London: Guide to the world in Zones One to Six

As the Underground marks its 150th birthday, Simon Calder reveals some Piccadilly secrets

The steps above ground at Piccadilly Circus are crowded – strewn with fast-food cast-offs and pocked with the grubby permanence of chewed gum. Hardly a suitable plinth for Eros – the statue at the heart of a city that, by some estimates, is capital of the world. Lovers of travel should descend instead on the opposite stairs, where the world opens up within the handsome circumference of Piccadilly Circus Tube station. It is the starting point for a great little railway journey that carves a slice through London, leading to the most expensive building in Europe.

Plenty has already been made of this month's 150th anniversary of the original – and still the greatest – underground railway. However, there's also a more modest claim due to the westward extension of the Piccadilly Line, which has just turned 80 years old. In January 1933, the dark blue arrow first flew west from Acton Town, stretching the boundaries of both the capital and architectural innovation.

To witness the eternal westward drift of daylight, you need venture no further than the ticket hall at Piccadilly Circus. Between exits 1 and 4, the creamy marble of the inner circular wall is interrupted by a large mahogany frame announcing "The World Time Today". A map of the Earth has a band across the middle showing the progress of the sun, with white indicating where daylight prevails and black showing the parts of the globe enduring night. Five cities are highlighted, three obvious (London, New York, Sydney), the other two baffling (Victoria and La Plata, in Canada and Argentina respectively).

Glide beneath Piccadilly, pause at Green Park, then get off at Hyde Park Corner. The Tube station here is now a prosaic affair. But above ground, near the south-western corner, you can witness a fine example of the Underground look as created by the Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway. When it opened in 1906, the station was above ground, with a regal fascia decorated in glossy oxblood tiles.

Behind the venerable frontage, you now find The Wellesley, one of the most luxurious hotels in London, characterised by a sense of light and space, and a nightly rate of £320. Down the hill, life for shoppers would be made easier if the next stop were named "Harrods" – but that would erase the Tube trivia nugget that Knightsbridge is the only London Underground station name with six successive consonants.

The line's subterranean scenery is unrewarding, yet a pleasing aspect of the Underground is that most of it is overground. You emerge from the darkness at Barons Court – a baronial castle beside the A4, all unnecessary flourishes and emerald tiles. On the platform, the station name is spelled out on the high-backed benches – the only location on the Underground, Tube enthusiasts will tell you, with this feature.

Aboard one of the dozen trains an hour to Heathrow, you will whizz through Ravenscourt Park, Stamford Brook, Turnham Green and Chiswick Park at high speed: a rare example of an Underground "express" service, with intermediate stations served by District Line trains.

Mind the gap. The suburbs pause for the transit of the M4 and Grand Union Canal in quick succession. You then scythe through Wyke Green Golf Course towards the journey's highlight: Osterley station. Both of them.

Alight at the 1933 Tube station to appreciate this model of English Art Deco, with a superfluous brick tower topped by a soaring, illuminated spire that resembles a landing beacon for UFOs. Turn left along the Great West Road, walk for a couple of minutes to Thornbury Road. Go left again. Soon you find yourself on a bridge over the Piccadilly Line. On your left is the original Osterley station, now a second-hand bookshop.

Forty-four years ago, Tony Vesely and his wife left art school and sought studio premises to produce posters for the underground movement. What venue could be better than an Underground station, albeit an overground one? "We moved in, then we were told by the council that the property had to have a retail outlet. So we went to a few jumble sales and set up a bookshop. All in all, it works."

The Tube extension west to Heathrow burrows below the surface, reappearing briefly to cross the River Crane. The final hop to Terminal 5 is the one journey on which you can travel free – but only if you possess an Oyster stored-value card. A Dunlop umbrella and Spider-Man hat had continued to the end of the line without their owners. (If they're yours, I handed them in from the train that arrived at 4.30pm on Friday 4 January.) Inside the gleaming £3.4bn structure, function and form unite as elegantly as Piccadilly Circus.

From here you can head back into town (if you're in a hurry, opt for the Heathrow Express), or follow the sun west to Canada or California. The Piccadilly Line is the capital's conduit to the world.

Travel essentials

Getting around

Underground cash fares are punitive, eg £4.30 for a Zone 1 journey compared with £2 for pay-as-you-go Oyster Card. To order a card online, see bit.ly/oys4u.

 

Staying there

Hyde Park Corner: The Wellesley (020-7235 3535; thewellesley.co.uk); £320 double, excluding breakfast.

Heathrow Terminal 5: Sofitel (020-8757 7777; sofitel.com); £210 double, excluding breakfast.

 

Shopping there

Harrods: 020-7730 1234; harrods.com; Osterley Bookshop: 168a Thornbury Rd; 020-8560 6206.

 

More information

London Transport Museum events: see bit.ly/Tube150.

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
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

    Recruitment Genius: Transportation Contracting Manager

    £33000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A global player and world leade...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel and Spa Duty Manager

    £18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are friendly, sociable, ...

    Recruitment Genius: Payroll and Benefits Co-ordinator

    £22300 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This museum group is looking for a Payro...

    ICE ICT: Lead Business Consultant

    £39,000: ICE ICT: Specific and detailed knowledge and experience of travel sys...

    Day In a Page

    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map
    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
    Paris Fashion Week

    Paris Fashion Week

    Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
    A year of the caliphate:

    Isis, a year of the caliphate

    Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
    Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

    Marks and Spencer

    Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
    'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

    'We haven't invaded France'

    Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
    Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

    Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

    The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
    7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

    Remembering 7/7 ten years on

    Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
    Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

    They’re here to help

    We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?