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Sensations

St James's ParkStargazers often wonder how the sky at night over London would look were all the city’s illuminations extinguished. I often wonder how London would look from the sky at night were all its illuminations extinguished save the Underground.

That’s almost an oxymoron. The clue is, after all, in the name. The founding principle of the Underground was to be out of sight: to be no surface and all depth. All it had to show for itself above ground, all it still has to show for itself - in the city centre at least - is its stations.

Its stations. Exactly.

I knelt down and weptWhen the sun goes down, the curtain goes up on London’s longest-running attraction. It’s an uninterrupted stint that has lasted, in some cases, for a century-and-a-half. It’s also the capital’s most inclusive nightspot. Everyone can be seen here. Everyone is seen here. There’s no guest list, no dress code. Come as you are. Leave when you please.

Irradiation plus imagination: that’s the only secret, and not an especially complicated or novel one.

Yet there are few things as inviting, and little that’s as comforting, as the sight of the entrance to an Underground station at night. Electrical balm flows towards you. The attraction can work over any distance; all you need is a glimpse of a roundel or a sign, even from far away, and something inside you is reassured.

The future has landedWhy is this? What is catalysing such a reaction?

It is all those elements that make the Underground great – topped up with the added potency of, for want of a better phrase, tactical incandescence.

Those lights, those colours, that soothing glow: it’s all there by design, not chance. People have planned for this, have intended it to be this way: there are brains behind this beauty, and they have done this for us, and we can only feel charmed, favoured, perhaps a little blessed.

It’s something of a neat inversion: that the Underground, popularly known for its soot-black tunnels, dingy passageways and absence of natural illumination, blazes so brightly above ground when everywhere else falls into shadow. The poacher of light turns gamekeeper.

And that these fixed, unchanging points of light are offspring of something created not to encourage stasis, but to improve movement and circulation, is another rather sweet reversal of responsibility. At night the Underground becomes more of a shepherd than a signpost. How and where it flashes its wares above the earth’s surface is never more crucial.

Charging up the sky

Philip Larkin (yes, him again) wrote of how “light spreads darkly downwards” in stations and their environs. “In shoeless corridors, the lights burn. How isolated, like a fort, it is…”

These buildings, after dark, are intoxicatingly atmospheric. Their architecture infuses the air with stoical sadness. It’s something to do with that meeting of light and dark, how the one interacts, teases, and dances with the other. It’s a shifting, slightly rootless tableau, a place that is neither one thing or the other.

This makes it an ideal canvas on to which you can project your own thoughts and feelings. And this is perhaps the most appealing thing of all: the way a station at night can be an ideal place for moping and brooding, for fantasising and itemising, for a rendezvous or reconciliation, for a teary homecoming and an equally teary farewell. Louis MacNeice nailed it:

“And so to London and down the ever-moving stairs
Where a warm wind blows the bodies of men together
And blows apart their complexes and cares.”

Gateway to the southThe night brings not just people but the whole network together, like the old ITV Telethons, only with real stars instead of pretenders.

It binds stations as dissimilar as Wood Lane and Caledonian Road. It’s the great leveller, though rather than level down it grades everything upwards, putting all of the Underground on the same podium, be they 150 years old or just 18 months. Old, young, Victorian, Edwardian, modernist, post-modernist, smells, sounds, sights, sensations: they all look, and feel, better in the dark.

I know this is as much an affair of the heart as the head, and I know it’s only fleeting. At some point each and every night the barriers come down, the shutters go up and the lights are dimmed. Fade to black.

But I always take comfort from the knowledge that tomorrow I can begin anew, and that every time the sun sets I get to fall in love with the Underground all over again.

Goodnight

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