Tag Archives: Piccadilly Circus

Circus topOne of my favourite photographs of the London Underground was taken on New Year’s Eve, 1962.

It doesn’t feature any trains or tunnels. There are no platforms, escalators or booking halls to be seen. It doesn’t even include a station. Instead, it shows a group of people standing by one of the subway entrances to Piccadilly Circus, balloons and cigarettes in hand, wrapped up in coats, hats and boots, waiting for something to happen. Around them, all is snow and slush and electric lights and excitement. The Swan & Edgar department store rears up behind, by now well into its dotage but still a commanding presence. And somewhere down below, oblivious to all of this, ignorant even of the turning of the year, the Underground goes about its business.

The photograph, which I’ve uploaded here, was taken by Edwin Sampson, whose work appeared in a number of newspapers in the early 1960s. It doesn’t look particularly posed or staged; it could almost be a snapshot caught on camera by a tourist or passer-by. Yet it bears the traces of a professional. You can tell this from the way the scene is lit so beautifully, but so casually. The Underground roundel and ornamental balustrades look particularly gorgeous. They feel almost on a par with the Christmas decorations. They’re certainly of equal elegance.

Monochrome is a wonderful leveller. While it reduces contrasts, it also raises everyday objects to the same status as the exceptional. The subway entrance is the star of Sampson’s photograph; the balloons and fairy lights and handsome loiterers form part of the supporting cast.

Piccadilly palareToday, the entrances still look almost as good as they did half a century ago, though daylight and colour shows up rough edges and shabby hues that can be hidden in a black-and-white photograph. The lampposts are bearing up the best. The roundels have become targets for stickers and adhesive calling cards, which even when removed leave a nasty residue.

It goes without saying the rest of Piccadilly Circus has changed. There is more sprawl and less subtlety; greater pretension and nowhere near the same reticence. But then the same goes for most of central London. It’s just a question of adjusting your expectations. You can still mooch moodily by Underground subway entrances – so long as you don’t mind doing it next to cacophonous traffic or alongside gutters full of free newspapers and discarded Big Bus Tour ponchos.

When the day comes I finally sit down and write that musical about the Underground I’ve been mulling over for about 20 years, these particular subways will be one of the key locations, along with the steps at Wembley Park, the escalator at Canary Wharf and the whole of Gants Hill. Until then I’ll continue to gaze wistfully at the graceful furnishings with their evocations of make-believe days and frosty nights, and dream of Piccadilly palare between me and the boys in my gang. which case I'm doomed

Two goes thereStand at the northern tip of the northbound Bakerloo platform at Piccadilly Circus and it feels like you’ve strayed into a corner of London that isn’t finished. You’ve wandered off the edge of the film reel. A bit of reality’s scaffolding has fallen away. The view you have is one you ought not, by any conventional, predictable measure of the Underground, to be seeing.

And yet there it is. A platform that isn’t. Or is it?

Tunnel visionsBehind you, a double set of rails curves out of the darkness. They part, clearly bound for different destinations. Yet from your vantage point, those destinations dissemble into something of a dimensional muddle.

Oh dear. You’ve blundered through the bit of wallpaper by the closet that took Homer Simpson into the land of 3D pointy things. Or possibly looked into the heart of the Tardis. Or else there’s a bit of a misalignment of platforms, thanks to a bit of a miscalculation of tunnelling, causing a bit of a miscellaneous great thing about the Underground.

Look, there’s the end of a train. Or is it the front? There’s nothing telling you not to stand here – except every instinct in your body, and every synapse of your brain.

And yet.. it’s really rather fun.

A choice of destinations

Minute minutesIt was the middle of the rush hour when I took this picture, yet the crowds of people passing around me didn’t give this object the time of day.

Which was a pity, as it was doing the very same back at them, and with considerably more style.

The world, clockedThe linear clock at Piccadilly Circus is an overlooked gem. It sits snugly within the inner wall of the station’s circular entrance hall at almost the furthest point possible from the main escalators, so perhaps its failure to grab attention isn’t that surprising.

But even the people who were brushing against it barely cast it a tiny glance. Perhaps they’d seen it before, twice daily, as regular as, ooh, clockwork. Or perhaps they just didn’t have – I should stop this – enough time.

Still, their unwillingness to pause and stare did afford me an almost clear shot of the installation, save for one gentleman who, having seen what I was up to, made a point of remaining stubbornly motionless, my fierce glares bouncing off him like platitudinous ping-pong balls.

Time, gentleman, pleaseThe clock dates from the station’s redesign in the late 1920s. The central strip scrolls imperceptibly across the map of the world at the same speed as the planet’s rotation. As such it is possible to see, roughly, what the time is anywhere around the globe at any point of the day or night. Wonderfully simple and simply wonderful.

Responsibility for such a suavely elegant and restful timepiece lies with architect Charles Holden and builder John Mowlem and Co, who collaborated on the whole of the station.

Piccadilly Circus entrance hall can feel a bit like a spinning top at its busiest moments, with passengers whirling in, up, round, down and out. You have to fight against the flow of people to even stand still. No wonder the clock doesn’t get much of an audience.

Its time in the sun was probably in its infancy, when people strolled rather than stormed around the station. But fortunately, even if nobody is looking, somewhere the sun is always shining for this antique watchman, and hopefully always will.

Where the sun never sets...