Down the tube

When I was young, we rarely came to London. Sometimes we would go with a relative who knew his way around but if we went on our own, it was a nerve-racking experience.

I don’t think my mother ever managed to understand how the London Underground worked and if we used it, she would stop people and ask them where to catch a train to the desired destination. To me the tube was a mysterious place and I was puzzled by the train doors: how did they know when to close and what closed them?

It may seem strange these days but we found the escalators frightening and always avoided them as long as there were stairs or lifts to use instead. To leave a station or change platforms, we would roam up and down until we found a way that didn’t involve using the escalators.

Covent Garden Underground station
Covent Garden Underground station

All was well until we one day found ourselves on a station with no lift or fixed staircase: we would have to use the escalator. As we stood vacillating at the foot of the moving stairs, which were then the old noisy wooden ones, a passing gentleman, seeing our distress, stopped to help.

"It’s easy," he said encouragingly. "Just step on. Follow me."

We did and it was. Then, of course, being a young lad, now that I was over my fear, I just couldn’t get enough of riding on the escalators! Escalators were fun!

It’s strange to look back to those times and to remember that we could find the escalators daunting. I think of that passer-by, too, who was kind enough to stop and help when others would have sneered at these silly provincials and rushed on by. I never dreamed then that I would one day live in London myself and that the vast and incomprehensible city would come to feel like home.

When I did come to London, I straightaway renewed my acquaintance with the tube and fell in love with it. Like many who are new to the metropolis, I found the tube an easy and helpful way to get around. Once you had a map, it was easy to understand and use the system and as long as there was a station near your destination, the journey was quick and easy.

I also loved the old stations, every one unique and most of them, in those days, still decorated in "retro" style in cream, brown and green glazed tiles, with the word “Exit” beside a hand with a pointing finger or an arrow pointing along the track and labelled “Hampstead”. I am sure I am not the only one to regret the garish modernization on the stations in the centre of town.

But it wasn’t only the stations that caught my attention. There was also the antics of the passengers. Some would pass the time soberly reading books and newspapers but others would knit, do crochet work, sew or do puzzles. I saw a young man spreading himself over two seats to sort out a collection of photographs. There were those who used the safety bars to do gymnastics while others contently snored away the time of the journey.

On some platforms there stood a transparent booth containing a device like a telephone. This was used to announce the trains. One day as I passed such a booth, the uniformed occupant rapped on the window, looking insistently at me. I saw him mouthing some words which I could not hear. Did he mean me? I wasn’t sure but approached and gestured him to repeat. He did so and in a foreign accent said "Please find a colleague and inform him that I am locked inside this cabin." All around us the rush-hour crowds were milling and only we were aware of this surreal conversation between a member of the public and a caged representative of London Underground.

Years later, though I still love the tube, I am more aware of its faults. Its dangers too. What passenger on the Underground never thinks of the Kings Cross fire, the Moorgate crash or the terrorist bombs? Or indeed of those who night after night during WWII sheltered down here from Hitler’s Blitz?

Using the tube also discourages the new Londoner from learning his way about. I would always take the tube, even for short journeys, simply because then I needn’t worry about finding my way. It was only after some years that I discovered that some of the complicated tube journeys I made were pointless because departure and arrival points were only a short walk apart. I came to understand that the buses sometimes deliver you more quickly to your goal while allowing you to see where you are going and learn the layout of the city.

Covent Garden, northbound platform
Covent Garden, northbound platform

Nonetheless, having once fallen in love with the strange and strangely wonderful underground railway system, I still love it and use it often. I still admire the stations, especially those away from the centre with their old-fashioned but elegant design and decor. It still thrills me when a train bursts out of the tunnel into the station and the crowd on the platform moves expectantly forward to meet it. It amuses me to see the underground mice rooting about on the trackbed and even more so when at quieter moments of the day they boldly erupt onto the platform to the squeals of some of the waiting passengers!

The old wooden escalators are long gone and so are the shaky old lifts with their sliding iron gates. I once got stuck in one of these. It was at Goodge Street and perhaps too many of us crowded into the lift which then ascended slowly, groaning and creaking like an old ship. Just as the top of the door cleared the floor, the lift came to an abrupt halt. We passengers all looked at one another in silence. What would happen next?

What happened next was that a woman in LU uniform approached, bent down to peer at us through the 12-inch gap and said "’Ang on!" We all roared with laughter. "What else are we going to do?" a passenger called back. The incident had relaxed the tension, however, and we waited patiently until the lift was winched to the top and we were set free, some of us still chuckling to ourselves.

The tube continues to evolve and modernize, transforming itself again and again, but ever and anon I recall the 10-year-old who was fascinated by the mysterious underground and found riding the escalators such fun.

Copyright © 2010 SilverTiger,, All rights reserved.

About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
This entry was posted in Travel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Down the tube

  1. WOL says:

    I spent some time in the West part of Berlin back when it was split into directions, and I was completely impressed by their public transportation system. I was in London briefly at about the same time, and I remember the l-o-n-g rumbling escalators that delivered you out of the bowels of the earth and up to the street. And the “Mind the Gap” and “Way Out” signs. The US is way behind Europe in terms of public transportation especially the trains, and especially my part of it. Our local bus system is a laugh. We do have some electric buses, though.

    • SilverTiger says:

      The longest escalator on the Underground (and,as far as I know, anywhere else) is at Bank station. Fixed staircases are always divided into flights of steps but an escalator has obviously to be continuous. It’s quite a sight staring down from the top of the Bank escalator. The top escalator at Angel, where I live, is also unusually long.

      Despite being spread among several bus companies, London’s bus service is remarkably good. When we grumble about hiccups, it is against this background of good quality, making small faults seem large. However, not all areas have such good services, as our experiences taught us in Norfolk.

      Electric vehicles are making a comeback in the UK nowadays because of the perceived need to reduce carbon emissions. However, new buses tend to be “hybrid”, that is, they have both electric and diesel motors, the electric being used at low speeds and the diesel cutting in only at higher speeds. There is also a whole new generation of hybrid cars on the roads.

      When I suggested to an American friend that he might use the buses to go to work he replied that the buses were used only by low-paid workers. Whether or not he is right, in this country there is no social stigma attached to buses, trams and trains. Everyone uses them. Long distance coaches are also popular because of their lower cost. Then again, our country is very small compared with the US.

      In London, the Oyster card, which enables you to pay for your journey simply by touching the card on the pad, speeds the loading of public transport. We certainly notice the difference when we go to other towns and see people fiddling with money and tickets.

  2. AEJ says:

    I had a Great-Aunt who refused to ever ride an escalator. We always had to find an elevator in every place we went with her.

    We found the tube system in London to be very intimidating when we were there. Once you get used to something, though, you wonder why it was ever intimidating. I used to ride the public bus to high school and loved it. I always wished the ride were longer.

    • SilverTiger says:

      There are some Underground stations without lifts. I think all stations now have a staircase accessible to the public for use in case of emergencies but some of these are very long, not to be undertaken lightly by the aged or the infirm. I once climbed the longest tube staircase which is at Hampstead. I thought I would never reach the top!

      The station is 192 feet below ground and the staircase has over 320 steps.

Genuine comments are welcome. Spam and comments with commercial URLs will be deleted.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s