Happy Birthday to the London Tube! 150 Years Old!
If I was heading for a dessert island and I couldn’t take a book or an OS map or the Geographer’s Map of London, then the Map of the London Underground would do just fine. (I know it’s desert.,,,it was but a jocular trifle.)
I love that map and the Underground. Although I’m a mature adult, it has always held a kind of wonder, a mystery and an underlying fear.
Maybe it stems from my childhood when I was a little Welsh girl from the valleys taken to London with my parents for a treat, wearing our best clothes, feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square and admiring the wonderful lions (still a favourite sight…some thing never change) and then going down into the noisy, confined, peculiar bowels of the earth where a rush of warm peculiarly smelly wind preceded the sudden arrival of a rattling, creaking, noisy lit-up sausage of a vehicle which people would surge forward without queuing to get into. The “mind the doors” announcements were particularly unsettling. What were the doors going to do? Take your arm off, actually. The notion of losing a foot or a whole set of fingers because they were bloodily and excruciatingly trapped in the doors was a terror for a long time. Why else would they tell you to mind them?
Unsettling verging on terrifying was the fact that the line was electric – and if you fell off the edge of that platform on to the tracks you would be fried alive before you could so much as scream. Not only did I not want to near the edge of the platform, I didn’t even want to look in case some other hapless traveller stumbled and fell to their certain death.
I didn’t like the steep wooden rattly escalators, I didn’t like the way it got hotter as you went deeper and down. I wondered about how you escape if the power goes off and the trains don’t work and hundreds and hundreds of people couldn’t squash on to the stairs…I hoped there were a whole series of hidden walkways so you could proceed calmly into the light and fresh air, but of course there aren’t any. I still wonder about that today.
My great-aunts, both nurses in London during the Blitz, had told me how people used to sleep safe in the underground tunnels while the bombing went on overhead. To me, it seemed only marginally less scary being underground than in some shelter above ground.
The journey itself was terrifically exciting and worrying, packed into this sausage train with people closed to me than they had ever been before..coats touching.. and no-one looked at you or spoke to each other. Even my parents stayed strangely silent, my dad hanging on to a strap dangling from the roof and holding my hand tight. I thought maybe talking wasn’t allowed because it would take up too much air. People were smelly, the train rocked and creaked and squealed and bumped as though we were scraping the walls of the tunnels in some places. It was a relief when the sausage slowed and stopped but then a few people got off but a whole lot of other people got on, squashing against us even tighter so we couldn’t move at all, not saying anything, not looking at anyone in particular. That’s when I knew that English people were different. That “no talking” thing never happened anywhere I’d been in Wales.
So as far as my relationship with the London Underground was concerned, the die was cast. It’s still love/hate as far as I’m concerned.
I find it so imbued with history and romance and it’s still inherently exciting yet there is a lingering lack of understanding of how it possibly really can be safe? When there is a disaster – which are mercifully few – it does still seem like the epitome of hell on earth to me. It doesn’t stop me using the tube and I’m not generally nervous or neurotic in the least – apart from the fear of heights – but it still creates an undercurrent of anxiety. Memories of of the 7/7 2005 endure and the terrorist threat is ever-present.
In 2012 I went to Hong Kong and Tokyo and experienced the underground train systems in both of those countries. Anyone who has been to Hong Kong airport will know how smooth and quiet and clean and fast is the train journey direct to the hot-spot Central where you emerge into a metropolis of towering shiny skyscrapers. In Tokyo, the tube map is much more extensive and fascinating and complex than our own Underground map. They have it organised the transport system to perfection with fast, clean, timely, quiet, spacious trains that feel like they are running on air, two inches above the tracks. They have women-only carriages at certain times of day, they have whizzy,constantly changing information displays in the train carriages. The commuters wear face masks if they are slightly under the weather, so as not to spread their germs to other people at close quarters.
Not long after returning from the travelling, I was back in GB and went up to London with a friend. We caught the Picadilly line from Hammersmith into the centre. This was, you’ll appreciate, after recent experience of near-silent, gliding trains with passengers who were uniformly well-behaved and courteous.
First, I couldn’t believe how small it was – how low the ceiling of the train and how narrow. The window were smeary, the seat upholstery was dingy and unimpressive. All the seats were taken so we stood, strap-hanging and the train took off with a lurch and a groan. It rumbled, squealed ear-piercingly, scraped, rattled and rocked through the darkness as it picked up speed. It was so, SO noisy. Several passengers were listening to music players with earphones but they must have had to turn the volume up to ear-bleeding level to blot out the noise of the train.
I couldn’t believe how antiquated and noisy it felt in comparison to the super-smooth ride of the trains in HK and Tokyo but hell, it had an unmistakeably British charm and suddenly it felt so very good to be back in London.