Zone 6

Through a glass darklyWho says Essex can’t do style?

It may sit in one corner of a thumpingly charmless concreted cul-de-sac of a car park, with an enormous branch of Sainsbury’s eyeing it threateningly across legions of preeningly-customised vehicles. And it may have to put up with neighbours the likes of a flower shop called, with devastating imagination, The Flower Stop, and a barber’s called, fatalistically, Homme Fatal.

And it may not look in the best of shape, with peeling paint and grimy walls and a sorrowful sense of clinging to its own self-worth in lieu of anyone else extending it much care or attention.

But Loughton station nevertheless defies the broad brushes of ridicule slapped over the surface of its county’s reputation to remain one of the Underground’s noblest of suburban outposts.

Three gracesBrick, concrete and glass: the holy trinity of Underground architecture.

Or, if you’re not of an ecclesiastical bent, the three graces. The three coins in the most fulsome of public transport fountains. The Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka in the constellation of London conurbations. The Holland-Dozier-Holland of…

OK, OK. Just three damn good things, used in a damn good way. Like here at Loughton, in the Grade II-listed ticket hall designed by John Murray Easton, opened just 12 days before Hitler invaded western Europe:

Three: the magic numberEaston was pencilled in to redesign all the stations on the Central line extension (previously the London & North Eastern Railway) from Woodford to Ongar. This is the only one he managed to see built, thanks to the Third Reich going on manoeuvres. It’s a massive shame, as the rest of this stretch of the line is decidedly underwhelming by comparison (it gets better – much better – back in zone 4).

Once again I wonder what railway users of the 1940s made of such grand architecture in such galling times.

I like to think they took to it instantly and enjoyed it as much as I do today, the magnificent arched window crouching above the entrance making you feel like you’re walking into some kind of box of delights (which you are).

Instead it probably got best-known as a place that provided a rich resource of nooks and shadows to trade gammon and cammy-knickers.

Much like present-day Essex*.

Postscript: looking back through photos I took of Loughton station in 2008, I notice the flower shop used to be called Pot a Fleurs – ah, such sweet pretension! – while the barber’s went by the rather dowdy name of Sideburns. And they ditched that for Homme Fatal?!

Turn Your Head and Coif*SATIRE.

Wheel on the wingI could have rounded up all of this station’s treasures in one single entry, but that would have made for a very long read where too many delights jostled for too much attention. So this is the third time I’ve doffed a hat to Uxbridge, and the first in which I’ve stepped outside its walls to see if the exterior holds its own against the glittering interior.

It more than does.

Bridge of sighsWelcome to a Bridge of sighs.

The beautiful sculptures on the top are by Joseph Armitage, who also designed the National Trust oak leaves symbol and provided carvings for a number of the UK’s finest inter-war institutions, including the former Commercial Bank of Scotland in Glasgow.

In a literal sense, the sculptures are wings with wheels. But to me they represent something of the thrill and the wonder that you experience, unprompted, at the start of any long journey: sensations that bloom when you’re a child, but which surely linger inside you somewhere for the rest of your days.

Anything that also commemorates the progressive power of technology is fine with me. Those wheeled wings get extra marks for including leaf springs.

Then there’s the entrance itself, crowned by a glorious chunk of massive fontage:

Man of lettersI’m normally suspicious of a man of letters, but I’d make an exception for these.

Charles Holden and L H Bucknell designed the entire station, including the sleek and dashing entrance, through which characters from Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven quite possibly passed on their way to their latest emotionally cathartic flashback or song-and-dance number.

And finally there is this, standing alone in front of the entrance, reaching into the sky, a beacon for the town and signpost to the city:

Perfect circleIt might be 15 miles west of Charing Cross, but Uxbridge station is one of London’s finest monuments.

Country-spiedMetro-land is not quite a thing of the past.

That vast sales pitch-cum-sunlit upland of the early 20th century hasn’t completely disappeared into the margins of a Betjeman anthology or the back room of a transport museum. If you look for it with keen eyes, or listen hard enough, you’ll find the traces.

All along the farthest western reaches of the Metropolitan line the conceit still lingers. Someone threw an idea across Middlesex so profound as to resonate over a 100 years later.

It’s there in the rustle of leaves, the sigh of a sash window, the creak of a set of points, the song of a bird whose location you can’t quite place… All common sensations, but all somehow elevated by virtue of geography to become both part-mundane and part-magical.

The entrance to Ickenham station can make you shudder with despair:

*shudder*But its platforms can make you shiver with delight:

The joy of MiddlesexHere is where Metro-land can, if you so desire, be wished back into all-consuming existence.

Sit by these trees and imagine yourself surrounded by roads bordered with the softest of soft suburban grass, patronised by neatly turned-out vehicles peopled by neatly turned-out passengers, and lined with the most stylish of provincial amenities: a world that, if it ever really existed, fired just as many useful imaginations as it did useless realities.

This, at least, is realDon’t linger too long, however, for the fantasy can only ever be a fleeting one – especially if you’re heading westbound and the next station is the grisly Hillingdon.

Metro-land was once promoted seriously if rather loftily as “a country with elastic borders that each visitor can draw for himself”. That country might have long passed from the lexicon of poets and advertisers alike, but its borders can still be drawn, even though – like anything¬†this old and worn – the elastic’s almost gone.