to trek up and over a footbridge (and another footbridge) and down again at West Brompton, a very step-unfriendly journey. And it may mean cramming aboard an Overground service that's very busy, rather than a simple journey with a definite seat on the District. The big sign at Earl's Court does mention, in small print, that services to Kensington (Olympia) run at weekends and certain other times. But it doesn't recommend you to travel by District line at weekends, indeed it doesn't even mention the District line specifically. Instead a very deliberate choice has been made to promote the two-step Overground option, whatever the day of the week, even on days when the direct route may be better.
10) TfL have never said they want to close the District line spur to Kensington (Olympia). Indeed, closing a station is very difficult and generally requires government approval. But management of the District line would be much easier if the spur to Olympia didn't exist, reducing Earl's Court to a crossroads rather than a five-pointed junction. And TfL are certainly running the service down, with a woefully infrequent timetable and deliberately inadequate information. How long before the gods cast down a final thunderbolt and close the Olympia branch for good?
DISTRICT: Southend Pier
The District line used to run to Southend-on-Sea. No really. From 1910 to 1939 there were seaside specials pulled by steam locomotives, fast from Barking to Leigh-on-Sea, maybe three times a day. Some of them even went to Shoeburyness, but I didn't fancy going there again. Instead I stopped off in Southend to take a ride on a completely different railway, down the longest pleasure pier in the world.
Sir John Betjeman once said that "the Pier is Southend, Southend is the Pier", which is convenient, because almost every tourist article written since has started with these words. The pier owes its existence to something the Southend Tourist Board would rather not mention, which is mud. The Thames is wide and tidal (and sand-free) at this point down the estuary, and the mudflats go out a very long way. Arrive at high tide and you might not guess, but at low tide the sea goes out at least a mile, so a very long pier was required to allow pleasureboats to dock. The first wooden pier opened in 1830, was extended in 1848 and was replaced by iron in 1889. It proved extremely popular with tourists, and with the navy during World War II. More recent years have not been so kind. The pavilion at the far end burnt down in 1959, and another fire destroyed much of the pierhead in 1976. Ten years later a tanker smashed into the pier creating a 70 foot gap, and another fire in 1995 destroyed the bowling alley. Most recently in 2005 the station at the estuary end burnt down, leaving charred wood and twisted rails. Thankfully the pier's structure has been rebuilt each time, not least because access is required for the lifeboat station on the tip, and a new Cultural Centre opened at the far end last summer.
Before venturing onto Southend Pier you need to decide how much you're going to pay. To ride to the end and back on the railway costs £4, to walk £2, whereas walking down and getting the train back (or vice versa) costs £3.50. I did what most visitors do and took the train from the Information Centre on the riverside. The station is a gloomy space beneath the boardwalk, with too few places to sit and a glass screen in front of the platform. There's no sign of a timetable, not unless you asked the lady who sold your ticket, you just hang around for up to 30 minutes (or 15 minutes at peak times) for the next service to leave. And then you bundle aboard, in a polite and dignified way (unless there's a family wanting a carriage to themselves, in which case it's every Essex holidaymaker for themselves). The carriages aren't lovely, to be honest, a bit like two seaside shelters bolted together, but comfortable enough, and suitably weatherproof. I shared mine with two dear ladies who didn't seem too chuffed to have last-minute accompaniment, but then I guess I'd have preferred my trip if they'd not been there either. And the train's called the Sir John Betjeman, delightfully, for obvious reasons, unless you get the other train which is named after Billy Butlin.
The journey out into the estuary takes longer than you'd think, almost ten minutes. There you are in a train heading offshore, at not unreasonable speed, and you keep thinking surely there can't be much further to go. The windows face out so you can't see the end of the pier, only the sea. Or maybe the mud, depending on whether the tide's in or out. I visited sometime inbetween, creating the splendid effect of shallow ripples lapping over swirly seaweed. About halfway out, near the passing loop, is an extensive mudbank that survives the rising of the waves longer than most. I was surprised to see two people wading out into the water, far from the shore, aiming for this 'high ground'. They were thigh deep, and my first thoughts were of wilful negligence, but it swiftly became apparent they were local enough to know precisely what they were doing. Onward the train rolled, and not there yet, and surely soon, and eventually yes.
The end of the pier comes in several stages. First the station platform, with a pleasantly modern glass shelter beneath a segmented canopy - a recent addition. Then a homely cafe, because Southend isn't your typical candy floss and donuts seaside pier. Then some toilets, which are more souped-up portakabins, but needs must. And then there's a larger expanse at the far end, where the grand glass pavilion would once have stood. Its 2012 replacement is The Royal Pavilion, a large steel box with jaunty slopes - part cafe, part performance space. The plan must have been for food and drink to rule by day, then for audiences of up to 200 to enjoy something arty in the evening. And the cafe's doing fine, but the list of confirmed events in the pavilion looks rather sparse (as any economist would have warned had you said you were building an arts centre more than a mile out to sea). At the very end of the pier, dog-legged left, is the two-storey lifeboat station with its rather taller lookout tower. The RNLI are more than pleased to welcome visitors, especially to their shop (Christmas cards now available) which doubles up as a minor museum. Or head upstairs to the final boardwalk, where benches, masts and a medium-sized bell mark the last outpost before Kent.
That's the Isle of Grain over there, where Boris wants to build an airport, and the coast past Sheerness stretching off towards Whitstable. A steady stream of container ships floats inbetween, if the tide's right, keeping to carefully charted channels as they pass. There are better views to be had at the British seaside, to be frank, but I love the openness and expansive skies of this midriver panorama. I walked back, partly for variety, partly for the sense of achievement, but mostly because the queues for the train were quite long. I passed grizzled anglers, and determined mums with pushchairs, and Sir John rattled past me at least twice. Again it's further than you think, a full one and a third miles to reach the seafront, which gradually enlarges from thin strip to full-on rollercoaster & chips as you approach. The pier may be less alluring in February, but in high summer Southend's finest attraction is undoubtedly offshore.
Great roundels of the DISTRICT line
Roundels don't usually look like this. They used to. The first roundels consisted of a solid red enamel disc with a horizontal blue bar, and were introduced on station platforms in 1908. They were meant as station nameplates, with the red disc acting as a highlight for the darker board across the middle. These roundels weren't flat - that's timber moulding round the blue strip - and that's not the usual TfL font either which had yet to be invented. But this design used to be the default, except on the Metropolitan who introduced a red diamond instead because they were contrary like that. Now I believe only three stations still boast solid roundels. One's at Covent Garden and another's at Caledonian Road on the Piccadilly, while there are several here at Ealing Broadway. You'll find them inside the old train shed on the platforms furthest away from mainline trains. Three are on platform 9, accessible only via footbridge, where the fewest District line trains ever stop. You're much more likely to walk past the roundel on platform 8, beneath the restored short canopy, in what is a particularly pleasant end-of-the-line space. The effect is a bit like stepping back in time, though only a bit because modern adverts and illuminated signs and bogstandard roundels lurk close by. And before you get too carried away, I believe these ancient roundels are actually replicas, because it's a bit too risky to have your 1910s originals on full display in a busy public place. But they remain great roundels of the District line.
Roundels don't usually look like this. They used to. That raised blue border around the nameplate was the done thing, not replicated since. And that small superscript 'T' for Saint, that's quaint, and totally against modern design guidelines. But it's the apostrophe that's of interest here. Every other roundel on the station says St James's Park, which is the current name of the station. But this one's missing its final S, because St James' Park was the name at the time. I'm not sure precisely when that time was, but I've found a tube map from 1921 which calls the station St James' Park, so sometime around then. By the time of Beck's first tube map in 1933 the name on the map is St James Park, with all trace of apostrophe eradicated, which can't possibly be grammatically correct. The current name of St James's Park crops up in 1951, so has been around a while, and matches the Royal Park above ground character for character. To spot the interloping roundel you'll need to be on the eastbound platform, at the far eastern end beneath the stairs. Trust TfL to keep some proper heritage on the station beneath London Underground HQ. One of the great roundels of the District line.
St. James' Park: plural apostrophe with singular noun (no)
St. James Park: no possessive apostrophe whatsoever (no)
St. James's Park: singular apostrophe with singular noun (yes!)
St. Jame's Park: ghastly error at London Transport Museum 2007
Roundels don't usually look like this. They used to. The font used for Underground lettering wasn't always so rigidly applied as it is today. It developed over time, and these roundels at West Brompton show an earlier incarnation. It's the W that really stands out, here created from two overlapping Vs in an unfamiliar (but not unique) typographic style. And that's not the only difference. The E is asymmetric, with its central bar shortened somewhat and slightly raised, and that B doesn't look quite right either. The letters aren't perfectly spaced, because they'll have been painted by a signwriter rather than a machine, and they're also thinner than we're used to now. But the O is still circular, which is one of the defining features of the Johnston font, and the overall effect remains endearingly attractive. You'll find these roundels at the northern end of both District line platforms, attached to the stairs. But there are rather a lot of stairs at West Brompton, so you could easily use the station without realising these beauties are here. They're both labelled "Reg No 659:814", should anyone ever need to order a replacement. Two more of the great roundels of the District line.
DISTRICT: Fulham Railway Bridge
Before my District line month ends, I thought I'd go for a walk down the Wimbleware. Not all of it, just two neighbouring stations, because I didn't have that long. I tried Southfields to Wimbledon Park, but that was really boring (apart from the walk through the eponymous park). So then I tried Putney Bridge to East Putney, and that was much more interesting. And unique.
The Underground crosses the River Thames a total of eleven times. Most of these crossings run beneath the river, but two in the west of London run above. Both are on the District line, and both allow brief panoramic views of the tidal Thames. But only one of these allows pedestrians to walk alongside the trains and enjoy the same view, but better. And that's the crossing at Putney Bridge, which isn't Putney Bridge, it's Fulham Railway Bridge.
It is a slightly confusing station, Putney Bridge, because it's not in Putney, it's on the other side of the river in Fulham. It's also rather a pretty station, at platform level, with ridge-and-furrow canopies and white serrated valancing. I like the heritage roundels with their bloodshot rim, and yes that really is a pill box at the southern end, built to protect the bridge beyond in case of invasion. The forked wooden staircase down to the ticket hall is much as it would have been in 1880 when the station opened, only now with safer treads. And the entrance itself is lofty and arched, making a bold external statement, though slightly diminished by addition of a row of modern bus shelters.
Ignore the waiting hubbub in the street outside and head for the cafe on Ranelagh Gardens. There on the side of the bridge is a plaque to Frederick Richard Simms, pioneer of the English motor industry, born 150 years ago this month. Simms is credited with coining the words 'petrol' and 'motorcar', and built the world's first armoured car, and invented the rubber bumper, and founded the RAC. It's amazing really that Frederick isn't more widely known. His very first commercial workshop was under the arch of this bridge, a space for fitting Daimler engines to motor launches, in what was probably Britain's first motor company. It's most appropriate therefore that the space is currently occupied by a car hire company.
Pass on, down the alleyway, towards the river. There's a sign that says 'Footbridge to Putney' if you're not entirely sure. A set of steps, initially hidden, leads up from ground to railway level. They're quite steep steps, the sort you might struggle to use with luggage or a pushchair. But the effort's worthwhile as the pathway flattens out beside the District line tracks. They're over a barrier, through a mesh, beyond an iron lattice. A series of lamp fittings curl over from the metalwork at regular intervals, like drooping flowers, for after-dark illumination. And where the bridge proper begins, the pillar is topped off by a most ornate pediment, with swirls and scallop painted in delicate green. Welcome to Fulham Railway Bridge. It's not usually busy up here.
There's no view to the northwest, towards Putney Bridge and the boat race course, because the railway obscures all. But you can look east towards the apartment towers of Wandsworth, and three cranes building more. That stretch of greenery on the north bank is Hurlingham Park, a private recreational enclave where the Thames Path retreats half a kilometre inland. The matching treeline on the south bank is Wandsworth Park, more public but less interesting. And if you have one of the houses backing down to the river between the park and the bridge, lucky lucky you.
Before descending on the far side, take a moment to look ahead at the railway arches curving off to the left. A motley assortment of businesses occupy the set, most motor-related, and two painted boldly with the Cross of St George. You can't walk that way, you have to take the sidestreet through a fairly well-to-do part of Putney. Oxford Road is nicer still, with its gabled brick villas and a Victorian art school. This is the sort of area where I imagine residents read the Evening Standard and find all those property details and society reports relevant to their way of life. Indeed the shops on Upper Richmond Road are a world away from what you might find in Stepney or East Ham, not least The Beer Boutique and Mister Buttercup's hand-painted furniture emporium.
East Putney station has a peculiar piazza, with pillars to each side topped by signs in an atypical stencilled font. It's hard to see the ticket hall entrance from the road because a florists squats in front, with passengers diverted to either side (past the estate agents or phone shop). Until 20 years ago this was a British-Rail-owned station, even though Waterloo-bound services ended several decades before. That's why up top there's an entirely disused platform, and an over-large island platform in the centre for southbound services. Most of those starting their journey here crowd onto the separate northbound platform, again nothing special architecturally, but the only way to ride back across Fulham Railway Bridge... and complete the loop.