Voyage to the bottom of the road

31 Jul

When people move to London, so the cliché goes, they struggle to get to grips with the geography. The city is, obviously, too enormous to compress onto a practical map, and all the recently-arrived out of towner has to find their way around is Harry Beck’s gloriously inaccurate modernist masterpiece, the London Underground station plan.

Without experience, it’s almost impossible to place oneself in the galactic intra-emmtwenny5 cluster. I remember my own disorientation upon returning here as a teenager as both scary and wonderful- gazing at these far-off, oddly named notches on the brightly coloured circuit map was every bit as fascinating and daunting as looking at a map of Central Asia. These impossible destinations- Manor House, Colliers Wood, Archway- might as well have been Kishinev, Ashkebad or Bulawayo. The Saint Etienne song Girl VII sums up the wonder of the tube map pretty nicely- Sarah Cracknell reels off a list of place names, casually mixing districts of London (Clerkenwell, Portobello, Maida Vale, Old Ford) with further flung, but no less exotic locations (Massif Central, Baffin Island, Hyderabad).

My favourite metaphor for tube travel, itself pretty well-worn, is as a teleportation device- one disappears down a hole in Hammersmith and re-emerges from another half an hour later in Hampstead. Admittedly, it’s probably a bit sweatier and more prone to industrial action than a Tardis, but to me as a sixteen year old, this was exactly how it was.

I was, at first, completely reliant on the Underground. I once had to get from my parents’ flat in Fulham to my Aunt’s house in Hammersmith for Sunday Lunch. TFL had suspended westbound services on the Piccadilly and District Lines at Earls Court that weekend, and I was forced to bumble my way around SW5 in search of a replacement bus service. I got there in the end, but the journey had taken me over an hour and a half. I had no idea of this at the time, but the walk from door to door would have been less than twenty minutes.

It was pretty obvious I needed to get my bearings if I were ever to get anywhere in this town. My pocket money didn’t quite stretch to buying an A-Z, and knowing nothing of that mysterious zodiac known to the masses as Googlemaps, I figured the only way to work out London would be to walk it.

And so, feeling like a latterday Speke, I set out in search of the source of the Talgarth Road.

It was a blazing early summer’s day, and the passage not always favourable- pedestrian crossings seemed to take forever to clear, and the natives, impervious to the immensity of my voyage, barged past, hurrying back and forth between office and fast-food outlet (is there anything else on the M4 between Hammersmith and Gloucester Road?). At various points, my strength began to sap- I must have eaten about 12 KitKats that day for vital sustenance- what, indeed, was the point of this self-imposed long march, I often found myself asking. Despite these nagging doubts, I kept my pace steady. Surely, I kept mentally chanting, surely Livingstone, Brazza and Shackleton must have questioned their aims after they slipped off the contours of the ordnance survey map? But did they give up? No!

So on I trudged, past Gloucester Road, Brompton Cross, Harrods, and the fast-food stall next to Hyde Park Corner, where I was hit by an horrific inner debate over whether to buy a Flake 99, a sudden caprice made all the more strange by the fact that I didn’t actually like ice-cream very much. Verily, the quandaries faced by history’s great navigators could not have been more tortuous.

A satisfactory compromise reached (namely an astonishingly overpriced can of coke), I continued down the HPC subway, re-emerging onto Picadilly. I had no idea of where I was going to end up- I guess part of me hoped that I’d be led to the sort of nightmare inner-city no-go zone dreamed up by the subeditors of the Daily Mail to frighten provincial aunties, or at least a part of town I’d never been to before. It was, then, with a certain sense of disappointment that I reached Picadilly Circus, the de facto source of the westbound M4. I gave a sigh and headed up to Berwick Street to buy some records, a nice bit of self-indulgence to reward my gruelling trek.

However prosaic the end result of my adventure was, the sense of trepidation as I headed further east was something I quickly became addicted to. Trips down all the major thoroughfares followed in quick succession- Shepherds Bush Roundabout to Hackney Wick, Kensington High Street to Richmond, Hammersmith to Harlesden.

A couple of years later, when I took a six-month sabbatical from University (ie, dropped out), I embarked on what was to become my very own Long March.

The project was to visit every tube station in Greater London, and to get the photos to prove it. It was a decidedly pointless exercise, but as an occupation for an unemployed bloke with next to no imagination, it beat sitting around smoking weed, as was the habit of most of my other dropout chums. It was also the best possible way of conquering Harry Beck’s gorgeously bogus topography- even though I only ever got 60 per cent of the way to finishing this monumentally useless labour (a girl dropped my camera into a carafe of wine in Paris that summer), I did once and for all slay the sense of living on an electric circuit board. For better or for worse, I transformed my adolescent sense of wonder into a tedious adult obsession- the sort of thing that I’m sure qualifies as a “hobby”. Yuck.

For sure, I miss teleportation- but, to be honest, I’ve discovered I much prefer taking the bus anyway.

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