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.
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:
I 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.