Hammersmith and City line

Met setA part of me likes the idea of living directly above an Underground station. There’s a cafe in Liverpool that I used to always enjoy visiting, in which you could sometimes feel the rumble of Merseyrail trains passing underneath. When I first saw the film Seven, I was mildly jealous of Mr and Mrs Brad Pitt getting to live in a flat that shook evocatively thanks to a nearby mass transit system. And how many times I’ve eyed those flats in Chiltern Court astride Baker Street station, envious of the residents, all of whom are naturally pursuing a lifestyle that is part Kenneth Williams, part John Betjeman.

A different part of me knows all of this is fantasy and that living directly above the Underground is possibly the path to physical and emotional wreckage. But a third part of me (yes, I have many) wonders if the reality is somewhere in between, and that a place like Chiltern Court has to be lived in before it can be truly loved or loathed. It is the most elaborate of what are best described as the “trimmings” of Baker Street, all of which date from the remodelling of 1911-13, conceived to turn the place into a brand-encrusted hulk of the Metropolitan line, where getting on a train was but one of the riches on offer.

*Sigh* Chiltern Court might be beyond the reach (and budget) of most of us, but other more modest, less swaggering trimmings are not. Like the MR insignia embroided within the grilles over the porthole windows, and the WH Smiths & Son sign above what is now a ticket office. The tiles were given a sympathetic scrub-up in 1985, the same time the old platforms were so touchingly restored. The sign must have appeared something of a charming curio in the mid-80s, when WH Smiths was at the peak of its pocket money-absorbing powers. Nowadays, with the chain such an aesthetic calamity, the lettering is both enchanting and deeply depressing.

There’s a “Luncheon and Tearoom” sign that’s equally wistful, leading not to the tantalising prospect of a London Underground-manufactured hot beverage, the tea leaves allowed to drip through roundel-shaped strainers, but instead to absolutely nowhere at all. The entrance is bricked in, and now houses automatic ticket machines. Meanwhile biscuit-coloured arches and panels in the ceiling, timber handrails, iron balustrades and over-the-top 1912 timestamps add to this bran tub of post-Edwardian-era fancies:

It *met*ters to meI vowed to myself I would get through this entry without any reference to Sherlock Holmes, and it looks like I might have made it. The trimmings that adorn Baker Street share with their gastronomical namesake an ability to enhance something that is already of substance. We might not make it into the sumptuous kitchenettes of Chiltern Court, let alone dine in the long-vanished restaurant visited by Betjeman in 1972. But to push this desperate simile even further, these are trimmings that linger on the palate and even, if you’re in the mood, bring a lump to the throat. Alimentary, you might say.

Plaque in business

'Don roamingI’m wondering whether I need to create a new category for this blog. Because it’s not chiefly the architecture of Farringdon that’s great – or rather, the architecture of the Farringdons.

No, it’s more the concept. The idea. The notion of the station(s). The way the old and the new face each other, taciturn but benevolent, like two generations of the same family across a kitchen table.

'Don doubleMaybe I’m being ‘Don quixotic. After all, they’re only entrances to buildings. Yet I have to confess to loving the arrangement here. The veteran (left) and the newcomer (right) eye each other with polite detachment, sharing the same name but hailing from very different backgrounds, straddling in just a few paces the Underground’s oldest of pasts and freshest of futures.

Stand in the middle and swivel. You rotate through 150 years of history. Old Man Farringdon shares an age almost as advanced as the network itself and wears its ancestry moderately well, including its brief rebranding in the 1920s as…

Hi, HolbornIts great-great-great-grandson, meanwhile, only has eyes on what’s to come: a career as one of London’s most intoxicating interchanges, where Thameslink meets Crossrail.

Farring-don. And on. And on.Exciting things are destined for the Farringdons. They’re on the way up, climbing the social ladder with a ferocity that would in other circumstances win them recurring fawning profiles in the Evening Standard. While the family retainer creeps towards a third century of patriarchal pride, its stylish new sibling looks set for a lifetime hosting ever-increasing armies of patrons.

Many many millions more people than now will pass through this area in decades to come, either above or below ground. Usage will rise, as will its profile and, hopefully, its sense of prestige. The only thing dropping will be the pantograph.

...and nothing else

Illuminating the pastThe tunnel through which the very first Underground train passed 150 years ago this week is, by and large, a dump.

There’s no reason for it not to be. It’s one and a half centuries old. Much of it is in complete darkness. It doesn’t need to look or feel especially reverent. It still does the job for which it was originally built, and that’s all that matters.

Where the tunnel lifts its skirts, as it were, is when it brushes up against the rest of the world. And it does this with the most style, but also the most dignity, at Baker Street.

Baker's treatThere’s something about these platforms that perspires history. Granted, a degree of it is down to contrivance. The place has been done up to show off its heritage. But there’s nothing wrong with illuminating the past, and Baker Street does it literally:

A light, hereApart from stations on the Jubilee line extension, I’ve rarely come across examples of the Underground using artificial light with such precision and thought.

The care that has gone into the presentation of the original platforms at Baker Street is palpable. You feel like someone has, for once, grasped how architecture and artistry can rekindle each other in a constructive, forward-looking fashion.

This place could so easily have taken on the feel of a mausoleum. Antiquities could have been preserved out of duty rather than love. Instead the smell of Victoriana that sidles up your senses the moment you arrive on the platforms is comforting, even reassuring.

The eminence is infectious. I want to linger here, not pay my respects and move on.

To the end of the lineThe drawings and old maps and archive floor plans all help, of course. They sit in the illuminated alcoves, twinkling in the light, making the place feel even more like a living museum. I imagine, or at least I hope, they render the business of waiting for trains a little less tedious. Not that tedium is something I’d be quick to associate with Baker Street (although when I was there to take these photos, somebody was passing the time by doing the electric boogaloo – and rather well, as it happens).

These are only two of the 10 (count ’em) platforms at Baker Street, serving just two of the station’s five lines. But they are the oldest and also the finest. A bit of history gets under your fingernails every time you pass this way. Long may that continue.

150 years young