Numbers 126-150

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

Colour me smittenWhen the balloon goes up and it’s time to head down to the air-raid shelter beneath Clapham South station, one of the last things we’ll see are colours. Rows and rows of gleaming colours, snaking along the walls of the platforms, full of a lustre that is unexpected for something so deep underground. The choice of colours is particularly affecting: nothing gaudy, or luminous, or poorly co-ordinated. Instead, stoical RGB basics that even the vaguely colour-blind can tell apart. And I should know.

Tiles of wonderIf the tiles are originals, then they date from 1926 and are in very fine condition. Clapham South was the curtain-raiser for the extension of the Northern line and then, as now, is the first treat for passengers venturing towards Balham, Gateway to the South.

If they aren’t originals, they don’t look it. The taste and the elegance feels authentically inter-war. It’s like walking through Balfour or Baldwin’s bathroom. For me their linear design beats the more scattergun styles you can see at stations along the Piccadilly line. These tiles radiate refinement, neatness, and above all order. If, apocalypse pending, they were to be my last glimpses of the artistry of human race, I wouldn’t mind.

The Common touch