Sunday, 3 July 2011

London: Mind the Gap

Many people have become entranced by the London Underground map since its inspired creation in 1931 by Harry Beck.

Discarding the idea that the lines should closely follow real-world geography, Beck laid out the subterranean railway lines in the manner of a circuit diagram. The concept was immediately popular, and the rest is history.

The map is obviously practical, but there's also something intriguing about its design. Perhaps those angular connecting lines in different colours engage the human propensity for seeking hidden patterns; the map might be hinting to our subconscious minds that it contains the true meaning of the universe, if only we'd peer at it hard enough.

Or perhaps it's the Tube station names, a jumble of London's sometimes quirky place names rendered in a neat font side by side on the map, sparking the imagination. Neil Gaiman perhaps created the greatest expression of this Tube map fascination in his TV series Neverwhere, in which an alternate London was populated with strange characters named after Underground stations.

And I know about this curious fascination with the London Underground myself of course, having authored a novel drawing heavily on the Tube and its names, Mind the Gap (also available for Kindle, he added subtly).

So seeing I'm in London for a few days, I thought I'd list a few random stations that hold some meaning for to me, from my visits to the British capital over the years:

Tower Hill: It was upon leaving this station in 1990, on our first trip to the UK, that Narrelle and I stumbled upon a section of the Roman wall that originally encircled the City of London. Slightly cliched, but still a magical 'touching history' moment.

Barbican: It was from here that we walked to a production of Shakespeare's much lesser known play Coriolanus, revived because its depiction of the downfall of a tyrant held new interest after the then-recent fall of Europe's communist regimes.

Baker Street: We're both great Sherlock Holmes fans, so how could we resist visiting his home turf? When we first travelled through the station, it had Holmes' likeness depicted in its interior wall tiles (I don't know what the situation is now).

Russell Square: This was our local station when we first visited London, staying in a fairly forgettable tourist hotel nearby. Loved the square, though, a classic central London element.

Covent Garden: A bunch of disparate memories here - the lifts that take you up and down because the station is so deep; the Australian accent that was once used for the recorded lift announcements; and most fondly the Tintin shop that's located nearby.

Southwark: One of the newer stations; thought of fondly for both its proximity to the reconstruction of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, and for its impressive steel plate 'underground Dalek base' design.

Monument: It was only by accident that I discovered the source of its name, stumbling across the monument to the Great Fire of London, the conflagration which started near here in 1666. It's an imposing column over 60 metres high, and was designed by Christopher Wren.

Aldwych: The only station I've used which has since closed, Aldwych was on a short branch off the Piccadilly Line, located on The Strand and close to Australia House. Its lifts needed expensive replacements in the early 1990s but as it was only lightly used, the station was closed in 1994. It's now often used as a film set, dressed to imitate different eras as required.

Elephant and Castle: My final choice. Partly because it has a magnificent name, and partly because I passed through its attached shopping centre yesterday and took the above photo of this equally cheesy and marvellous statue at its entrance.

Do you have any favourite London Underground stations? Let me know via the comments field below. And remember - MIND THE GAP. You'll be glad you did.