Archive

Numbers 51-75

Westbourne, ho!This is possibly the most inelegant object I’ve featured on the blog so far. Steady those trembling nerves – it’s a giant metal tube!

Inside, however, is one of a famously elusive and vaguely bewitching brood: London’s lost rivers.

Sloane Square station was opened, rather sweetly, on Christmas Eve 1868. Inaugural passengers, perhaps in search of a last-minute festive goose or clementine, would have had good cause to wonder as to the identity of the iron vessel hung in a decidedly non-festive fashion above their heads.

But this was no unexceptional strut or inert girder. Contained within was what remained of the River Westbourne, whose contents were en route from Hampstead Heath to the Thames.

The 'Bourne identityKnowledge of this particular waterway no doubt was and still is kept to a minimum. How much of the river still runs through the pipe is possibly of an equally small magnitude. But there it goes, trickling – or maybe pouring – over the heads of travellers, a minor but rather fascinating engineering marvel.

You can get a better idea of the route of the river (if not a clearer view of the pipe) by peering through some of the railings between the buildings that surround the station:

These pictures just keep getting betterI believe you used to be able to get a much clearer view from up here, before residents tired of a) the sight of trains b) the sight of people struggling to catch sight of trains c) the sight of anything except their own valuable homes. This is sad, because there are far more objectionable things in the Sloane Square neighbourhood than a grey conduit.

Such was the ingenuity of the Victorians, however, that a channel of water passing directly through the location of a proposed station became not a dilemma but an opportunity. And such was their fortitude that the opportunity survives to this day, inviting odd glances, sporadic frowns and the occasional knowing smile towards the taming of this ‘Bourne supremacy.

A big hand, pleaseStepney Green station opened in 1902, and while the booking hall still boasts many of its original fixtures and fittings, for me the best spot in the whole building is – as with so many locations in life – halfway down the stairs.

Here you’ll find, stencilled on to the wall, a fading but impressively legible instruction to anyone confused as to where they should progress having purchased their ticket, and to those also curious as to where this angled sequence of steps may conclude.

The vintage of the stencil isn’t obvious, but the lettering suggests something richly antiquated and the whole design is saturated with nostalgic charm:

All in the wristLondon’s Underground: it isn’t really anywhere, it’s somewhere else instead.

EntrancingAnother rule I’ve adopted for this blog, but which perhaps I ought to have made clear earlier, is that I’m not bothering with disused stations.

That’s not because they’re not great, don’t cut it architecturally, can’t hold their own against current stations, or don’t command a rich enough history or atmosphere.

No, it’s simply because if you start, where do you stop? I could fill a good third of my 150 with parts of buildings or sites of former buildings or buildings that used to be this but are now used for that, and so on.

Besides, I’ve always intended this to be a celebration of living things, rather than the dead or dying.

So as I said, no disused stations.

Apart from this one.

Bury nice, thank youI’m allowing it for two reasons: one, it’s an old entrance to a current station (an exemption I’ve made once before); and two, the building is still in use: it contains signalling equipment for the Victoria line.

It also happens to look absolutely gorgeous, having had its 1904-vintage exterior restored in 2006. That lettering is simply beautiful. There’s astonishing attention to detail, both in the graceful curves and exquisite finishing. It’s an alphabetical soupcon of yesteryear.

Meanwhile the present entrance to Highbury and Islington faces opposite, across the road, and looks awful.

I know which side of the street I’d rather be on.

The sunny side of the street