Phil Gyford


Friday 31 January 2003

PreviousIndexNext The stationary city

I’m pretty sure that if Londoners were ever to explode into violent anarchy it would be because the transport infrastructure had come to a halt. When everything’s running smoothly tempers already flare at the traffic jams and crowded tubes. But it just takes one or two more things to go wrong to bring the city close to utter gridlock.

Last night I made an unnecessarily epic journey across London where the anarchy-inducing problems were: the Underground’s Central Line being out of action following an accident last Saturday; all the buses on that east-west route consequently overflowing with commuters, necessitating a 30 minute walk through the snow; reaching Moorgate to be thankful we weren’t heading towards Welwyn Garden City because the trains were screwed thanks to heavy snow; instead getting on a crowded train north that began leaking heavily, water pouring down the walls onto the seats; discovering a queue of more than 90 people (I counted) waiting for our bus; the queue for the other bus was longer; cadging a lift off a friend who drove us through snowy streets until reaching a steep hill blocked by an ice-bound car. After pushing our friend’s car back up to level ground we set off on foot through the snow for the best part of an hour.

This morning I remembered why I’m thankful for rarely using the underground; being propelled through tubes by crowds of shuffling and glum commuters being visualliy screamed at by the advertising covering every vertical surface would not be my idea of a good start to the day. But I was lucky; the Central Line’s still down as is part of the Picadilly Line. Add a generous helping of overnight snow and… Vive la revolution!


Travelling on a tube in London there isn't much to occupy your mind. Its a bit like swimming lengths of a pool, or using a cycling machine in a gym, you don't really know where to look or what to look at. Meeting the gaze of a fellow passenger usually causes both sides to look hurriedly away. I used to spend about 90 minutes a day on the tube. After a year in Ealing I had memorised most of the Central Line and all of the Piccadilly line, I must have spent hundreds of hours studying tube maps either in stations or on trains. Journeying without a book or a magazine is not to be recommended. Quite soon after moving to North London I had committed all the stations of the Northern line to memory. The longer I was in London the more it seemed that I was spending my whole life down there, that my life was disappearing down the tubes.

One fateful day I resolved never to use the tube again. What finally pushed me to this decision was getting stuck in a tunnel on a congested train for a long period. Its one thing to be stuck in an overheated train, when you have a seat to yourself. Quite another when you are packed in like a sardine, can't stand up straight, can't move backwards or forwards and have not the slightest idea whether you are going to be in that position for five minutes or fifty minutes. I remember after ten minutes I could feel my composure start to go. Panic was very close and it took all the mental discipline at my disposal to keep it together. By the time the train eventually moved 20 minutes later I swore that never again would I put myself in that position.

My decision not to use the tube gave rise to an extraordinary few years of travelling. I decided I was going to start walking to and from work. My flat in North London was five and a half miles from the office near Oxford Circus in the west end. The very first morning of this new routine, I left home before 7 armed with an A to Z. I had not been walking more than ten minutes when, a lorry stopped and the driver asked me for directions. Within minutes I was in the drivers cab getting a lift, and chatting to the driver, who had come a long way. I was at work by eight. I couldn't believe I had hitchhiked to work, what a contrast to the tube to my normal journey. For the next 12 months I walked to and from work every day. I never got stopped by another lorry driver never got another lift, but I was hooked. The walk was fascinating, it took me 1 hour and twenty minutes each way. My then girlfriend (now wife) started coming with me, she had an extra ten minutes to walk. We used to rendezvous in Regents Park in the evening and walk home together from there. It was so civilised.

You would be amazed at some of the sights, occassionaly I would pass a walking Richard Branson who has or had a wonderful taste in cardigans, a hobbling former London marathon winner Hugh Jones who usually looked knackered. One morning I was passed by a cyclist who was swearing at the top of his voice. For this first encounter I thought he must have had just had some violent altercation with a car driver, as this became a daily thing and he was always swearing I came to realise that he was as mad as hell all of the time. He probably worked as a bond seller in the city. Each day I would pass a cage full of sad wolves incarcerated in Regents Park Zoo.

A year passed and I started cycling to work. The journey time was cut down to 40 minutes, quicker than the tube and I was getting an 80 minute cardiovascular workout five times a week. I was also getting a lengthy and concentrated lesson in assertiveness. You couldn't really afford to be invisible on a bike. There were times, usually every day, when your presence had to be communicated loud and clear to other road users. In the two years I cycled I never had an accident and I was able to get to work quicker than by any other means. I used to park the bike in an underground car park since the railings outside buildings usually appeared to be off limits.

I had some problems however with the bike. About half a mile of my route was along the canal towpath at Camden Lock, north of Regents Park. The towpath was an oasis of calm in frantic city, it was one of the best parts of the route. In the morning you could smell bacon coming from some of the canal boats, in the evening you could see smoke coming from the chimneys. I loved the fact that these people lived in the center of London on boats. For reasons never clear to me the gate to the canal towpath would be locked from time to time. When the towpath was locked I had to scale a six foot wall with the bike in hand. I was determined not to miss out on this peaceful part of the route and a locked gate just spurred me on. After the canal tow path came Regents Park.

Regents Park was so beautiful in the early morning and late evening, but it presented probably the most challenging part of my route. The park closed during the hours of darkness, there were many times when I risked impaling myself or iron railings in an effort to get in or out. Unlike Hyde Park there were no cycle lanes in the park, at least not when I was there in the late eighties. In fact it was illegal to cycle through it. This didn't bother me until one morning when a policeman appeared out of nowhere and ordered me to stop. After giving me a warning he let me proceed on foot. For the next three weeks I obediently walked the bike through over a mile of park. One rainy morning, I weakened and hopped back on. The inevitable happened and I got stopped again, this time I failed to produce ID and gave the address of a neighbour, who no doubt got a ticket.

Cycling in London is a hair raising experience. I would finish each day dripping with sweat, the return journey was nearly all up hill. You'll have heard of Highgate Hill. I used to finish each day with my hair standing on end. As I neared home I used to take both hands from the handle bars and punch them triumphantly towards the sky like some winner of the Tour de France, the physical endeavour over and I was still unscathed, ready to fight another day.

Ten years ago I moved back to Newcastle. Ironically I have never been able to cycle or walk to work up here, the traffic moves so fast it makes riding a bike even more dangerous than in London. I drive to work each morning but I often think nostalgically of my journeys to work in London.

When I visit London I still can't use the tubes.

Posted by Richard Hyett on 31 January 2003, 10:12 am | Link

I love it when people post comments that are longer and more interesting than my original post.

And in my current favourite daily read, Richard Herring was having a frustrating time getting around London in the snow too:

"The conditions weren't ideal and I was carrying a rucksack with a very heavy lap-top and several thick books about the penis (the books were about the penis. I hadn't strapped several thick books about my penis, and anyone who says I had is lying)."

Posted by Phil Gyford on 31 January 2003, 2:57 pm | Link

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