Simon Calder: Going back to Underground Zero

The man who pays his way

Mind the gap. Not the jungly, Latin American one in Darien that interrupts the Pan-American Highway and is infested with malarial mosquitos and narco-terrorists, but the more accessible void between the train and the platform edge found on parts of the London Underground. There are many such gaps on “the Tube”, because the system that keeps Western Europe’s biggest capital moving is so old. On Thursday the line that proved people would go into a hole in the ground if it got them around town quicker celebrates its 150th birthday.

Platform 16 at Paddington station is hidden away from Brunel’s magnificent terminus. It promises destinations no more exotic than Hammersmith or Barking. And on a wet Friday morning it does not feel like the birthplace of a transport revolution. Yet this is Underground Zero. On 10 January 1863, it became the fast track to the future – the world’s first high-speed, mass-transit line. The Metropolitan Railway extended less than four miles, from Bishop’s Road (as the station was then known), to the edge of the City of London at Farringdon Street. (The suffix has, like various bits of the Underground, fallen off over the years.)

I am here with two leading experts on the world’s greatest sub-surface network: Ian Robins and Nick Mitchell. They once held the record for visiting every station on the Underground in a single day (at the time when the best strategy was to start on the first train from Ongar, and then, after a quick change at Epping to sprint between Wanstead and Snaresbrook). Even though Ongar is no longer, the pair are still enthused by the impending anniversary.

“In 1863, Paddington was then a village on the outskirts of London,” says Nick. “Great Western was only allowed to build a line as far as the edge of London.” Ian adds: “At the same time, the city had a road improvement scheme. The New Road, now Euston Road and Marylebone Road, was wide enough to build a railway beneath it, and they were redeveloping the Holborn Viaduct area, so the two went hand in hand.”

While the above-ground railway had shown how technology could shrink the distance between cities, when people reached the pre-motor-age capital their maximum speed slowed to the pace at which a horse could move through the crowded streets. Thanks to the Metropolitan, a journey that previously took an uncomfortable hour was suddenly accelerated to about 18 minutes in relative comfort – apart from the fumes from the steam locomotives. An early spin doctor sold this as a virtue – encouraging people with chronic respiratory problems to venture below ground to improve their health. The line may not have helped them, but the Underground liberated Victorian Londoners.

Ancient and modern

A train trundles off along the 150-year-old tunnel to Edgware Road (where you can see former sidings for the first Underground) and then to Baker Street, “the hub of the Metropolitan empire”, as Ian calls it. The original platforms (curiously numbered 5 and 6) have been restored as they were 150 years ago, with handsome brickwork and skylights designed to bring a breath of the outside world to the subterranean rail lair. We temporarily venture above ground to witness the emblems that adorn the ticket hall – and visit the Chiltern Court Dining Club. Today, it is a Wetherspoon’s pub – but, says Nick: “In the 1920s and 30s people came here for afternoon tea and the palm court orchestra.”

Today, journey’s end for the pioneering railway is a mass of building work as the Crossrail project takes shape. Farringdon is a key junction on this fast, high-capacity line. Future travellers will change here for Brighton, Gatwick – or take a trip 150 years back in time on what should now be called the History Line. “If you provide a decent service,” says Nick Mitchell, “people will use it.”

Hgh life in Germany

If the Underground is the finest form of urban transport ever conceived – then which is the least successful? The Schwebebahn, an outlandish construction located in Wuppertal, near Düsseldorf. A railway carriage dangles from sky-high supports, resembling 1960s speculation of “what travel will look like in the future” as it whizzes along the Wupper valley. Wupper-class travel has been airborne since 1901 – but no one has chosen to emulate it. The future, as the Victorian pioneers knew, is going Underground. But make time this year to visit the incredible flying train of Wuppertal – and do mind the gap.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Day In a Page

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz