Stephen McGinty: You Tube, I’ll catch the train

William Ewart Gladstone with officials of the Metropolitan Railway Company, on an inspection tour of the world's first underground line in May 1862. Picture: Getty
William Ewart Gladstone with officials of the Metropolitan Railway Company, on an inspection tour of the world's first underground line in May 1862. Picture: Getty
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I HAVE reached the age of the train. Just as one foregoes the hurly-burly of the chaise longue for the deep peace of the marital bed, so a similar maturity occurs when it comes to one’s favoured method of transportation.

One begins to weary of the requirement to partially disrobe and indulge in the intimate pat-downs that are now a mandatory part of flying and seek instead the simplicity of rail travel, where a passenger can arrive at their destination unmolested by the wandering hands of official strangers.

The train and I are now on better terms than ever before and when it comes to travelling to London, either for work or pleasure, I now can’t see past the services provided by Virgin on the west coast and East Coast on the, well, east.

I’ve frequently added up the hours of travel when comparing the plane and the train and while on time air travel may shave an hour or so off the journey, what with the hassle of heading to and from the airport, what you gain on the ground you lose in the air. Flying just doesn’t provide the same concentrated block of hours to work, write or read as the trundling train.

Then there is the free-floating anxiety that I’ve discovered is now a part of flying, of which I wasn’t aware a decade or so ago. It’s not that I’m actually frightened of flying, or brood on corkscrewing down to my demise, it’s just that a mild electric current of unease seems to be switched on as soon as I enter an airport and hums away until I exit at the other side.

I can’t quite figure out the cause, whether it’s in some way connected with leaving the earth and taking to the skies, what I do know is that it’s entirely absent when I hail a cab to the station, pick up a coffee and a newspaper and step on board the London train, then speedily hug the earth for a few hundred miles.

If you are travelling East Coast there are the views of the coastline and the North Sea illuminated by shafts of sunlight and if you are with Virgin there is the beautiful Borders countryside, with BA, Ryanair or Easyjet there is only clouds and a mild concern.

Time and weather permitting when in London I prefer to walk to appointments. The most successful trips are those when I’ve managed to perambulate around Mayfair, St James, Westminster, Whitehall, Covent Garden and Soho ticking off meetings and interviews before heading back to Euston or King’s Cross without stepping up on to a bus or stepping down onto the Underground.

For while I’m ready to admit that I am now of the age of the train, I’ve a slightly different, more complicated relationship with the London Underground, which this year celebrates its 150th anniversary.

Anyone who has lived in London will have their own personal line, the one that carried them to and from work and on whose rails their hopes either ran or stalled.

For me, it was the Northern Line which carried me on the first part of my daily journey to Wapping from Kentish Town. If Camden was a “cool” kind of crazy, Kentish Town was a “crazy” kind of crazy.

I can still remember when Tatler magazine ran an article on what your postcode said about you. Ours was NW5: “tramp vomit, used syringes and detritus”. Still, we did have Jon Snow living a few streets down, and, fair enough, there was indeed always a daily conference dutifully attended by inebriated gentlemen of the road outside Kentish Town tube station.

Yet my memories of those days between 1996 and 1998 was a perpetual tiredness, that throbbed like a toothache and which swamped me when underground.

The kindness of strangers is rarely demonstrated in London and definitely not extended to those who slumber and slobber over their neighbour’s shoulder.

Even back then, I felt it was a strange sensation to trundle down one deep hole in the ground only to emerge from another somewhere across the city but with no real sense of how the two connected or the exact path just travelled. Only by walking did I eventually get a sense of how this metropolis of disparate villages fused together by concrete and brick actually worked.

The London Underground remains an incredible feat of engineering and, like any bold plan, was not easily embraced. the Times declared in its leader column that Londoners did not wish “to be driven amid palpable darkness through the foul sub-soil of London” while religious leaders had other apocalyptic concerns.

When plans were first raised one preacher declared: “The forthcoming end of the world would be hastened by the construction of underground railways burrowing into the infernal regions and thereby disturbing the devil.” While the king of the underworld has yet to make an appearance, there was little doubt that it was hellish work for the thousands of navvies who toiled in temperatures of 30C in constant fear of gas explosions and water.

They also made incredible discoveries. In 1865 while digging under Oxford Street workers discovered 16 brick steps down to what was a Roman baptistry in which a spring still bubbled up, not quite possessing the same requirement to preserve the past as we do today, it was promptly demolished.

The man behind the first stage of the London Underground was Charles Pearson who made proposals in the 1830s to build a tunnel that connected King’s Cross to Farringdon. The Times said this was as likely as flying machines or a tunnel under the English channel.

In 1846 a Parliamentary commission was established to look at transport solutions, one of which was an idea of Joseph Paxton which was to erect a futuristic skyline 108ft above the city streets on which trains would pass.

Parliament decreed that trains should go down and not up and so in January 1860 the first shafts were dug by Pearson’s Metropolitan Railway Company, sadly he did not live to see the first trains set off from Paddington to Farringdon on 9 January, 1863 but from the beginning the public loved this new form of subterranean transport system. “It can be compared to nothing else than the crush at the doors of the theatre on the first night of the pantomime,” wrote one journalist.

If San Francisco had recently enjoyed a gold rush, so London had a rail rush. “The engineering world is literally frenzied with excitement about new railway schemes. We would as soon enter a lunatic asylum as attend a meeting of the Institute of Civic Engineers,” wrote the City Press of the frantic fight for rail companies to expand underground. The rigid class system was at first sunk down into the earth with the Metropolitan’s Pullman cars offering first class passengers a replica drawing room in which to sit, complete with morocco armchairs, mahogany walls and electric lamps on side-tables and blinds with green silk over the windows.

However it was not to last as, in 1890, the new Stockwell line opened and offered classless carriages to the considerable consternation of the Railway Times which explained that Lords and Ladies would now have to travel with Billingsgate fishwives and Smithfield porters. But as Peter Ackroyd memorably put it, in his short book London Underground, “a reading of Dante would have suggested, all are equal in the underworld”.

The working class were among those who benefited most. In 1865 a labourer was interviewed and explained that previous to the opening of the underground he had to walk six miles a day. Now he lived in Notting Hill “almost open country” and saved himself two shillings a week in rent.

The new underground also led to technical innovations. The first escalator was introduced at Earls Court station and the promotional material was certainly of its time in which it explained that passengers “can step on to the stairlift at once, and be gently carried to his train. A boon that the mere man will also appreciate is the fact that he will not be prohibited from smoking, as in the lift, for the stairlift is made entirely of fireproof material.”

A porter stood shouting: “This way to the moving staircase! The only one of its kind in London! NOW running! The world’s wonder.” While a man with a peg leg was paid to ride it each day thus demonstrating an ease of use for even the invalid, though passengers were advised to “step off with the left foot”.

Although I don’t really mind stepping down into the underground I’m happier still stepping up on to an overground train, where I’ll slump into my seat and look out the window at the vapour trails of passing jets without even a twinge of jealousy.