East of EdenWhen I began this blog, I had a shortlist of only a couple of dozen places about which I knew I wanted to write. That was all. There was no grand plan of campaign, no strategy to help me get to 150. I trusted the Underground to serve up its delights as and when I chose to search them out.

Before I reach the end, however, I do need to make one final, slight return.

I didn’t set out to count down the greatest things, or rank them in any way. It was always my intention to list them in no particular order – albeit earmarking a few particularly notable stations for a few particularly notable milestones (such as numbers 50, 75 and 100). So it’s by happy design that for my next to last entry I find myself revisiting my very first.

East Finchley station is of a piece with its archer. The platforms, canopies, buildings, walkways, stairwells, even the handrails and window frames, are close to perfection. Its curves are as exquisitely-formed as the phrasing of Debussy’s Clair de Lune; its structured elegance equals that of Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings. Its swagger, meanwhile, has the same joyous dashes of stylish exoticism as Ron Grainer’s sublime title theme for One of our Dinosaurs is Missing.

Canopy panoplyIn other words, it’s a mighty evocative place.

And there’s plenty of room to encourage so much evocation. East Finchley station has four platforms, broad enough to feel more like continental thoroughfares than provincial embarkation points.

Here you can loiter, brood, mither and mingle without ever feeling ill-at-ease or out-of-sorts. It’s a nice place to have to wait. I’d go so far as to say it’s the kind of place at which you want to have to wait, whether to catch or change trains. The empty space is as much a part of the conception and purpose of East Finchley as the buildings. It’s one of the most holistic creations on the entire network.

The fact it’s also one of the most beautiful is, naturally, an enormous boon. But then it is the work of Charles Holden, the man without whom this blog would not have been possible.

Well, perhaps not impossible, but a hell of a lot shorter. Which, for those who would have preferred a mere two dozen entries, might not have been such a bad thing.

Holden, his ownA Senate House-sized salute to Charles. London belongs to him.

Arrow through me

Roundel-ramaWelcome to an exclusive peek at the new look of Doctor Who’s Tardis.

Yes, the roundels are back. All that steam-punk palaver is no more. Gone, the Heath Robinson-esque detritus and “charming” eccentricities. In their place, gorgeous steel curves, glittering symmetry and a hefty dollop of polish.

Well, you can but dream. Is it wrong to wander down the palatial pipes that connect the Jubilee line with the rest of Waterloo station and imagine you’re inside what people from the 20th century thought people in the 30th century might like? To draw a straight line in your mind from the most futuristic slice of the Underground all the way to the next millennium, with only the odd diversion to make way for the unexpected arrival of the Thames flood plain? To for once look forward fondly, instead of back wistfully?

This way to tomorrowTubular balls, you might think. And granted, you either love the shimmering fancies of this most modern of modernisations, or you probably loathe it. Grey can be a beautiful colour, but only if artfully deployed. When it’s there by default, it usually shouldn’t. But when it’s there by design, it’s a bit of a revelation. The stout walkways and nifty passages at Waterloo are one of the unexpected triumphs of the Jubilee line extension.

Unexpected, because Waterloo comes with the baggage of over 100 years of existence. It wasn’t magicked into being from scratch like your Southwarks or North Greenwichs. It laboured long under associations with congestion and gloom and long, long treks to get to the platforms. It still does, for many. But here’s why an encounter with its youngest, freshest offspring feels more like a joy than a chore. It is still, over a decade on from its opening, thrumming with the shock of the new.

Glide on timeHeavens, there’s even a travelator. And there’s only one other to be found on the whole Underground (which is also ace, naturally). What more of a beguiling gimmicky gesture towards modernity do you possibly need?

Take a stroll along this gleaming cylinder of motion, that seems to have tumbled through time from some point that’s always just beyond tomorrow. We should feel flattered merely to have the chance to pass through such a convenience of wonder. This is what public infrastructure can be like if trust is placed in someone dubbed the Medici of London Transport.

This is what the Underground can still be like.

Circus topOne of my favourite photographs of the London Underground was taken on New Year’s Eve, 1962.

It doesn’t feature any trains or tunnels. There are no platforms, escalators or booking halls to be seen. It doesn’t even include a station. Instead, it shows a group of people standing by one of the subway entrances to Piccadilly Circus, balloons and cigarettes in hand, wrapped up in coats, hats and boots, waiting for something to happen. Around them, all is snow and slush and electric lights and excitement. The Swan & Edgar department store rears up behind, by now well into its dotage but still a commanding presence. And somewhere down below, oblivious to all of this, ignorant even of the turning of the year, the Underground goes about its business.

The photograph, which I’ve uploaded here, was taken by Edwin Sampson, whose work appeared in a number of newspapers in the early 1960s. It doesn’t look particularly posed or staged; it could almost be a snapshot caught on camera by a tourist or passer-by. Yet it bears the traces of a professional. You can tell this from the way the scene is lit so beautifully, but so casually. The Underground roundel and ornamental balustrades look particularly gorgeous. They feel almost on a par with the Christmas decorations. They’re certainly of equal elegance.

Monochrome is a wonderful leveller. While it reduces contrasts, it also raises everyday objects to the same status as the exceptional. The subway entrance is the star of Sampson’s photograph; the balloons and fairy lights and handsome loiterers form part of the supporting cast.

Piccadilly palareToday, the entrances still look almost as good as they did half a century ago, though daylight and colour shows up rough edges and shabby hues that can be hidden in a black-and-white photograph. The lampposts are bearing up the best. The roundels have become targets for stickers and adhesive calling cards, which even when removed leave a nasty residue.

It goes without saying the rest of Piccadilly Circus has changed. There is more sprawl and less subtlety; greater pretension and nowhere near the same reticence. But then the same goes for most of central London. It’s just a question of adjusting your expectations. You can still mooch moodily by Underground subway entrances – so long as you don’t mind doing it next to cacophonous traffic or alongside gutters full of free newspapers and discarded Big Bus Tour ponchos.

When the day comes I finally sit down and write that musical about the Underground I’ve been mulling over for about 20 years, these particular subways will be one of the key locations, along with the steps at Wembley Park, the escalator at Canary Wharf and the whole of Gants Hill. Until then I’ll continue to gaze wistfully at the graceful furnishings with their evocations of make-believe days and frosty nights, and dream of Piccadilly palare between me and the boys in my gang. which case I'm doomed