Zone 4

It always would beHe adored West Finchley station.

He idolised it all out of proportion.

No, make that, he romanticised it all out of proportion.

To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a place that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of something by Dennis Potter involving trains and tragedy, and which allowed him shamelessly to reference one of the finest opening sequences in cinema history, despite not having anywhere near the same style, wit or imagination.

Yes, he was too romantic about West Finchley. Yes, to him it was also a metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture. And yet, in its own restrained, sparse, under-used, over-played, half-arsed, romanticised, metaphorical way, West Finchley was his station… and always would be.

Coming up rosesI’d like to think everyone in London has special feelings towards their local Underground station. I’d like to think those feelings are mostly good-natured, though I’ll readily concede that’s not easy when your local station is Gunnersbury, Seven Sisters, or anywhere on the Bakerloo line north of Kilburn Park.

At the time of writing, my local station for five years has been West Finchley. I make no bones about the fact it was one of the reasons I chose to live in this area of north London. And I retain the same gushing affection towards it as I did the first time I ever had cause to pass along its platforms.

It’s not a very busy place. It’s staffed for only two hours on weekday mornings. At off-peak times, I’ll often find myself the only person waiting to get on a train, or the only person to get off. In both instances a part of my brain buried deep from any passing relationship with reality pretends it is me and only me for whom the station exists.

A berry peculiar practiceFruit grows on the platforms of West Finchley. In summer, roses caress the barbed wire. In winter, robins perch on branches a few feet from your face.

All the functional furniture of an overground Underground station – trackside cables, wires for the loudspeakers – is tucked out of sight behind bushes and trees. The automated announcements are turned down low out of respect for the residents of nearby houses. There are waiting rooms on both platforms, with electric fires. And there are toilets and pocket maps and guides for continuing your journey and benches and buttons to press for help in an emergency and a lovely great big old iron bridge that used to have a lovely great bit old iron sign above it:

KINGS + St PancrasThere’s also – shush! – a secret entrance. Transport for London describes West Finchley station as step-free, but unless you’re aware of the narrow passageway from an adjacent street that lets you on to the southbound platform, it’s the bridge or nothing.

To make this secret entrance even more of a secret, it’s only open for a couple of hours each morning. The rest of the time you need a special key to unlock the gates that guard the entrance. Such an arrangement could only exist, or rather only exist unnoticed, in a place like this, where things crossfade quietly between the quaint and the eccentric.

Tracks of my yearsI’ve published this photo on the blog before, but I’m giving it another outing as I think it sums up for me what is the ultimate appeal of West Finchley station: its homeliness. Even in as extreme a concoction of weather, season and hour as this, the place still feels welcoming. It is safe and reassuring. It is somewhere you know you can trust. And, of course, for me it means just that: home.

I hope other people share similar sentiments about their own local station. West Finchley isn’t particularly special in the way most of the things on this blog are, in the sense of boasting great architecture or locations or even sensations. But it has the ability to be special to me. I might romanticise it out of all proportion, but that doesn’t harm anyone except myself. Which is what, ultimately, makes it so great.

Beauty, squaredWhen it comes to quadrilaterals, I’m with Huey Lewis and Principal Skinner.

Straight lines have come in for a bad press recently, what with their endorsement by Michael Gove, but applied with imagination rather than ideology they can still surprise and entertain. The right kind of right angle can let light pour forth into the most towering of interiors, or seduce the eye upwards through a staircase of cubic playfulness.

For proof of this kind of thing, you’ll struggle to find better examples than at Sudbury Hill station.

For Sudbury Hill is beauty, squared.

Climbing up on Sudbury HillNow that’s the kind of fabulous, multi-level edifice that’s just begging for a giant-sized Professor Yaffle to wander down, fussily but stoically*.

Sudbury Hill comes from the Charles Holden handbook of How To Design Stations Properly (subtitle: 150 Reasons You Should Pull Down Old Crappy Buildings In Order To Replace Them With Newer, Better Ones).

It opened in 1932, along with an increasing number of minds to the notion of architecture being a statement as much about the future as the past. It’s still in superb condition, although the inside of the booking hall no longer resembles quite so much of a Ken Adam film set.

The squares, and squares within squares, cut an elegant dash against the sky. In cheeky defiance of its base function, the station lifts rather than lowers both your gaze and your senses.

Lend me your (lin)earsThe buildings that surround the station, in fact the entire street on which it sits, can’t compete. Everywhere looks shabby, out-of-sorts and utterly humdrum. Sometimes humdrum can be enchanting, but not when it’s by accident rather than contrivance. Holden should really have been given permission to design the entire neighbourhood.

In fact, Holden should have basically been allowed to do up the whole of London. Imagine what that would have been like. A Gordon Murray-esque hand-tooled urban fantasy, but for real, in the flesh, for us to walk, ride and windmill through.

Charlie's angelHere is a box. A modernist box. Doled up, and ready to play.

But this box can hide a railway inside. Can you guess where it’s going today?

Silence is Holden*Professor Yaffle was always my favourite in Bagpuss. Don’t say you’re surprised.

Bound for gloryWell now. Here’s a pleasing, solid slice of modernism. It looks in fine fettle, and deservedly so. Bounds Green is another valuable emissary from that otherwise value-strapped decade, the 1930s. If ever you need a tangible reminder of why the second world war was worth fighting, take a trip up the north end of the Piccadilly line.

But while Bounds Green station is an uplifting sensory dispatch from a distinctly downbeat era, and is all the greater for being so, the present day has not been kind. And here’s my problem. Should I be at all bothered about what is taking place at the fringes of this and so many other stunning outposts of the Underground? You’ll see what I mean if I repeat the shot above, but widen the view a little.

A "Bit" of botherGaaaah! It’s not just seeing the word “bits” in the name of shop that depresses me (though only up to a point; the smutty part of me will always associate the word with Kenneth Connor in Carry on Behind who, in response to Elke Sommer announcing “When I love a man, I give him everything, I give it all”, sighs: “But I don’t want it all. I just want a bit!“).

No, it’s also the font. What a horrible, horrible font. I despair at the inelegant, unimaginative lettering.  I bridle at the use of blue on red. And I recoil at the way the ampersand flops and flails about.

To be fair, I’d feel this way on seeing such a font adorning any building. But at the foot of such a gold standard of 20th century style and design is heartbreaking.

Or is it? Should I not treat it as part of the station at all? Or somehow see it yet “not” see it, in a kind of doublethink, as satirised by George Orwell (another valuable emissary from the 1930s)?

Everything's gone GreenThe Underground portions of Bounds Green, both inside and out, are splendid. I say that without reservation.

I just can’t quite get that other font out of my mind, like a bit of grit in my eye. It needles me.

What chance us clubbing together and buying the lease, purely in order to replace that weeping sore of a sign?