Ever since my first visit to the city years ago, I have always been fascinated by the London Underground. I love the way all the lines connect, I love the tiles on the platform walls, and I love the idea that I’m passing through tunnels under the city, without knowing exactly what’s above me. Recently I was reading Peter Ackroyd’s London Under, and he talks a lot about the history of the Underground. Notably, he describes the planned route of the first Underground Railway, opened in 1863:
‘The path of the underground working was clear enough. It would run from Paddington to the Edgware Road, before going under Marylebone Road and Euston Road; it would then use the valley of the Fleet in order to reach the City at Farringdon.’
This was to be the Metropolitan Railway, intended to connect the mainline stations of Paddington, Euston and Kings Cross with the City. It was from this line that I decided to try and walk the route of the first stretch of London Underground, from Paddington to Farringdon.
An illustration of the Metropolitan Railway’s stations from Illustrated London News December 1862, the month before the railway opened. By Unknown (illegible) – The Illustrated London News, Issue 1181, page 692,
So, at 2:45pm last Monday, I emerged from Paddington Station, into the biting November cold. Armed with a London A-Z, in an effort to follow the route of the track as closely as possible, I set off towards Edgware Road. Despite emerging onto London Road, a consultation of the Charles Booth map app (PhoneBooth, courtesy of LSE) told me that the original ‘Metro Station’ was actually on Bishops Road, next door to the Great Western Railway station of Paddington.
The history of the London Underground is unquestionably central to the history of modern London. So many of us rely on the Tube as our transport in and around the city, that it would be easy to forget it is only a relatively new addition. The underground has taken the flaneur, the vagrant, and nightwalker and propelled them under the city at 30mph.
Ian Sinclair’s book, London Overground, follows a similar agenda to mine. His book highlights to me how much there is to observe in London, things that would otherwise go unnoticed if he was actually using the trains he was walking in the shadow of. Reminiscent of Guy Debord’s comments on psychogeography, travelling by train instead of on foot has a significant behavioural impact on individual consciousness. It removes opportunity for navigating, and from this, understanding the lie of the city. For example, the tube journey between Leicester Square and Covent Garden on the Piccadilly Line takes about 20 seconds, but it costs £4.90 (cash fare) and would take you about 4 minutes to walk it. Yet it is one of the most popular journeys.
As I walk along London Street, and Edgware Road Station comes into view, I find myself thinking these things, as I am surprised by how little walking I’ve done before I reach the next station. As I approach, I note the use of 2 different forms of signage on the front, the original lettering, then below the distinctive blue and white TFL banner. Underground signage, and in particular maps, have been in a state of almost constant change ever since they were first introduced. With the 150th Anniversary of the Underground in 2013, there was much discussion of the instantly recognisable Tube Map created by Harry Beck in 1931, especially since it was only due to these discussions that Beck became posthumously recognised for his hugely successful creation.
Continuing to weave my way through the streets of Marylebone, I eventually emerge onto the now disappointingly commercial Baker Street. I make my way across the never-ending sea of traffic, in order to reach the south entrance to the station, and whilst I stand there, I notice an old man. He is stood alone, smoking, and staring out across the street, simply observing the scene. Unlike his surroundings, he is not in a rush. As I pass by I wonder whether there is such a thing as modern day Flaneur, and whether the introduction of railways under the city affected his (or her?) existence. If Baudelaire suggested that the Flaneur emerged from a ‘new’ Paris, is it possible that a form of Flaneur has emerged from modern London?
The noise of the traffic as I walk along Euston Road is unending, but contrary what we might think, this noise is not confined to a city of cars and buses; in a rather wonderful book of photographs of Victorian London, Gordon Winter highlights that ‘the roar of  London was almost terrible – a never varying deep rumble that made a background to all other sounds’. Despite efforts to contain this chaos with underground railways, how different is this description from one we might hear today?
As I approach Kings Cross St Pancras, I can’t help but marvel at the beautifully gothic St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, and the St Pancras station. A sign on the front tells me the Hotel opened in 1873, ten years after the first Underground Railway and by this point the network of tunnels had expanded rapidly, and now included the beginnings of the District and Northern Lines, as well as extensions to the Metropolitan Railway from Swiss Cottage to Moorgate. The hotel was built as the Midland Grand Hotel to front the new St Pancras Station – the expansion of the railways both above and below ground at this time must have increased visitors to the city, thus I suppose seeing the start of a more prominent ‘tourism’ movement?
As I near my final destination of Farringdon, I can see St Pauls, and behind that the Shard in front of the approaching sunset. The original aim of the Metropolitan Railway had been to allow passengers from mainline stations to reach the City with ease and with this view in front of me, as I stand on a bridge over the platforms of Farringdon, I know my journey has reached its conclusion.
The London Underground network is a marvellous thing, and will probably never be left alone; I was reminded of this whilst out walking by frequent ‘Crossrail’ signs. By walking the route between Paddington and Farringdon, I managed to travel from 3 mainline stations into the City, as the Victorians intended. However I still got to experience street-level London, something that cannot be overlooked.
Ackroyd, Peter, London Under (England: Chatto and Windus, 2011) pp. 112-154
Coverley, Merlin, Psychogeography (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2010), chap. 3, ‘Guy Debord and the Situationist International’, pp. 81-110
Sinclair, Ian, London Overground: A Day’s Walk Around the Ginger Line (England: Hamish Hamilton, 2015)
Winter, Gordon, A Cockney Camera (England: Penguin Books, 1975), p. 113