Circle line

Change here for...Any Underground station where you can see three trains side by side at the same time is a bit special. But Aldgate is more special than most. It has an atmosphere all of its own. I haven’t encountered anywhere else on the network quite like it.

One minute it can resemble a monstrous pinball machine, with people shuttling in all directions, forwards and backwards, as if bouncing around the platforms in the hope of finally ending up in a waiting carriage. The next minute it can be near-deserted, with no sense of bustle or even a trace of a train.

You can arrive and find a choice of services to a variety of destinations… or an absence of any information as to when the next one will arrive. Alternatively, you can stand in the middle of a platform with carriages either side of you, weighing up which way to jump, your reflexes tensed, waiting for beep of a door about to close. Which train is leaving first – will it be to your right, or left?

Ah, the old Aldgate roulette. Many’s a time I’ve played and lost. But I never regret having taken part.

Keeeeeeep dancing!I think that’s because I find it terribly hard to hold a grudge against a station which lets you feel like you’re coming down the steps at the start of Strictly Come Dancing. Or one of those giant staircases along which Clive James would descend at the start of his Review of the Year on BBC1.

If you really strike lucky and turn up when the place is pretty much empty, it’s very hard to resist recreating the Beatles doing Your Mother Should Know in Magical Mystery Tour.

But I’m also taken by Aldgate’s slightly eerie, chameleon-like existence. Sometimes it poses in the guise of a station en route to somewhere else. Sometimes it’s the end of the line. And sometimes it’s neither, and is merely a hulking great obstacle for trains to hasten past, taunting you with a quick flash of light and burst of noise as they zip around the corner to Aldgate East:

Off to you know whereI appreciate this station can be, and possibly always is, some people’s most hated place in London. Mistime your arrival and you could be waiting up to 15 minutes for a connection. Misplace your bearings and you could be wandering about for well over 15 minutes, feeling like you’re exiled in an Escher-like catacomb.

But I’ve got used to its quirks and irregularities. I don’t allow the peculiar flourishes and curmudgeonly habits of Aldgate to unsettle me. Instead, I find them harmless and slightly charming, like the behaviour of a funny uncle.

I’ve grown accustomed to its pace.

The end of the line

Through the roundel windowI really haven’t done enough on this blog to commemorate people who – at the time of writing – are still alive. Mike Ashworth is one such person, as it’s thanks to him visitors to Wood Lane station can admire a thousand or so chunks of history that might otherwise have been left to rot.

It’s a London Underground roundel that hails from the original Wood Lane – a previous incarnation of the present station that used to be on the Central line and which closed in 1959. The roundel was rescued from the wreckage on the specific request of Ashworth, LU’s design and heritage manager, who then oversaw its gorgeous restoration and rebirth here, in the all-new Wood Lane.

There’s one drawback, however. It’s behind protective glass, which means it doesn’t photograph that well. My reflection-wracked pictures don’t do it full justice.

One thousand slices of charmIt’d be wonderful were it to be open display, even if it meant it had to be mounted higher up, out of the reach of hands with hammers or light-fingered loons.

It also looks a bit eerie, not to say fragile, divorced from any kind of solid surface. But this is nitpicking. I’m just glad it’s still with us – unlike the institution that once made this station’s name famous the world over.

Give my regards to a broad 'StreetGrowing up, I thought Great Portland Street was one of the most famous places in London. This was due solely to its frequent mentions on Just a Minute on Radio 4, as the place from which Kenneth Williams would feverishly wail he had come – often against his supposed better judgement – to be on the show.

Sitting in my bedroom in the East Midlands, I concluded this was clearly one of the most illustrious abodes in the capital, by virtue of being worthy not just of the tenancy of people like Kenny, but of such repeated namechecks on (what is still) the best panel game in Britain.

Years later I realised the calculated comedy and self-deprecation behind those repeated cries of “I didn’t come all the way from Great Portland Street for this! It’s a disgrace!” For one thing, the area is barely 15 minutes’ walk from the location of the old Paris studios where Just a Minute was recorded: hardly a voyage of Jules Verne-esque stature. And second, it is assuredly not an world-famous, celebrity-rich, tourist-attracting hotspot. The most cosmopolitan touch is a sign to a public toilet with the word MEN reproduced in four languages.

What it does have, however, is an Underground station of which even the purposefully-snobbish Kenneth Williams might have approved:

Carry on behindThe platforms have a bewitching grubbiness* that they share with next-door neighbour Baker Street. Both stations are fine examples of how to evoke heritage thoughtfully, not clumsily. No unsubtle dollops of Victoriana here.

Admittedly the enormous brick-lined tunnel does much of the job single-handedly. It’s impossible not to be awed by its vast, smooth curve arching above your head, created from thousands and thousands of bricks, smeared not with a few blobs of artlessly added designer-grime, but with 150 years of history.

The alcoves have been reasonably well-preserved, albeit blessed with not quite the same seductively noir lighting as at Baker Street. In fact, the whole interior is brighter than its cousin, thanks to a stab of daylight at the western end of the platforms:

Brighter, laterI’m guessing that’s the Marylebone Road, though I’ve never been able to find the corresponding gap above ground to allow me a peek downwards.

For all its charm, Great Portland Street is not without flaws – much like its most famous advocate. The station suffered terribly at the hands of Metronet, the company briefly in charge of the infrastructure of nine of the Underground’s lines during the last decade.

Metronet’s policy of cheap but ugly concealment rather than costly but beautiful restoration left chunks of Great Portland Street shrouded in plastic. There’s nothing wrong with plastic, of course – except when it shouldn’t be there:

The better endIts five years since Metronet’s expensive and predictable collapse, when the upkeep of this line (and, since 2010, every Underground line) passed back into public ownership.

I do hope Transport for London one day gets round to righting the wrongs its unmourned erstwhile cohort perpetrated.

I didn’t come all the way to Great Portland Street for this!

*Just like the best of the Carry On films, naturally