Zone 1

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.

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

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