Today sees the London Underground celebrate it’s 150th birthday, and looking down my Facebook timeline, it seems that a lot of the people that I have befriended over the last few years share my love of, in my opinion, one the world’s greatest engineering feats: one of the most groundbreaking projects ever undertaken, and also one of the most endearing and evocative parts of one of the biggest and greatest cities in the world. It has almost become a cliche that the London Underground, much like the Thames was in the 17th and 18th century, is the lifeblood of London. In fact, I think that this would be doing it a disservice. I believe it is not only the lifeblood, but also the city’s beating heart.
It was the Tube that opened up possibilities in life to me, and allowed me to discover London over the last 15 years. My business relies on the tube, and on days when there is a tube strike or maintenance on the Victoria line, my business is routinely 40% down in takings and 85% down in profits. Days like this, whilst a major source of annoyance and an economic irritation, simply serve to show exactly how reliant we are on the London Underground. A few weeks ago, on Boxing Day, Arsenal had to cancel their home game against West Ham when the London Underground staff went on strike, and the network ground to a halt. When the London Underground stops, even multi-billion pound sport stops. One of the greatest testament to it’s success is how much businesses routinely base their operating hours around its limitations.
The London Underground also acts as a marker in the sand for its era. Compare the intricate and ornate curved brickwork at Baker Street, with its intimate low ceilings and narrow walkways that were as much loved in 1863 when they were built as they are now, and you are taken to an era when the train was the most glamorous of all forms of transport. To arrive in central London on the steam train was to arrive in style, and the station’s beauty reflected this. Whilst the route from the train to the station’s exit may have involved more stairs than necessary, the blow was softened by the gorgeous architecture and European style arches. Compare this to the modern logistical cathedral-of-bareness that is Canary Wharf tube station. Only 9 stops along on the same Jubilee line, but a world away in style and practicality. Here, minimalist, wide open expanses and multiple escalators take precedent over ornate and intricate architectural flourishes. In 1999, when the station was built, the need for quick transport, getting from A to B in the shortest amount of time and the prevention of overcrowding was infinitely more important then any reason to linger at the tube station. Times change, and with it too, so do our needs, and the tube stations that we build reflect this. In this way, our tube stations say more about London society then most of us realise.
Much of our love for the London Underground stems from the fact we recognise its imperfections and plan our journeys around them. You only have to look at the interchange at Green Park, and how many people avoid it like the plague, to understand this. But when you compare it to other cities transport hubs, it has a rare balance of style, substance, romance and practicalness that to me is unsurpassed. It also has some of the best names of transport hubs in the world. “Elephant and Castle” “Swiss Cottage” “Maida Vale” and “Picadilly Circus” trip off the tongue beautifully.
Much of London’s definition comes from its tube stations. Tell a friend that you will meet them at Tottenham Court Road at 8 p.m. tonight, and it will go without saying that you mean the tube station, as opposed to the road. Even though the letters that came through the post box at home when I was growing up had Kingsbury written within the address, we had always considered that we had lived in Colindale, simply because the station was only a 10 min walk away from our front door, as opposed to Kingsbury’s 15 min walk. This is illustrative of how whole swathes of London are defined by the London Underground system. Speak to someone in Pentonville, and more often than not they will tell you that they live in Angel or Caledonian Road. If someone says they live in Brent Cross, Marble Arch or St Paul’s, you will think of the tube stations, as opposed to a shopping centre, the monument or a cathedral. Many parts of London are defined by the fact that they are not on the tube network. I once met an American woman, when I was about 19 years old, who had lived in London for approximately one year while studying. When she asked where I was going out that night, and when I replied “Cricklewood”, she said “why don’t you go out in London instead?” Upon telling her Cricklewood was in London, she said “Really? What line is it on?” Informing her that Cricklewood was one of the few places in London that was not on the tube network, she excitedly said “Oh wow, can I come along, I would like to see what that area is like!” Muswell Hill and Primrose Hill will usually have “the village-y feel” that many other parts of London do not have as a direct result of them not having a tube station. To not be on the tube system, is to be cut off from other parts of London, for good or for bad.
I did not actually ever go on the London Underground until I was 15 years old, which considering that that was in 1998, looking back was quite surprising. Even though I lived in north-west London I never really had a need to. I lived walking distance away from my school, and if any visits were paid to relatives who lived in London then my father would drive. However, my love of London grew tenfold upon discovering the endless possibilities that life would throw my way, facilitated entirely by the London Underground. When I was looking for a property recently South London was discounted, upon the fact that there was no tube stations there. Of course, the train networks run regularly, but it is just not the same. The beauty of the London Underground system is exactly how integrated into our life it is. There is no need to plan in advance since the trains are so regular, and it seems to bend its services around your life. Remember this the next time you are downing the last half of your pint in one gulp in order to catch the 9:11pm from Herne Hill to Victoria Station, to avoid a 30 min wait for the next train.
And this goes without saying for most Londoners. If you grew up in London, much of your life is based around its arteries, and it’s regularity means that it fits into your life without thought. When I was 16, one of my cousins from Ireland came over to London. Having spent his entire life on the farm in the country we decided to take him on the tube into central London. Upon walking down the steps into the station, he excitedly said to us “Wow, would you look at that, just as we are coming into the station, the train is coming along the tracks – what are the chances of that!!” It was only when we told him that the trains usually come every 3 mins, so in fact the chance of there being the train waiting for us when we got down to the station was approximately 1 in 6 that he said “but surely they cannot be that many people that you need 20 trains an hour?”. When we got on at Colindale onto an empty train, his theory seem to be proved right. However, it was only when he was gasping for air at Euston, a few stops away from our final destination of Tottenham Court Road, that he understood exactly how much of the demand that the London Underground has created.
I still remember my 1st time going on the London Underground. I had an appointment at the Eastman Orthodontics Hospital in King’s Cross, and I was as nervous about going on a train as I was as going to the dentists. For some reason I had always assumed that it would take a couple of hours to get into central London. Being a huge fan of the Britpop bands of the era, Blur, Oasis etc I had read in numerous magazines about Camden Town being the epicentre of everything that was great and, more importantly, cool, about music. However it was only when I was pulling into Golders Green that it suddenly dawned on me – Camden Town was only 7 stops away from Colindale. The night before I have calculated that it would take about 90 min to complete the journey. But here I was, 3 stops in and only 8 mins into my journey, and by my calculations that would mean that Camden Town would only be approximately 17-20 mins from Colindale. Now, I had barely met anyone in Colindale who had even heard of Blur and Oasis outside of a few close school friends,(bearing in mind these were the 2 biggest bands within this scene that dominated my life) and I put this down to the fact that Colindale was one part of the world, and Camden Town was, geographically as well as culturally, a world away.
As I was approaching Chalk Farm, sense prevailed – there are probably 2 different Camden Town’s!! There was this Camden Town, which I was approaching, which was probably the Camden Town that looks much like Colindale, with a Londis shop being something that someone would go out of their way to visit and not a semblance of a guitar or record shop in sight; and then there was the other Camden Town, the one that was the Mecca for my greatest love. That was it! That can be the only explanation.
However, upon pulling into Camden town station, I instantly sensed that this might actually be THE Camden Town: a man and woman, maybe in their early 30s, and with matching brightly coloured Mohican hair stepped onto the tube, craning their necks to duck down so that their hair would not get caught on the door. The man was wearing a Sex Pistols T-shirt, and had a bolt through his nose. The woman was wearing a Ramones T-shirt, and had approximately 10 to 15 safety pins in each ear. There is no way that either of them would have been seen dead in Colindale. But here I was, 20 min away, and a world away, thanks to the Tube. That day, after going to the orthodontist, I decided to take a trip down to Central London. It is no underestimation to say that finding out that I lived within 40 min, door-to-door, of a road in central London that had approximately 10 guitar shops within 90 seconds walking distance was one of the most exciting moments of my life.
On 7th July, 2005, I, like most Londoners, was horrified by the terrorist attacks that took place on the London Underground system. The fact that the London Underground was chosen was, in some sort of sick way, a testament to the regard that even terrorists would hold the London Underground in. Nothing can be more iconic, be held as close to people’s hearts and to strike fear into the entire spectrum of London’s residents, than to choose it’s beloved transport system as the target of an attack. At the time I was just setting up my recording and rehearsal studio complex, (Bally Studios, in Tottenham Hale) and my blood ran cold when I remembered a phone conversation I have had a few weeks earlier.
“Mr Mulvihill, we are going to need you to come down to the Moorgate office of the Princes trust on 7th July, at 9 a.m., to go through the meeting with the mentors, to help with any questions that you have. Is that okay?”
“7th July? Is that the soonest that you can do?”
“Well, we have either 7th July or 14th July, so if you want to get it out the way as soon as possible then I would recommend 7th July”
“Someone I was speaking to said that you also had 30th June, the week before, can I not come down then? I am desperate to start the business as soon as possible “
“No, I am afraid not, as all the places for that day have been taken. I can always let you know though if anyone cancels? Is July 7th good for you then?”
“Yeah, go on then, I will see then!”
With that I put the phone down, and it was 10 mins later I received a phone call, from the Princes Trust, informing me that somebody had cancelled their session on 30th June, and would I like to take it from them? I gratefully accepted the unexpected vacancy, and was glad to have sped up the process by a week. However, maybe as a result of only discovering the London Underground later in life, I took the train from Tottenham Hale to Liverpool Street, and from there instead of going west to Moorgate, I accidentally went east to Aldgate. Checking back over my ticket a few days later showed that I had got the train from Liverpool Street to Aldgate at 8:48am, and the revelation in the news that one of the bombs have gone off between Liverpool Street and Aldgate at 8:50am terrified me. It terrified me for a few hours, but then afterwards I just got on with it, much like the rest of London.
When the London Underground was being built in the 1860s, machines that dug the hard clay earth away to allow the tracks to be laid broke down, and workmen simply ran to a nearby shop and grabbed metal buckets and used these to scrape away the soil instead. It shows how the network’s history is book-ended by a make do and try-to-make-the-best-of-the-situation attitude. Now, 145 years later, Londoners were having the same attitude, and within days of the bombings the tubes were packed again. What other choice was there?
However, even this close scare did not stop me traveling on the Underground, and I can honestly say that in the many years since those events, the thoughts of anything else similar happening have rarely crossed my mind, if ever. The London Underground is tough, and resilient. It has survived through 2 world wars, acts of terrorism, economic crisis and come out stronger than ever. The worst aspect of it is the overcrowding and the price, but these are strange testaments to their quality, for people are willing to put up with both to ride it. The service is better than it has ever been, and passenger numbers are officially at all-time highs. It’s only weaknesses seem to stem from its unprecedented success. While transport for London have the headache of trying to accommodate Crossrail, and redevelop Tottenham Court Road station, both of which are universally seen as essential to solve the problems of overcrowding, we must never forget that the only reason that these problems have come up in the first place is because of the unprecedented success of the London Underground. Not even the most insanely optimistic person could have imagined in 1900, when Tottenham Court Road station opened to the public, that just over 100 years later, nearly 40,000,000 people per year would be using the station, and this was a number also reflected that many people go out of their way to avoid the station due to it is overcrowded nature. Tottenham Court Road is a shining example of exactly how the very point that people make to supposedly show the weakness of the system, in fact only backs up its unrivaled success. Where else in life can a service be labelled a failure because too many people want to use it?
There is no doubt though that in order to satisfy the demand that has arisen for the London Underground that expansion work needs to take place. Much as the London Olympics was deemed a massive success, helped in no small part by the staggering number of people who relied on the system, in order for the city to grow, so too must the network. The fact that successive governments have supported each other proves that even politicians, who are known to want to prevent throwing good money after bad, can agree on its virtues. As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the London Underground, we as Londoners have a lot to thank it for. And though we might grumble about the price, complain about its lack of 24 hour use, and bemoan the overcrowded trains we so often squeeze onto, the fact that today we are investing billions of pounds into continuing and expanding the fine work that was started 150 years ago, with trains that are better than they ever were, and passenger numbers that are consistently growing, simply proves how right they got it, by starting the network, back in 9th January 1963.