Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Underground

No pithy (even witty) attempt at an eye-catching headline this week. No, it would be inappropriate to the subject matter, for this week I write not of the joys of overland train travel, with its rituals, rules and characters, but of the subterranean struggle for sanity that is . . the Tube.

Now I don't wish to criticise the Tube per se - indeed I can only marvel at the intricate grandeur of the network of tunnels that snake unheard and unnoticed beneath the multitude of feet that pound the streets of London daily. Nor do I wish to decry the efforts of the people that staff the network - many of them unfailingly helpful and good-natured in the face of the tide of bad temper that flows up and down the escalators, pausing to hurl a few choice insults in their direction. And, earning my crust in the hyperbolic world of graphic design, I cannot fail to mention the ingenious simplicity of Beck's Tube map, which somehow renders the complexity of the vast subterranean city navigable (and is a source of endless amusement to those of us "in the know" observing unwitting tourists spending half an hour on three seperate lines to travel a distance of half a mile).

What cannot denied, however, is that attempting to travel through the centre of London on the Tube during rush hour is an unremittingly unpleasant experience. I generally avoid the Underground in the morning, preferring to take the bus or walk, and over the Summer I have been working a bit later and avoided the worst of the rush. Last Tuesday, however, I was determined to get home on time to enjoy a special meal with The Wife, and even left work five minutes early to make sure I got to Kings Cross for the appointed time. All was going to plan until I rounded the corner of Argyll Street and hit The Bottleneck at Oxford Circus, scene of a thousand delays. My arms raised to protect my head from flailing elbows and sweaty armpits, I reached the back of the queue for the station just as it ground to a halt, as the station was temporarily sealed. This is a not uncommon occurrence during peak time, but I had not had to contend with it all Summer, so it came a bit of a shock. Quick-thinking is paramount in these situations, and I swiftly calculated that if I waited for the doors to reopen, I would have no chance of making my train. Three options were open to me: walk to Warren Street, get on a bus and hope the traffic was not too severe, or attempt to walk to King's Cross in twenty minutes. I opted for the bus, and it proved to be a mistake - by the time my train was scheduled to leave, the bus had barely made it to the end of Oxford Street. I eventually reached Kings Cross forty-five minutes after leaving the office.

On Friday, after a day of high drama featuring a broken fax machine, timezone cofusion and cottage cheese (one day I might elaborate - at the moment it's still too raw), I left the office with my colleagues ES and JB, and was pleasantly surprised by the ease with which we reached Oxford Circus. Even The Bottleneck was relatively calm. Bidding farewell to South London dweller JB, ES and I headed for the Victoria Line platform, and discovered where all the crowds had got to. It was crammed. Struggling on to a train, we travelled the few stops to King's Cross engaged in studious research into other peoples' body odour, before spilling gratefully out at King's Cross. It was enough to put my status as a Happy Commuter in jeopardy. I'm definitely going to walk more.


At 10:09 AM GMT+1 , Blogger Rish said...

I agree with your usual solution - take the bus or walk. When I lived in London, I really tried to avoid the tube, and occasionally got quite indignant when forced onto it by travelling companions.

The trouble is that it is hot and overcrowded, and like Britain's trains, the tube lines are about as smooth as a gorilla's armpit. Not good for my delicate constitution!


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