Metropolitan 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

Over the hills and far awayWhen it comes to untamed nature, I’m with Terry Scott in Carry on Camping:

“Funny thing about dirty, stuffy old London. I can walk for miles and miles without ever getting bitten, stung or stepping into something. That’s more than I can say for the country.”

Or rather, the ill-kept, uncolonised country. The best kind of rural is when a railway runs through it. It’s a mark of progress. No matter how remote you feel or how abandoned you seem, you’ll always be reassured in the countryside when you hear the sound of a train or catch a glimpse of some tracks. It means others have come this way. It means civilisation.

The Underground does this to the otherwise unsettling wilds of Buckinghamshire. The line from Chesham to Chalfont & Latimer runs around the hem of the Chilterns, but doesn’t dare venture up its skirts. This is just as well. Any further out of London and you’d be in Tring, the sort of place so typical of Middle England that Instant Sunshine wrote a song about it.

At just under four miles, this is the longest stretch of Underground between two adjacent stations on the entire network. It doesn’t feel that long, however, because of its novelty. A ride between Highgate and Archway can feel twice as long as this, thanks to the unending blackness and occasional unexplained halt. At least if you get held up out here, you can watch the wild rabbits and buzzards.

Furthest point from Charing CrossThe novelty begins right from the off, when you board your train at the furthest point on the Underground from central London. The only sense that you are in any way connected with the capital comes from the maps inside the carriages. The Victorian water tower and flower beds compound your disorientation. Then you’re off, sneaking beside gabled mansions, Baptist community centres, indoor swimming pools and – for heaven’s sake – rivers with watercress in them, before arriving in open countryside:

Taking a Chil-turn for the betterSingle tracks run almost all the way to Chalfont & Latimer, which heightens the novelty yet further. For all its pastoral pretensions, however, you’re never far from cultivation. A couple of feet at best, in fact. The line is very well maintained, and has just had a load of new fencing installed. For some – i.e., me – this is the best of both worlds: a taste of the country, but not on its own terms.

There’s no direct way to follow the course of the line on foot. A stroll between stations will take you meandering through farms and woodland, across new housing developments and along minor roads with no pavements but dozens of hidden bends. People with metal detectors or dog-walkers with half a dozen beasts may greet you with a polite but slightly clipped pleasantry.

Latimer-boundThere’s no such place as Chalfont and Latimer. The station services a number of villages, including the plum sitcom punchline of Chalfont St Giles. But any location that shares a name with Nigel Havers and Tony Britton’s characters in Don’t Wait Up can’t be all bad.

You arrive through a sequence of meadows and business estates, joining up with the mainline to Aylesbury just outside the station. Nowadays the Metropolitan trains continue on to central London, a far better service than the previous shuttle that ran this far and no further. And there’s more countryside to come, from the vast tracts of greenery outside Chorleywood to the congregation of trees at Moor Park. But none quite so agreeably sprawling as that through which you’ve just passed.

You can go for miles and miles through London without ever getting bitten, stung or stepping into something. The same goes for the country – so long as you stay on the Underground.

London train

Moor, the merrierThe entire top-left corner of the Underground map is pretty much off-limits to most Londoners. It has the status of a curio, the sort of thing that catches your eye as you pass the window of an antiques shop but which you’d rather not pause to examine too closely. What exactly goes on up there, the majority wonders, in that messy bit of the network that isn’t even in London, with stumps of lines sprouting off all over the place, and stations with names like Chalfont & Latimer?

Blindfold most Londoners, transport them to somewhere in zone 7 or 8, then ask them to find their way back to Charing Cross without using a map or asking directions, and a moral panic would ensue. Moor Park is in Hertfordshire, just outside the boundary of Greater London, but it may as well be in Lancashire, or a county that doesn’t even exist anymore, like Salop. If there’s an unreal air about the place, it could be because it once looked more like a studio set than a working station. If there’s an underwhelming air about the place, it could be because a studio set would have more personality.

But it does have one feature in its favour, and it’s one that compounds the agreeably peculiar feel of this part of the Underground even further. Moor Park has a “secret entrance”. The inverted commas are necessary because were it an actual secret entrance, I wouldn’t be writing about it, because it would be secret. It does have a secretive ambience, however, and that’s a lot to do with it being on the edge of a rather menacing-looking patch of woodland.

Somewhere beyond these trees is Sandy Lodge golf course. There might even be a few houses. But for the most part you’ve really no cause or business to come this way. And if you do, you then have to walk all the way under four sets of railway tracks to the main entrance hall, before you can turn round and head back to your desired platform:

Subway sect The subway is rather splendid, it has to be said: well-lit, tastefully-tiled, lined with posters produced for the “100 years of Tube Art” exhibition in 2008, and above all incredibly clean. But then it is largely uncontaminated by people. I stood at one end, aware only of my own presence and some distant footsteps that seemed to be coming and going at the same time. It was very easy (and rather enticing) to imagine I had in fact stumbled upon one of the government’s nuclear bunkers, humming stoically with the anticipation of filling in forms about the apocalypse.

This is a rum place and no mistake. Other Underground stations with alternate exits can be found, from the hellish (Oxford Circus) to the heavenly (East Finchley), though none are quite as delightfully eerie. Moor Park used to be on the Great Central Railway, which meant that at one time I could have caught a train from here to my home town of Loughborough in the East Midlands. Now it’s cut off from mainline services, despite trains in and out of Marylebone sharing its tracks with the Metropolitan. The circumcised roundel on top of the ‘secret entrance’ rather aptly, if painfully, sums up its plight.