London: Central Line

London: Central Line

Central St Martins – 1: College

[Still needs work on…Ealing Broadway spur]

From my earliest days, whenever I got a diary in my Christmas stocking I would look at the Underground map in the back cover and fantasise about the exciting places that lay at the eastern end of the Central Line: Epping Forest, the Loop, Ongar… while from student days I remember the pleasure of Betjeman’s jolly poem about Ruislip Gardens in the west. The reality, of course, turns out to be rather more ordinary – and the Ongar branch, in particular, has been chopped off due to lack of passengers! Still, here’s the map that we’re going to be working through:

The Central Line combines many elements of the London story, and that’s part of its charm. My journeys here span everything from very posh suburbs to the definitely down-at-heal; burned-out industry to rural charm; bleak economic despair to the joys of materialism-gone-mad. And along the way a number of weird and wacky church experiences. But the main story is just of ordinary people building their lives through 120 or so years that include the 20th century, and not doing too badly at the end of it. The Central Line may simply be the epitome of the Tube, or something like The complete Tube experience. And certainly after all my exploring I’ve come to be rather fond of it.

Wikipedia tells us the Central Line is the longest Underground line and the second busiest – though since it makes similar claims for the Victoria, Piccadilly and Northern Lines I suspect the claim depends somewhat on just what you’re measuring (passenger-miles, passenger-hours, time spent waiting in tunnels, etc etc.) It has 46 miles of track, and serves 49 stations, and its electric rail system is unusual in having some of its connectors set on little piles of concrete (yawn, yawn…) Lastly, the Central Line follows the lines of streets in the City rather than running under buildings, so some of its twists and turns are a bit tight. This twistiness leads to a lot of curved platforms and cries of “Mind the Gap”, which reaches its notorious worst at Bank Station.

I didn’t get to it all in one day, of course. The bulk of the work here was done on eight hard-working days in the summer of 2010, which may explain slight discontinuities in aspects like the sky colour or the direction of the light. The other thing to note by way of justification is that rather than simply ‘wander about’ I made a point of planning some of the route round Pevsner‘s view of interesting local buildings. I didn’t follow his interests slavishly, but he did make the journey twice as long as it should have been, and it’s certainly his fault there are so many churches.

Lastly: it’s embarrassing to confess – but I had to on a number of occasions – that I had taken days off work, repeatedly driven 100 miles and back, travelled for 2 hours on the Tube and then cycled 20 miles, neglected my social life and bought a flat in London: and all so that I could ride my bike through the most boring parts of a city which isn’t even my main home. But coming at a time when I was also thinking deep thoughts about me, my life and my work, it gave me time to think about both my failings (e.g. obsessing over stupid projects) and my strengths (e.g. scoping out a complex task and then having the tenacity to complete it.) And the ability to reflect on it and write it up afterwards. So I have no regrets!

Let’s get moving.

West Ruislip

The intention with all of these Tube Line journeys has been to cycle from station to station, getting a feel for the local landscape and noting points of interest on the way. For the logistics, it’s assumed that I’ll have some means of getting to and from the end-points, particularly since I’m normally so worn out after a day on the bike that I’m certainly not going to cycle back to the start again. Usually this works out well enough: after all, with a Tube station at either end it should be easy, and if I have a car to hand as well it should be almost trivial. But I hadn’t reckoned with the Central Line…

On my West Ruislip day I didn’t have a car with me, but I wanted to start properly in the West and travel in a consistent manner to the East. The answer looked simple enough – take the bike there on the Tube and cycle into London: but apart from the fact that bikes are not allowed during rush-hours, there are also limitations on which lines will take them at all. Sometimes this applies only to a couple of stations, but to get from home in Kennington to West Ruislip as a destination is a considerable challenge. The best option seemed to be to cycle to Westminster, take the District Line to Baron’s Court, then travel to Ruislip on the Piccadilly Line, and then hop across a few streets to West Ruislip. It would all have worked well except that even the District Line part seemed to take forever; and Piccadilly Line trains all the way to Ruislip are extremely infrequent. My train eventually gave up at Rayners Lane, three stations short.

I could have waited around and done the rest on the Metropolitan Line, but I figured if I got off here I could inspect a few Piccadilly Line stations as well. Well, two hours later it was 4.30pm, and I had just arrived at West Ruislip!

Happily there’s not a lot at West Ruislip, so I didn’t have to hang around. Ruislip itself sounds mildly exciting (an old church, a new church, a cottage or two) but we’ll cover that on the Piccadilly Line trips: out to the West, it’s all just 20th century suburbs. And the station itself is about as dull as they get.

West Ruislip Station

West Ruislip Station

Station Roundel

Is it worth mentioning there was originally a plan to extend the line out to Harefield Road and Denham? Probably not, though here’s a link to the Wikipedia article. And happily there’s more excitement to come.

Ruislip Gardens

Inspiration kicks in even on the way to the next station. Ruislip Gardens is home to RAF Northolt and the Polish War Memorial, but it’s also familiar to lovers of kitsch modern poetry such as that by John Betjeman. Betjeman was pilloried in the 1960s by ‘proper’ poets for his dum-de-dum style, and detested by architects for his love of of Victorian buildings – but nowadays he’s rather more celebrated. He, more than anyone else, managed to capture ordinary 20th century life, experiences and aspirations; and “Middlesex” is a charming coming-together of some of his great loves – strong, capable young women; the suburbs of Metroland and the new electric trains that made it possible; and just a touch of nostalgia for a disappearing rural England.

Middlesex, by John Betjeman

Gaily into Ruislip Gardens
Runs the red electric train,
With a thousand Ta’s and Pardon’s
Daintily alights Elaine;
Hurries down the concrete station
With a frown of concentration,
Out into the outskirt’s edges
Where a few surviving hedges
Keep alive our lost Elysium – Rural Middlesex again.

Ruislip Gardens Station

Station Roundel

Outside, the station’s rather more prosaic – in fact it’s awful. Nothing remotely to lift the spirits here, though the local shopping parade offers some early 20th-century charm. It’s just a pity about the betting shops at ground level…happily missing from this photo.

The very dull front to Ruislip Gardens Station

A touch of grand 1920s shopping parade

I had naively pictured Ruislip Gardens as the name of a street, but in fact it turns out to be the name of a whole area of nurseries and farms which – rather ironically – disappeared under houses once the railway arrived. Betjeman’s poem could hardly be more accurate, though again these are good solid houses where people have lived happy lives.


…and again

Right opposite the station is RAF Northolt, a small airfield without a lot of justification these days except that it’s a good place for visitors to and from London who are too important, or sensitive, or just plain wealthy, to rub shoulders with the common people at Heathrow. Rather like Andrews Air Force Base is in Washington DC. When planes are flying the traffic gets stopped on part of the nearby road, though that didn’t help me: as a cyclist I’d paused at the half-way point to look at my map, when suddenly there was a noise out of hell…!

Rather too close for comfort!

Polish War Memorial

More placid is the Polish War Memorial just down the way. I’ve seen this signposted off the A40 many times and always assumed it’s some vast well-kept cemetery: in reality it’s a tiny little plot on a rather sad corner of a road junction. But it’s a pleasant enough stop if you’re on a bike.

South Ruislip

The residents of South Ruislip seem cursed all ways: rotten weather, nothing at all of interest, and a Sainsburys where I spent 20 minutes arguing over the price of a Meal Deal (a sandwich, a Coke and a bag of fruit – where a change from grapes at 50p to cherries at £1.00 pushed the price up by £1.30!) Conceivably their curious 1970s Tube station might look better in sunshine – and after all it is does look like it’s trying to be a Charles Holden one – but even Wikipedia doesn’t profess much interest here. Happily there’s plenty going on just down the road across the boundary with Northolt.




The three Ruislip stations had left me feeling everything was a bit dull around here, so it was a pleasant surprise to find a number of charms in Northolt. The first is a strange group of artificial hills laid out along the A40 road, which have been catching my attention for a while as I’ve whizzed past. They look a bit like Oregon volcanoes, but they’re actually built from all the rubbish and spoil left over from building the new Wembley Stadium; apparently the park even “paid for itself”‘ by cutting the number of lorry journeys to landfill sites and the accompanying costs of disposal. The story sounds a little over-egged, but the park is pleasant enough and will surely become more so once it’s matured a bit. In particular a climb up the spiral path on the central hill is well worth it for the views – both of the central London skyline and of the lovely A40 itself.

Northala Fields

View to Central London, with familiar landmarks

View over the busy A40

From the peak you can also see the next attraction – the 700-year-old church of St Mary, largely untouched by progress and set in a lovely churchyard on a delightful little hill. No matter that they have no toilet, that the chancel and nave don’t really fit together, and that they have a crazy bell-ringing apparatus called an Ellacombe Frame: Greville the vicar welcomed me warmly and we had a good chat about the history and the plans he has for the future (including a new toilet.) His was the first of three really warm welcomes I had at churches on this part of the trip: a real contrast (and quite “meaningful” in its context, if you believe in “guidance”) to the five churches I’ll mention later where the welcome was dismally bad.

St Mary the Virgin, Northolt

The lovely 16th century Gallery

Pictured below is the Ellacombe Frame – an apparatus designed by the Rev Ellacombe of Gloucestershire. Supposedly he fell out with his ringers – a very unwise move – so he invented this system whereby one person could ring the bells on their own and avoid the need to deal with a band of aggressive drunken bell-ringers. You simply tug the ropes and play out a method on the bells.

It may have been OK as far as it goes, but it’s nowhere near proper bell-ringing, of course – and the normal advice to ringers these days is “don’t go near the thing because they’re always unsafe”. For one thing it relies on hammers hitting the bells, so the sound is far inferior to a good swinging peal – and for another it’s jolly hard work for just one person to operate. Here the cord on the right runs to a small sanctus bell, while the other three ring the “real” bells; and in fact someone has written out the method for Plain Hunt on Three. I’m no expert (yet) but I can’t imagine there are any other decent methods on only three bells: though to ring even Plain Hunt on Three by this method would require such concentration of thought and dexterity of fingers that it would be quite hard work.

A ghastly Ellacombe Frame

Plain Hunt on Three

By the way, I’ve yet to meet any Gloucestershire bell-ringers who are remotely drunken and aggressive.

The simple chancel (well, trying to be…)

Lovely roses in the churchyard

Public buildings in Northolt seem robust without being threatening. There’s a striking clock tower on the Green, while down the road is the Anglican church of St Barnabas: a strangely appealing pile of 1930s brick. I’d have gone in if it had been open, and I’ve no doubt I’d have found elegant soaring arches and a generally quiet, cool feel. St Bernard’s Catholic church by contrast looks like a comprehensive school from the 1970s and rather less appealing: but I didn’t go in there either, so I can’t really say much about it.

Northolt Clock Tower

St Barnabas’ Anglican Church

St Bernard’s Roman Catholic Church

Lastly, let’s consider the station itself. Dull and boring in the manner of these western Central Line stations, the platform environment is at least reliable and functional, and feels like it’ll be fit-for-purpose for the next 30 years. Compared with many Tube stations that’s certainly something to be thankful for.

A rather dull moment on the platform

Northolt Station exterior

Station Roundel


In 1987 there was a horrible fire at Kings Cross Tube Station in which 31 people died. The cause was eventually tracked down to a lighted match discarded on a wooden escalator – so afterwards all wooden escalators were banned from the Tube. All, at least, except the one at Greenford – which being above ground was allowed to survive, and which is now famous as one of the few wooden escalators you can see anywhere. Close inspection suggests there’s less wood here than you might think…the sides are certainly metal, and I suspect the sub-structure is too: but the treads look authentic. But hundreds of people visit Greenford Station each year simply to pay homage to this wonder!

Spacious 1930s ticket hall

Greenford Station Exterior

The famous wooden escalator

Station Roundel

Apart from this I found little to report in Greenford: there’s a pleasant connection to the Grand Union Canal, but that’s another trip on another day.


Ah, Perivale! A name to conjure up the early 20th century – semi-detached suburbs, light industry, electric railways and Art Deco. The reality is less exciting, but we do find one of the classics here – the wonderful Hoover Factory. Let’s begin, though, with the sweeping front of the station. It is, of course, by Charles Holden – as indeed was the front skin of the building at Greenford.

The magnificant frontage to Perivale Tube Station

And so to the Hoover Building on the A40, the busy Western Avenue: perhaps the epitome of the whole Central Line in just one building.

Like the Black Cat Factory in Camden this is a glorious Art Deco pile, celebrating colour and light, electric power, speed and industry – and their role in improving the lives of ordinary people. It’s Charles Holden’s era too, of course – though arguably he did even more interesting things with simple brick and concrete. At the end of the day the Hoover Building is just a big box with some exciting decoration sprayed over it, while Holden’s buildings though smaller are truly sculptural and creative. Later generations (and writers like the original Pevsner) certainly understood this distinction and despised buildings like this on the principle that a factory should look like a factory and therefore dull. But there’s just such a sense of fun, excitement and confidence here that you can’t put it down. I know even without going inside how big and echoey those floorplates are, and how wonderfully light the staircases are; so let’s have more of those lovely light interiors, those fantastic geometrical shapes, and Hercule Poirot on the Orient Express…  

The Hoover Building

Corner stairwell

The glorious main door

A detail from the corner

Just across the road there’s a branch of Lloyds Bank obviously built around the same time, though perhaps a little earlier. It’s a much smaller building but it shows that same sense of decorative fun…and just for completeness I’ve thrown in an entry from the Black Cat factory in Camden:

Lloyds Bank

Black Cat Factory

Grand though the Hoover Building is, it didn’t survive as a factory once Hoover had moved their operations first to Wales and then overseas. For many years it stood derelict and in danger of being knocked down – like some of its sad counterparts along the A4 – but thankfully Tesco’s have stepped in and rescued it. The ‘shape’ of the Tesco store is rather different from the original shape of the building: they don’t occupy all the floors, and half of the store is a ground-level extension at the back – but on the whole they’ve done a sensitive job of levering the new into the old.

Away from Tesco’s, though, we quickly encounter some more original and gritty-looking industry in an estate of small engineering and repair companies. Most of these look to be on their last legs, but I guess that’s the way of car workshops and the like; and some of them live in charming 1930s and 1950s buildings.  

A rather nice survivor from the 1930s

A less nice survivor from the 1970s!

I mention the industrial estate particularly because as you cycle through it you notice a stunning modern church at the end, surrounded by a high security fence. “Why on earth would anyone put a church here?” you ask, but the answer is that beyond the church we’re back to housing estates. Whether the people who live there feel this is a valid statement of identification with Christ the Worker, or just feel it’s mildly ugly to have their church on the edge of an industrial zone, I never worked out – but I did find a very warm welcome which again contrasted with what happened further on.

Stumbling into the church on a Saturday lunchtime I wasn’t surprised to find a meeting of some sort going on…happily it was in a room behind the altar, so I figured I wouldn’t be noticed as I roamed around. But one keen soul sussed me out and came to talk…”It’s a Leaders Meeting. We have one every couple of months; we don’t have a PCC, we have a meeting of leaders from various groups in the church. We’re very different – we don’t even have churchwardens!” It turned out they were discussing how to increase lay leadership, and of course she was delighted to hear about me…”ooh, I can go back and say I’ve met a Lay Reader.”

I don’t think they’re quite as radical as they believe, but it was a fun five minutes…and they certainly seem to have a nice workable building which they’re making good use of. I came away feeling – for the second time in the day – somehow affirmed and loved, as if I had come into a community where I matter in some way. This sounds like terrible arrogance, but compared with a lot of life, and even with the church experiences further on, it felt really good to actually ‘fit’ somewhere. Perhaps I might even have something to give here…

Here’s a link to the church of St Mary & St Nicholas, Perivale.

Hanger Lane

Oi! What are you doing?
Hey! Who are you and what do you think you’re doing?
For the third time, are you going to tell me why you’re photographing the church?

Well, for the first time, you have no right to ask, since I’m only standing in the street…

So ran my conversation with a rather aggressive man down the road who didn’t seem to look or behave at all like the Associate Vicar he subsequently turned out to be. The title itself is an anomaly, and there were a number of other things about this man that didn’t quite seem to add up – but once we’d sorted ourselves out he was generous in showing me all over his project to refurbish this strange church, where in the 1950s the architect Nugent Cachemaille-Day slapped a modern box onto an ancient little chancel to accommodate the growing population. Strangely it’s not as horrible as it sounds; and properly handled and expensively refurbished, the box will be a very uplifting space. At the moment it’s a building site, but if the church manages to do the job with anything like the quality they’ve put into the older part it’ll be well worth a visit in 5 years’ time.

Cachemaille-Day is not a name I recognised, though in a Gloucestershire context the church of St Barnabas at Tuffley came to mind. It turns out he did indeed do both churches, and since discovering this place at Hanger Lane I’ve located a number of others. They’re all rather modern, usually yellow brick; but he seems to achieve a rare mix of monumentality and elegance that can be really rather attractive. “Sculpture in brick” might be a good way to describe it. And he might be useful if I ever have to rustle up a dissertation on something…

The modern front on the street

St Barnabas, Tuffley – another Cachemaille-Day church

Inside the “box”, a soaring space with elegant columns

The ancient chancel, now beautifully restored

As for the Associate Vicar…well I came straight home and checked him out, of course. “A rough diamond in the kingdom of God” probably sums it up…though I think both of us working together on the same team might be a bit of a challenge.

Hanger Lane Station itself started off as a nice 1940s station on the side of the A40, but at some point in the 1970s it got engulfed by the Hanger Lane Gyratory system. You could call it a Roundabout, but that would be misleading: a roundabout is usually actually designed, with a reasonably constant radius and a balance of traffic coming from all directions: but the Hanger Lane Gyratory is simply a label to record the fact that five major roads crash into each other here and join up in the most horrible ways imaginable. At one point there are 7, yes 7, lanes of traffic running in parallel, and it’s no surprise that in 2007 the system was voted “Britain’s scariest road junction”. If, however, you can find your way through the miles of underpasses the station itself turns out to be quite pleasant. It even has free toilets in a moderately good condition!

Hanger Lane Station – exterior

The attractive airy interior

Happily at track level all is pretty normal

Station Roundel

The underpass system is phenomenally complex and confusing…but from time to time there are signs which give you hope that some day you’ll get out. Meanwhile above ground there’s a nice view of the new Wembley Stadium coming into view. I can’t think of any reason at all to go there, but somehow it’s reassuring to see its arch towering over west London.

You can get lost here for hours…

The view to Wembley Stadium

North Acton

Somewhere around now it all seemed to fade into a blur…new buildings, old buildings, scrappy bits of roads and no clear path through it all. Perhaps it was post-lunch fatigue; perhaps North Acton really is that way. Even the station itself is a muddle, though happily someone cares enough to adorn it with hanging baskets of flowers.

North Acton station

Lots of trains

Opposite the station are some huge new speculative housing blocks: they’ll do fine if the market holds up, but I got the feeling that if it falls these could end up being quite threatening places to live. Such is modern development, I suspect. A different kind of long-term home is the pleasant North Acton Cemetery just down the way, which sports an excellent piece of Victorian cemetery chapel architecture.

Rather heavily-developed apartment blocks

North Action Cemetery

On Pevsner’s recommendation I diverted off south of the railway line to see a couple of significant churches. St Gabriel’s is a dark brick creation of the 1920s, featuring particularly wild Decorative tracery in its windows. (It isn’t especially evident in the photo, but the stonework in the that big round window does indeed look ridiculously flamboyant.) It would all be a lot nicer if the church wasn’t now festooned with hideous orange noticeboards yelling out MASS AT 11.00 ON SUNDAYS, which make it look like a branch of Homebase.

The second church might also have been interesting but there was a wedding party guarding the gate who looked rather threatening: so I passed on. Happily just up the road was yet another mis-spelled shop sign to add to the collection…

“Wild” St Gabriels

Cash and Cary. I hope they didn’t pay much for that sign!

At this point the journey takes a little diversion in order to include the Ealing Broadway spur. The “main line” story resumes at East Acton, but first we’ll do Ealing Broadway and West Acton.

Ealing Broadway

My first proper encounter with Ealing Broadway was on the day I took the Tube to West Ruislip, though in fact I’ve passed through on fast Great Western Trains hundreds of times. That journey itself ran so late that I gave up the will to cycle any further on the Central Line after only four stations at Northolt: by then it was after 7pm so I figured I’d take the bike all the way home on the Tube by getting the Central Line to East Acton, then “dodge” from East Acton to Ealing Broadway, and then take the District Line to Westminster. The plan went well enough as far as Ealing, but at that point a very common Tube event kicked in…there’d been a fire at Barking on the Hammersmith & City Line, so all the District Line trains were halted until further notice. Groan. Massive groan.

As it turned out, the hold-up was only half an hour or so – and it gave me a chance to wander round the station, even if not to get out and sample the local delights. The station is a sort of depot and crossing point for half the Tube and main line services out to the West of London, so it’s big and sprawly; this allows a lot of old railway stuff to be displayed including a rather nice old station roundel:

Today’s Station Roundel

A much older one

West Acton

More to come…


East Acton

There’s been a very long-running job to rebuild the busy A40 road as it runs through North and East Acton: it’s a project that seems to have been going on even since my student days over 30 years ago. The government spent about 15 years buying all the houses along the road so they could widen it; then another government came in and decided not to bother. The result was a lot of vandalised empty houses and a road that was one of the worst eyesores in the country. In the 1990s a further government decided to make the best of a bad job, tidy it up and do some little improvements where it was feasible. One their surprising successes has been cutting the traffic from 3 lanes to 2, which seems to have speeded things up; and it’s also given scope for a vast network of weird and wonderful cycle lane markings. Here’s one of their more confusing efforts…you can just imagine the council workies’ comments as they marked this one out!

When bicycle lanes turn bad

Station Roundel

At East Acton the Ealing spur joins the main Central Line, so – phew! – we’re all back together again.

I’ve recently driven through all the different “Actons” many times on the A40, but I’d forgotten that a long time ago I used to park at East Acton station when I came to London. At the time it seemed clever to get this far then park free of charge on the street, but looking at it now I wonder how I ever dared leave my car somewhere so dodgy-looking. These days I’d pay £3.70 and park at Osterley or North Ealing on the Piccadilly Line, and travel to my destination happier and quicker. 

East Acton Station – cute, but just a bit scary outside

Down on the platform

Why does it feel dodgy? Mainly, I think, because the immediate area round the station feels very scruffy and nasty. OK, Wormwood Scrubs Prison is nearby – but so are a lot of carefully laid out council housing in rather pretty Arts & Crafts styles. It may be a nice area, but I’m not convinced.

You don’t want to do time in “The Scrubs”

Rather pretty local housing

White City

You’d think that getting closer to the centre of London there’d be more excitement and stuff to report on. Oddly there doesn’t seem to be, and the Central Line from here to about Marble Arch is surprisingly boring – simply passing through increasingly wealthy housing areas where the upper middle classes have built themselves nice places to live over the last couple of centuries. So the last bit of truly “interesting” stuff for a while is the BBC-land that sprawls over the White City area.

Broadcasting House in the centre of London was the original BBC headquarters – and we’ll see it later on the journey – but in the 1950s and 60s the BBC started a move out to White City that’s been going on ever since. It began with Television Centre, famous as one of the world’s few doughnut-shaped buildings and also familiar to every child of the 60s because the BBC loved filling programmes like Blue Peter with tours of the building. Somehow it mattered to us kids to see the sets for Doctor Who, or to learn that the Cyberman costumes were really made of old curtains with gold paint sprayed on. Or, indeed, to see the cameras that filmed Val Singleton, Christopher Trace and Petra (the dog), every Monday and Thursday. It all conveyed a sense of London in general, and television in particular, as an exotic world where only special people dwelt. In those days, of course, all TV had to be made in a studio, and much of it was live.

The excitement of 1960s Television Centre (yes, honestly!)

BBC World Service – much more 2000s

Television Centre was actually planned as a rolling programme of development and some of the complex was only finished off in the 1980s. By then the assumption that all TV has to be made indoors in huge studios was long-gone, and nowadays the huge spaces in Television Centre aren’t so much used. There’s even talk of the site being redeveloped or sold off, with the BBC merely renting space back as it needs it. But some of the building, happily, is listed – so we should be able to re-engage with that wonderful 1960s excitement for some years to come.

The BBC itself, of course, has continued to grow and develop – and just up the road is the huge development housing the World Service. As one who’s lived overseas (and indeed as one who regularly listens to the radio through the night even in Britain) I’ve long thought the World Service is one of the finest achievements of the British Empire. Not that its tone is, or has ever been, strongly Imperialist; rather its feeling of searching for truth, its impartiality, and its general “good quality” make it to me one of our national treasures. Long may it thrive.

White City Station

The pleasant airy interior

White City Station itself is a nice piece of 1930s/40s architecture: its construction was halted by the war and this long period of building seems reflected in its style. Outside you might think it was 1930s Charles Holden, but those big metal-framed windows are surely 1950s, and the inside confirms it. I particularly like the big long lettering saying  TRAINS  and  TICKET OFFICE  just visible on the interior walls; and meanwhile there’s a Festival of Britain plaque commemorating the whole thing.

Shepherd’s Bush

The BBC seems to occupy most of Wood Lane, and to go with its exalted importance the place seems full of Tube stations. We won’t consider Wood Lane Station here since it’s not on the Central Line, though on the map it has a connection to White City – probably by the kind of mythical link they also draw between Bank and Monument. But don’t fret – there’ll be another station along in a minute: in fact there are two, both called Shepherd’s Bush. One does the Overground, the other the Underground, and both are brand-spanking new. Why have they been rebuilt so lavishly? The answer can only be – the Westfield Shopping Centre.

Westfield may be the biggest shopping centre this side of the Atlantic; it also seems to me to be one of the most soulless I’ve ever come across – but that could be due to all the 2000s retro-1970s decor. And at least it’s clean and well-lit, with nice restrooms.

Shepherd’s Bush Overground

Shepherd’s Bush Underground

Station Roundel

Just a very tiny part of the Westfield

Before we rush on, we’ll take a moment to savour the original Shepherd’s Bush underground station. It may not look anything very special, but it marks the beginning of an encounter with Harry Bell Measures, the architect who built a run of stations for the Central London Railway, the forerunner of the Central Line. More of him at our next stop.

The original Shepherd’s Bush station by Harry Bell Measures

Holland Park

Holland Park as a district deserves more attention than I’m giving it: as one of London’s most up-market areas you need a mortgage just to buy a coffee here, and I suspect it’ll be the subject of a separate walking trip some day. It’s a good opportunity, though, to have a proper look at Harry Bell Measures, whose station still survives here.

As the architect of most of the stations on the original Central London Railway I suspect Bell Measures holds the dubious title of “architect who’s been the most knocked down”, though not necessarily because they were bad buildings. More likely I think it’s because where the Central Line runs, there’s constant pressure to redevelop the sites for their commercial potential – so any opportunity to move stations underground or to rebuild them as part of mega-shopping-complexes has been greedily taken. On my journey here Shepherd’s Bush has already gone, and here’s the rather sad complete list to come (with links included to the Wikipedia articles):

Shepherd’s Bush Demolished
Holland Park Still in use
Notting Hill Gate Demolished 
Queensway Still in use
Lancaster Gate Demolished
Marble Arch One entrance supposedly still there, though I’ve never noticed it
Bond Street One entrance supposedly still there, though I’ve never noticed it
Oxford Circus Still in use
Tottenham Court Road Demolished
British Museum Demolished
Chancery Lane Still standing, but no longer used as a station
St Paul’s Demolished
Bank No surface building ever existed

I’m not sure Shepherd’s Bush really fits the pattern, but all of Bell Measures’ other stations have a standard style: broad sweeping arches over the windows, usually including at least one with three “lights” and a big doorway in the middle; a generous ‘entablature’ round the roof which allows for subsequent building construction to upper storeys; and mustard-yellow terracotta tiling on the walls. Holland Park is a bit shaded by trees these days, but fundamentally the station is unchanged.

Time, I think, for a link to the Wikipedia article on Harry Bell Measures.

The original Holland Park Station

The same station today

Holland Park itself is a very grand affair, but I’ve never explored it at any length – so here is just one photo of a fairly typical house. I’m not quite sure what makes it look so strange – perhaps the lavish garden wall, the huge scale of everything, the wonderful sense of an estate so wealthy that they can scatter huge trees everywhere – or the sense of Italy and foreign climes. Whatever it is, it looks a good place to live if you can afford it.

Notting Hill Gate

To the ignorant (i.e. me) it’s easy to confuse Notting Hill with Holland Park; after all, they sound like each other and they’re next door on the Tube line. And one of them has a connection to the District and Circle Lines… To anyone who lives there, of course, the distinction is more obvious. Notting Hill isn’t so tatty these days, but post-war it was part of that run-down bohemian, studenty, transient, immigrant west London that we watched in 1960s kitchen sink dramas, read about in books like The L-Shaped Room, and later encountered on the way up in films like Notting Hill.

That film is an interesting record of how much Notting Hill has risen in cachet, so that these days it’s a trendy place to live – not posh, but certainly desirable: you can imagine university lecturers and teachers living here, whereas Holland Park is more the haunt of foreign diplomats and the wealthy, but probably not intellectuals. It’s particularly interesting to see how the public buildings, all rebuilt in the 1960s, now look the most down-market part of the area: everything else has been restored and renovated way above the standard of these tatty shops and office-blocks.

The original Notting Hill Gate Station

The modern state of things


Some of the Notting Hill tattiness survives, but on the whole Queensway offers a nice attractive-now-its-been-restored-and-the economy’s-holding-up feel. Like Lancaster Gate, it’s always been a fairly classy area to live in so long as you’re not too close to the tourist hotels.

Queensway is another of the few surviving Harry Bell Measures stations. Like Holland Park I’d simply say it’s competent enough: basically a store-front with a station behind, and a slightly later building on top. As usual, though, what elevates it is the quality of the stonework, the arches, and the sense of space and order.

Other than that, Queensway Tube Station is famous for being only two minutes walk down the road from Bayswater Tube Station. The reason for this is that they’re on different Lines, which were originally developed by competing railway companies: but it does seem a nonsense that things have continued this way. More puzzling still, perhaps, that on the Tube Map they look as if they’re some way apart – but believe me, it’s far quicker to walk between them than to get the Tube. (For anyone who really cares, here’s a website with all the places it’s quicker to walk.)

Queensway Station today, looking very like…

…the original Queensway Station

Station Roundel

Lancaster Gate

Lancaster Gate as an area continues the Queensway feel, though the station itself is rather un-lovable and underused. It doesn’t help that Bell Measures’ original was replaced by a soulless 1960s station as part of the vast Lancaster Gate Hotel, but I suspect the stronger reason is just that it’s in a rather under-active location. The station proclaims itself as an easy change from Paddington, but the distance is actually half-a-mile and feels further since the only entrance is on the far side of a traffic island. If you’re staying in the hotel, of course, it’s exactly what you want – though you’ll still be changing tube lines quite a lot to get to places you really want to go to.

The old Lancaster Gate Station, with the usual Harry Bell Measures ground floor

The dull modern station

Station Roundel

I’ve said there isn’t much here that’s worth visiting: that isn’t really true, but it’s all a grade or two down from the real high points. Just opposite is Hyde Park, with Kensington Gardens a little further on; and if you’re prepared to trek across the park you can get to the Princess Diana Holy Mother of God wash your feet in it and it’ll cure all your ailments memorial fountain. Or so the tabloid press would have it. The reality is a bit more prosaic, but it’s pleasant nonetheless.

Back on the main drag, it’s a quick sprint along the park to Marble Arch, where Central London really begins…

Marble Arch

Marble Arch sounds like a nice spot – the entrance to Hyde Park, the classy end of Oxford Street, the top end of extremely posh Park Lane. It tries hard, but in reality it’s a horrible traffic island and the station is awful…but we’ll start with the nice bits.

Like many things in London the Arch itself has moved around over the years. Originally spanning one of the grand entrances to Buckingham Palace, is was apparently too small for one of Queen Victoria’s carriages – so it got moved to the top end of Hyde Park. A century later the council decided to double the width of Park Lane, so the Marble Arch now sits rather oddly between the two carriageways. Thankfully the whole site has recently been refurbished – so it shines out amid fountains, a parky bit with flowers and a 6-tonne horse’s head that’s just fallen out of the sky. Goodness knows what that’s all about: I note the Animals in War memorial is also nearby, but I’ve no idea whether the two are connected. The most obvious thing to say seems to be that it’s crying out to be used as a huge garbage bin…

Marble Arch

Goodness knows what this is all about…

More equines at the Animals in War Memorial

Hyde Park itself is always a delight, so I’m copying here some photos from Hyde Park in Autumn.

Classic “London Park” scene

Another good park scene

“Poisoning pigeons in the park”

Posing for the camera

The Marble Arch corner of the park is home to Speaker’s Corner, the place where any old loony can stand on a step-up stool and express any opinion they like. Supposedly this freedom is guaranteed by the British Constitution, but I suspect in reality it both applies far more widely than just to this one spot, and is also constrained these days by requirements not to incite religious or other hatred. Still, it’s always an interesting sight at weekends. Usually about 50% of the speakers are presenting some variety of Jesus, but other voices get heard as well.

Presenting Jesus with a Texas accent

Jesus again (he had a fantastic range of gestures!)


Jesus again, but trying to make him appealing to Jews

Lastly, back to the station. It’s rumoured that some of Harry Bell Measures’ original still survives, but I never found it – and what you see these days is a nasty pokey hole in the wall with a sort of filthy canopy which we’ll see again at Tottenham Court Road. Down below it’s slightly more spacious, though it suffered another of those crazy 1970s refurbishments whose effect was mainly to make the place feel hotter, busier, and more cramped.

Harry’s rather nice original Marble Arch station…

…and today’s horror

Down below

Gruesome 1970s refurbishment

Bond Street

Beyond Marble Arch the Central Line continues to follow the line of the street – but by now it’s Oxford Street. The name “Oxford Street” refers to the biggest and most famous “big stores” in Britain, which are indeed clustered here. It claims to be the biggest, the busiest and the best shopping street in Britain, and Christmas statistics are always quoted for Oxford Street (“busier than ever”, “queues by 2am for the sales”, and so on.) Santa arrives here ever year rather like he does on 5th Avenue in New York, so you get the idea. Personally I think it’s horrible – crowded, busy, dirty, full of traffic and people, and not actually that great for shopping: I’d rather go to an out-of-town shopping mall any day like Cribbs Causeway (Bristol), the Metro Centre (Newcastle) or even the Westfield – but it seems I’m in a minority.

The stretch to Oxford Circus contains most of the best chain store names in Britain. The really up-market – Sympsons paper shop, the jewellers of Hatton Garden, and the designer fashion shops – are a little off the main drag; but here are the flagship stores for John Lewis, Marks & Spencer and the rest. They’re not necessarily the best of their breed, but having a store here is essential if you consider yourself a serious player.


John Lewis

In the middle of it all is Selfridges. I had thought this was their only store, but apparently they’ve recently opened up in Birmingham and Manchester. Oh dear…they’re going down-market! Selfridges is somehow the pinnacle “department store” in Britain, and has been ever since the American Gordon Selfridge opened i[ in 1909 with the slogan “the customer is always right”. He had a particular eye to it being a safe place, with toilets, where middle-class ladies could while away whole days at a time. You can see why it worked, though personally I don’t like the place: I think it’s vastly ‘over the top’, and the grossly “camp” way the male staff behave is actually a bit sick-inducing. But it’s worth a visit every so often just for the experience.

The modern Bond Street Station

The older Harry Bell Measures station building

There’s little at all to say about Bond Street station. Surrounded by expensive stores and the victim of various revamp schemes, it’s long ago been sucked into the West One Shopping Centre, and despite what Wikipedia says I can’t find the older part at all. But there are some interesting places nearby, including the US Embassy, the Wallace Collection, the Handel House and a lot of good buildings and churches just off Oxford Street including All Saints, Margaret Street. We are, after all, running through the most expensive residential district in Europe – so you’d expect some quality stuff.

US Embassy

All Saints Margaret Street

A rather camp-looking Eisenhower

The Laughing Cavalier at the Wallace Collection

Oxford Circus

I actually walked, rather than cycled, the route from Oxford Circus to Holborn; which was just as well since Oxford Street was completely closed to traffic while all the utilities were being re-laid. More of that below, but for the moment we’ll consider the start of the stretch from Oxford Circus to Tottenham Court Road (TCR).

Oxford Circus is the crossing where Oxford Street meets Regent Street, so it becomes the ultimate mad centre of London’s most frantic shopping activity. It’s also, to my mind, the spot where “busy-but-classy” turns rather quickly into a search for down-market cheap stuff. Hundreds of people cross the road here every minute, which has created such a traffic problem that the Circus has recently been re-engineered and turned into a “Pedestrian Scramble”. Although this sounds rather dangerous, the idea is that vehicle traffic is completely stopped in every direction: so for a minute or so, pedestrians have the upper hand and can cross any of the four roads or even go from corner to corner. Apparently it works in other cities like Tokyo, Vancouver and Washington DC (though I’ve never seen it there), so it ought to work in London – though I suspect given the British love of mild civic disobedience (e.g. on the Wobbly Bridge) we’ll find a way to subvert the whole thing. Running around in circles comes to mind…or a “challenge” to cross all the possible ways within a minute…?

Pedestrian Scramble

Pedestrian Scramble

There’s an interesting piece of maths which suggests that although people walk randomly into a pedestrian scramble, if two streams of people cross through each other they emerge from the experience in lined-up waves. It’s actually true in practice, though I don’t have a photo here to show it: all I do have is more crowds…

Crowding down into the station

Oxford Circus Station is, like many others, a tough survivor which still shows the marks of London’s early railway history. As often happens, at ground level it’s actually two stations built next to each other – one each for the Bakerloo and Central Lines which meet here. The crowds were too bad for me to photograph the Central Line one (another Harry Bell Measures classic, though I suspect it’s the last one on this journey); but thankfully the Bakerloo Line station survives largely in its original Leslie Green form of dark red ceramic tiling, big generous arches and cute little round windows. There are lots more of these, of course, in the Piccadilly, Northern and Bakerloo Line write-ups – but it’s always nice to find one.

The lovely old red-tiled Bakerloo Line station

Detail of those upper windows

Someone else’s photo of the Central Line station…

…and Harry’s original, still easily visible

Down below, it’s also a scramble since three lines cross here: but it’s not as bad as Tottenham Court Road will be. And it’s no wonder people get confused…

A rare quiet moment

A strikingly odd sign down below!

After the station, the Central Line runs simply down the route of Oxford Street to Tottenham Court Road, but before we leave Oxford Circus we’ll take a short peek up Portland Place to the north. Here is the original home of the BBC – the lovely Art Deco Broadcasting House – right next to the astonishing All Souls Church, and the Post Office Tower watching over it all. We’ll say more about all of these when we examine the Bakerloo Line, but we must hurry on…

The original Broadcasting House

The statue of Prospero and Arial over the door

The lovely round porch at All Souls, Langham Place

The Post Office (now BT) Tower

Tottenham Court Road

The crossing at Tottenham Court Road is definitely the most down-market point on this stretch of the Line. The shops have turned pretty horrid (e.g. sex products or cheap phone services for foreigners), the traffic is terrible, the quality of the buildings is bad and to cap it all there’s Centre Point – which even if you like its upper elevations is awful at street level. Tucked away discretely are private establishments including a few clinics which one assumes deal with various addictions or unexpected pregnancies. I guess it reflects the district of Soho right next door…

The station itself is vile and has the same naff canopy that we saw at Marble Arch, though I suspect the arch behind it is part of Harry Bell Measures’ original station. Not for much longer, though, since the whole lot is being rebuilt for Crossrail. As a visitor to London from the West Country I wonder what use Crossrail is: I’d like it to connect directly with Euston International, preferably without stopping at Paddington – but instead it seems more designed for west-of-London commuters wanting to get to the City in the morning. How very selfish! But at least it involves the complete demolition and rebuilding of Tottenham Court Road Station, which by any standards has long outlived its usefulness.

Oxford Street: does it get any better? Sadly not for the next 7 years!

Hideously small and tatty these days – TCR station

The original TCR

Tottenham Court Road itself is famous as the home of discount electronics stores. The trade seems to have dropped off a bit with the arrival of the internet, though I still managed to get ripped off there recently buying an extra-long USB cable (“£13 sir, but £10 will do since you’re paying cash…”) It’s also the home of the Dominion Theatre, which has been running a Freddie Mercury / Queen tribute for the last 7 years – and of the hideous Centre Point.

A rather poor imitation of Freddie Mercury!

Centre Point

I say hideous, but actually opinions are divided about Centre Point. Certainly it has a notorious reputation – it’s reckoned to have broken various planning laws when it went up in the 1960s, then it was believed to have stood empty for many years earning enormous tax rebates; and as a result it holds the dubious title of “the most profitable building, ever, in Britain”. Some of this is denied now (hence my rather cautious language) but certainly it all came to a head in 1974 when it was forcibly occupied by a charity campaigning for homes for street people. They achieved so much publicity that they renamed themselves CentrePoint and they’re still doing a great job.

More recently Centre Point seems to have rehabilitated itself and now appears a rather calm piece of 1960s rationalism amid the hubbub. It’s even a Grade II listed building. Above street level it is, I have to admit, quite attractive – certainly more so than the horrible Barbican. But I still think from a distance it intrudes too much on the skyline, and close-up its underpasses still stink. Worst of all, it grabs so much space at ground level that pedestrians are forced into the road and it’s the worst accident-spot in London. Sadly even the Crossrail project won’t put that right. 

The London Landmarks website on Centre Point is interesting, particularly for its apology to the legal folks for all those nasty stories…!

Once we’ve fought our way past Centre Point it all turns nice again rather quickly. A quick detour brings us to St Giles in the Fields, which connects to St Martin’s Lane, Seven Dials and a neat little tourist run down to Trafalgar Square.

St Giles in the Fields – Exterior

St Giles in the Fields – Interior

Seven Dials

Cup Cake shop on St Martin’s Lane

Centre Point sits at the centre of a confluence of roads: in fact its site was originally destined to be rebuilt as a roundabout before the developers stepped in and made it simply an obstacle to traffic. But one of the few good pieces of road development in the last 500 years looks to have been New Oxford Street, cut through to Holborn on precisely the route of the Central Line. Although it feels a little unloved, New Oxford Street has managed to hang on to a rather nice 1930s feel as we rush on to Bloomsbury, and it sets the scene nicely for Holborn. It even includes a British version of a flat-iron building!

New York’s Flat-iron building

New Oxford Street’s (almost) flat-iron

Commonwealth House – a nice touch of the 1930s

Just off the route is the wonderful church of St George’s Bloomsbury, open every afternoon 1-4pm and very well worth a visit. As one of the six churches by Nicholas Hawksmoor it’s definitely on my “must see” list, and since it’s recently been restored at vast expense it’s even more worthwhile.

St George’s, Bloomsbury

Magnificent Lion & Unicorn on the spire

Full Frontal

The glorious interior

As if in anticipation of other loony church experiences yet to come on this trip, St George’s threw up a real live one. Having obtained permission for photographs at the door I was working round the place and had found my way up into one of the far balconies, when a solitary woman came in. How she noticed my I can’t imagine (though the flash may have been a giveaway), but she stormed right across the church, up the long staircase and across to where I was standing. “Are you photographing the altar?” she asked…and without waiting to hear my answer launched into a long tirade about how “the power of God lives in the altar”, and how “he’s been known to smite people from the altar even nowadays”. And how therefore I was utterly wrong to take photographs. 

I almost had a good shout back, but perhaps fortunately she went as quickly as she’d appeared. As she stormed out of the church I thought of letting off a few flashes just to annoy her – but just for once something better kicked in and I found myself praying for her. Apart from the many ripostes I’ve thought of since the event, I have to observe that St George’s clearly has a protestant understanding of theology and even dresses its altar as only a “holy table”, so I don’t think there was much need to credit God with such capricious behaviour. But there we go.

God rewarded me with a wonderful discovery round the corner – the church’s nativity set, stored behind a pew for the summer. They looked so like they’d been naughty that I just burst out laughing…

The Holy Family in the Naughty Corner

It’s useful here to mention London has some fantastic public squares. The big one nearby is Russell Square, though in truth it belongs more to the Piccadilly Line so we won’t stop there long. On a bad day it’s gloomy and miserable, but on a bright sunny day in spring it’s just perfect…

Russell Square on a good day

Some gorgeous peonies in the square

A temporary auditorium appeared one summer…

…with a neat little sign!

The big attraction, of course, is the British Museum. The story of the museum’s own tube station can wait for our next stop, but here are just a few of the fabulous treasures in store there…

Rameses is rather famous

The brilliant new glass roof

The Elgin Marbles – Wrestling with a Centaur

Just an old Roman mosaic

A wonderful old Chinese ZhangZhou dish…

…and a very modern Japanese one

And now we run down the road to pick up the line again at Holborn… (which by the way is always pronounced “Hoe-bun”, for some reason)

Holborn (but not British Museum)

The Central Line didn’t originally stop at Holborn at all, even though the Central Line passed under Holburn station: the station was actually a Piccadilly Line station, and (as was common in the early days) the two railway companies didn’t give too much thought to the difficulties of sharing the same premises or the complex underground layouts it might require. Instead, the Central Line originally had its own station hereabouts, called British Museum. Looking at the map on the Abandoned Stations website I don’t think it was especially close to the Museum, and evidently in 1933 someone made a decision to move everything to Holborn. For more information, here’s a link to the Wikipedia Article on British Museum Station, and a photo from the London Transport collection below:

The original British Museum station – Harry Bell Measures frontage at ground level, with further construction above

When everything  moved to Holburn in 1933 the original Leslie Green station was replaced with the current one by Charles Holden. Green’s was of course a lovely old red ceramic-tiled one: Holden’s is no less lovely but is clearly the style he developed for the Northern Line extension to Morden, with it’s stripped-back classical look and the inclusion of the “roundel” in the facade itself.

The main entrance – just doing its job

The elegant north entrance

Station Roundel

The second longest escalators on the Underground

Holborn is usually pronounced “Hoburn” or even “Ho-bun” for centuries by silly Londoners. On the face of it, Ho-bun is a rather ill-defined and potentially dull business area, but it’s actually very long-standing London borough with a long history, well-defined boundaries and considerable cachet. There’s a noticable shift up to “business-headquarters-quality” in the environment here: nearby are the British Museum, Lincoln’s Inn Fields and Sir John Soane’s Museum; while a recent addition on the corner of the London School of Economics has been Richard Wilson’s ‘Square the Block’ – a fake bit of masonry which appears to show the corner of the building collapsing into the street.

Sir John Soane’s Museum

Square the Block

Apart from this, Holborn has lots of shops, some of them rather up-market; and there are lots of ‘business colleges’ where (I presume) foreigners come to pay money to learn how to use Word and Excel. There are also loads of company headquarters, but who wants photos of insurance companies…? Time to move on.

Chancery Lane

Heading down “High Holborn” we rather quickly reach the next station – Chancery Lane. There’s even less to photograph here since once again the original station’s been kicked out and everything is underground, but from here to Liverpool Street we’re in the City of London proper. Here shopping gives way to business and banks, but also – surprisingly – churches and open space.

The original Chancery Lane Station, again by Harry Bell Measures 

Chancery Lane Station

City of London – Saturday morning, 11am!

I couldn’t quite believe just how quiet it was on a Saturday morning at 11am; but there’s actually very little reason for anyone to be in the City itself at the weekends. This can mean it’s a great time for tourists to get there, though finding a coffee shop can be difficult!

On the way we come past the lovely Prudential Assurance Building, a magnificent example of mad Victorian terracotta…

Prudential Assurance Building

Just one lovely detail among many

A little further on we reach the corporate headquarters of British Telecom (BT) – a remarkably uninspiring building, made no better by the presence of one of the silly elephants of the Elephant Parade outside.

A silly elephant outside BT headquarters

Holborn Viaduct

A lot more interesting is Holborn Viaduct. Today it hardly makes a dent in our path, though if you go down to St Paul’s and Ludgate Hill you can get some idea of the mess that it replaced: and in the 1860s this was one of the key bits of Victorian town planning and engineering which significantly improved the City of London. Essentially a bridge over the River Fleet, the Fleet got covered over and buried, creating Farringdon Road. The total cost of the scheme was a staggering £2M, and the river still flows underground to Blackfriars Bridge – while the viaduct just sits there doing its job.

One of the casualties of the redevelopment was St Andrew’s church, which lost some of its churchyard but gained a lot of money in compensation: today it survives in a rather contented way and administers a number of generous charities. Historically the church seems to have a particular connection with children – firstly in a memoriam to Thomas Coram, the generous sea-captain who created the Foundlings’ Hospital; and secondly in two rather attractive statues fixed on the outside wall of the church. Apparently these are simply statues of two local children…though dressed in their Sunday clothes, I suspect!

St Andrew Holborn

Memorial to Thomas Coram, founder of the Foundlings’ Hospital

Local child 1

Local child 2

Next we come to the church of St Sepulchre. This is a nice old building, often used by musicians and orchestras for rehearsals. When I visited this was precisely was happening: a group were running through some really horrid discordant new piece for performance later that day at St Paul’s Cathedral. The choir were having a terrible time with it, but I felt that even if they sung it right it would still sound horrible. Worst, though, was the feeling I got that I wasn’t welcome in the church at all: in fact the body-language from the musicians hanging around the door was all “get out; you don’t belong here”. I understand they wouldn’t want me wandering around in the middle of their rehearsal, but from a bunch of people who were visitors themselves this seemed a bit much. Not for the last time did it make me think “do we really demand the right behaviours when we let other groups use our churches?” I didn’t know at the time, but this was “Bad church experience of the day” number 1.

St Sepulchre

…and again

A little further on is the Old Bailey, the most fashionable of all places to get tried for criminal activity, though actually a bit dull inside.

Lady Justice on the roof, holding the sword of justice and the scales of truth.

The nice intention over the door

After this it’s a quick run down Newgate. On other occasions I might have stopped to visit the lovely Christ Church Greyfriars and paused at the charming memorials in Postman’s Park; but today I didn’t make the stop. It was nearly lunchtime and I hadn’t even gone two Tube stops yet!

Christ Church Greyfriars

Christ Church Greyfriars

Postman’s Park

Memorial in Postman’s Park

Just before we get to St Paul’s we’ll note the presence of the London Stock Exchange since I did once write a page about it. There’s really nothing to say, but here we go…

London Stock Exchange

View down from St Paul’s Dome

St Paul’s

The station at St Paul’s follows the Central Line practice of having rather mean and undistinguished station buildings, at least above ground. As usual Harry’s original was probably grander (see the photo below) but these days there’s a rather stuffy square box at St Paul’s. Happily it has a glorious neighbour…

St Paul’s Cathedral…

…and its horrible Underground station!

Just on from St Paul’s is St Mary le Bow; an interesting church which again I’ve written about separately. When I first visited, the block paving outside was just being renewed and it looked stunning: a year later when I revisited it for this trip it was all looking worn-in and just like any other old pavement. This seemed a sad reflection on the hard work and skill which had gone into creating it, but I guess that’s life on the streets…

The spire of St Mary le Bow

St Mary le Bow from ground level

The old St Paul’s Station

One thing this trip did establish for me is the difference between St Mary le Bow, Bow Church, Bow Common, Bromley-by-Bow and Bow Road. More of that later, but at least it’s now clear in my mind. It’s this church which defines whether you’re a Cockney or not – “meaning ‘if you’re born within the sound of Bow Bells, you’re a proper Cockney”. Not that that matters much to me, given that I loathe and detest Cockney culture anyway – and since no-one lives in the City these days there surely can’t be any real Cockneys left…but there’ll be more of the various Bow churches later.

And by the way, there’s a rather good Wikipedia article on all things “Cockney”


Bank is a uniquely mad station: it has about 20 exits and a sub-surface connection to Monument Station which takes about 4 hours to walk. The Tube has some so-called “connections” which are hardly connections at all – and the Bank-Monument link between the Central, Northern and District/Circle Lines is definitely one of them. (Though in defence of the Underground, I should say that in my experience every station on the Paris Metro is like this. If these things interest you, have a look at Diamond Geezer’s blog.)

Bank station also houses the bendiest platform on the network, and is therefore the spiritual home of the cry “Mind the Gap“, which is so familiar to users of the Tube that it gets its own Wikipedia entry.

The other thing to know about Bank station is that it’s one of only 2 Underground Stations with a 4-letter name: the other is Oval. Can it be a coincidence that they’re both on the Northern Line and they both reflect the life of the English upper classes (Money and Cricket)? Hmm…makes yer fink.

A dubious claim that you can reach the other lines from here

“Mind the Gap”

Local attractions include, of course, the Bank of England with its rather neat museum of money; the revolting No 1, Poultry; and the church of St Mary Woolnoth which actually houses part of the Underground station in its crypt. And if you’re feeling flush, the Royal Exchange!

The Bank of England

No 1, Poultry

St Mary Woolnoth

The Royal Exchange

Liverpool Street

From Bank we trek up Threadneedle Street and Old Broad Street up to Liverpool Street Station. There’s nothing very noteworthy on the way other than lots of banks, but we do pass Tower 42, formerly known as the Nat West Building, and for a while the tallest building in London. Now it’s known as Tower 42 simply because…it has 42 floors! Its 1960s stainless steel is actually weathering rather well, though like Centre Point it’s a bit of a mess at street level.

Tower 42

Liverpool Street Station was originally the core of the Great Eastern Railway, fanning out all over Essex and East Anglia. These days it’s still busy and has recently been renovated and redeveloped. The downside is that it’s now rather over-full of shops, but the upside is that they managed to keep most of the old building structure and make it sparkle. I think it’s a really nice place…

Liverpool Street Station…

…and again

Part of the scheme to put the station back in good order involved redeveloping the whole of the area to the north – in fact they built a huge great place over the top of the railway tracks. Exchange Square is the result, a place completely lacking in charm despite the large bits of “art” that have been dumped there…

Exchange Square

…and again

Beyond the station the environment starts looking a bit rough, perhaps in preparation for Shoreditch, Spitalfields and Bethnal Green; though the glitz of the City is starting to move northward and drive the poorer parts out. An early attempt to improve the lives of the locals was the Bishopsgate Institute, built in 1895 and still going strong. Architecturally and culturally, it belongs to that outpouring of Arts & Crafts social concern and florid styling that we see in the Mary Ward House and the many Passmore Edwards buildings. And although it looks a bit strange and Tolkienesque on the outside, inside it’s been lavishly refurbished and is certainly fit for another century’s work.

Bishopsgate Institute

Detail from the white terracotta frieze

Here are links to the Bishopsgate Institute website, which shows what a wide spread of activities the Institute still runs, and to the Wikipedia article on the Bishopsgate Institute, which gives some of the history.

Before we hurry on too fast, though, we’ll give a nod to Broadgate Tower and 201 Bishopsgate, a new commercial development which is worth a visit on Open House weekend, but not worth the long wait if you arrive after 9.30am. Down below, it’s a confusing mix of shapes and supporting struts…

Broadgate Tower with supporting struts

…but from the 17th floor the views are impressive:

View south-west to the London EyeSt Pauls, etc

View west to the BT Tower

View north-east to the new bridge at Shoreditch High Street

View east to Christ Church Spitalfields

View east to Canary Wharf

View south to the Erotic GherkinLloyds, the Shard, Tower 42, etc

Just over the way we glimpse Hawksmoor’s glorious Christ Church Spitalfields down a side road – amazingly the third of his churches on the Central Line. I didn’t stop on this trip to visit it for a third time, but it would always be worth it.

Full view of Spitalfields market and church

Astonishingly confident, standing against the clouds


Looking up out of the porch

Up the road a little further is the latest bit of City expansionism. Broadgate Tower is a vast new glass and steel complex, usually open on Open House weekend but so popular that I haven’t managed to get inside yet. It’s only more bank offices, but for the moment it symbolises a wave of new skyscrapers set to hit London in the next few years. It’s surprising in fact that the City isn’t more built up than it is: on the whole, building height limits and respect for ancient relics seem to have kept the City quite open in feel…so far, at least.

Broadgate Tower

Broadgate Tower again, with the new Overground bridge

The second photo here shows the new bridge over Bishopsgate, looking back to Broadgate Tower which certainly dominates the skyline here. The bridge carries the newly extended and refurbished East London line, which is basically a surface railway but is now officially branded as the Overground. Linking the brand to the Underground isn’t just an advertising gimmick; it reflects the push which has been going on for at least 100 years to join all London’s transport networks together and make life simpler for the poor traveller; so the good news here is that the same Oyster card gets you a journey with transfers between Over and Under ground. The bad news is that the stations are usually miles apart – as indeed they are here, with Shoreditch High Street being equidistantly inconvenient between Liverpool Street and Bethnal Green – but at least they’re trying. Another 100 years and who knows where we’ll be.

London Overground!

The brand-new Shoreditch High Street Station

The line itself is new, or newly-refreshed – and Shoreditch High Street station was literally brand-new on the day I visited, having opened to the public only the day before. I do hope it retains its shiny look and those plastic orange letters don’t get broken off, but it seems rather a lot to hope for…

Bethnal Green

The Central Line skips Spitalfields and Shoreditch, so Bethnal Green is our first real ‘area where people live’ after the built-up City. It would be easy to write Bethnal Green off as “scruffy, poverty-stricken, crime-ridden East End”, but that would do it a huge dis-service. Certainly it has some tired parts, and a billion or two wouldn’t go amiss to smarten everything up – but when you consider how Bethnal Green has been for centuries an area where immigrants have settled, worked their way into society and ultimately moved on upwards, it’s not doing badly. There’s lots here of interest – be it the church, the heaving street markets, the experiments in social housing, the occasional Banksy, and even a branch of the V&A. Also, of course, a huge range of ethnic stores and restaurants from all over the African and Indian parts of the world…though it felt a bit intrusive to go photographing them too vigorously!

Let’s start with the local Banksy mural…which encapsulates a particularly neat idea.

Bethnal Green Banksy

It’s hard to miss Bethnal Green Church, though evidently a lot of the residents do just that; and I can’t say I’m surprised, given that this was the second church of the day where they’d have been more interested in me if I’d been dead. Pevsner is quite kind about the place – but like me he reckons the interior is a bit basic; and both of us find the windows disappointingly ordinary.

St John the Baptist, Bethnal Green – Exterior

An adventurous cantilevered staircase

Passing a door-keeper who seemed to have been chosen for his lack of communication skills, I found a small white family inside with dad learning how to parade around with a Bible, stopping at various points to get ‘censed’. I guess the church has decided the way to impress the local people is with ritual and ornament…and perhaps they’re right, though I always think it’s a pity folks can’t find something better to do with their energy. For their general lack of interest, I chalked this up as “Bad church experience of the day” number 2.

St John the Baptist, Bethnal Green – Interior

Clarting about

Back outside, the landscape is lively and just a little pleasant. I didn’t make it down to the station, but I’m told “it’s not the sort of place you want to hang about”.

Bethnal Green station (underground)

and again

Just up Cambridge Heath Road is a rather surprising sub-department of the Victoria & Albert Museum: the Museum of Childhood. This place started its life at South Kensington but when the museum was rebuilt in a much grander style these old sheds were felt to be good enough for the people of the East End, and they got moved here. If you put the idea of patronising Victorians from your mind it’s possible to enjoy this cute little place, particularly with its current focus on children. I haven’t yet written up my most recent visit, but here are some details of the mosaic panels on the outside walls. Quite why the blokes aren’t wearing any clothes, even in the dairy, is a mystery to me…but that’s the Victorians for you.

The Dairy

Picking Apples

Wheat Harvest

Shearing Sheep

Lastly, just a couple of photos of the interior. Lots more at my page on the Museum of Childhood.

Museum of Childhood

Ah, bliss!

Mile End

Although the official Tube map doesn’t show it this way, the Central Line takes a strange turn south after Bethnal Green. The reason is presumably to intercept the District Line at Mile End, but for a cyclist following the route this means rather more work than it might otherwise have done! Still, it takes us past some interesting places: I chose to go east to Globetown, then south down the Regents Canal to the Green Park.

Globetown lies to the east of Bethnal Green and seems to have been designated in the 1800s as an area where immigrants, in particular, could set up businesses and develop society. This longevity probably explains why it seems hard to identify the area today – to the casual visitor it just feels like the rest of east London, except for the occasional 1930s (or possibly 2000s) pillar in front of an 1890s school and now guarding the entrance to the 1960s Cranbrook Estate. All of this just goes to show how London history and geography is all layered all on top of itself, and is often rather hard to read. 

1930s (or possibly 2000s) Globetown pillar

Cranbrook Estate block

The Cranbrook Estate looks pretty grim, but perhaps it isn’t all that bad: most of it was designed by Tecton, a famous architectural partnership of the the mid-20th century which was much celebrated for its contribution to decent housing for the masses (and who in fact did the Penguin Ramp at LondonZoo.) Pevsner in particular has quite a lot of good to say about the estate, though personally I’m yet to be convinced…

Turning south, I cycled for 10 minutes down one of the unsung joys of east London – the Regents Canal. Built in the 1820s the canal has gone through the usual cycle of industrial horror and reclamation as a leisure facility, with expensive apartment blocks now clustering along its banks. Cycling along its full length from Regent’s Park to Limehouse Basin is a perfect treat, and one day I’ll write it up properly! Meanwhile here’s just one photo and a link to the Wikipedia article on Regent’s Canal

Regents Canal at Globetown

The route to Mile End lies directly down the canal, but before the madness that is Mile End station it’s worth taking a side path up and over the Green Bridge, which is a new eco-park that literally jumps right over Mile End Road. It’s hard to decide whether it’s a bit tacky or a really wonderful green oasis, but it certainly beats cycling through all that traffic.

The Green Bridge over Mile End Road

Not surprisingly, that yellow bridge has become known as the Banana Bridge.

Once you get to Mile End station you quickly see why everyone who writes about it says it’s frantically busy and impossible to photograph. It’s also a hive of police and CCTV activity, so it doesn’t do to linger around with a camera. But if you do manage to stop, you can take in the first emergence of yet another architectural “style”: namely beige tiles with a blue border, a good span of upper windows with an Underground panel in the middle, and a big broad frontage. You might mistake it for a cinema, and in similar fashion behind the frontage there’s usually just a big dark shed. This is not one of Charles Holden’s lovely 1930s stations, where every detail of the experience from entrance hall to platform is carefully crafted, but the decorative style (beige and blue tiles) seems to be from that period. We’ll see more of it at Leyton, and some interiors from the period at Wanstead, Redbridge and Gants Hill.

Mile End Station, photographed from the Green Bridge

A little further along the road there are – surprisingly – some really nice 4-storey houses. They struck me enough to make want to photograph them, and evidently they strike lots of other people the same way. They don’t last long, but they’re a reminder that although this is the East End we’re some way from the river, and this is an area where clerks, managers and the better-off people from the river trades would have lived. Those who lived by their muscle would have been down in Wapping, Linehouse and Shadwell; a step up from there were Whitechapel and Stepney, and this was higher still!

Good solid houses on Mile End Road

Beyond Mile End Road the road becomes Bow Road, reflecting its ultimate destination of Bow. Bow used to be a small settlement by a ford across the River Lea, but in 1110 Queen Matilda’s coach got stuck in the ford and she ordered a bridge to be built instead (they didn’t have the Ministry of Transport in those days.) The bridge was the lowest crossing point on the river, so Bow rapidly developed into a significant place, got its own church and ultimately grew into a substantial suburb of London.

I mention all this only because the name Bow is everywhere you look nowadays – there’s Bromley-by-Bow (so named to distinguish the local Bromley from the one in Kent), Bow Church, Bow Common, Bow Road, etc etc. The one name which is not local is St Mary le Bow, which we already passed back in the City. Of particular interest for this journey are two stations on Bow Road, neither of which has anything to do with the Central Line. One is Bow Road (on the District and Hammersmith & City Lines); the other is Bow Church (on the Docklands Light Railway).

Bow Road Station, on the District and Hammersmith & City Lines

Bow Church Station, on the DLR

On the matter of churches, I was both pleasantly surprised and annoyed by what I found at Bow. I’ve known about the modern church of St Paul, Bow Common since student days: like St Mary with St Nicholas in Perivale, it’s a rare example of a radical 1960s idea which really works, and some day I’ll go back to visit it properly. I was also pleasantly surprised on this trip to discover Bow Road Methodist Church, which at least at the front is a delicate 1950s mix of brick, concrete and glass. It’s not so nice round the side, but I wonder…if all of London had been rebuilt with the “humanity” inherent in this style it might not have been a bad thing.

St Paul, Bow Common

Bow Road Methodist Church

A little further on is the “real” Bow Church. This place is laden with history, and holds an enormous power of geographical significance to London; on the other hand it’s horribly stranded in the middle of a traffic island. It looks like it needs a couple of million spent on it, and even then it would never have the right ‘plant’ or a thriving congregation. Still, here we go…

When I visited I found a band of bellringers about to start work in about half-an-hour’s time…so in my usual cheery way I came out with ‘ooh – I’m a ringer’ and explained where I do it. Although they said they were actually having a “striking competition” (a rather serious enterprise) I did think I’d at least be invited to turn a bell over once or twice. But not so – they seemed stolidly absorbed with themselves and just didn’t open up at all. And worse was to come… One of them was setting up a table outside from which to serve teas; she also had mountains of fruit-cake in little plastic boxes and was obviously intending to sell it all to an adoring public. I was rather early, but I eagerly asked her if I could buy one of her cakes. “No” came the answer; “I haven’t made the tea yet”. As she wandered off to get some hot water I figured if she couldn’t be bothered to sell me a cake then she wasn’t deserving of any of my money: so I left in a bad mood and chalked this up as “Bad church experience of the day” number 3.

Happily an actual member of the church did a better job on me. She was quite prepared to give me a full tour of the church, but in the event I’d had enough with a general discussion and a close examination of the east window. At first sight it looks like a historic example of a rather formalised Georgian style, but in fact it’s only a rather interminate design from the 1950s. The elements in the window are merely a variety of vases or fountains, with flowers or water or smoke in them or emitting from them: and in fact no-one knows which second-rate artist actually designed it. But it does have a number of playful elements in it like cats and mice, which give it a certain pleasant interest.

Bow Church

East Window

Cat in the window

Mice in the window

After Bow our next proper Central Line stop is at Stratford, which lies a considerable way further on beyond a vast mess where the A11 and A12 roads cross, with canals and rivers also thrown into the mix. Despite my best efforts I couldn’t find the will to photograph any of this lot, so we’ll skip quickly on to Stratford…


Hmm…what to say about Stratford? Originally an old town across the River Lea with potentially a character of its own, it became synonymous with run-down, nasty east-end London, famous for crime and ‘dirty’ industries. Yet always aspiring to keep its separateness, it’s seized various opportunities to rebrand and redevelop itself; and most recently it’s the home of the 2012 Olympics. Never mind the fact that nuclear-waste trains run through here every night, or that most of the criminals in London live here; or that most of London’s sewage runs through here (and if a bomb went off the stuff would all flow into the Olympic Park) and the land is hopelessly contaminated. Everyone is determinedly shutting their eyes to all this and believing that Stratford is on the up!

Refurbed to create a cheerful impression for 2012

Stratford Bus Station

At some level I almost find it convincing. It’s good to see new infrastructure like the rail and bus stations – though confusing as well to think there are now national rail, international, Overground, DLR and Underground stations here. Some are connected together in the huge new Stratford Station, but not all – and the International station in particular is just far away to be really annoying: particularly if, for instance, you were trying to catch the Eurostar from the west of England. Woe to anyone who might want to do that!

An unidentified building, but it looks like yet another old station

The old Rex cinema, part of Stratford’s “cultural quarter”

The vast new Stratford Station

Vast amounts of money are being thrown into the Olympic Park and acres of redevelopment all around, in an attempt to cheer the place up and give it an air of something more than “council estate neglect”. I guess I’ll go back some day and visit these areas properly, but it truly is awesome; and despite the worry that it might all come to naught, I felt Stratford has a bit of life to it. If the economy holds fair, and the Olympics turns into a lasting benefit, and if the oil keeps flowing and climate change is halted… then the place may have a great future!

If Stratford was a bit of challenge, beyond here it was quite difficult to find much that was worth photographing at all. Regular readers will know I don’t usually stick at only the “pretty”, but am quite happy to include the “hideously ugly” or the “just plain weird”. But on this trip there wasn’t even anything like that – it was just all very ordinary. And searching on the internet confirms it: there are surprisingly few photos or articles about anything at all in Leyton, Leytonstone, Snaresbrook, etc.


I threaded my way up from Stratford to Leyton – not an easy task, since much of it is Olympic building sites – but I got there in the end. Leyton turned out to be a typical slightly down-market east London suburb on a hot Saturday lunchtime: ugly men with their shirts off displaying acres of white blubber, others drinking beer in the streets, a lively racial mix, typical east-end lads hanging around the station, lots of cheap-looking shops. Not naturally my kind of place (there wasn’t a Starbucks or a Costa to be seen) but not necessarily a “bad” place either; in short, an ordinary London suburb, and at least the British National Party only got 1.4% of the vote here.

Looking in more detail at the election result for Leyton & Wanstead, I have to conclude there are ‘nicer’ parts here too; it must simply be that I didn’t get there (but then what do you expect when you’re cycling along a railway line?) The front of Leyton Station matches Mile End in style, so I guess it’s from Charles Holden’s era: but the effect is again only a skin – it’s basically a shed with beige tiles on the front. Clearly no money was wasted here!

The only other photograph here is the “Linear Park”. Sounds a curious name until you realise it’s basically a bit of infill between lots of older houses and the A12 road which has eaten up their gardens. So plant it all out for a mile, build some solid-looking walls to give it some “shape”, and call it a “Linear Park”. Hmm…

Leyton Station

Linear Park


Along the dodgy Linear Park, and through a really nasty crossing over the A12 to Leytonstone. The route over the bridge took me past a couple of very secluded backs-of-offices where a few arty types had given up on social niceties and were either naked or just plain drunk in the hot sun. I guess they hadn’t reckoned on me with my camera, but here goes…!

The lovely A12


Staff relaxing at the back of a “design consultancy”. Yeah, right…

Once I got there, Leytonstone turned out to be quite a nice place with a pleasant little station…there seems to be a transition to “nice middle class” somewhere around here.

Leytonstone Station

The usual roundel

Leytonstone station again

A baffling “time terminus” creation at the station

Leytonstone’s most famous “old boy” is Alfred Hitchcock: born in 1899 he didn’t stay here long, but his memory has been revived in a jolly series of murals at the station. The idea seems to be to take famous scenes from his movies and re-set them in Leytonstone, so we get ‘Rebecca’ with St John’s Church in the background, etc.

Scene from The Wrong Man

Dietrich and Hitchcock

Scene from Rebecca, with St John’s Church in the background

Scene from Rear Window, with Leytonstone in the background

The town itself also came as a pleasant surprise, seeming to have just a touch of “character” and “focus”. It was just a pity about the lady in the church…

The church (of St John the Baptist) was having an Open Day, so, keen by now for a loo and for some refreshments, I cheerily wandered in. Sadly their “Open Day” ran only as far as demanding money from the public, and didn’t seem to involve serving tea or cakes or laying on anything on which visitors might find interesting. The one thing that was in action was an over-enthusiastic lady on the door who quizzed me as to why I was visiting and where I was from, and then rounded up a handful of leaflets all of which said – in a variety of ways – “our church is Victorian, it’s falling down, we want you to give £100.” It’s a remarkably ugly church inside, with a stupid internal gutter in the roof, and I’m afraid when she challenged me for photographing some really odd feature I flipped: I dumped everything and walked out. “Bad church experience of the day” number 4.

St John the Baptist, Leytonstone

“One of the greatest men in the history of change-ringing.” Hmm…

Along the way I photographed this memorial to William Pye, a church bell ringer. Ringing doesn’t often feature in memorials, so this claimed my interest: even more, I was interested to think I’d stumbled on one of the greatest men in the history of change-ringing. Strangely now I’m back home I can’t find any record anywhere of William Pye, so I have to question this judgement on him…but I’m open to being put right!

Beyond Leytonstone we face the excitement of the Loop: the line divides into two and we can either go straight north or enjoy a leisurely trip round the longer arm. Variously known as the Fairlop Loop, or the Hainault Loop, it is in fact not a loop at all, but merely a couple of branch lines which happen to run to the same place – and a diversion there will take up most of your afternoon. So on my first trip I went to Snaresbrook and left the Loop for another day. I’ll note here, though, that another brave soul as daft as I am has already scoped it out for me. .


Viewed on the map from Leytonstone, Snaresbrook looked like a nice hop through the country. It turned out to be more of a climb round the A12 and the Green Man Roundabout, but we got there in the end. From the road Snaresbrook station seemed to have little to offer, but close-up there’s a solid Victorian building with some nice touches on the platforms.

A good solid Victorian station

Pretty brackets holding the roof up

Snaresbrook roundel

General view of the platform

We’re definitely in pleasant suburban country now. The houses are solid, whether Victorian terraces or 20th century semi-detatched; and there’s the odd bit of generous parkland with a school or a big house in it. Rather oddly, a local school has been taken over and turned into a Crown Court: this seems a strange approach for a government function which more commonly builds itself a concrete bunker in the middle of the High Street, but just for once they seem to have done something right!

An old school now turned into Snaresbrook Crown Court

Solid Snaresbrook houses

South Woodford

I cycled through South Woodford almost without noticing it, but it confirmed the feeling that by now we’re solidly ‘nice middle class’. My attention was caught yet again by a nice Arts & Crafts style hall and a church alongside. This time the church – Holy Trinity – dates from the 1880s, and is once again largely the result of a private benefaction. The Misses Nutter (oh, you couldn’t invent it!) gave the land and most of the money for the church, but as usual there wasn’t enough to pay for the tower; and in this case there wasn’t enough to pay for an east aisle either. (I say east, but liturgically I mean south: the other oddity is that the church is oriented north-south rather than east-west.) So although the church is pleasant enough inside it does have the oddity of a plain brick wall where the south aisle should be.

When I passed by there was yet another local choir using the church who did nothing to make me feel welcome or commend the church itself to me. They were rehearsing for their evening concert: strangely they didn’t even try inviting me to their own event let alone making me welcome in the church: and once again I left feeling ‘why would I ever come back here?’ It struck me again that I’d rather people found the place locked than get this sort of brush-off by outsiders who have no real interest in being nice to visitors. “Bad church experience of the day” number 5!

Before I leave South Woodford I can’t help but mention a link I found on the web. It may be obsessive to cycle up Tube Lines, but here is someone with a mission to visit every single charity shop in the south-east. Even madder than me…

The blocked-off south aisle of Holy Trinity Church

The tower, never completed!

Boring but simple – South Woodford Station…

…and again


By the time I got to Woodford it was 5.20pm, so I grabbed a rather bad cup of coffee at the Cafe on the Green and considered – should I carry on cycling up the line, should I follow the “Loop” back round to Leytonstone, or should I call it a day – knowing that because of the odd rules about Bikes on the Tube I faced two train journeys and a few miles’ cycling in between. Thoughts of home won out, and it proved to be the right decision…it was two-and-a half-hours later when I finally got back!

Woodford Station looks a bit scruffy from the car park, but inside it’s a charming little old suburban station that would match any boy’s dream of running a railway. I deliberately mooched around and missed a couple of trains just so I could enjoy the sun and take some photos…

Woodford Station between trains

…and now with a jolly Central Line train

Talking to a friend back in Bishop’s Cleeve a week later, I found she’s a native of Woodford and went to the big school there as a girl. What a small world…!

Buckhurst Hill

Another day, another trip to Woodford – and this time by car, so that I could cycle the last few miles up to Epping. It looked an easy task, but I’d reckoned without the weather, the profusion of hills in supposedly ‘flat’ Essex, and the surprisingly long distances involved at the furthest ends of Tube lines. But at least back near Woodford the stations come along rather quickly, so it didn’t take long to get to Buckhurst Hill.

There’s not a lot to say about Buckhurst Hill, but it does mark a crossing from London ‘proper’ into Essex. There’s an enormous confusion about what qualifies as Essex: do you measure it by the ancient county, the modern one, the London borough boundaries, diocesan boundaries, the county name the Post Office still attaches to the town, or indeed the postcode? Even then, the locals tend to subvert it:  if they want to talk-up their property prices they’ll probably say they live in Essex even if they really live in a London borough. But there seems little doubt that here we cross into Essex, even though it looks just like an extension of London. Buckhurst Hill appears to be a god-fearing sort of place with at least two churches – Buckhurst Hill Baptist Church and St Stephen’s: each seems well supported by a generally solid local population, though one seems to be re-badged as a Trend church while they’re having some building work done…

Buckhurst Hill Baptists

St Stephen’s Church

There’s the usual range of housing from the 1030s and 1960s, a lot of it looking just a bit cramped but presumably home to families who get by. A rather unique feature here is lots of tiny little cul-de-sacs like Elm Place shown here: on the map they look like twigs sticking off the main roads and are clearly designed as little courtyard-style experiments. I guess they work well enough, through these days the gardens are mainly laid up as car parks. Meanwhile the station itself is a neat enough affair, though rather spoiled by scaffolding when I visited.

Elm Place, one of about 30 like this

Buckhurst Hill Station up close

Station Roundel

A longer shot of the neat little station

That’s really about all there is to Buckhurst Hill, but we can’t leave without mentioning one famous local resident, the lovely Jade Goody. Jade shot to fame when she was picked to appear on Big Brother, a reality TV show that after three series had already set a course for outrageous rudeness and general nastiness. Jade took it to new extremes, being famously trashy and offensive to everyone. The Great British Public voted her the “fourth worst Briton” but loved the spectacle, and at the end of it all she got her own TV chat show. You can see the extent of Jade’s remarkable talents (though unusually, you can’t see two of them) in the pictures below…

Jade on Big Brother…

…and again

Along the way someone called her an “ugly talentless pig with no manners”, but that didn’t stop her coming back for a Celebrity Big Brother – where she managed to make some racist remarks about an Indian actress, Shilpa Shetty, including calling her a “poppodom”. It’s an odd word, and in hindsight I suspect she was merely “being rude with an Indian word” rather than being racist – perhaps like calling someone a sausage? But the press were on to it, Shetty played the “victim” role to perfection, Jade got kicked out and the whole of India was roused to anger. Chancellor Gordon Brown, visiting the sub-continent to discuss matters of high finance, suddenly found himself having to apologise for a TV show which in all probability he had never heard of.

Never out of the limelight, Jade managed to attract about a thousand years of disasters in the course of only three. Miscarriages, rapes, cocaine, heroin, broken home, criminal dad – you name it, she’d been there – and it all splurged in glorious detail across the media. When she finally got cervical cancer, then went into remission, and then died tragically at the age of 28, you couldn’t help wondering “is this yet another stunt?”

To round it off, on the verge of dying she married some foul low-life who was already doing time for nasty offences like “aggravated bodily harm”. He was already cheating on Jade, and even their wedding night he had to get let off his curfew; and then in the month before she dies he went back inside for another assault on a taxi-driver. You couldn’t make it up.

Along the way Jade “opened a lot of women’s issues for discussion” and (supposedly) healed a lot of people who sought her aid in their prayers. The media made her both a saint and a filthy slag…and we lapped it all up.  Yet at the heart of it all there was a hurting little girl who wanted to love and to be loved. I guess she really was an archetypal “Essex girl”.

A pig

An ugly talentless pig with no manners

For anyone who can stand any more of this, there’s a fascinating Uncyclopedia article on Jade Goody. Uncyclopedia is famously horrible in the style of VIZ magazine, but its general pig-ignorant approach seems rather appropriate here.


Loughton seems to have a longer history than most places around here, having really got going in Victorian times. And someone has clearly spent ages “bigging the place up” for the Wikipedia article on Loughton. It seemed a nice place, with a sudden outbreak of churches and pleasant public spaces – though perhaps too many over-enlarged houses for Essex bank managers and criminals.

Loughton Station

…and the station roundel

St Michael’s Church, Loughton

The station has some lovely 1930s canopies, and just next door the new Sainsbury’s tries to capture something of the same. Behind the front it’s just a big shed, but with that little green staircase and the big sweeping portico I guess they’re trying…

Pleasant 1930s concrete canopies…

Loughton Sainsburys


Between Loughton and Debden is a big hill with lots of very big houses: but having struggled up the hill the run down into Debden is a pleasant treat. On the way there’s just a little bit of green space and a good view to the towers of far-away Docklands.

View to the distant towers of Docklands

Debden station

A pretty bridge at the station

Station roundel

Debden station is disappointing outside, though inside it has a bit more charm, with a beautifully restored old bridge across the tracks. The town itself is also rather plain though tolerable as a piece of planned suburbia; and it has a striking shopping centre. Designed in the 1950s on almost a “regional shopping centre” scale, it’s a grand bit of urban space; these days it’s a bit over-run with factory shops and down-market stuff, but happily it retains six gorgeous carvings high up on the walls. 

Debden Shopping Centre

The Shopping Centre again





The far end of Debden is all well-laid out council estates and schools with fields behind. There appeared to be a cycle path through it all to Theydon Bois: in the end it turned out more of a scramble, but it was fun to be “in the wild” for a few minutes and to find some delicious blackberrries.

Eek…open country!

Debden blackberries

Theydon Bois

Bwah? Boy? Boys? Bovce? Apparently it’s pronounced Boyce, but you could be forgiven for thinking it relates to woods and forests, in an echo of French usage (Bois de Boulogne, etc…) Whatever, it’s clearly a place where Essex pretends not to be London; a little rural retreat with a village green, boutiquey shops and a dainty little station. Like Roding Valley (see below) the station is one of the least-used on the whole network; it seems if you’re wealthy enough to live here, you can afford to drive your big car into town and park it up somewhere in less time than the Central Line journey will take. The station was originally built with a view to shipping milk into London every day from the country, but of course even that is done nowadays by road traffic. So Theydon Bois station is under threat, but it hasn’t been shut down yet.

There’s also a charming Victorian brick church, though it too is facing challenge. Posted on the notice board is that dread note from the bishop – the Living is under suspension, and Theydon Bois is being merged with the next door parish of Theydon Garnon.

A land of boutique bakeries and other stores

Charming Victorian brick church

Station roundel

A typical country station


The road to Epping takes us up and down more steep hills and past some very grand houses indeed: the sort where people give you suspicious looks if you stop at their driveways for a rest. Although we’re out-in-the-country by now the M25 motorway is nearby, but it’s a measure of the power of the local residents associations that it actually runs in a tunnel under the hills. Our route crosses the motorway over a mouth of the tunnel, so here’s a gantry-level view of it all, followed by the magnificent church of St John the Baptist in Epping.

The lovely M25, winding its way to Dartford

St John the Baptist, Epping

Epping itself is a fair little town, caught perhaps between a number of ideals – is it a cute little village, a county town, a London suburb, or a jumble of all three? I didn’t really fall for the place, but I guess living there could be pleasant enough. It certainly maintains a long pageantry and history, giving its name to the wonderful Epping Forest and posting an impressive, if not entirely convincing, sign at the entrance to the town.

The rather exotic sign for Epping

Lastly we reach the railway station…it’s just another bricky eastern Central Line affair, but it marks the current end of the line. It’s funny to see trains pull in here and change their destination signs from Epping to …West Ruislip, where we started out all that while ago.

Epping Station

Station Roundel

There used to be more of the Central Line, going on to Ongar: but that part has been handed over to the Epping Ongar Railway and is currently closed for repairs. Some day we’ll do the trip and add it to the record, but for the moment we still have ‘the Loop’ outstanding. Read on, for my exciting trip to Fairlop and the rest…!

Back to Woodford

Having so much enjoyed my earlier trips to Woodford I was keen – yes, really keen! – to go back and do some more. This time I used the trip to go round the Loop: but before we set off here are a few more photos from Woodford. I’m spending time on these partly because I went to the effort of looking in Pevsner to check what I should have seen in Woodford on my first trip: he lists a number of local houses and churches, so I trekked diligently round them.

My first reaction was surprise that Pevsner focusses so much on churches: why would an essentially secular book give such attention to religious architecture? The answer turns out to be that even in Woodford there simply aren’t many other public buildings. Indeed apart from railway stations (which Pevsner sometimes features) and schools (which he features at boring length, since most of them are truly horrid), there just aren’t many significant buildings in any of these places other than churches and an occasional pub. Perhaps, on reflection, this is true of many places: so my other reason for listing all this in Woodford is by way of contrasting it with the dullness (albeit some of it quite well-off dullness) that we’ll encounter later on.

The first place Pevsner points us to is an unusual estate of cross-shaped houses. From time to time architects seem to have got excited by cross-shaped houses, particularly in wealthy Victorian Scotland, I seem to recall – but I can’t see the attraction myself: it seems only to lead to lots of pokey corners and strange triangular cupboards. So we’ll move quickly on to some others which look much more attractive: good solid late-Victorian and early 20th-century villas that you just know will have big rooms and decent ceilings and will feel like the right place for a family to live. At this point we’ll introduce the Colin Scale of Housing Niceness, which runs from 1 (horrid) to 10 (wonderful). On this scale the villas here probably score an 8.

An unusual estate of X-shaped houses

A good solid villa

Another good solid villa…

…and another

Smaller, but very attractive with a garden full of roses

A particularly attractive arts & crafts style

Now we can turn to the churches. The Anglican church in Woodford is a solid, very attractive Victorian building situated perfectly on the edge of the village green: a classic English scene. It’s also clearly a hotbed of evangelical fervour, as witnessed by the Alpha Course banner and all sorts of other indications of busy, committed church life on their noticeboards. Sadly when I visited (on a Saturday lunchtime) they seemed to be deep into a service of Healing and Anointing for Married Couples, and even though I hung about in the porch the stewards simply scowled at me as if to suggest “go away”. I hadn’t expected them to invite me in and let me wander around during their “event”, but I did think they could at least have come over and said “hello”, given me some literature and smiled at me. And perhaps explained what was going on with all the groaning and waving of hands inside. Yet another example, I fear, of a “friendly” church with a terrible welcome for outsiders.

All Saints, Woodford – a friendly church that doesn’t welcome visitors

Next it was the Roman Catholics. Being Saturday I rather expected to clash with people coming to confession, or at least there to pray, and indeed it was so: so I hung around in the porch reading the Tablet and the Catholic Herald until the one other visitor finished his devotions. The big headline this week seemed to be that the Pope is sending 9 cardinals to Ireland who will re-energise the faith of the people after all the abuse scandals. Given that the cardinals are all fat old men, and the tenor of the article seemed to be “Trust us, it wasn’t our fault, it’s the evil world outside’s fault; the church is perfect” I can only wonder if Irish Catholics are particularly gullible.

Once the other guy was on his way out I figured “he’s a regular here; presumably he’ll say “hello”: but once again, of course, he walked straight past me without any contact whatsoever.  OK, he may have been deep in penitence or distress – but yet again I found myself thinking “what have I encountered here that gives me any reason for coming back?” The church was pleasant enough inside, but there was no kind of “guide to the faith”, nor even any useful facility like a toilet or a coffee stall. So the answer really was “well, nothing, actually.” Compare that with the Saturday life of a Sikh gurdwara (brimming with fun, and heaps of food free to anyone who shows up) and I think Christians may not have long to last.

St Thomas of Canterbury, Woodford

Cute little chapels built onto the side

Interior…an absolutely standard Victorian church just like St Luke’s or St Gregory’s in Cheltenham

Lastly it was off to the United Free Church, more properly nowadays a United Reformed Church. An astonishingly brash exhibition of engineering brick with stone dressing, this church was at least clearly shut so there was no question of trying to judge their welcome. This, to my mind, is all right! Interestingly though, while I was sat on the church wall looking at my map, a car pulled up and a man started talking to me. Thoughts of “am I going to be a Christian or an Atheist today” passed through my mind, but it turned out he was simply lost and wanted to know the way to the town centre. It made a nice change from miserable Christians.

Woodford United Reformed Church 1

Woodford United Reformed Church 2

Lastly, here’s a shot of Woodford Green with its statue of Winston Churchill. I think he looks more like Alfred Hitchcock, but there we go. The Green is a delightful oasis and clearly another reason why house prices here are so high…but let’s make the most of it, since standards are all headed downhill from here onwards!

Winston Churchill at Woodford

Before we proceed further, it may be useful to explain what the Loop is. Well, it’s simply the Loop shown on Tube maps at the eastern end of the Central Line…as shown below. We’re joining it at Woodford then cycling clockwise round to Wanstead…and the trip will take most of a day!

Roding Valley

Roding Valley is right on the edge of “urban civilisation”: the south platform is in built-up London, while the north platform is in rural Essex. Certainly it seems to be “the far end of the Woodford suburbs”, and beyond it is definitely “out in the country”. In terms of Housing Niceness I’d award Roding Valley a score of 5-6: that’s somewhat below Woodford and well below Chigwell, but it’s pleasant enough – basically 1930s 3-bed semi-detached houses arranged in the usual long streets with drives, trees, etc.

Already I was wondering why the railway is here: it hardly seems economic to run a railway with so few trains and so few passengers. The Wikipedia Article on Roding Valley Station confirms that Roding Valley is the least-used station on the entire Underground network! Yet curiously Roding Valley station seems to have hundreds of Underground roundels (i.e. station signs) along its platforms: someone really over-ordered here!

Housing Niceness Rating of 5, helped by the lovely roses

Station roundel – there are LOADS of these!

Occasionally an empty train appears…

…and then there’s nothing again.


Chigwell sounds worryingly like the imaginary towns of 1960s British children’s TV – Camberwick Green, Chigley and Trumpton. Only now do I realise the names were obviously modelled on Chigwell and Camberwell Green, and I’m afraid this knowledge reinforces my prejudice that the BBC is essentially London-obsessed. But hey, Chigwell is up-market by anyone’s standards. Full of golf courses, cricket clubs and garden centres, it also boasts some of the most fantastically over-improved 1930s houses I’ve ever seen. Stone lions, block paving and automated iron gates are everywhere, along with Ferraris and Porsches just parked casually outside. (Outside the 4-garage extension. So why not put them in the garage? I think I get the message.)

The strange thing is – there’s such a sense of bling, of show, of silly throwing around of money, that it feels almost as dull and pointless as the rest of the places on the Loop. I found myself thinking “will I ever climb up the ladder high enough to live in houses like these?” and then I realised I probably have, but wouldn’t want to. There’s a real sense here of “the more you have, the more it costs simply to maintain it, and the more effort you have to put into showing it off”. So Chigwell gets a Niceness Rating of 9, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

In case my opinions sound a little cruel, I’ll note that Chigwell was the home of the TV series Essex Wives (who turned out to be no better than they ought to be) and Birds of a Feather (about the wives of two armed robbers coping while their mates were banged up.) Since Tottenham Hotspur also have a training ground in the area I guess there’s also a strong element of Footballers’ Wives. All of which seems to confirm the need for a deeper spiritual grounding here…!

Chigwell station

…and again

By now I was fairly desperate for some lunch and a loo. But neither Roding Valley now Chigwell sported anything like a Macdonalds or even a pub (both good choices for a loo, though not usually for food.) With some relief I saw the Village Deli…though in the event my joy was misplaced. A group of people sitting outside smoking heavy foreign tobacco should have put me off; but I pressed on, wringing out of the unhelpful staff a very indifferent baked potato with poor quality beans and cheese, and a watery Greek salad. I was already feeling grumpy, but then one of the smokers came in and without clearing her lungs or washing her hands starting serving the customers. Ugh!

It gets good reviews on the web, but …ugh!

Grange Hill

Running quickly out of the Village Deli, I headed on for Grange Hill. Or rather Grange Hill Station, since everything else around here still seems to be Chigwell. So we’ll start with a photo of the station and then turn to the depressing local landscape…

Grange Hill station

I say depressing, though this is still Chigwell. From now on, the standard of housing, of schools, and of everything else, seems to be on the slide – confirmed ultimately by a mis-placed apostrophe on the church noticeboard! The huge Manford Estate lies on the London side of Chigwell: bits of it score a niceness rating as high as 5-6, but worse is to come with a long run of post-war prefabricated housing on Brocket Way. Pevsner raves about it as a classic example of its kind, but it’s not very nice, and despite a lot of re-working with spray-on brickwork I can’t score it more than a 3. And the closer we get to Hainault the more depressing it all gets. The photos below don’t quite show it, but there was an awful lot of broken brickwork and rubbish lying around…

Hard to score this more than a 3…

…or this

Perhaps a 4

The hideous Manford School

Grange Hill is of course best known as the name of a teenage TV soap opera claiming to portray life in a typical British school: it played on the BBC for many years at around 5.00pm and in its day it was wildly popular. It certainly put Grange Hill on the map, though in fact there’s no Grange Hill School here and a lot of it was actually filmed in Liverpool! The show focussed essentially on the lives of the kids, so it’s hard to tell what was the quality of their “built environment”, but I can’t believe it was ever as nasty as Manford School in the real Grange Hill.

The Daily Mail (not known for unbiassed truth and liberal social attitudes) opines that in its early days the TV series shocked us with its stories of bullying, drugs and teenage pregnancy; but 30 years on most real schools are far worse than Grange Hill, so it got the chop. I have to disagree…I seem to remember there was plenty of these at the Royal Grammar School – and that was 40 years ago!

Finally I stumbled on the church of St Winifred. It looks a bit beaten-up, and life seems a bit of a struggle…but as always in a struggling place it’s good to know someone is trying to care for people. It’s also interesting to see – particularly in these places on the Loop – that the church is just about the only social institution very “visibly” carrying on. It’s just a pity about that apostrophe…

St Winifred’s, Chigwell: trying to stay cheerful…

…but not very good at sign-writing or punctuation!


I never managed to find any real centre to Hainault; it just seemed to be a load of houses filling the space between Grange Hill and Fairlop, with a couple of shops along Fencepiece Road. Happily the station itself is moderately interesting, though from the road it looks pretty dire. The interest is that it’s quite roomy and has some charming old features; and it’s also the stopping point of the two train lines which terminate here. Yes, I mentioned earlier that the Loop is not actually a Loop but simply two branch lines which go to the same place – and the place is Hainault. This slows your progress round the Loop considerably, but it does force you to get out of the train and look around for about 10 minutes. That makes 3 minutes of interest and 7 minutes of boredom!

A Central Line train going all the way to South Ruislip

Hainault Station from the road

A “concrete roundel”, meaning the frame is concrete…

…and a rare tiled mounting for a station sign

The gorgeous old waiting room…

…and inside


Fairlop is a name familiar from the Radio 4 panel game Mornington Crescent, but I had no idea what to expect when I got there. A charming little country village, perhaps, with an ancient oak in the centre of a cheerful village green; with the locals enjoying a game of cricket? A little Victorian library next to to an ancient parish church? An oak-beamed pub with some bucolic locals outside?

All these elements are there, but it’s hardly a charming little village. The over-riding impression is once again one of overspill, plonked into the middle of nowhere in the ‘1950s and having a bit of a struggle to live up to being a ‘nice’ place.

To begin with the oak tree, there was indeed a famous Fairlop Oak in former days. Sometime in the early 20th century it got knocked down, but when the town was re-created as a London suburb the planners thought it would be a good idea to re-establish it. So here is the new Fairlop Oak, dating from the 1950s – along with the nearby pub that also bears its name.

The New Fairlop Oak

The New Fairlop Oak

The oak would look better if it was on a real village green and not just stuck rather forlornly in the middle of a traffic roundabout, but at least I suppose it gets some protection there from vandals.

Nearby is the striking Fairlop Library, again a product of the 1950s. It is in fact a building by Sir Frederick Gibberd, who we’ve met elsewhere as the architect of Liverpool’s Catholic Cathedral (“the Wigwam”.) Clearly his passion for round buildings came into play here also, and one suspects his legacy here has also been a long struggle with poor building materials and bad design, and outrageous heating bills. But after a recent refurb it seems to be holding up well and much liked by the locals.

Fairlop Library

Liverpool Cathedral

Interior of the Library

The library, pub and sports centre stand out as being rare community facilities in more vast swathes of boring housing; and once again the few other institutions on show are the churches. One can easily deride them, but at least they offer services to their members and to some of the broader community; and more than that, by their very presence they say “there is something higher than acres of housing and economic slog, and at least at some level we’re prepared to care about it all.”

And where there’s religion, there’s always fun to be had. The local catholic church is astonishingly ugly, but sitting on the wall outside was a lady whose proportions and colouring seemed to match it perfectly. To put the two together was irresistible…

Fairlop Catholic Church

Green and brick, and a big fat bottom

Right next door to the Catholic church, but presumably a million miles away from it in theology, is Fairlop Evangelical Church. I don’t know which of the two has the most striking architecture – the slightly bonkers Catholic or the drill-hall Evangelical – but it’s fun to consider whether they ever get together to play football or cricket. Speaking of which, just down the road they were doing the traditional English Rain Dance…

Fairlop Evangelical Church

The English Rain Dance

As an item of moderate interest, I note the Pathetic Motorways website reckons that if the M12 motorway had ever been built, it would have passed right through Fairlop Evangelical Church. There’s lots of jubilation these days that most of the 1960s “Abercrombie Scheme” of London motorways was never built, but I have to say I wonder whether we might be better off if it had been. More discussion of that on another occasion, I suspect.

To round the whole thing off, here is Fairlop Station. Again it seems completely deserted, but as a little suburban railway station it’s pleasant enough.

Fairlop Station

More nice detail in the awning brackets

General view of the platforms

Fairlop roundel


Ah, beautiful Barkingside. Or not. Admittedly the weather had turned stormy by now, but it was hard to find much here to lift the spirits. Pevsner again focuses on the churches, but then how could you possibly like the concrete Police Station or the Magistrates Court? Given the enormous size of these last two, I can only conclude there is loads of crime around here – which seemed to be borne out by the forlorn look of All Saints church and the broken-up gravestones around it. Hunting out the church’s website I find a cheery young vicar and his wife have moved here from – of all places – Bethnal Green; so I have to commend them for having the courage and tenacity to hang on in there. It can’t be easy.

Barkingside Methodist Church

Barkingside Magistrates Court – part of a huge complex!

All Saints, Barkingside

The sad state of the graveyard

Having had my moan, there are a few nice buildings in Barkingside. The children’s charity Barnardos is big here, and though their headquarters building is truly horrid 1960s concrete and does nothing to raise the spirits, their original children’s village built over 100 years ago is a charming piece of Victoriana, suggesting a genuine care for the orphans who flooded into their arms. Nearby are Pert Cottages, originally built for railway workers but which I suspect sell on the market for a huge amount these days; and just along the way is Barkingside Station – again a nice piece of work. The experience was spoiled a little by the sight of a taxi driver relieving himself in the street outside the station – but if I put that aside I’ll recall it as a pleasant scene.

Pert Cottages

Barkingside Station

Newbury Park

From Barkingside to Newbury Park it was pretty dull indeed: just a fight through rather haphazard streets dating from (at a guess) the 1890s, 1930s and 1970s and no great joy in doing so. The station itself is down in a hole, and although pleasant enough inside it’s surroundings are a bit grim: so it was a relief to find two significant buildings right next door. The first is a classic survivor from 1951s Britain: a “hangar” design but actually a bus station, and built right next to the train station so that you can transfer easily from one to the other. Such a radical idea; such a crazy European notion; and so rare in Britain!

The second interesting building is merely a new Holiday Inn Express, but I felt my spirits lift as – for the first time in about 4 hours – I found a building which represented some new, 2000s, investment. A sign that someone believes this area has an economic future! The 1930s is all very well, but on reflection it’s striking that everything north of here on the loop is essentially a survivor from previous investment in the 1930s and 1960s. Perhaps, just perhaps, there is a future here…

More fancy lettering in the brackets

Newbury Park station

Historic “Festival of Britain” bus shelter at Newbury Park

Holiday Inn Express: at last, a bit of post-1930s development!

Gants Hill

After Newbury Park there’s definitely a sense of having rejoined the 21st century. Not that things are altogether great – the route lies after all along the hideous A12 road – but at least there’s a sense of people thriving rather than simply existing. And now that we’re headed back toward London, the line runs properly underground and the stations were built, or rebuilt, in the 1930s to suit this subterranean life. Happily the design task fell to Charles Holden, already familiar from the Piccadilly Line, and here he gave us three splendid stations which perfectly capture the feel of the times. Gants Hill is the most impressive, with its barrel-vaulted hall apparently inspired by the recently-opened Moscow Metro. But other smaller details are also a delight – like that big slow lettering in the tiles for   G A N T S   H I L L   and the tiny little Underground roundels that mark the hours on the platform clock. (Some day I will go back and photograph it properly!)

Gants Hill roundel

The gorgeous barrel-vaulted hall

Platform, with a cute clock-face

Back outside


Redbridge gives its name to the London Borough which encompasses all the places on the Loop, but it’s also a locality in its own right. Redbridge station is another of Charles Holden’s, but though the building above ground is a recognisably cute round form, the platform level seems to retain less of his charm. By now it was late and the weather was turning rather stormy, so I didn’t manage a lot else here.

Redbridge station…

…and underground


Wanstead was my last stop, and by then I was ready to crash. My mood hadn’t been helped by getting hopelessly lost on the A11/A12 junction after Redbridge, and finding myself suddenly heading up the M11…on a bike. Oops! A quick retreat across fields and another rugby ground followed.

From what I saw of it, Wanstead looked surprisingly civilised. But I only stayed there long enough to photograph a cute little water fountain up above, and a few bits of the station down below. The station is again by Charles Holden, though at ground level it’s been rather crowded in by later blocky additions.

Wanstead roundel

Cute little water fountain

Another outbreak of big slow   W A N S T E A D   lettering

1930s charm, a little squeezed by later additions

So we conclude our journey round the Loop! Apart from a possible return trip to Gants Hill and the other Holden stations I can’t imagine myself ever going near any of these places again: but I wouldn’t consider it a waste of time. It was fascinating once again to learn where these places are and what they’re like, and to think about how “community” is developed and maintained. Personally I tend to play the roles of “observer”, “withdrawer”, “judger” and even “sociopath”: so it’s challenging to think there are people who live even in dreary places who make acceptable lives there. Lives which are presumably, in their way, satisfying and fulfilling – even they if they do revolve mainly around getting-by, drinking, smoking, football, the occasional foreign holiday and of course “the family”. Looking at some of them in the street or in their gardens I felt they’d say the saddest thing that could happen was not that they had to live here, but that they might have to live alone, away from spouses and kids and social networks. Which is an interesting comment on the way I live.

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