Seven Steps to Heaven

From the ground to the sky. Or, a quick trip down the Piccadilly Line.

     The Piccadilly Line is a ladder, with rungs all the way down from Cockfosters to Heathrow. You can set off high up in north London, a mile within the M25, dip down through the bustling labyrinth and dark tunnels of the centre, emerge again into the open air and end up high above the entire city, flying off to take steps abroad.

     Step One, the top of the ladder. This is a large stretch, a wide rung of 10 stations, taking you from Cockfosters down to Finsbury Park. This is the north London section. Starting in virtually open countryside, the line meanders south before slipping under the North Circular between Arnos Grove and Bounds Green. There was once a wonderful eccentric, who used to sit on the platform at Bounds Green and play his cello as the trains came in. He smiled a lot. I’ve seen him run (minus cello) alongside an overground train in the same area, jumping up as he ran to yell in to the passengers through the open summer windows ‘Welcome! Welcome to Bowes Park Village!’

     From Bounds Green, the track follows the street above, Green Lanes, from Wood Green to Turnpike Lane, then a huge stretch further along the same road, underneath a thriving Greek community where all the best kebabs, vine leaves and baklava in north London are to be found, to Manor House. Here the train has started veering right, turning west towards town.

     Step Two is a rather dull, Monopoly-like short section of just four stops, from Arsenal down to King’s Cross. Holloway Road and Caledonian Road are the two in the middle, zooming under busier and more and more urban and ethnic north London communities. Near Caledonian Road there’s a wonderful dark pub with diverse furniture, and brass instruments stuck on the walls and ceiling, a lovely Georgian restaurant selling lamb and sour plum stew and tarragon lemonade, and a fishmonger’s open to the street where you can point at live specimens, which they’ll scale on the spot, then barter for the price.

     King’s Cross marks the gate between north and central London, and is the starting point of Step Three, the busiest part of the line. Now, beginning our swoop to the west, with our suitcases en route to the airport, things can get crowded. Through Bloomsbury, we come to the West End, theatreland. Step off at Covent Garden or Leicester Square at any time of year and you’ll be part of crowds as busy and excited as anywhere on earth. The journey between these two stations is famously the shortest ride on the underground, a distance of only 300 metres. Which, given that the train is 120m long, means you’re virtually arriving and leaving at the same time.

     Covent Garden in summer is a slow-moving mass of people, watching mimes or the famous street performers – many who started as Covent Garden outdoor acts have gone on to huge fame, Eddie Izzard is one example – or taking in the ancient atmosphere of what was a vibrant fruit and veg market until fairly recently, but for centuries before that an area crammed with taverns, theatres, coffee houses and brothels. Leicester Square in winter is just as busy, with duffle-coated crowds teeming in the dragon-breath air of an equally ancient part of the city. The street performers are still out, and I once watched with awe a guitarist in the freezing cold playing ‘Comfortably Numb’.

     Down on the tube however, all is warm, and we reach Step Four at Piccadilly Circus. This section is for me the start of the trek south, it all feels downhill from here. But there are points of interest. You can still see boarded-up tunnels and a flash of light as you pass through now-derelict Down Street tube station between Green Park and Hyde Park Corner. And a little further down, I like to play The Knightsbridge Game, by looking at who looks posh on the train, and guessing which ones will get off there. You’d be surprised how many you get right. Step Four ends when we emerge from the hub of central London into the open air once more at Barons Court. We’ve passed the museum and Albert Hall station of South Kensington, and now we’re free to breathe again, above ground, and to become part of the London scenery again.

     Step Five. During this short section, the Piccadilly Line gets a bit above itself as well, shooting on its own tracks through the middle of three stations that the District Line trains have to stop at. Suddenly, after our trek through the posh part of town, we don’t deign to slow down for more common stopping-points. Ravenscourt Park, Stamford Brook and Chiswick Park are all ignored as we zoom from Hammersmith. Step Five ends at Acton Town, where the line divides. Part of the line turns north, and west through the suburbs of Sudbury and Ruislip, near Harrow and Wembley, before terminating at Uxbridge, a town now forever tarnished for once having a vile MP who shall not be named. On the southern branch, Step Six, we head off down the dark blue road to the airport.

     From Acton Town to Hounslow East is a slightly wary trundle down the arm of the line through places with evocative names, Boston Manor, Osterley. This is the Tolkien rung of the ladder.

     And from Hounslow East we’re sucked towards the terminus. All the H’s huddle together here on the Seventh Step: Hounslow East, Central then West, then Hatton Cross and Heathrow itself. We dive under the earth again at Hounslow West, to disembark at the airport, do our departure procedures, and take off into the air, to see within minutes right back over the entire journey, right back across London as a whole city, to Cockfosters and the countryside beyond.

Leave a Reply

Close Menu