Ever wondered what it would be like to follow the London Underground through the streets? It may be a slower form of transport but you get to see a lot more.
After spending two days exploring the vertical layers of geology that south east London has to offer I now find myself on a train to Brixton. Why? I’m going to explore a different cross section of the city. This time a horizontal one from south west to north east; although once again, the geology has played an important role in this walks origin.
Today I am walking the Victoria underground line, overground; through its streets rather than its intended subterranean course. This journey is inspired by a book I picked up in a charity shop last year. Walking the Lines records Mark Mason’s journey walking all of London’s underground lines overground, visiting its 269 stations. It is littered with fun trivia relating to all of the stations. We’ll look out for some of the landmarks he highlights – but not all with success.
I meet Fran at the station at 8.30 a.m. A huge queue has backed up onto the street as it tries to filter down into the tunnels below. We will follow them at a much slower, but relaxed, rate above ground.
The walk doesn’t start well. We turn out of the station and only after 2 or 3 hundred metres do we realise we’ve gone the wrong way. The correction allows us to decide it would be good to take a photo of each station as we pass it. The only other time we make any real navigation mistake is when following the Euston to King’s Cross #UPWalk signs (encouraging visitors to hike between the stations rather than do the tube). Either the vital one directing us right was missing or we were just too busy chatting. I think the latter is more likely. For the rest of journey Google Maps is our guide.
Brixton station is soon followed by Stockwell. Here we try and identify a plaque that commemorates that this station was one end of the first-ever Tube line. We spot one by the ticket office window and ask the guard about it. He clearly doesn’t know what the hell we are talking about but lets us in to investigate. It’s the wrong one. We scan the walls for further adornments but leave with the mission unaccomplished.
After Vauxhall station we cross its namesake bridge. I make sure we are on the east side so we can peer over to see the River Effra enter the Thames from a culvert below the MI6 building. This ‘lost’ London river, or one of the many others than have been culverted and built over, may be the focus of a future walk.
Next we hit Pimlico. This time we fail to locating a statue of William Huskisson MP – the first person to be killed by a train. I quickly realise that I clearly cannot walk, navigate, read and take in the scenery all at one go. For future references, the statue stands at the Thames end of Pimlico Gardens.
Our fifth station is the one after which the line is named, but it is 10.30 a.m. so before checking-in we slip into Wetherspoons for a traditional cooked breakfast. I opt for apple juice and Fran a Mocha Expresso. A Mocha Expresso I confirm? Up to the bar I head and relay the order. I’m not a coffee drinker but suspect something is amiss. A tiny cup comes back and I take it back to Fran. I can tell by his face all is not right. “Is this a Mocha Expresso?” he asks. It turns out neither of us can read a menu. The coffee choices were:
Fran’s reply is “I did wonder what a Mocha Expresso would be like so thought I’d try one.” He downs the Expresso in one and we are soon tucking into our breakfast as we do a bit of cribbing from Walking the Lines.
Speaking later to Diane Clements, London geology expert extraordinaire, she tells me that another of London’s lost rivers, the Tyburn, runs directly under Victoria Station. These lost rivers are really grabbing my curiosity.
Victoria Station and the surrounding area is undergoing major redevelopment work (we later find out the station had only just re-opened that morning following the discovery of a suspected unexploded WW2 bomb on one of the building sites) and as a result we cannot be blamed for not finding Little Ben. We certainly doubt ourselves at first, and wander round aimlessly for a few minutes avoiding what seems like a crowd of Big Issue sellers and people keen to relinquish us of any change, but a quick Google search confirms that he’s been temporarily removed as part of the work. The 10 metre tall Big Ben replica should be standing in front of the Victoria Palace, which has a golden statue of Anna Pavlova dancing above it in the sky. Being superstitious, she never looked at it as she thought it would bring bad luck.
Keyed into the Palace on its left side is the yellowy-cream building with the words ‘Purveyors of Celebrated Beers, Wines and Spirits’ beautifully sign written above the top storey windows. I don’t notice at first, but then realise only the front of the Duke of York pub remains. Between here and Buckingham Palace we will come across this a few times. It’s as though we are on a film set. Presumably these facades are listed and will be infilled with modern construction? The ones we see later have steel skeletons bolted to their front though. Are these a temporary support measure or will they receive glass frontispieces to continue showing off their distinctive architecture? Only time will tell.
I want to take a small detour to Westminster Cathedral. But it isn’t the red and cream brickwork on the outside, or the opulent pink and green streaky marble on the lower walls and pillars that grabs my attention, it is the huge arches in the ceiling that are made from standard London Bricks that draws a gasp. Fittingly for this walk they remind me of the railway arches and underground tunnels that criss-cross this city. This is what the building is really made of. The rest is just veneer.
We reach Buckingham Palace just as the Changing of the Guard is taking place. Selfie sticks stand to attention as the whistle-blowing soldiers with the bear-skin hats march past. The small troop are easily outnumbered by the mounted policemen. The police are the only English accents I hear as we pass though the throngs. Is it like this every day?
In Green Park we find the Canadian Memorial, a simple but thoughtful red granite commemoration to the vast number of Canadian and New Foundland troops who served in the First and Second World Wars. The slot cut through it is directed towards Halifax, Nova Scotia, the port at which many of the troops embarked for Europe.
Today it is being tended to by a council worker. I say tended. He is standing there on his phone with a litter picker in his hand. The memorial should have water running over the top of the one billion year old granite and its bronze maple leaves. We think he may be there all day. He doesn’t look in any rush. “Perhaps he’s waiting for the water to come on.” adds Fran. Our attention is quickly grabbed by a window cleaner passing by on his company scooter.
We cross Green Park, pass its station and then Oxford Circus’ before arriving at Fitzroy Square. The plethora of blue plaques tell us the great and the good have lived here in the past. One building boasts that both George Bernard Shaw and Virginia Woolf lived there – not at the same time though. I wrongly assume a sculpture in the central gardens is a Henry Moore simply because it has a hole in the middle. Google tells me it is by Naomi Blake and that she lost three-quarters of her family during the holocaust.
Warren Street is quickly followed by Euston. Kings Cross takes a little longer than expected (see above). JK Rowling later admitted that she was thinking of Euston rather than Kings Cross when she came up with Harry Potter’s platform 9 3/4.
On our way through Islington we turn into the vibrant Chapel Market. Long queues have formed at all but one of the lovely looking food stalls – my rule of thumb is to always trust the locals where the good food is, even if you have to wait. But it is one of the fruit and veg sellers who brings me to a temporary halt. He asks his potential customer to feel the two onions he is handing over “Oh yes, very firm” comes the response.“You certainly know your onions, sir!” he quips with a smokers laugh. There is a glint in his eye as he scans the waiting trade. I’m sure he winked too!
With our pace slowing a little we decree its time for a pint as we draw alongside the Pig & Butcher. Refreshed, in fact feeling tired – the pub had its radiators on full blast – we pick up the trail and then, throwing my allegiances aside, we wander over to the Emirates Stadium. I am comforted by the fact that a) Spurs stand one place above Arsenal in the league at the time of this visit and b) that they have to repeat the photos of fans heroes flapping on flagpoles along the Danny Fiszman Bridge – clearly they don’t have enough ‘legends’ to fill a whole bridge!
With Highbury & Islington and Finsbury Park ticked off I find that the pint has caught up with me. I need the loo. We see a sign for McDonalds. 100 metres down Green Lanes says the lamppost banner. I leave Fran and set off. After 10 minutes I wonder whether it said 1000 metres. I finally make it and update Fran by text. I was going to buy something to eat from there out of courtesy, but as they misinformed me I decline out of protest. I’ve added almost a mile to the walk. My feet aren’t happy, but my bladder is now in a better place.
At Seven Sisters we pay homage to the underground we are following my taking the subway under the road to re-emerge on the other side. We almost walk straight past Tottenham Hale before crossing Walthamstow Reservoirs. A loose pothole scares the life out of us as a lorry thunders over it. We reach Blackhorse Road as the light begins to fade. My attention is grabbed by the gable end of a building with a large heart. At first I think the shimmering glossy heart contains a complex series of flashing LEDs but I then realise the wind is blowing tiny pieces of plastic or foil. This simple but very effective mural pays tribute to Walthamstow’s strong artistic and industrial heritage.
Along Warner Road we pass not one but two residential parking spaces that have been converted to domed, corrugated bike stores – nice touch. We finally reach our sixteenth and final station – Walthamstow Central – at 5.12 p.m. having wrongly made a bee-line for its sister in Queens Street just a few minutes before. The Goose Inn is yards from our destination. We slip inside and buy two pints. Fran fittingly has a London Pride. This is swiftly followed by two more and tasty dinner.
It seems right – and our only real transport choice – to take the Victoria Line back to Kings Cross before going our separate ways. Fran texts me as I reach Cannon Street Station to say he’s popped into Pret A Manger for a coffee – not a Mocha Expresso I imagine. They told him he was their special customer of the day and gave him a free Latte Almond Croissant and cookie. “That was the perfect end to a perfect day” he adds. I content myself with having to pay for a Yorkie bar. It tastes good though.
I’m not sure how many miles we’ve done today but as I check my iPhone it says I have walked 47,000 steps. There was a spring in most of them. It was a perfect day and I’ve come away with a far better understanding of London, both above ground and below the surface. Quite literally.
In June I walked the Central Line. Read about it here.