Thursday, 27 May 2010

On The Town

This was to be the day that I finally, at the second attempt, nailed London. It was also to be a day of history and exploration, and I was really rather looking forward to it.

The day started with a visit to King's Cross railway station so that I could leave my rucksack at the Left Luggage office there – an experience which left me pondering on the way railway left luggage offices have changed over the years.

Once upon a time, which is approximately from around the dawn of time to I'd say roughly 1979, such places were generally tucked somewhere around the back of a station where they were overseen by a kind of superannuated porter in a waistcoat and cap. He (and it must have been a trade union diktat that it had to be a bloke, because it always was) would scribble your name with the stub of a pencil onto a khaki label, sprinkle fag ash on it from the butt that was permanently wedged in the corner of his mouth, and charge you fourpence for privilege. He would then absent-mindedly fling your bag or case into the farthest, unlit and cobweb-ridden corner of the office, ensuring that your return visit to reclaim your luggage would take at least 20 minutes and you'd probably miss your train.

Then in the 1980's, after the Thatcher Government had began helping British Railways to become leaner and meaner and had offered all its porters, left luggage attendants and other workers the amazing opportunity to embrace capitalism and seize the chance to become Aston Martin-owning entrepreneurs themselves by sacking them, we had irritating metal boxes to cope with, huge lockers of the kind you normally see in gyms and sports centre changing rooms, and which somehow never seemed quite big enough.

Then we had the London bombings, and that effectively was the end of Left Luggage.

But it's back, and thank goodness, only this time its run by a private company. It's got a shop front right on the concourse at King's Cross and it uses one of those luggage x-ray machines you normally see at airports. Well, you can see their point. And it probably helps to explain the cost - £8 for 24 hours – which is clearly calculated to turn a profit.

Anyway, having dropped off my bag, I headed for the Northern Line and the Angel underground station. For a long while, this station had the longest escalator in the world – now it's just the longest in Europe. And its long, I mean really, really long. In fact, it's so long that one wag decided to put on a pair of skis and do a Franz Klammer down it on the basis that it's probably the only decent ski-able slope in central London (it's certainly the longest, but I think we've established that). This mad fool also thought it would be a good idea to strap a video camcorder to the side of his head (as you do) before making the descent – and indeed it was a good idea, as the resulting video makes the phrase 'white knuckle ride' seem very, very inadequate. It's well worth watching - you'll find it on YouTube somewhere.

From there, I had a spot of lunch in an old Routemaster which has been converted into a vegan restaurant and parked up in the yard of the old Truman's brewery in Spittalfields. It's called the Root-Master (its vegan - get it?) and the food is quite brilliant, as is the whole atmosphere on the top deck, which has been rather stylishly laid out as a dining room. It's a must-do.

I then took a ride on the newly-reopened East London line through the first tunnel ever to be dug under the River Thames, by no less a person than Isambard Kingdom Brunel's son, Marc. This was also the first tunnel to be dug using a shield. Teams of diggers gradually moved this great circular digging platform forward inch by inch and once they had dug out sufficient clay and sand a huge cast iron ring was inserted. This clever system ensured that there was never more than a few feet of unsupported earthworks at any time. Then the shield was moved forward and process begun again and it kept going foot by foot and ring by ring until the whole tunnel had been dug. The same process is still in use today.

I then got lost in Rotherhithe for a bit, but I eventually found my way to Tower Bridge Road and caught a bus over the eponymous Tower Bridge. One of the bridge's many claims to fame is that it was once jumped by a double-decker bus whilst in the process of opening. This bizarre event happened during the 1950's (1951, I think) and was widely reported in the press at the time. The driver was happily driving across Tower Bridge when it inexplicably began to rise, presenting him with something of a dilemma – attempt to brake and risk ending up in the river, or just put your foot down and go for. Well, he went for it, breaking a leaf spring in the process but successfully making it to the other side. In truth, the gap was probably only a couple of inches but I'm quite prepared to believe that it seemed like a great deal more at the time! The driver, needless to say, was feted by the public for his undoubtedly quick thinking - and rightly so!

Then it was off at Tower Hill and onto one of the few Routemaster buses still running. Though withdrawn from service around the turn of the century, a small fleet of these most recognisable and iconic of London buses have been retained for so-called' heritage services' and I was able to catch one which ran past the Tower of London, St Paul's Cathedral, Fleet Street and The Strand. It's a hugely enjoyable experience which I'd recommend to anyone visiting London and to my mind there can be few finer or more atmospheric ways of seeing the sights.

The day ended with a journey by Metropolitan Line – the first underground railway in the world, no less – to Watford. This showed the other side to travelling in London –the sheer frustration of it.

Things began to go wrong when an Underground train broke down at Liverpool Street resulting in huge delays on the Circle, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan Lines. Minor chaos and long delays ensured. Then there was a train breakdown on the Jubilee Line at Waterloo bringing that to a standstill. And as if that wasn't bad enough, there were no less than two separate signal failures at different stations on the District Line which brought that to a virtual standstill, too. And all this during the rush hour!

Hopefully, I'm now well out of it – though Watford doesn't really feel that far, or that different, from London. Nice Underground station, though, even if it is miles from the town centre.

We'll see what Watford really looks like in the morning...


  1. Quick point: Marc Brunel was Isambard's father, not son. Isambard was assisting in the project but got injured in an accident during the tunnel construction. He recuperated from his injury by surveying the route of the Great Western Railway. Well, he would, wouldn't he...

    I'm enjoying the ride!

  2. Ah, yes.. so, you've spotted the deliberate mistake,then..! Thanks for the correction, chum. Mistakes like that are scarily easy to make when you've left all your research notes at home!