Numbers 26-50

Up the 'GroveBefore I moved to London, the most exposure I’d had to Arnos Grove came from its appearance in Saint Etienne’s glorious song from 1991, Girl VII.

Here, the station is namechecked as part of a dazzling roll-call of locations both provincial and exotic, which (quite rightly) elevates the likes of Dollis Hill and Chalk Farm to equal status with San Clemente and Bratislava. And all to a disco beat.

Like almost everything Saint Etienne have ever done, Girl VII gets under your skin and is impossible to resist – two qualities also true of Arnos Grove itself.

The sound of drumsGarlanded and canonised like no other Underground station, Arnos Grove still defies even your highest of expectations. Moreover, it seems to be able to do it again and again. Every time I visit, there’s some aspect of the architecture or sensation created by the light and the shadows that affects me in a different way. It never lets you down. I’m not sure anywhere else on the London Underground can do this.

The interior wears its heritage and its awards with pride. But it deserves to. This is a very special place, which – unlike other works of popular culture that top critics’ polls with the charmless thud of Del Boy falling through a bar – utterly warrants its lauded reputation. Perhaps this is due to the notional incongruity of an Underground station being also a piece of art, though countries such as Germany and Sweden, from where Charles Holden took inspiration for the building’s appearance, surely would not consider such a relationship incongruous at all.

The masterplanHolden’s approach to the design of Underground stations reaches its zenith with Arnos Grove. The function of the building enjoys a marriage with style that is the happiest of any such union across the whole network.

The enormous drum and central passimeter that together form the basis of the interior act as both an instruction, making plain exactly where you need to go for tickets, telephones and trains; and also as an illumination, rendering the purpose of the station elegantly self-evident while literally casting or reflecting light upon everybody and everything inside.

A vision burns brightly in this outpost of artistry high in the suburbs of north London. It’s one that doesn’t simply impress; it shepherds and reassures and becalms. No wonder one appraisal of the station ranked it on a par with the likes of the Pompidou Centre and the Sydney Opera House.

Another, more official evaluation upgraded Arnos Grove to Grade II* listed status in July 2011. The man who approved this, John Penrose, was sacked by David Cameron in the cabinet reshuffle of September 2012.

An illuminated callLike Ulysses by James Joyce, Arnos Grove is a modernist classic. Unlike Ulysses, Arnos Grove is something you will enjoy finding your way in and out of, and to which you will want to return again and again.

As for the station’s exterior… that deserves a separate entry all to itself.

Light fantastic

Morden illuminationsThis isn’t so much an entrance as a gateway.

Morden station wasn’t conceived as merely the end of something – the southern extremity of the Northern line – but also a beginning; a portal, no less, to the hottest spots and the quietest nooks of Surrey. Step off your train, pass under the Carry On Henry-esque chandelier, and within a few further footfalls you’d be on a bus, chugging through rural England.

Such a promotional fantasy was, for a time, almost true. Morden was built on farmland. The countryside remained in peering and quite possibly breathing distance for a long time after the station opened in 1926. There’s no trace of such sensations nowadays, but Charles Holden’s original structure survives, flattering the vicinity with the only flash of style in a 1,000-metre radius:

Gateway to the southBut even this grandiose antechamber has not escaped unscathed the neighbourhood’s rampant commercial expansion. For what was once a sympathetically-realised, architecturally-inspired parade of buildings is now squatted upon by a ghastly-looking office block.

This offends Morden you’d realise:

This offends Morden you realiseGranted, Holden did design the parade in anticipation of something being subsequently plonked atop it. But probably nothing as ill-suited as this. I wonder how long those offices on the right have been available to let.

Up close, if you blot out enough of the upper storeys, you can still just about imagine what kind of thrill it must have been to pass through such a tasteful atrium on your way to a day in the country, or on your way up to the city.

In the past, this was never a place intended for lingering. But to best appreciate it today, that’s perhaps exactly what you have to do.

'Den of iniquity

Everybody needs good neighboursTake a good look at the photo above. Does anything seem unusual about the house on the right, 23 Leinster Gardens, compared to the one on the left, number 22?

Something definitely looks a bit odd about the windows in number 23:

Fade to greyAnd the front door appears a bit suspect as well:

No-one departs, no-one arrivesThis isn’t like the door of 10 Downing Street, which can only be opened from the inside.

This is a door through which, to paraphrase Flanders and Swann, no-one departs and no-one arrives. For this door belongs to a house that does not exist.

Like Dolly Parton, Blackpool and extreme political organisations of both left and right, it is all front. And the reason is the London Underground – or, as it would have been pronounced when this elaborate facade was constructed, London’s Under-Ground.

The trains that first ran along the railway line that passes below Leinster Gardens were steam-powered. The locomotives needed somewhere to vent the fumes that built up inside the engines. But where to do this, in a neighbourhood jostling with upmarket residences for whom a large gap in the ground would appear both unsightly and undignified?

The answer, as with most tricks of the eye, can be found round the back:

Behind the scenesNumber 23 Leinster Gardens, and also its neighbour number 24, were erected as frontispieces, not houses.

Behind them, what once were steam-driven trains on the Metropolitan Railway, and which are now Circle and District line services, rumble directly below what otherwise would be dining rooms, pantries and sculleries:

Seen but not seenIt’s a typically British compromise between the aspirational and the functional. What’s out of sight to the residents of and visitors to the expensive flats and hotels on Leinster Gardens can also be put out of mind, unless you happen to glance out of a back window. Which, back in the 1860s, nobody of “sound” upbringing would ever have thought of doing.

Meanwhile the exposed tracks are hidden from ground level by a brick wall. Only the mildly curious, and the obsessive chronicler, would think to peek above it.

Mind the gap:

Mind the gap