Category Archives: Transport

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.’

The cabbies’ capital

This piece is in the 2013 Time Out London Visitor’s Guide. 

Richard Cudlip isn’t one of a kind, he’s one of 22,000 kinds, and London couldn’t function without them. Cudlip is a black cab driver, a licensed taxi driver who spends his days inside one of the world’s most recognisable vehicles and carries in his head the navigational secrets of the city. ‘I put the light on as soon as I leave my road,’ he says. ‘This morning I picked up a job in Balham that took me to Charterhouse Street. That was a nice start to the day.’

By the time we meet for a mid-morning tea in Borough, Cudlip has been to King’s Cross, Soho, Pimlico and Vauxhall, criss-crossing the city in the service of London. ‘Unless you’ve heard through the grapevine about somewhere being busy, you always think about heading for the stations,’ he explains. ‘And now, with Twitter, you have a good idea of where the customers are.’

Twitter hadn’t been invented in 2003 when Cudlip began doing the Knowledge, the gruelling test that every cabbie has to pass before they can drive the black cab. ‘I was working for Ernst & Young and I hated it,’ he explains. ‘My wife suggested I do the Knowledge. I’d wanted to do it in my early 20s, but I wouldn’t have had had the discipline. It’s the last thing you want to do at that age, driving round London on a bike, revising.’

Doing the Knowledge means learning by heart 320 ‘runs’, or trips from one London destination to another, being able to name all the principle roads and landmarks on the way – which amounts to 250,000 streets and 20,000 places of interest. This can easily take four years and sometimes as many as six. ‘The first run is Manor House to Gibson Square, that’s the one you always remember,’ says Cudlip, whose wife is now doing the Knowledge herself.

‘I loved it,’ he says. ‘It was the right kind of challenge. I got to visit all these bits of London I’d never been to. Those 320 runs give you the framework. It covers every postcode in a six-mile radius and gives you a route, in broad terms, around London, from one side to another.’

Cudlip now takes to the streets five days a week. The sort of things that would annoy most people –sitting in London traffic for hours– do not bother him, which is probably why he became a cabbie in the first place. What he enjoys is the freedom and flexibility. If he works a couple of long days, he can take a day off. If things aren’t working out, or he hits his financial target earlier than expected, he can turn off the light and head home. The choice is his.

‘Different drivers work different ways,’ he explains. ‘Some don’t do stations, they’d rather drive around. Others stick to hotels. Some just do airports, which is a very different way of working. You can wait four hours in the feeder park (the holding area for cabs) without knowing what sort of job you will get. You have to pay £6 to work Heathrow, just to cover the cost of the feeder park.’

Cudlip’s perfect day is made up of ‘lots of short journeys. That’s the absolute ideal. If you get a fiver including tip for taking somebody round the corner, it’s perfect. When somebody gets in, I might not know the building they want, but I can work it out close enough so I can make an instant decision about how to get there without having to programme a satnav.’

And even with the Knowledge firmly imprinted in his brain he’s always learning. ‘I love going out every day and seeing a new bit of London,’ says Cudlip. ‘I spent most of my life in London and thought I knew it, but now I know I had no idea.’

The last bus to London Bridge

In the previous post, I linked to The Special London Bridge Special from 1972, which features Tom Jones travelling on a No 13 bus to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, where London Bridge had just been sold. Incredibly, that bus is still in Arizona but it isn’t in quite the same condition as the bridge.

BUS-CABINDISTANCE-COLOUR

Thanks to Travis Elborough for the picture. Travis – who has just published London Bridge In America: The Tall Story of A Translantic Crossing – also pointed me in the direction of this marvellous song by Cilla Black, lamenting love and the loss of London Bridge.

Secret London: inside a cabmen’s shelter

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This piece was published in Time Out in March 2006.

You must have noticed them: jolly green garden sheds that squad in odd spots of London like displaced emerald Tardises, steam coming out the windows and queues of black cabs lining the streets outside. These are London’s few remaining cabmen’s shelters – 13 in all, for 23,000 drivers – places where cabbies can gather to enjoy tea and sympathy away from the hopeful eyes and raised arms of the stranded, late and lazy who make up their regular custom. The Russell Square shelter is the domain of Maureen, 52, who runs a tight ship, keeping an eye on regulars like Ken (‘Say I’m 21’) and Malcolm (‘I’ve been a cabbie for 37 years. That’s all you need to know’).

‘These places are very interesting to the outsider,’ I say, by way of introduction.

‘They’re even more interesting when you’re on the inside,’ Malcolm replies.

He and Ken come in every day, more or less, to swap tales of fares and roadworks, grumble about Ken Livingstone, talk football, and have something to drink and a bite to eat. They’re keeping alive a long tradition. The Cabman’s Shelter Fund was created by Sir George Armstrong, a newspaper publisher who get fed up waiting for cabs in the rain when drivers had decamped to the nearest pub. He started a fund to supply drivers with a place to get out of the cold and enjoy a cheap meal without straying from the cab stand. The first shelter, erected in 1875, was located on the stand nearest his house (in Oxford). Because the shelters stood on a public highway, the police stipulated they weren’t allowed to be any larger than a horse and cart. At their peak, there were more than 60 in London. Although meant for cabbies, the public could also pop in. Ernest Shackleton was said to frequent the Hyde Park Corner shelter, while the Piccadilly one was nicknamed the ‘Junior Turf Club’ by bright young things, who smuggled in champagne despite the strict teetotal licensing regulations.

Their number declined after WWII as they fell victim to bombs and road-widening schemes, but for a time where a notable feature of London life. HG Wells wrote about ‘the little group of cabmen and loafers that collects around the cabmen’s shelter at Haverstock Hill’, while PG Wodehouse went into greater detail in ‘The Intrusion of Jimmy’ in 1910.

‘Just beyond the gate of Hyde Park… stands a cabmen’s shelter. Conversation and emotion had made Lord Dreever thirsty. He suggested coffee as a suitable conclusion to the night’s revels…. The shelter was nearly full when they opened the door. It was very warm inside. A cabman gets so much fresh air in the exercise of his duties that he is apt to avoid it in private life. The air was heavy with conflicting scents. Fried onions seemed to have the best of the struggle, though plug tobacco competed strongly. A keenly analytical nose might also have detected steak and coffee.’

Food, warmth and companionship are the key. As WJ Gordon wrote in 1893’s The Horse World of London: ‘The cabman is not so much a large drinker as a large eater. At one shelter lately the great feature was boiled rabbit and pickled pork at two o’clock in the morning, and for weeks a small warren of Ostenders was consumed nightly.’

The menu doesn’t stretch to rabbit now, with cabbies preferring tucker that is more in keeping with what a tired cabbie needs, and prices to match. Tea and coffee are 50p. Hot food starts at a quid.

Maureen We do soup, sarnies, fry-ups, curries, jackets… I know what everybody wants. I know everybody who comes in, what he eats and what he don’t eat. Malcolm here had boiled eggs with cucumber in rolls. Except Wednesday. He has baked beans on toast on Wednesday. Ken, he don’t eat nothing. He has a cup of tea.

Time Out You don’t eat here?

Ken No! And I haven’t been in hospital either. Look at the pictures: there’s three up there, four, five, six. All dead. And they used to eat in here.

Malcolm That’s why we’ve got the sign up there: ‘God’s waiting room.’

TO It’s for older cabbies then?

Ken No, anyone can use it. We have one young lad comes in – how old’s Gary, Maur?

Maureen Forty-four. Some of the other shelters are very cliquey – no, I won’t tell you which. If a stranger comes in, they’ll say, ‘You can’t sit there, it’s so-and-so’s seat.’ But we’re not like that.

Malcolm We just check ’em straight out.

Maureen No, we’re friendly here.

TO There’s lots of Arsenal flags, do you have to be an Arsenal fan?

Ken We get a lot of Arsenal, unfortunately.

Malcolm The Tottenham fans get in and out early.

Ken We let the Arsenal in here ‘cos they’re not allowed in the other shelters.

Maureen This one’s been going since 1901. It used to be in Leicester Square, but moved up here.

Ken That was in 1960-something. When I started cabbing in 1967, it was in Leicester Square. I reckon it moved in around 1969.

Malcolm They’re not all the same size.

Maureen They’re similar, but some are longer or wider. They never used to look like this inside though. They used to have seating all round the sides and a big square heater in the middle. People would bring their own food to cook, but there was no kitchen – it was really for keeping warm. Now it’s more like a caravan, with a kitchen at one end and tables at the other.

TO I read they were originally built to keep cabbies out of pubs.

Ken Well, that didn’t work did it?

TO Can non-cabbies come in here?

Ken Builders come in sometimes and have a cup of tea, but if it gets crowded they have it away and let the drivers in.

Malcolm Cabbies get priority. 

TO Who owns this one?

Maureen I rent it off the Trust Fund. I pay the rent and the bills out of what I make. It’s all right in the summer, but in winter it gets very cold. Once you start letting people in, it’s okay, and in the summer we have all the doors open or sit outside. We get heat from the ovens as well.

Ken That’s why they have us two come in here before the rest, to warm it up.

TO What are your opening hours?

Ken That’s a sore point.

Malcolm When she wakes up.

Maureen These are the only two who come in at this time, so I open for them.

Ken We’re up early – we go out at 4.30 or 5am. The others don’t start till seven or eight, so they don’t want a cup of tea or a sandwich until about 12 but we get hungry before. I eat elsewhere. I ate here once and was laid up for two years.

TO When do you close?

Maureen About half-five. We get some people sitting here all day.

Malcolm We get a lot of people that put their head round the door looking for cabs or information.

Maureen There’s a bloke from Holland who’s fascinated with black cabs. He comes over now and then to talk. We get people all the time. Who’s that bloke off the radio who talks and talks?

Ken Robert Elms

Maureen Yeah, he’s been in here.

Ken And what’s-his-name, Ricky Gervais, he’s always walking past, says hello. Angela Rippon popped here head in the other day.

Maureen And then there’s that bleeding Madonna. She came in to try and get a cab.

TO Do you get any women cabbies?

Maureen Yeah, we’ve got Marion. But they don’t seem to stay – they have one look and go straight out again. We’ve too many nutters. We’ve Mad Bob, Cockhead, the Village Idiot…

Ken We’re all different in here and we’ve all got our stories.

Malcolm We come in to keep track of who is alive and who is dead.

Maureen You’d be surprised how many we can fit inside. It holds ten or 12 sitting but for Christmas dinner we have 30 or 40 standing inside.

Ken We get slung out, me and Malcolm. It’s better anyway  – if anybody’s going to get a turkey with bird flu, it’s Maureen.

Maureen doesn’t rise to the bait. She’s used to it. And, as it has every day for more than 100 years, the hut fills with the smell of fried onions. The cabbies start to file in for lunch, and I have it away to let them grumble, joke and eat in peace.

A brief history of Covent Garden

There are many reasons to cherish Covent Garden, not least of which is that it exists at all. The area nearly didn’t make it past 1973, when it was scheduled for ‘redevelopment’ after the fruit and veg market moved out. The GLC drew up enthusiastic plans to replace 96 historic acres with a conference centre and lots of roads. The plan was defeated by locals who believed Covent Garden could have a different sort of future, one that didn’t involve hundreds of buildings being demolished and everything getting covered in asphalt. They were eventually proved right, although nobody anticipated that Covent Garden would turn into the upmarket open-air shopping mall it has since become.

Inigo Jones might have approved of its current status, though. It was he who built an elegant Piazza on an old abbey garden in 1630, transplanting a piece of Italy to the centre of London and unwittingly creating that definitively London piece of architecture, the residential square. The area grew in significance after the Great Fire destroyed much of the City, but then decline set it. We may now see Covent Garden as the place where Eliza Doolittle met Henry Higgins, a halfway house between the posh Englishness of Mayfair and louche Frenchness of Soho, but the place got pretty debauched in the 18th century, a hive of taverns, theatres and coffee shops, all haunts for prostitutes like Peg The Seaman’s Wife, Long-Haired Mrs Spencer of Spitalfields and the delightful Fair Rosamund Sugarcunt.

The area’s drift in tone came as the market expanded and the gentry who occupied the Piazza decamped to the newer squares of Berkeley, Grosvenor and St James’s. At around the same time, Charles II reintroduced theatre to the UK, and companies gradually moved from the nearby Inns of Court into Covent Garden by way of Drury Lane. Theatres brought rowdy audiences and actresses who doubled as bawds, and were a magnet for lowlife figures. In 1722, there were 22 gambling dens, countless brothels (one pimp published an annual guide to London’s prostitutes called Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies) and street brawls were commonplace. In 1951, HV Morton argued that Covent Garden provided ‘the most accessible glimpse that remains to us of Hogarth’s London’, but post-war Britain offered nothing quite as depraved as the third plate from Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress, set in Covent Garden’s infamous Rose Tavern. Hogarth depicted the Rose as a den of sin, full of drunks, thieves and whores. The tavern specialised in women who engaged in flagellation, both giving and receiving. Pepys was a regular, although he only seems to mention the food, for which it was also famous.

Given such carnage, it is little surprise that in 1754 Henry Fielding would organise the Bow Street Runners, the progenitors of the Met, from Covent Garden, and the area slowly improved from a hotbed of crime into a straightforward slum. Throughout, the market remained central – Charles Fowler’s fine market building was erected in the 1830s and the Flower Market arrived in 1870 – so it was easy to believe that when that moved to Nine Elms, Covent Garden would wither and die.

Amazingly, though, Covent Garden survived. That is largely due to its fringe attractions, which expanded to fill the vacuum left by the market. Theatre was key – opera was now a decidedly upmarket pursuit – but by the 1980s the area also boasted decent restaurants and, on Neal Street, trendy shops like Red Or Dead and Duffer Of St George. Credit must go to Nicholas Saunders, who opened a wholefood shop in Neal’s Yard in 1976. His alternative empire slowly spread to other buildings, creating a colourful corner of the counterculture in the heart of Covent Garden even as anti-hippie punks gathered round the corner, in the Roxy on Neal Street. Neal’s Yard still has an idiosyncratic flavour – the blue plaque to ‘film-maker’ Monty Python seems well placed (Palin and co had offices here).

What Neal’s Yard illustrates is the way that amid the ubiquitous stage doors, posh shops and cobbled streets, the different parts of Covent Garden retain an individual imprint, from the bookshops of Charing Cross Road to the boutiques of Floral Street, where Paul Smith still has a rickety presence. Seven Dials is one of London’s more interesting shopping areas, while the Piazza has been transformed from a ragged craft market into a chi-chi mall. The idea is to attract Londoners as well as tourists, and the Piazza has certainly smartened up, with the central market a mecca for shoppers, serenaded by opera singers and overlooked by a fancy Apple store in one corner and refurbished London Transport Museum in another.

 

Covent Garden is a patchwork then, more diverse than superficially similar areas like Soho and Spitalfields and still boasting enough fascinating nooks and crannies to keep even the most experienced Londoner busy for hours, even if Hogarth and Fair Rosamund Sugarcunt might no longer recognise the streets they once adored. 

 

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.

How to take your appendix out on the Piccadilly Line

Advice (click to enlarge) from The Brand New Monty Python Papperbok, 1974.

 

 

Bus stops and Brockwell Park: exhibition in Herne Hill

Martin Grover, an artist based in South London, has an exhibition at Le Garage in Herne Hill until Thursday November 1. His paintings are mainly of Brockwell Park, old record covers and bus stops, making him the ideal visual companion to my life.

His bus stop art has now extended from 2D prints into 3D sculptures/installation – in other words, he makes actual bus stops and writes strange slogans on them.

His Brockwell Park paintings are lovely. They are painted from sketches and photographs, although he confesses he makes a lot of it up in the studio, which is why Batman or James Brown might occasionally turn up in one.

Then there are the record sleeves, perfect reproductions of old 45s: often Stax and Motown but also plenty of country and Dylan.

South London Purgatory System at Le Garage until Nov 1, 2012. Mon-Fri, 10.30am-5.30pm; Sat, Sun, 10am-6pm. 

HG Wells, My White Bicycle and hygienic seats: a brief history of cycling in London

This piece is in the current issue of BMI Voyager. The photo of Herne Hill Velodrome is via Adrian Fitch

It’s unlikely that any of the world’s top cyclists will be thinking about London’s history with the bike when they set off from the Mall for the gruelling 250km Olympic road race on Saturday (July 28th), but if they do pause for thought, they’re starting from the right place. The route will take cyclists through Putney, Richmond and Hampton Court deep into the scenic Surrey countryside of Woking and round Box Hill, but it starts and finishes near Hyde Park, which is where cycling in the UK first really took off.

Cycling had premiered in Battersea Park in the 1880s, but it was in Hyde Park that the great Victorian cycling craze went overground in the 1890s. London was still a horse-happy city at the time, so when 2,000 cyclists – mainly women, dressed demurely with natty bonnets– formed a parade to cycle round the park in the spring of 1896, those on horseback didn’t know quite what to make of it. Bicycles were still a new thing. Penny-Farthings had been around for a while, but were about as common a sight in Victorian London as they are now, and it took the invention of the ‘safety bicycle’ – one with wheels the same size and pneumatic tyres – in the 1880s for that to change. Indeed, such was the enthusiasm with which women took up cycling, that Victorians were torn between trying to find ways to make money out of it, and trying to ensure it was morally appropriate. With typical Victorian ingenuity, they managed to do both – the Chaperon Cyclists’ Association supplied female escorts for solo women cyclists for 3s 6d an hour, while to avoid any dangerous friction you could purchase special ‘hygienic’ bike seats, which had a modest dip in the area where a lady’s genitalia would usually meet the saddle.

Hygienic seat or not, this was, almost without exception, a hobby enjoyed by the upper classes – the Lady Cyclists Association of 1895 was founded by the Countess of Malmesbury – and the Olympic road race aptly passes through some of the poshest areas of London, along the luxury-lined Knightsbridge and down through the smart streets of Chelsea to Putney Bridge. In 1896, the Countess wrote wittily in The Badminton Magazine about the dangers of cycling around these very Belgravia streets thanks toa new sport’ devised by Hansom Cab driver: ‘chasing the lady who rides her bicycle in the streets of the metropolis’ excited by the ‘petticoat which “half conceals, yet half reveals”… I cannot help feeling that cycling in the streets would be nicer, to use a mild expression, if he’d not try to kill me.’

It wasn’t until 1934 that a solution to this perennial problem arrived, when the UK’s first bike lane was opened not far from where the road race course makes its progress through West London. This specialist cycle lane stretched for two-and-a-half miles alongside the Western Avenue and was a belated response to the scarcely believable statistics that recorded 1,324 deaths of cyclists on British roads the previous year. Despite these awful figures, cycling groups opposed the innovation, arguing bikes should not be forced to give up their place on the road to the new-fangled motor car. It’s not an argument they were ever likely to win.

Roads will be close to traffic on July 28, however, and as the Olympic cyclists make their way towards the river, they will pass Kensington Olympia, the huge exhibition hall built in 1883 and used for all manner of spectacular entertainment –promoters would think nothing of flooding the arena to recreate Venice In London, for instance. Anything fashionable was fair game and cycling races were held here during the 1890s. A mixed-tandem race – one male rider and one female – attracted huge crowds in January 1896. Weird events like this were common at the time –the Crystal Palace in Norwood hosted a bicycle polo international in 1901 between Ireland and England (Ireland won 10-5).

After crossing Putney Bridge, the race continues through Putney, where one of London’s many Victorian velodromes was once located, drawing crowds of 10,000. Putney also featured in one of the first cycling novels, The Wheels of Chance, by HG Wells, a writer who always had an eye for a new invention. In it, the hero, Mr Hoopdriver, leaves his dull job in Putney to go on a cycling holiday on the South Coast following a route out of London very similar to the one that will be taken by the Olympic racers. The race later passes through Woking, where Wells lived and set part of War Of The Worlds – Woking has boasted a huge statue of a tripod since 1998.

From Putney, the cyclists whizz through lovely Richmond – mind the deer! – before hitting the river at Twickenham, where they pass Eel Pie Island, nexus of London’s mid-1960s rock ‘n’ roll revolution. Numerous legendary bands played shows at the charismatic old dancehall on this tiny island in the Thames, including the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart. Among them was Tomorrow, one of England’s first psychedelic bands (featuring Steve Howe, later of prog-monsters Yes), whose 1967 single “My White Bicycle” was a big counterculture hit in 1966. This splendid slice of trippy frippery was written in homage to the pro-cycling scheme launch by Dutch anarchist collective Provo, who left 50 unlocked white bicycles all over their home city of Amsterdam in 1965, inviting the public to enjoy ‘free communal transport’ and rid themselves from the tyranny of the automobile. The Dutch police swiftly impounded the offending bikes, but the idea finally caught on in recent years in the form of the Paris bike-sharing scheme, Vélib. This idea was appropriated by London in 2010 and came to be christened Boris Bikes after London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, who inherited the scheme from his predecessor Ken Livingstone.

Boris Bikes can be hired by anybody with a chip and pin card at around 500 docking stations in central London. The bikes come without helmet or lock and are pretty hefty, but they are a fairly common sight in London. Although there is an ‘access fee’ (£5 for a week), the first 30-minutes of any ride are free, so smart users hop between docking stations and effectively ride around London for next to nothing. It’s all part of a belated attempt to make London a more-bike friendly city – four giant bike lanes, the blue-painted Cycle Superhighways, have alsobeen created in key commuter routes, with four more planned for 2013. If you want to borrow a Boris Bike to follow the 2012 road race route be careful, as there are few docking stations outside central London and costs soon mount if you go over the initial 30 minutes – while the fines for a late return are high.

From Twickenham, the race heads through Bushy Park and passes the Tudor palace of Hampton Court, before disappearing into the Surrey countryside. After a tour of the Surrey hills, the cyclists will then make the return journey, via Kingston, to the Mall. Sadly, then, there is no time to head to south-east London, where there are a couple of other prime London cycling landmarks. The first is the Herne Hill Velodrome, tucked behind suburban houses down a quiet street near Dulwich. This is the last stadia from the 1948 London Olympics still in use today. Built in 1891, the velodrome had all but closed during the Second World War but was brought out of retirement when London was awarded the 1948 games. It’s had a few scares since then – the gorgeous Victorian grandstand has been a no-go area for years – but was recently awarded £400,000 of Olympic legacy money and plans are afoot to construct a new grandstand, cafe and gym. The venue has played its part in nurturing the latest breed of British champion – Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins raced here.

Herne Hill Velodrome

While Herne Hill lives on, the velodrome at Catford was demolished in the 1990s. Like the stadia at Putney and Herne Hill, this was built in the 1890s, when it attracted a very special guest. Absinthe-soaked dwarf artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is usually associated with the Montmartre area of Paris, but in 1896 he turned up in the particularly drab suburb of Catford. Lautrec was a cycling fan, and had been asked by a company called Simpson to design a poster for their bike, which used a new type of chain. Lautrec was taken to the newly built Catford Velodrome to watch the bike in action during special races, set up by Simpson to advertise their product, and he produced a couple of images during his visit. The poster was one of the last he designed before his death in 1901, just as the Victorian bike craze was coming to an end.

Now that’s what I call a bus trip, baby

Psychedelic Routemaster, from The Day-Glo Designer’s Guide, 1969.