Travelling on the underground on foot

Walk the Lines by Mark Mason

Walk the Lines by Mark Mason

First published in Book Reviews

Mark Mason’s book Walk the Lines reveals interesting facts and anecdotes about our Tube stations, writes Nick Elvin

What does travelling by Tube mean to you? Standing in a stuffy, overcrowded train with your face wedged in a fellow commuter’s armpit? Catching the last train home in a carriage that is deserted except for an inebriated, sleeping stranger?

So you might think author Mark Mason’s decision to travel the entire length and breadth of the Underground network something of an ordeal. Well, not quite.

Instead of riding the Tube, Mark decided to walk each of its 11 lines, station to station, above ground – an adventure he describes in his new book Walk the Lines.

And while many of us taking the Tube simply pass through most stations on route to somewhere else, never giving a second thought to the area they serve, the journey allowed Mark to see daily life at street level, and his book features history and trivia, as well as characters, landmarks and overheard conversations.

Armed with an A to Z as well as the Tube map, Mark visited all 270 stations, and he reckons he walked almost a million footsteps to cover the 250 miles of track (in fact, he ends up walking more than 400 miles because he also travels the “offline” bits between the ends of different branches of the same lines).

Mark lived in the capital for 13 years, but now resides in Suffolk, so he stayed overnight in hotels when tackling the longer lines over more than one day. However, sometimes he walked through the night, discovering a city transformed.

Walk the Lines is out now, published by Random House Books: www.randomhouse.co.uk

Here are some excerpts from Mark's travels:

Mill Hill East (Northern Line): “Just before Mill Hill East is a butcher specialising in exotic meats: emu, camel, springbok, python. Listed under ’snacks’, below chocolate-covered ants, vodka scorpions and Thai green curry crickets, are pork scratchings.“

West Finchley (Northern Line): “Near West Finchley station two entrepreneurial-looking types pass by. ’There’s nothing here at all,’ says one. ’I had no intention of moving here.’ (Mark then points out there’s a blue plaque at 60 Courthouse Road – once the home of Harry Beck who designed the modern Tube map).“

Roding Valley (Central Line): It’s a thoroughly average 1930s station. Nothing special about it. Except for just one thing: it is the least-used station anywhere on the London Underground network. Victoria has more passengers in a day than Roding Valley has in a year.

Walthamstow Central (Victoria Line): One middle-aged man talks on his mobile: ’It’ll be an hour and a half before I’m in Romford, Matilda.’ Then he adds, in a tone that is either sinister or suggestive, I can’t decide which: ’If you’re going to have a bath, have a bath now.’

Hornchurch (District Line): Hornchurch, named after the stone bull’s head on St Andrew’s, surely the only church in the world with a stained-glass window depicting a red Ford Fiesta.

Highgate (Northern Line): Mark begins his day: “opposite an RSPCA charity shop proclaiming in huge letters that ‘NEUTERING STOPS AIDS IN CATS’.”

Arnos Grove (Piccadilly Line): The Tube station is one of the least impressive things about the area. Designed by Charles Holden, it’s modelled on Stockholm City Library. This is rather like saying that the average three-year-old’s Lego tower is modelled on the Chrysler Building.

Oakwood (Piccadilly Line): As if to emphasise the affluence of this end of the Piccadilly Line, between Cockfosters and Oakwood I see two of the fattest magpies you could imagine, their feathers sleek and shiny.

Manor House (Piccadilly Line): Two men push a supermarket trolley laden with stuff scavenged from bins: a plastic briefcase, a burned-out electric hob, an old saucepan. They stop, one preventing the trolley from rolling away as the other spies a discarded vacuum cleaner, which he breaks apart for its motor and plug. London’s 21st Century Steptoe and Son.

Rickmansworth (Metropolitan Line): [Due to the heavy snow cover]: A man in suede loafers outside the station speaks into his mobile: ‘Julian, the world has stopped’.

Kenton (Bakerloo Line): This is where Basil Fawlty used an upended tree to give his car a thrashing. There's something about this sort of suburbia that's horribly repressive, as through the occupant of each and every house is only one corporate restructuring away from a Fawlty-style meltdown.

Canons Park (Jubilee Line): Canons Park takes its name from the mansion of the Duke of Chandos, built here in 1718, where mealtimes were accompanied by an orchestra playing music specially composed by Handel. The building lasted less than 30 years. Those lost aristocratic roots seem fitting for the Jubilee Line.

Wembley Park (Jubilee Line): Hemmed in by trading estates the stadium feels like a bad joke. It's like a spaceship to which you can't find the entrance.

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