Category Archives: Subterranean

The Effra: still flowing under Herne Hill

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Several of these lovely iron plaques have recently appeared in South London to mark the flow of the River Effra, the lost London river that now lies beneath the streets between Norwood and Vauxhall. It’s a wonderful project and Diamond Geezer has more details. He notes that the first plaques were laid in July and the project appears to be some way from completion, with several plaques yet to be installed. But there is a flurry of them around Herne Hill along Dulwich Road, where they make a nice counterpoint to the Effra’s other principal markers, the stinkpipe.

For those interested in the Effra, a book by Jon Newman has also just been published about the river. I once followed the course of the Effra in the company of a water diviner, who got us all lost in the middle of an estate during a snow storm while taking us on a route that bore very little resemblance to those diligently mapped by Effra experts. Still, it made for an entertaining afternoon.

 

 

Under London: Crossrail is coming

Like every other journalist in London, I wrote an article about the Crossrail project. It appeared in Eurostar’s Metropolitan magazine in May and is reprinted here.

In a cavern 35 metres underneath Stepney City Farm, London is getting smaller. Not literally of course, that would be terrifying. No, this gigantic space under east London has been excavated for Crossrail, the 42-km high-speed tunnel being built beneath London. When it opens in 2018, Crossrail will carry 200 million passengers every year from east to west (or west to east), cutting the city down to a more manageable size as journey times are greatly reduced. When Mayor Boris Johnson entered a similar Crossrail site in Canary Wharf he gushed it was “like a Neanderthal stumbling into the gloom of Lascaux… akin to a gigantic subterranean cathedral several times the size of Chartres.” In truth, the Stepney cavern is more like a big, bare quarry, shaft open to the sky, lined with concrete and exuding a faint smell of wet earth.

Chartres cathedral

Crossrail hole in the ground

“If Crossrail is a Y, we are standing where it splits,” explains Will Jobling, Crossrail construction manager, pointing at a map that shows Crossrail travelling across London to Stepney, where it divides with one leg heading north-east and the other crossing the Thames to Abbey Wood in the south-east. “Two of the tunnel boring machines (TBM), Victoria and Elizabeth, have passed through here and you can just see the back of one on its way to Farringdon. They should get there by February 2015.”

There are eight TBMs working on Crossrail, giant moles that slowly grind through London clay at the rate of around 150 metres a week. Weighing 1000 tonnes and with rotating, earth-scraping heads, these monsters run 24-hours a day and are like mobile factories, removing dirt and sealing the tunnel with concrete as they move. They even have canteens and toilets as well as a rescue chamber in which workers can take refuge in case of an accident. Around 4.5 million tonnes of earth (which Jobling says has the consistency of “elephant dung”) will be transported by barge to the Thames estuary to create a man-made nature reserve. One machine, Jessica (named after Olympic athlete Jessica Ennis), is being removed at Stepney. It’s taken apart underground, lifted out the shaft then transported to Canning Town, where it will be welded back together and lowered into the ground to continue tunnelling. Parts of Jessica lie strewn across the Stepney site, battleworn, clay-scarred and weary but with more work still to do. They look like ancient artefacts salvaged from the seabed.

The TBMs cost £10million apiece and are fitted with lasers that help engineers plot a course around and under London’s subterranean obstacles – sewers, foundations, plague pits, buried rivers and other tube lines. “At Tottenham Court Road, we come within 80cm of the Northern Line,” says Jobling. “We look at every obstruction we could possibly find. Sometimes we have to back-engineer, look at how high a building is and then work out how deep the piles will go.”

Despite this, the basic principles haven’t changed since Marc Isambard Brunel invented the tunnel shield to dig the Thames Tunnel from Rotherhithe to Wapping between 1825 and 1843. Some methods go back even further. “At Canary Wharf we hit a bunch of old piles that we had to cut through by hand using old mining techniques,” says Jobling. “The older guys loved it.” He’s interrupted as a loco, a miniature train used by workers to travel through completed tunnels, scoots noisily past. It’s like an old mining cart, only it runs on diesel and is deafening. As the TBMs approach Farringdon, workers will have an 8km underground commute on the loco to work every morning. When the screeches have stopped echoing off the cavern walls, Jobling explains how a ceremony was held at the start of operations as priests blessed 38 statues of St Barbara, the patron saint of miners, and placed them at tunnel mouths. “Tunnellers can be a superstitious lot,” he notes.

Saint Barbara

Crossrail will be followed by similar huge projects – the Northern Line extension to Battersea, a gigantic sewer called the Thames Tideway, and possibly a north-south Crossrail Two – and to ensure London retains its tunnelling knowhow, Crossrail opened the Tunnelling And Underground Construction Academy (TUCA) in Ilford in 2011. In a building designed to look like a TBM entering the ground, workers are trained in a specially developed environment that includes a replica of Crossrail tunnel. “We get them used to working in an enclosed space,” says Georgina Bigam, Skills And Training Manager. “Everything can be installed and dismantled. We also do a safety course where they fill the tunnel with smoke, turn off the lights and simulate explosions by chucking firecrackers around for half-an-hour. They have to find their way out.” She pauses. “I usually make the journalists do it,” she says, and giggles.

TUCA trains hundreds of people to work beneath London’s soil. The canteen – complete with mural of UK tunnelling landmarks – is filled with eating, gossiping men (and one woman) of all ethnicities, from Cockney grease monkeys to a middle-aged Sikh with hard hat screwed on top of his turban. Many gain knowledge that is valued all over the world. As Valerie Todd, TUCA’s Talent and Resources Director, explains. “There’s tunnelling happening right across the world as cities everywhere are facing similar pressures, looking to find ways to move a lot of people around very quickly when the surface area is used up.” But Crossrail is the current focus, a £15-billion project that is Europe’s largest infrastructure project and which Boris Johnson has likened to conquering Everest. Onward push the TBMs, while the city sleeps and workmen come and go. Saint Barbara would be proud

Five fictional Londons

For more on London Fiction, see the latest issue of the wonderful Curiocity map-magazine. 

Nú Lundun

The Book Of Dave (2006)

Will Self’s phonetic and splenetic Mockney masterpiece imagines a future London buried beneath flooded waters. It is set on the island of Ham, all that remains of Hampstead Heath, where the inhabitants worship a psychotic taxi driver, so take a cab up to Parliament Hill and imagine yourself looking down upon a lagoon. The book ends in Nú Lundun, rebuilt near Nottingham.

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Un Lun Dun

Un Lun Dun (2007)

China Mieville’s underground fantasy city populated with things that people in real London throw away and accessed through a door in an estate in Kilburn. If you stand in the right part of Charing Cross Road and stare through a grille in the pavement, you can see a subterranean sign for a long-lost London street – perhaps this is how we can enter Un Lun Dun?

 

Brit-Cit

2000AD (1980s-present)

A post-apocalyptic city of giant towers and rage imagined by the creators of Judge Dredd, this megalopolis has distinctive landmarks like the New Old Bailey, Bigga Ben and the Battersea Mutants Home. The closest you can get to it today is by walking around Canary Wharf in a motorcycle helmet shouting ‘Drokk’ at passing bankers.

 

London Below

Neverwhere (1996)

Neil Gaiman’s TV series about a magical subterranean London where many of London’s evocative place names – Angel, Earl’s Court, Knightsbridge – have come to life: there’s a real angel, a real earl and the Night’s Bridge is an ominous stone bridge. Recreate the experience by going to Catford shopping centre with a tin of Whiskas and trying to entice the giant cat down for a cuddle.

Londongrad

Comrade Dad (1986)

Short-lived sitcom starring George Cole and set in London in 1999 after a Communist invasion – the opening credits feature the Red Army marching through Trafalgar Square while a revolving red star sits atop Nelson’s Column. Recreate the experience by living in a tiny London bedsit struggling to pay the heating bills while the government and their cronies bathe in diamonds and caviar and listen to your phone calls.

Secret London: more streets beneath London streets

A fascinating, I think anyway, footnote to my previous post about the secret streets beneath London comes courtesy of reader Steve Lloyd.  Although it may raise more questions that it answers.

Steve worked at shoe shop Lilley & Skinner in the early 1980s and thinks the abandoned Victorian shops beneath Selfridges as seen at around 31 minutes in Malcolm McLaren’s The Ghosts of Oxford Street, may have been located in their basement. I’ll let Steve take up the story.

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‘In the early 80s I was manager of Lilley & Skinner at 356-360 Oxford Street (the largest shoe store in the world according to the Guinness Book of Records). The staff entrance to the store was at the rear along Barrett Street. Here was a short driveway downhill into the building where I used to park.Also situated here was the maintenance department and adjacent was a concrete staircase which led down to several lower levels that were really no more than cellars. The lads in maintenance had told me about the ‘old street’ that was down there and took me down one day to have  to have a look.

Though of course very interesting there was not a lot to see, just a bit of old shop front under some arches and some cobbled street. The lads said that the council had put a preservation order on it and that we weren’t allowed to use the space in any way.

I found some stills from The Ghosts of Oxford Street a couple of years ago after I saw it discussed on this forum and I have to say that they are exactly how I remember the site at Lilley & Skinner.

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The first is one of the arches and the second is the piece of shop front and window frame. Entering the right of the store from Oxford Street you’d go downstairs to the Mens department on the lower ground floor and then there was another department (Tall and Small) at lower lower ground floor, which was on the left hand side of the building. Our secret street was a couple of levels down from that.’
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So there we go. Is this the true location of the secret street beneath Oxford Street? Does it really have a preservation order from the council? And if so, does it still exist? The site at 360 Oxford Street, incidentally, is now a branch of Forever 21.

Secret London: streets beneath streets of London

Paul, the librarian at Time Out, first told me about the street beneath Charing Cross Road in around 2005. He promised to show it to me, but never did.

Then, last month, I saw it. I was mooching around Cambridge Circus, noting the loss of London’s best-named book shop, Lovejoys, a landmark from the time I used to be a dedicated fanzine-browser across the road at Sportpages, also since departed. I had always assumed Lovejoys was a wittily named Soho porn shop, but it actually stocked cheap classics and DVDs. The shop taking over the site will be a sex shop it seems, albeit of the modern, seedless, air-brushed, air-conditioned variety rather than Soho’s traditional damp basement. With the erasure of any trace of character at the arse-end of Berwick Street, the old Soho sex shop is nearly gone. Indeed, much of this post is about things that have removed, including Paul the librarian, who left Time Out shortly before I did.

As I crossed Charing Cross Road from Soho and stood on an island in the middle of the road waiting for a No 24 bus to pass, I happened to look into the grille beneath my feet. I have instinctive curiosity when it comes to London holes but this is the first time I’ve really seen anything of interest, as, to my surprise, I could make out what appeared to be a subterranean street sign set into the wall a few feet below the ground.

IMG_1992I leaned in closer and there they were – not one, but two street signs for Little Compton Street, one blue enamel and the other painted on to brick. Here was London’s buried street.

IMG_1990Although Little Compton Street has its own Wikipedia page, it is not entirely clear how the signs got here. The street itself was obliterated by the construction of Charing Cross Road – here you can see Little Compton Street on an old map of 1868, intersecting with Crown Street (which is marked by green as Soho’s border, though surely red would be more appropriate) just before Cambridge Circus. Little Compton Street ceased to exist in around 1896 and is now part of the Cambridge Circus utility tunnels, which some urban explorers write about here. (Apparently, Rimbaud and Verlaine used to drink in a pub on Little Compton Street during their dramatic London stay.)

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Were the underground signs accidentally left behind when Charing Cross Road was run roughshod over the top of Crown Street or was it a careful act of preservation by an unnaturally thoughtful council? Or were they removed from a wall by unknown hand and deliberately placed down here, where Little Compton Street has existed ever since, entombed beneath London feet and offering a tantalising glimpse of those fantasy Londons from countless dreams and dramas. There’s an echo of China Mieville, Neil Gaiman and the Borribles, but also of Malcolm McLaren’s mysterious and misremembered subterranean Victorian road (neatly discussed here) that is said to exist intact beneath Selfridges on Oxford Street.

One wonders whether the brutal Crossrail redevelopment of this bedraggled part of the West End will allow any such traces to remain. I hope so. And I hope they also have this last-gasp, accidental feel, of something that London can’t quite let go, like dying fingernails clawing a wall, leaving behind a ghost, a whisper, of one of London’s many pasts.

For some great old images of Charing Cross Road, browse here with leisure and a little sadness.

Secret London: eight London shrines

I wrote this for the wonderful Curiocity, London’s finest pocket-sized trivia-and-map-packing magazine. Issue E, with a pilgrimage theme, is available at all good London bookshops. 

Tyburn martyrs
On Bayswater Road at Marble Arch is a small convent, unlikely home to a ‘cloistered community of benedictine contemplatives’, aka nuns. In the basement chapel, the walls are covered with ancient relics – skin, bone, bits of fingernails – from some of the 350 Catholic martyrs who were hanged on the three-sided Tyburn Tree during the Tudor wars of religion. Behind the altar of this ghoulish Martyr’s Shrine is a replica of the Tyburn gallows itself.

Giro, The Nazi Dog
One of London’s best known ‘secret’ sites, this little stone on Carlton House Terrace marks the grave of Giro, beloved pooch of (Hitler-opposing) German ambassador Leopold von Hoesch. Giro died while the German Embassy was at No 8-9 (now the Royal Society) during the pre-war Nazi era. He wasn’t really a Nazi, incidentally, as dogs rarely express a political preference (although I did once know one that would bark like a maniac if you said ‘Labour party’).

Bolan’s Tree
A sycamore tree on Queen’s Drive in Barnes has been a shrine to Marc Bolan since 1977 when Bolan’s Mini crashed into it, killing the singer instantly. A bronze bust of Bolan stands nearby.

Spoons

Holborn’s junkie spoons
Underneath a dank stairwell in Farringdon close to Mount Pleasant sorting office you might stumble across a wall stuck with a dozen mysterious spoons. Urban legend says these were placed here by heroin users in tribute to their dead peers, each spoon marking a new death.

Cross Bones graveyard
This parcel of disused land in Borough has been claimed by locals as a shrine to prostitutes said to have been buried on unconsecrated land since the 1500s, and they come here to lay flowers for the forgotten dead. In truth, Borough had many such graveyards and Cross Bones was used to bury the poor of both sexes.

Regent’s Canal coconuts
The further west you head along Regent’s Canal towards Southall the more likely it is you will come across a coconut floating in the water, sometimes cut in half and containing candles. These are placed there by London Hindus in religious ceremonies that sees the tiny canal replace the mighty Ganges.

Skateboard graveyard
Look over the side of the Jubilee Footbridge and you’ll see dozens of broken skateboards lying on one of the concrete feet that anchor the bridge to the Thames. These are boards that have experienced one olley too many and, beyond repair, been dropped to join their kin by South Bank skateboarders.

Postman’s Park
A shrine to everyday heroes, this park features a number of ceramic tiles dedicated to Londoners who died while saving the lives of others. A remarkable, very touching little spot created by the Victorian artist GF Watts.

London’s strangest race: meeting the Tube Challenge

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It’s probably London’s strangest race. The Tube Challenge first took place in 1959 and since then hundreds of people have attempted to visit each of London’s 270 tube stations on the same day – it’s very competitive and they even have their own forum. I recently interviewed Andi James, who currently holds the world record with his running partner, Steve Wilson, to ask him how about being a Tube Challenger.

Andi James, Tube Challenge champion

‘The Tube Challenge is visiting all 270 stations by Tube. If you are on a train, you don’t have to physically step on to the platform just pass through the station, and you can use buses or run between stations if you wish. The first official record was set in 1959. I don’t know anything about the guy who did it first but the master was Bob Robinson who got the record eight times over a period of 21 years.

I heard about it in 2007 and have been doing it ever since. I’ve done it about 46 times now. My winning time [held with Steve Wilson] is 16 hours 29 minutes and 13 seconds and that’s stood since 2011. I do it because I enjoy it. I find it gratifying when you’ve worked it all out on paper and then find it works in reality. I have a route in mind that can knock 40 minutes off my best time, but that would require everything to go perfectly – 20 minutes is certainly possible. Things always go a bit wrong, on my record run there was a 20-minute delay but we got lucky with a few bits here and there. I’m winding down though. I’m getting a little old for it. I’m quite fit and you need to be pretty fit to do some of the runs. I’m 37 and can keep up with 16-year-olds but not for much longer.

If you are going to do it, it needs to be when all the lines are running – that’s Monday to Friday – you need to have a good route and you need there to be no delays. There are some places that are difficult like Kensington Olympia, where there are only nine trains a day, which you have to take into account. You have to be fit as some of the runs are very long so prepare for a lot of pain. Research your door positions because you don’t want to get off at the wrong end and waste five minutes fighting through hundreds of people. I know door positions for every platform in London. There’s also an app for it, created by another Tube Challenger.

The first time I did the challenge, I spent about three weeks calculating all the exchanges and another week physically researching the different runs. The longest is between High Barnet and Cockfosters, 2.4 miles. Some people take the bus, but I know I can run it in 20 minutes. I can definitely improve on my winning route, but so can a lot of other people. There are about 100 people trying each year, and whenever I see people running at Finchley Central to Mill Hill East I know they are either on the Tube Challenge or they are really, really desperate to go to Mill Hill East.’

150 years of the London Underground

To mark the 150th anniversary of the London Underground, here is a piece I wrote for Time Out in 2007.

It was, on the face of it, a stupid idea. Running trains, and steam trains at that, in tunnels underneath the London streets. In 1862, the Times described it as an ‘insult to common sense’ and it was probably right. But the London Underground turned out to be one of the great engineering feats of modern times, the world’s only steam-driven underground railway and the first electrified underground railway. A socially egalitarian and liberating phenomenon, it helped drive London’s rapid expansion and got people to work on time, while providing the city with a bold new identity through impeccable branding that incorporated iconic typography, cartography and architecture.

And yet… And yet…

It’s fair to say that the Underground remains unloved by Londoners, and it would take a more dishonest contrarian than I to defend the grime, the delays, the heat, the way it’s so busy and unreliable and the fact that, year after year, we are asked to pay more for a service that doesn’t seem to be getting any better, cleaner, quicker or cooler. But that’s a fault of management and decades of underinvestment, not of a system that remains something Londoners should treasure as remarkable, groundbreaking and emphatically ours.

The story began with Charles Pearson, the first in a succession of underground visionaries. It was he who first proposed the notion of ‘trains in drains’ in 1845, when the railway was a relatively new invention (the first steam passenger service only opened in 1830). Pearson, instrumental in the removal of the anti-Catholic inscription on the foot of the Monument, was a progressive and a pioneer – his persistence helped persuade the House of Commons to approve a bill in 1853 to build a subterranean railway between Paddington and Farringdon.

The reason such a hare-brained, experimental scheme received approval was one of necessity. London roads were suffering from terrible overcrowding and the mainline railways all stopped on the fringes of the West End and City thanks to a Royal Commission of 1846 that declared central London a no-go area for railway companies. A method of linking the mainline stations of Paddington, Euston and King’s Cross was needed, and Pearson’s plan fitted the bill. He helped raise the finance from private investors and the City of London, and excavation began in 1860, with a shallow trench dug beneath Euston Road and then covered over. Thousands of poor residents were displaced in the process.

The Metropolitan Line opened for business on January 10 1863, clocking 30,000 passengers on the first day. A celebratory banquet had been held the previous day at Farringdon. Pearson was not among the guests, having passed away the previous year. Another absentee was Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, who was approaching his 80th birthday, and said he wanted to spend as much time above ground as he possibly could (he died two years later).

The Metropolitan was a success, with 11.8 million passengers (the population of London was about 3.2 million) braving the foul, smoke-filled conditions in its first year. The Metropolitan’s owners claimed the ‘invigorating’ atmosphere ‘provided a sort of health resort for people who suffered from asthma’, but they also allowed drivers to grow beards in a futile bid to filter out the worst of the fumes. A civil servant who had spent time in Sudan said the smell reminded him of a ‘crocodile’s breath’. One attempt to improve conditions saw smoking banned, until an MP objected and insisted that all railways provided a smoking carriage. Smoking was not banned again on the trains until 1985, and at stations until after the King’s Cross fire of 1987, itself the culmination of 30 years of neglect.

Among those to benefit most from the new railway were the lowest-paid workers, who were entitled to use a special, cheap pre-6am train. Social journalist Henry Mayhew interviewed some such passengers in 1865, first explaining that ‘this subterranean method of locomotion had always struck us as being the most thoroughly Cockney element of all within the wide range of Cocaigne’. The labourers he spoke to all voiced their enthusiasm for a service that allowed poorer Londoners to live further out, sparing them a six-mile walk to work and allowing their families to live in two rooms rather than one. As the Metropolitan expanded westwards, it opened up new areas for Londoners to move to, and the overcrowded city d slowly started to expand – one of the reasons that London still has such a relatively low population density. When Hammersmith received its first station in 1864 it was still a village ‘best known for spinach and strawberries’, writes Christian Wolmar in his definitive ‘The Subterranean Railway’ (2004), but it soon became a major interchange. This pattern was repeated throughout the Underground’s history. When the Northern Line hit Morden in 1926, it was a village of 1,000 inhabitants; five years later, its population was 12,600.

The success of the Metropolitan led to the building of the District Line along the Victoria Embankment, and then the creation of a Circle Line to link the two. Unfortunately, the two east-west lines were run by rivals, James Forbes and Edward Watkin, whose perpetual bickering meant the Circle took twenty years to complete. When it was finished in 1884, Watkins’ Met operated trains that ran clockwise, while Forbes’ District controlled those in the other direction; such was the antagonism between the two, the companies refused to sell tickets for their rival line, meaning a passenger might end up paying for 20 stops rather than seven. When the Circle was finally electrified in 1905 the companies used different systems which proved incompatible, resulting in a further three-month delay. Because the Underground was built haphazardly by private investment and with no central planning, there were many such inconsistencies. Some destinations had more than one station, built by competing interests, which explains why there is such a poor interchange at Hammersmith between the Hammersmith & City and District Lines, and why Oxford Circus has two different surface stations on either side of Argyll Street. This is also why there are so many ghost stations on the network – about 40 – built without adequate knowledge of whether they were actually needed.

The completion of the Circle Line marked the last of the sub-surface lines, built by the simple, cut-and-cover method. Advances in tunnelling and the use of electrified rails now allowed for the building of deep-level lines that gave birth to the phrase ‘tube’ and allowed London’s network to really connect the dots beneath the capital. The first was the cramped City & South London line from City to the Elephant & Castle, later incorporated into the Northern Line, which was opened in 1890 by the future king Edward VII. This was followed by the Waterloo & City, Central, Bakerloo, Piccadilly and Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead (now the Charing Cross branch of the Northern), all before 1907.

This splurge of lines occurred within a narrow window of opportunity after the invention of suitable tunnelling technology and before the appearance of the motorised bus. It was aided by gullible investors (who never quite received the returns they were promised), public demand and London’s favourable geological conditions – the capital’s clay being an ideal substance through which to tunnel.

Several of these lines were built by American financier Charles Tyson Yerkes, who also controlled the District and was the first person to attempt to realise a unified vision of London’s chaotic underground network. A property speculator with a questionable reputation (he served time in prison in Philadelphia for embezzlement) Yerkes put together numerous complex financial schemes to get his lines built, often using capital from the States, but never got the chance to cash in on his success, dying in 1905.

Yerkes left an extraordinary legacy. While lines such as City & South London never proved popular with the public – something that had much to do with the fact that the trains, or ‘padded cells’, were built without windows because the manufacturers figured there was nothing to see down there – his Central Line was a hit. This was largely because, like the Metropolitan half a century before, it served major transport routes, relieving strain on crowded streets above. There were drawbacks – the line followed the road pattern because the tunnellers didn’t want to pay compensation to surface landowners, so there were unnecessary kinks – but the Central Line was a groundbreaking service, attracting 100,000 passengers daily. For a start, it only had one class of travel, and one price, hence the nickname the d d Twopenny Tube. It also had some innovative engineering aspects (each station was built atop a slight incline, meaning trains naturally slowed when entering stations and sped up when leaving, while the flat face of the train pushing air in front of it provided much-need ventilation) and carriages were considerably plusher than on the City & South London. Yerkes’ desire for a unified service also led to the introduction of what can be seen as the first attempt at branding on the tube – the Leslie Green-designed distinctive dried-blood-coloured tiles of the surface stations – something pursued by the man who followed.

Frank Pick began working for Yerkes’ Underground Electric Railway Limited (UERL), which owned all the underground lines other than the Metropolitan and the Waterloo & City, in 1906. Over the next 30 years, in partnership with Lord Ashfield, general manager of UERL and future chairman of London Transport, he helped make the tube the ‘most famous and respected transport system in the world’. Historian Nikolaus Pevsner believes Pick’s accomplishments to be greater still: in 1942 he described him as ‘the greatest patron of the arts whom this century has so far produced in England and indeed the ideal patron of our age’. He is certainly one of the few transport gurus to have met Stalin, Hitler and Churchill.

Pick’s reputation was based on his eye for design. He introduced the roundel, borrowed from the London General Omnibus Company, but made famous by the tube; he asked calligrapher Edward Johnston to design the tube’s unique font; commissioned beautiful posters by Man Ray, Graham Sutherland and Edward Nash; introduced each line’s distinctive patterned seat-covers or moquettes; appointed architect Charles Holden to design modernist stations, most famously at Arnos Grove; and in 1931 he paid Harry Beck five guineas to come up with a new kind of map that would simplify the most complicated transport system in the world. All the while, the tube continued to spread east, west, north and even – occasionally – south, and was by 1934 carrying 410 million passengers a year. Pick can be said to be as responsible for the image London projects around the world as Christopher Wren, George Gilbert Scott or Norman Foster. Even today, Transport for London is well aware of the value of the brand, and jealously guards icons such as the roundel and Beck’s map from even the most loving of imitators.

Pick’s definition of the tube did not end there. In tandem with Lord Ashfield, he also arranged the integration of London’s various transport systems in 1933 under the umbrella London Transport, ensuring that an underground network that had hitherto been privately funded and unprofitable became publicly supported, thanks in part to Leader of London County Council (and Peter Mandelson’s grandfather) Herbert Morrison.

Finance has always been the failing of the tube, largely because, as Wolmar astutely points out, the early railwaymen ‘were building a fantastic resource for Londoners whose value could never be adequately reflected through the fare box which was their only source of income’. This was as true in the days of private entrepreneur and public ownership as it is with today’s uncomfortable mish-mash, the great experiment of the Public Private Partnership. All too briefly London Transport papered over this failing through a combination of Ashfield and Pick’s acumen and the fact that, following the depression, there was greater confidence in public ownership, and more skill in the manner with which it was executed. But this was soon diluted with World War II (in which the tube played its own valuable role), after which, rebuilding the country took precedence.

Which, more or less, is where we are today. The tube has acquired only two new lines since Yerkes’ frenzy: the Victoria, which took 20 years from planning to opening in 1968, and the Jubilee, hewn in part from the Bakerloo Line and extended magnificently in 2000. Years of under-investment have taken their toll, and the system looks haggard and worn. Recent years have seen some improvement, but the cost to users has soared. Even the ongoing improvements leave the system, temporarily at least, worse off – with stations closed for months and entire lines closed weekend after weekend, reinforcing the public’s lack of sympathy for this ancient marvel.

So it’s no wonder that we look upon the city’s mighty works and despair. But perhaps we should, every now and then at least, reflect on what the city would be like if the tube had never existed, be thankful for the visionaries of the past, and hopeful that their legacy will once more receive the attention and adulation it deserves.

Mind The Map at the London Transport Museum

Ever since the British Library’s London map exhibition in 2007, London museums have learnt to love cartography. The Museum of London’s Hand-Drawn London was a highlight of 2011, and now the London Transport Museum has joined the cool kids with a brilliant new Mind The Map exhibition.

This traces the relationship between transport and maps over the past 150 years or so and offers a brilliantly edited selection of material from the archives. The exhibition space at the museum isn’t vast, but the way it has been used here is superb. The twin focus is on the work of McDonald Gill and Harry Beck. Gill created the Wonderland map, a gorgeous, highly detailed map of London aimed at transport users. Here’s one of his, for Hyde Park.

The exhibition features a number of maps created by Gill – the brother of sculptor Eric Gill – and also this fascinating unfinished map of Temple, showing his working method. He begins with a serious flat plan of the city, before building up layers of impeccably detailed architectural illustration. Then on top of that go the speech bubbles, puns and references that make his maps so fascinating. Please excuse my poor photography.

In this section there are other decorative maps that were used by LT to promote different areas of London. Here is one featuring Cheam, where I grew up.

The Beck part of the exhibition is also brilliantly done given how much has already been done on the man who created the modern tube map. A personal highlight was this sketch from the London Transport staff newspaper in 1933, in which Beck gently mocks the popular notion that he got the idea for his diagrammatic map from a circuit board. He has redrawn his tube map as the interior of a transistor radio, thus creating the first mash-up/spoof of his iconic design and pre-dating The Great Bear by several decades.

Speaking of which, the LT Museum have commissioned six new pieces of art for the exhibition, and they are all great, which is quite unusual for these things. Simon Patterson has updated The Great Bear as Saptarishi, Jeremy Wood has created a new ghost map, tracing his movements through GPS and there’s a marvellous ‘Proustian’ map of London by Agnes Poitevin-Navarra.

My Ghost

Most exciting of all is Stephen (The Island) Walter’s new epic undertaking, London Subterranea, a stunningly detailed map of the London beneath our feet, executed in stark black and white and crammed with information and folklore.

When I talked to Walter a few years ago, he expressed a keenness to put The Island behind him despite some interesting related projects that had been suggested to him. I’m delighted that he has since decided to return to London mapping, as he is a master at it. I’m told he’s now working on an A-Z, which will incorporate The Island and London Subterranea.

Other highlights include a copy of the infamous 2009 tube map that omitted the Thames, a gorgeous 1932 enamel map from a station wall and a copy of Finchley Central by The New Vaudeville Band. There’s also a brilliant book by curator Claire Dobbin that accompanies the exhibition. Go see it!

Mind The Map opens 18 May until 28 October 2012. 

Secret London: the Temple of Mithras goes back where it came from

The Temple of Mithras is one of London’s most easily viewed and best known Roman sites, but it is also one of its crappest. The temple has been in the wrong place pretty much ever since it was discovered 50 years ago and now sits unimpressively in a bed of a concrete in front of a banal office building in the City (image below from Knowledge Of London).

The Temple of Mithras: ‘crap’

All that is about to change. Next week, Museum of London Archaeology will begin a three year project that will put the Temple back where it belongs, and restore it to something closer to its original form. They will also do a little digging, to see what else they can discover.

The Temple – a shrine to an Iranian god who was said to have killed a mythical bull – was found by archaeologist WF Grimes  in 1952 on Walbrook. The cult was adopted by the Romans in 1 AD and the temple – probably built in around 250 AD – would originally have been a subterranean space where bulls were sacrificed. Archeologists had suspected there was Mithran temple in London since 1889, after the discovery in Walbrook of a relief depicting the god killing a bull but it was only uncovered after the Second World War, when the area suffered heavy bomb damage and became ripe for development.

A statue of Mithras were found buried beneath the temple, and it may well have later been used by followers of Bacchus, as Mithraism went into decline. Mithraism is sometimes seen as a precursor to Christianity, although I don’t know enough about that to possibly comment.

The temple was dismantled shortly after it was discovered so the construction of Bucklersbury House could continue. The material was put into storage and many of the statues loaned to the Museum of London. In 1962, the temple was reconstructed on Queen Victoria Street, 90 metres from its original site at ground level, embedded in the courtyard of a City office block. It was a particularly dismal and unsympathetic treatment of a genuine archaeological curiosity. Most people had no idea what it was, and even if they did, it was very hard to care.

The site is now owned by Bloomberg, and they are about to start dismantling the temple by removing it from the cement that currently encases it, and then reconstructing it on its original site in what they call ‘a purpose-built and publicly accessible interpretation space within their new building’. This will take three years, but many will rejoice that it is happening at all.