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.


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.