Category Archives: London Underground

Beneath the Grave – Ghosts of the Central Line

Good evening, fright-fans, it is I, Tom, your extravagantly-cleavaged Master of the Dark [picture inadmissable]. As Halloween approaches with the inevitability of death, I thought an appropriately-themed entry might be in order. As last year’s entry on the ghosts haunting the Northern Line was so popular, I figured I might continue the theme with the hauntings on the old Central London Railway or, as the kids call it nowadays, the Central Line. Mind the gap…

Northolt

You’ve all heard of the Beast of Bodmin, but did you know there was a Beast of Northolt? In the early 1990s, there were several sightings of a big cat alongside the Central Line between Northolt and Greenford. Accounts vary as to the species of cat, although most seem to settle on “puma.” Whence it came and how it got to Northolt without being noticed remain to be explained.

Marble Arch

If you should find yourself leaving Marble Arch late at night, when the station is quiet, you may find yourself being followed up the escalator. Several people have reported a sinister man in 1940s clothing who they sense close behind them on the escalator and see out of the corner of their eye. Upon turning around completely, the man vanishes. Again, no explanation has been offered as to who this restless spirit might be.

British Museum

Perhaps the most unlikely ghost out of the many on the Underground was sighted at this now-closed station. The ghost would, so the story goes, appear at one end of the platform and walk to the other, wailing mournfully. What marked this particular spectre out, however, was the fact that he was dressed in the clobber of an Ancient Egyptian. Being the intelligent and probably very sexy reader that you are, you’ve no doubt figured out why there might be an Ancient Egyptian haunting British Museum Station. To be more specific, the Egyptian is said to have some sort of link to the so-called Unlucky Mummy (pictured right), a sarcophagus lid in the Museum that is said to be cursed. This is just one of many legends attached to it, the most interesting of which says that it was responsible for sinking the Titanic.

Even bearing in mind that I’m a sceptic, I’m inclined to take this one with a pinch of salt. The accounts are lacking in detail and only emerged shortly before the station was closed down. I’m inclined to believe it was the invention of a journalist looking for a spooky story. Nevertheless, the story persists, albeit with the ghost now haunting Holborn. Why Holborn and not the closer Russell Square or Tottenham Court Road stations? It is a mystery.

Chancery Lane

Chancery Lane has plenty of secrets of its own, but in the tunnels between here and Holborn, there’s said to be one more surprise. During the 1960s,drivers stopping at signals here would often be freaked out by the appearance of a man standing next to them in the cab. Apparently some sort of fellow crewman, he would be staring straight ahead, and would vanish as soon as the train pulled away.

Bank

I covered the manife-stations (see what I did there) at this stop in last year’s entry, but I thought I’d mention that it’s a haunted station on the Central Line for those pedants who’ll leave comments if I don’t.

Liverpool Street

This terminus is built on the site of a plague pit and one of the several incarnations of the notorious Bedlam. The building of this and neighbouring Broad Street Station involved the disturbance of many final resting places, so really it would be surprising if there were no hauntings here. Sure enough, Liverpool Street and environs are said to be haunted by the ghastly screams of a woman.

The most popular suggestion for the screamer is one Rebecca Griffiths, an inmate at Bedlam in the late 18th century whose illness included a compulsive need to hold on to a particular coin. Upon her death, one of the staff (who were not known for their selflessness) stole it from her lifeless fingers and Rebecca’s inconsolable spirit searches for it still.

More recently, in 2000, the Line Controller sighted a man in white overalls in the tunnels who should not have been there. He sent the Station Supervisor to investigate, who found nothing. What made this particularly peculiar was that the Supervisor found no man down there – even though the Controller could see the man on the CCTV screen right next to him.

Bethnal Green

I’ll finish with the Easternmost of the haunted Central Line stations that I’m aware of, and one of the most frightening hauntings. This one is traceable to a specific incident that took place on 3rd March 1943. As often happened in the East End at that time, when the air raid siren sounded, the local people made for the Tube station. Unfortunately, on this night it had been decided to carry out a test-firing of an experimental new type of rocket in nearby Victoria Park. Panicked by what sounded like a very nearby explosion, the crowds surged forward. A woman on the stairs lost her footing and fell, taking several others with her and causing further panic, which in turn worsened the stampede and the crush inside the station. 173 people were killed in the disaster, crushed or asphyxiated. For reasons of morale, the Bethnal Green incident was covered up until 1946.

From 1981 onwards, however, there were reports of an extremely unnerving nature from the station. Staff working late at night spoke of hearing screams – at first one or two, then more and more, clearly identifiable as women and children. These screams would go on for up to fifteen minutes before dying down.

There you have it, readers. I hope you enjoy your Halloween this year and whatever you do, don’t have nightmares…

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Filed under 18th century, 19th century, 20th Century, Bloomsbury, Disasters, East End and Docklands, Flora and Fauna, Hackney, History, London, London Underground, Museums, Occult, Paranormal, Suburbia, The City, Transport, West End

I get a roundel

Now here’s a London icon for ya.

This is the old London Underground roundel. If you’ve spent any time at all in the city, you’ve come across it. Hell, these days it’s practically a symbol of the city itself.

It’s one of those designs that’s just so simple and effective that you find yourself thinking, “Golly gee, anyone could have come up with that.” I mean, red circle, blue bar, the word “UNDERGROUND,” hardly rocket science amirite?

Actually, it’s been a long evolutionary process to get this far. The roundel, or “bullseye” or “target” as it used to be known (maybe these earlier titles are seen as too confrontational in the modern age?) is believed to date back ultimately to the 19th century. The London General Omnibus Company’s logo consisted of a spoked wheel with a crossbar (see above right).

In those days, simplicity doesn’t appear to have been a thing that corporate image-makers did, and for a long time the Underground railways (not that London Underground existed as a unified concept back then) went for more elaborate symbols. The one on the left, for instance, was used in 1908 by London Underground Electric Railways, the direct ancestor of the modern Underground system. You can see elements of the roundel concept in this, but it lacks a certain “oomph” to my mind.

The true London Underground roundel appeared that very same year as a handy and eyecatching means of identifying stations belonging to London Underground Electric Railways (or “The Combine,” as it was nicknamed). The original roundels consisted of a red circle with a blue bar across it, and you can still see these at a few locations – Ealing Broadway springs to mind. As stations featured colourful advertising and complex tiling schemes (to enable illiterate travellers to identify their destination), the sign had to stand out.

The next big development for the roundel took place a few years later, in 1917. This was during the reign of Frank Pick as the Combine’s Publicity Manager. Pick, as I’ve mentioned in other entries, basically set the design standards that London Underground follows to this day. Part of this was the introduction of the Johnston typeface in which all Underground-produced written material is written. Edward Johnston, who devised the typeface (duh) also redesigned the roundel to work with his new alphabet.

This roundel was in use during the Underground’s greatest period of expansion, and consequently architect Charles Holden used it extensively in his station designs. He even came up with a rather natty 3D version, as well as a stained glass variant.

Meanwhile, in the 1930s, more changes were afoot. In 1933, all of London’s Underground lines, together with all of its bus companies, tramlines and coach services, were united under the London Passenger Transport Board – better known to you and me as London Transport. Variants of the Roundel were introduced across the board to emphasise the unity of the transport network.

In 1947, the roundel was reworked again. Following the Second World War, the prevailing design aesthetic was far simpler – partly due to Austerity period economy measures. To this end, Harold Hutchison (then Publicity Manager) eliminated the dashes above and below the word “UNDERGROUND.” This is basically the version still in use to this day.

In recent years, the scope of its use has expanded even further, with variants being devised for the DLR, Overground, riverboats, Dial-a-Ride and even streets.

In fact, its (unauthorised) use has spread yet further afield. On the left you can see it in use on the Darjeeling Himalaya Railway, which is a narrow gauge steam railway in India (not yet covered by Oyster). It even crops up in fiction – the subway in the film Dark City uses it, and in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, the dwarfish rune for a mine is… a circle with a line across it.

You can dis the Tube all you like (I know I do), but there’s one thing you can’t deny – when they come up with a good design, they really come up with a good design.

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The Infernal Tower

There have been some interesting proposals for London buildings over the years, from the Pyramid of Death to the scheme to rebuild the Crystal Palace so that it stood on its end. Perhaps the most significant landmark-that-never-was was the Wembley Tower.

It all started with the old Metropolitan Railway. Being a commercial enterprise, the directors of this company were naturally keen to make as much money as humanly possible. In the 1880s, though, they were already making quite a lot of money. What is a railway tycoon to do under such circumstances? If you were Edward Watkin, Chairman of the company, you simply create more traffic by making London bigger.

The idea was simple. Buy land out in the sticks where it’s cheap, miles away from London. Build a railway to it, build some houses on it and bam! You got yourself a suburb, mister. Sell the houses, there’s a goldmine for ya. You’d be amazed how much of London basically didn’t exist until people did this. Put it this way – until the 1860s, Kensington was considered to be a rural village.

Watkin was a man who liked to think big. For instance, his ultimate plan for the Metropolitan was to run trains up to Manchester and down to Paris (I forget how that one turned out). When he looked upon the route of his railway, he decided that what his grand plan needed was a selling point. Some sort of focus that would draw people to the area (and, let’s not forget, drive up the land values).

In 1889, the latest wonder of the world was the Eiffel Tower. Watkin came to the conclusion that what we needed in London was something similarly troubling to Freud, only more so. Possible sites included High Street Kensington and Gloucester Road, but eventually it was decided to purchase a 280-acre site at Wembley and develop that. Former Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone asked questions in Parliament on behalf of Watkin and was told by the committee that “although the atmosphere of London may not be so favourable to extensive views as Paris, the view would be incomparably superior.” Suck-ups.

Having been given the go-ahead, the Metropolitan Tower Committee was formed in 1890 to decide on the form this tower would take. Many exciting designs were proposed. I think my favourite was one based on the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I’m no structural engineer, but I can’t help wondering how wise it would have been to build something like the Leaning Tower, only much taller. I also like the one about the “colony of aerial vegetarians.” Gustave Eiffel himself was even approached and did initially show some interest, only to decline later on patriotic grounds (he probably heard that dis about the views in Paris).

As it happened, the final design was very similar to the Eiffel Tower, only 320 metres taller. Work started in 189e and in 1896 the park around the tower’s base was opened to the public. The tower had only reached its first stage, but hopes were high even if the structure wasn’t.

Yet already problems were being encountered – the year before, the new Chairman of the Metropolitan, John Bell, had already been convinced the whole thing was a white elephant. It turned out that the foundations couldn’t quite support all that weight on just four legs (the original design called for eight). The biggest issue of all, though, was money. It turned out that not everyone was as enthusiastic as the Parliamentary committee, and very few were willing to invest. The park itself was not the major tourist attraction Watkin had hoped for, and work ground to a halt.

In fact, the tower ended up having a detrimental effect on the Metropolitan Railway. At this time, the Great Central Railway used the Met lines to get into London, a costly move. With the construction of the Tower, the Great Central was able to say (and I’m paraphrasing here y’understand), “Oh hey, that’s cool, with all that extra traffic you’ll be getting from the Tower you won’t be able to run our little trains so we’rebuildingourownlineintoLondonbyenow,” and promptly rushed off to Marylebone.

The Tower also had something of a domino effect on Watkin’s other schemes – it was very clear, as the mostly-incomplete tower rusted away, that Watkin had maybe lost his golden touch, and so investment in his grand scheme to run trains to Paris dried up as well. The ugly monument gained such unflattering nicknames as “the London Stump” and, the name by which it is perhaps best known today, “Watkin’s Folly.”

The enterprise went bust in 1899, in 1901 Watkin himself passed away and in 1902 the whole thing was declared a health and safety hazard and closed down. In 1907 the remains were blown up and sold for scrap. Yet Watkin’s scheme was not entirely in vain – in the 1920s, when the organisers of the British Empire Exhibition were looking for somewhere to build their stadium, they discovered there was a perfectly peachy-keen area of flat ground at Wembley…

… and the rest, they say, is history.

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London Lit: Neverwhere

I can’t believe how long it’s taken me to finally get around to writing this entry. If I’m going to be meta about it, this is actually one of the first entries I planned to write, and that must have been, what, two and a half years ago? Daaaamn.

So yeah, Neverwhere. One of the best-known works of urban fantasy and one of the best-known London novels, I think I’m being fair when I say these things. Neil Gaiman’s first novel and my personal favourite.

The story is fairly simple – our protagonist is the slightly Arthur Dent-esque Richard Mayhew, a relative newcomer to London. One day he comes across what he thinks is a wounded homeless girl and offers to help her, only to swiftly and unwittingly find himself drawn into a bizarre and fantastical version of the city existing below and around our own – London Below. Worse, the girl – Door – is being pursued by a couple of bizarre and apparently time-travelling assassins. And so we find outselves journeying through London-as-filtered-through-Neil-Gaiman’s-brain.

If any of you saw the superb Gaiman-penned Doctor Who episode, ‘The Doctor’s Wife,’ you’ll recognise the hallmarks. Strange people living in a thrown-together world and plenty of whiplash between scary and funny. If it was a movie, it would probably be directed by Tim Burton. Hence we get bizarre scenes like the visit to Earl’s Court. That is to say, an actual Court held by an Earl. A medieval court on an Underground train. There’s also an Angel called Islington and an order of Black Friars. Oh, and you get to learn the real reason why you should Mind the Gap.

For those of you familiar with the history and mythology surrounding the city, there’s even more. From abandoned Tube stations to a throwaway reference to Gog and Magog (blink and you’ll miss it), it’s very clear that Gaiman’s done his homework in researching his fantasy world.

My first exposure to the phenomenon, oddly enough, was not via the book. It was over a decade ago, on TV. You see, Neverwhere was originally developed as a fantasy TV series at the behest of none other than Lenny Henry. This was long before the revival of Doctor Who, and so the general attitude towards fantasy on TV was that it was all a little bit silly. As a result, the whole thing looks a bit cheap and naff. Which is a pity, because it’s really not. There is some superb location filming, including the use of Battersea Power Station, HMS Belfast, Down Street Station and the old Post Office Underground. The cast features some interesting before-they-were-famous faces, including Paterson Joseph, Tamsin Greig and Peter Capaldi (as the aforementioned Angel Islington). It was a bit weird, to be sure, but it piqued my curiosity and I went out and bought the book. And I was hooked. I’m told that the version in print today differs somewhat from that 1997 publication, so I should probably buy the new one as well. Not that I’m a fanboy or anything.

It’s not the only urban fantasy set in London, nor is it even the first. But it is perhaps the best-known and tends to be very highly rated – China Miéville, for instance, lists it as an influence on his own London fantasies.  I think the reason for its success is that it never takes itself too seriously.  The characters are strange, often scary, but strangely likeable – I want to see more of the sinister Croup and Vandemar, for a start.

As I say, Gaiman is clearly familiar with the folklore and history of London, but you don’t need to be in order to enjoy the book. It’s my experience that a lot of the more well-read authors want you to know just how clever they are and their work suffers as a result. In the case of Neverwhere, a passing familiarity with the city will see you just fine. And having read it, you may want to increase that familiarity.

That’s a thought – has anyone ever done a Neverwhere tour?

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Filed under 20th Century, Film and TV, Islington, Literature, London, London Underground, Occult, Paranormal, Psychogeography

Getting Cross

Seeing the new Harry Potter film (it turns out Voldemort and Tom Riddle are the same person) has inspired me to continue my thrilling series on the termini of London with King’s Cross.

Thanks to the Harry Potter franchise, King’s Cross is now probably the most famous railway station in London. Although, as I believe I said before, it rather irritates me that in the films, they decided to use St Pancras for the external shots instead. I don’t know, maybe they just felt that King’s Cross didn’t look stereotypically British enough, or just not sufficiently magical.

I know you’re not supposed to, but I actually prefer the architecture of King’s Cross to its Gothic neighbour. Its Italianate simplicity has a kind of casual dignity, a kind of unfussy impressiveness, like it’s cool and it doesn’t even need to try. Granted, these days it’s a little spoilt by that municipal bus shelter thing British Rail saw fit to graft on to its front, but that’s due to be demolished, so thank God for the triumph of common sense.

The station was designed by Lewis Cubitt for the Great Northern Railway, a company whose name alone inspires. It was opened in 1852, and the simplicity of the design was actually a deliberate measure to save money. The whole station, including the Great Northern Hotel, cost less than the frontage alone at Euston Station, a snip at £123,000 for the biggest station in London at the time.

The only conspicuous ornamentation was on the clock tower, which had been on display at the Great Exhibition the previous year. For some reason it has four faces, even though one is never visible due to the fact that there’s a bloody great train shed in the way. The clock also used to have three bells for sounding the hour, but these were removed in 1947. It’s also worth noting that it never agreed with the clock at St Pancras, which must have made for some interesting scenes among last-minute passengers.

As time went on, the original station was found wanting – pity the poor signalman, who had to juggle local services, goods trains, expresses to Scotland and, from the 1860s, Metropolitan Railway trains (which had to come in backwards). At peak times there was so much traffic that it could take up to half an hour to cover the half a mile to Holloway. Extra platforms were added and, in 1875, a whole new station. This was known as “Kings Cross Main Line (Local Station),” but is now the suburban platforms. This, fans of the Harry Potter books should note, is where Platforms 9 and 10 can be found. Legend also has it that this is the site of Boudicca’s grave, although scholars refer to this theory as “bollocks.”

In 1878, the Metropolitan got its own platforms (or, as they were known then, “Kings Cross (Suburban),” which is of course not confusing in the slightest), which were notorious among train drivers for being very difficult to start from – the tunnel leading out was smoky in steam days and the track was steeply graded and sharply curved, and condensation made the rails slippery. Some poor egg was stationed in the tunnel to drop sand on the rails every time a train went by. In 1932, one train actually slipped backwards without the driver realising until it bumped into the locomotive behind.

Various other alterations followed over the years, but I suspect they would be of zero interest to anyone other than my fellow geeks, so I’ll spare you for now.

The station has always been associated with speed and the romance thereof. In the late 19th century, they were one of the starting points for the Races to the North, when the East and West Coast railways competed to see who could provide the fastest service to Scotland (an unfortunate side effect of which was that passengers often ended up in Aberdeen at around 4am).

During the twentieth century, the luxurious expresses of the London and North Eastern Railway departed from King’s Cross. Most famous of these was the non-stop Flying Scotsman, but one should not forget the streamlined splendour of the Silver Jubilee, the Coronation or the Queen of Scots.

This art deco opulence was slightly marred in 1934 by the discovery of a gruesome crime – a disembodied pair of legs were found in the left luggage office. The crime was never solved, and the only lead police had was that the legs fitted a torso found in the luggage office at Brighton. This can only mean one thing – if a man can carry half a woman on the Underground across London without being noticed, there is no excuse for those tourists who make a massive hash of simply carrying a suitcase.

The station sustained some damage during World War II and was taken over by British Railways in 1948 who, as they so loved to do, ran the place into the ground. One notable event during the 1950s was the station’s prominent role in The Ladykillers, about which I have written before.

A plan was drawn up in the Sixties to extensively modernise the station with a new extension. This never came to pass. but based upon the contemporary account by Alan A. Jackson that I have in front of me, it would basically have been like what we got, only bigger and worse. The horrible extension that was actually built appeared in 1972.

The station saw a number of accidents over its lifetime, mostly caused by the aforementioned steep gradients, but the King’s Cross fire of 18th November 1987 was something else entirely. A discarded match or cigarette set fire to forty years’ worth of accumulated debris under one of the escalators in the Underground station. As a result of a hitherto unknown phenomenon called “the trench effect,” and the drafts caused by trains moving through the tunnels down below, this resulted in a conflagration that claimed the lives of thirty-one people. Subsequent to this, fire safety precautions on the Tube were drastically overhauled and smoking was banned altogether.

1997 saw the station achieve worldwide fame with the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, in which Harry famously takes the Hogwarts Express from Platform Nine-And-Three-Quarters (although, as I’ve said before, it seems possible that J. K. Rowling was thinking of a different station altogether). In tribute to this, half a luggage trolley is stuck into the wall near the suburban platforms. There is no Platform 9¾ for us Muggles, alas, but as of 2010 there is a Platform 0, which frankly I find a little sinister.

I’ll say one thing for the modern railway, they have finally figured out that maybe a nice, user-friendly, aesthetically-pleasing station is what people want, and in 2005 plans were announced to restore the station. It was decided that nothing could be better than the 1972 extension, and therefore they are replacing it with nothing – it’s being demolished and turned into a plaza. The older buildings are being cleaned and patched up and a new, modern (in a good way) concourse is being put up to the west of the station.

The future is looking bright for Cubitt’s creation. All in all, it’s not been a bad life for an economy terminus.

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If it’s red, it’s Green

As I’ve mentioned before, the London Underground has always had a strong sense of design. In fact, it pretty well introduced the concept of corporate identity to the city. However, one of the most distinctive early shapers of this corporate identity is perhaps the least known. Take a look at this station:

This is the abandoned Piccadilly Line stop at York Road (just a short distance from King’s Cross if you want to look it out for yourself). But the architectural style will be familiar to anyone who’s spent any time in London, for there are simply dozens of buildings like these dotted along the Bakerloo, Piccadilly and Northern Lines. Many of them are still in use, some have been converted to other purposes and some, like our friend York Road and the old entrance at Euston, are simply abandoned. This is the house style devised by Leslie Green for the stations of the Underground Electric Railway Company of London Limited.

The UERL, as it is commonly known, was the result of American transport tycoon Charles Yerkes buying out several Underground railway schemes that had run into financial difficulty, the railways that would eventually become the Bakerloo, Piccadilly, District and Northern lines (albeit only the Charing Cross branch of the latter). Whatever you might think of Yerkes as a person- certainly he served some time in the US for dodgy dealings – it can’t be denied that he knew a little something about corporate identity.

Therefore, Yerkes hired the young Leslie Green in 1903 to create a unified style for the above-ground buildings of the UERL. Green was not very well-known at the time, although he had had a number of commissions in Central London. The brief was that the stations he designed had to be adaptable to any location,  cheap to build and – this factor was very important given that construction of the lines were well underway – quick to erect.

Green devised a building style not dissimilar to that used on American skyscrapers. The stations would be built around a sturdy frame of steel girders, with the walls effectively “hanging” from this (I know, architecture students, it’s more complex than that) and a flat roof. The distinctive oxblood tiles were a time- and cost-cutting measure – architectural fanciness, very much the style in the early twentieth century, could be cast into the tiles which could be stuck on to the frontage like Lego bricks (or Bayko – anyone remember Bayko?).

The skyscraper-style construction wasn’t just modernist whimsy on Green’s part – Yerkes was savvy enough to figure out that his stations would be occupying prime sites in the city, and so they should be built in such a way that extra storeys of flats or offices could be plonked on top. For all Yerkes was a visionary, his vision, like that of Zephram Cochrane, was inspired by the profit motive.

Despite the similarities between the buildings, Green was able to incorporate various differences from station to station. Compare the compact front of Aldwych to the sharp curves of Chalk Farm, for instance. For Holborn, he even abandoned the oxblood tiles altogether in favour of granite. There are plenty of less obvious detail differences if you’re prepared to examine closely.

Inside, where refurbishment hasn’t obliterated the original decor, you’ll notice that the platform-level tiling can be quite colourful, forming interesting patterns that differ between stations. The detail differences in this case served a very practical purpose, in that the Underground was an inexpensive form of transport and, in those early days, it was assumed that a large proportion of those using the trains would be illiterate. Having different patterns would allow such folk to recognise their stops with ease.

Tragically, Green died at thirty-three. However, no less than twenty-nine of his  stations survive in recognisable condition, the great majority still in everyday use and all unmistakable. In terms of an architectural legacy, that’s hard to beat.

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Foulwell and Kingston-Upon-Railway

The suburbs are weird, aren’t they? I mean, by their very nature. Central London has long been a well-defined place. City walls, city gates, parish boundaries, main roads and the river have meant that for centuries the different places in London have been pretty clearly delineated. Granted, there’s the occasional dispute about, e.g., where the West End ends, and there are new places like Fitzrovia and Chinatown to contend with, but by and large you know where you are.

The suburbs, though, are different. You can’t really have suburbs until you have decent transport, so the area we now tend to think of as “suburbia” didn’t really exist until the 19th century. And I know I go on about the railways in London quite a lot, but the fact is that they were absolutely instrumental to the formation of Greater London.

For instance, take where I live – Colliers Wood. Where is Colliers Wood? It’s at the southern end of the Northern Line (incidentally, it’s a geographical irony that the Northern Line goes further south than any other Tube line). When was it founded? Well, basically, Colliers Wood-the-place didn’t exist until 1926, when the Tube station was opened. The area wasn’t exactly desolate and uninhabited, but this place as a whole was known as Merton. Colliers Wood was a local landmark that hadn’t existed for about fifty years when the Tube came along. Had the Underground station been named something different, I might well consider myself a resident of Merton Abbey, or Haydons Road, or Tooting-on-Tube.

The last may seem like a flight of fancy, but know this – there nearly was a suburb with an equally stupid name. When the London and Southampton Railway opened their station a little way south of the busy market town of Kingston, they planned to call it Kingston-upon-Railway. Because it sort-of served Kingston, but not quite. Good sense eventually prevailed, and it was renamed in 1869. The original Surbiton was a small village, also not-quite-served by the new station. However, the station and its railway line were very convenient for commuters, and so a town grew up around the station. The station was called Surbiton, so, inevitably, was the town around it. What if the station had been called something else? Would we even have a Surbiton today? Would we think of Kingston-upon-Railway as the main town, and Kingston-upon-Thames be relegated to the status of “Old Kingston” or some such?

I suspect a few of the suburbs, such as Hampton Wick, wouldn’t really be anything more than a theoretical concept were it not for their railway stations. Hampton Wick has little by way of a focal point other than its station. Certain other suburbs, lacking notability, were absorbed by others as the commuter towns expanded – Lonesome being a case in point, once a village in its own right and now just a part of Streatham.

And this brings me on to the strange case of Fulwell. Fulwell is one of those places that always feels as if it’s on the verge of vanishing, as I had cause to reflect when I went there for a party on Saturday. It’s quite old, its name may have derived from “foul well” (so good work on getting that renamed, I suppose). It doesn’t really have a high street to speak of – a few shops, but nothing to distinguish it from the outlying parts of Twickenham or Teddington, on whose borders it lies. Its major landmark is the bus garage, pictured above right, but that’s more of an obstacle than a focal point. There is a railway station, sure, but it’s an unmanned two-platform branch line affair in a back street. I’m not clear exactly where it begins and ends. I reckon that, were the station to be renamed, the town would cease to exist altogether, torn between Teddington and Twickenham. It’s usually at this point that a bunch of angry residents of the area post a huge rant in the comments section about how I’m wrong and stupid, so scroll down to skip straight to that.

Yet right next to Fulwell, but a short walk from the station, you have Hampton Hill – nothing but a high street really, yet nobody would dispute the validity of its existence. Damned if I understand the suburbs.

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