Zone 3

Flowered upSometimes you have to peer at the Underground through half-closed eyes. Sometimes you have to compensate for its tendency towards shabbiness by imagining what things should look like, were all for the best in the best of all possible worlds, instead of regarding what’s actually in front of you. Sometimes greatness has to be given a little push from the wings before it reveals its full glory on the stage.

It’s often a matter of finding the right place to stand. From some angles, Dollis Hill looks forlorn. From others – the right ones – it looks sprightly. Visit on a grey day when the wind is howling across north London and all the trains seem to be those louche Metropolitan ones that don’t stop here, it’s not so much finding the right place to stand as finding the strength to stand at all.

But step out of the wind and crouch down by the flowerbeds – ignoring funny looks from passers-by – and the station starts to soothe rather than curdle the soul. OK, you’re cheating a bit. It’s not meant to be ogled from such an undignified posture. But the spectacle is there for the taking. And why pop a row of lovely plants on your platform if you don’t want them to be admired, even from a squatting position?

Canope wiltin'Dollis Hill’s stately waiting rooms aren’t quite as dapper as they once were. Despite a facelift in 2009, they can feel rather unloved. The curved facades, petite windows and huge, roaming canopies seem a bit out-of-sorts. The station wears its appeal very lightly. Perhaps if it hugged itself a little closer, its charms would appear more readily. Though given its unqualified exposure to the elements, hugging of any kind would be well-advised.

The waiting rooms themselves have a frustrating knack of falling victim to climate-related maladies. Sometimes it’s a leaky roof. Other times it’s damp. Again, a bit of imagination is required to appreciate how cosy it would be inside, were the rooms open and fit for use. Pressing your nose up against the frosted glass will only get you so far. About half an grimy inch, in fact.

It’s the weather that makes or breaks Dollis Hill. The extra sets of tracks either side of the platforms have left it victim to extremes of temperature. There are no adjacent forms of shelter, not even greenery, to stave off seasonal excesses. In high summer the place is like an open kiln; in the depths of winter, an Antarctic outpost.

The elegant platform buildings ought to sail through all of this like a luxury liner through a tempest. But at present they are taking in water and looking like they’re about to start listing. Hopefully one day the station can be viewed again with wide-eyed appreciation, rather than merely through a shrub darkly.

Place of worshipFor around 1,000 years, Christianity had a monopoly on big buildings full of silence and high windows. Then the 20th century happened, and the London Underground decided it wanted a helping of the same architectural brew.

The Piccadilly line serves out portions of stuff at intervals a damn sight more frequent than Sunday communion. One of the most intoxicating can be found at Northfields, in the guise of a building that is more like a secular cathedral than a ticket hall.

High windowsWhat is it about this place that makes it not merely attractive, but mesmerising? A clue is in the design of the acoustics. Sound ascends upwards, giving the environment even more of a hallowed feel. Even if you did try to speak loudly, it would carry only a short distance.

This has a very palpable calming effect, evident both in yourself and in the body language of those around you. Just as it’s socially unacceptable to run through a public library, so you wouldn’t, mustn’t, leg it through Northfields ticket hall. A brisk walk is at the limit of what is permissible. There aren’t any notices proclaiming as much; you just know it to be so. The building is its own watchman. Look, even the telephones have vanished:

Cut off - permanentlyThe rejuvenating, unhurried atmosphere of Northfields makes it a brother in spirit of Turnpike Lane. You won’t be surprised to hear they were both designed by the same man (yes, him again).

The exterior is compelling in a different way: more commanding than consoling, and nowhere near as intimidating, crumbling or trussed-up as your traditional place of worship:

The North' Ship Outside, a bright, sharp statement of modernism, bristling with charm and immediacy.

Inside, a cooled, dimmed sanctuary between where you’ve been and what’s to come.

Cue Philip Larkin:

It pleases me to stand in silence here;
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.

Stand in silence

Tuppence a bagHere’s one of the smallest things to make it into the 150, but one of the sweetest. It’s on the westbound platform at East Ham, high up near the canopy, perpendicular to the tracks.

A cultural historian would be able to take a good guess at its age, likewise a scholar of advertising typography. Just when was tea tuppence a bag (tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag*)? Not since the war, certainly. There’s been a station at East Ham since 1858, though the ticket hall is Edwardian. My guess is the sign hails from sometime between 1902, when the District line first came this way, and 1936, when the Metropolitan arrived. It was painted to promote an adjoining cafe, long since vanished – as has this kind of gorgeous lettering, tea shops in general, and the notion that putting “d” after a number is not a reference to a boy band.

Something that can be more accurately dated is the LTSR ironwork to the left of the sign. That’s the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway, by whom the station was built in the 1850s. Back then the idea of buying tea from a person on a platform would have been morally scandalous. One had it served to one, thank you very much, and you’ll mind your manners for saying so.

Pillar of wisdom*Possibly the saddest song about London ever written