Today was the third time that I travelled down to London this year, with this morning being the earliest start yet. I usually try to avoid the morning rush hour in the city, by arriving late afternoon between ten and eleven, however I arrived just before nine o’clock, at what seemed to be the end of a flooding of commuters. I had exactly two hours before my appointment in Elephant and Castle, which situated at the bottom of the Bakerloo underground line and with me standing on the platform at Marylebone, it seemed the obvious choice to go straight there. But what was I going to do for two hours?
I bought myself an all day travel pass for zones 1 and 2 for the underground. It cost me £8.40, which back here in Birmingham would buy you not only the equivalent ticket, but also a decent lunch. The next train braked heavily into the platform, and the doors shot outwards. Nobody got off, there wasn’t going to be any room whatsoever. I began walking towards the next set of doors, with the tiniest gap I jumped in. The doors slammed shut behind me, almost claiming my shoulder bag which followed me in. I reached up for the rail and held on tight. I still hadn’t planned how I was going to kill two hours, so I had a look at the route diagram.
Since I first walked through Piccadilly Circus, I have felt the true vibe of London. So, every time I visit the city, I try to pop my head around to feel the excitement once more. It was the next stop actually, and I didn’t quite fancy keeping my nose under this fellow’s armpit for much longer. The light blinded me through the window as we pulled up into the station, a bulging train exploded as the doors open. People fleeing from their seats to escape the shuttle. I found my way onto the concourse, and up a flight of stairs to the surface. A vibrant coke-cola advert lit up above me, the scene below filled with red buses and black cabs. It was quiet at this time, the space between working commuters going to work and and tourists arriving. I headed out of the area, following my instinct over to Trafalgar Square. It was half past nine, just a handful of people walking about. I noticed the Olympic Clock, reminding us all that in only a few months time, the whole world will descend on the city. Are we going to be ready in time? I’m a little unsure at the moment, but who knows? We’ll have to wait and see.
Not knowing where I my actual destination was on foot, I thought it would be best to leave Nelson behind and start making my way over the Thames. I had an hour left, which seemed plenty of time really. I found Charing Cross Station, the station which seemed to have more tunnels than any other station I have walked through. With entrances that seem miles apart, I eventually made it to the concourse and down the escalator I went.
The best thing about the underground, is the waiting times. Every time I have been standing on a platform, I have never waited longer than two or three minutes for a train. Of course you hear about delays and unreliability on the tube all the time, so I guess I’m just lucky. Elephant and Castle was the final station call on the line, with a connection to the Northern Line. I really had no idea where I was going, so I followed the crowds of people towards the lifts, and then up to the exit. From the doors of the station entrance, I could see my destination over the road. Well, it wasn’t quite over the road. It was across an island. Doesn’t seem like much, but the roads joining the island are four lanes wide, filled with buses racing through. I played safe, thinking the subway was going to be the safest option, so I glanced about to see what was around.
A tall blue gate stood above everybody, marking the entrance to the nearest underpass. It was only a few feet away, there was no hesitation. I went for it. I knew the direction I wanted to head in, so I ignored the sign on the way down and continued into the artistic tunnel. Out the other end and up into day light, but I was back where I started. I headed back down, but the sign wasn’t there. I climbed back up to the top, but I found myself in a small market – nowhere near the island. I squeezed through the market stalls, to catch a glimpse of the road to get my bearings. It was no use, I was pretty much lost. I span round on the spot and headed back to where I came from, asking stall owners for directions. Nobody had a clue where I was going to, I felt the pressure as I had already spent fifteen minutes walking around, with only twenty left before I’d be late. I found the entrance to the subway again, following the numbers on the floor which seemed to be location markers.
A map caught my eye as I was walking around a corner. I ran over, locating where I was before working out my route out of there. It’s frustrating to think that from the tube station, it could have taken two or three minutes to walk slowly. Instead, with half an hour of panic over, I arrived.
I was back outside in time for lunch, with food in my bag I wasn’t planning on stopping. I knew my way around the subway pretty well by now, putting the two minute walk to the test. And yes, it took two minutes. I kicked myself up the stairs, entering my card in the machine and down the lift to the platform. I wasn’t sure what to do next, my train home wasn’t for another three hours. I quite fancied seeing somewhere I hadn’t yet seen, so again, I got off the tube at Piccadilly. It was a bit of walk to the BBC Broadcasting House, but I quite fancied it. It was straight down Regent Street, taking about fifteen/twenty minutes.
I sat down on the steps on the building opposite to catch my breath and rest my legs. This was the first proper sit down I had since arriving into Marylebone, so it was well deserved. I took a sip of a bottle of Sprite I picked up earlier, and began munching on my crisps.
Well, I had seen the broadcasting house, what else could I do in two and a half hours? Back on my feet, I walked back down Regent Street to Oxford Circus underground, and jumped on the central line to Queensgate. It was Kensington Gardens that I was interested in, the large open space. One of the royal parks too, so it was going to be nice. A thin layer of mist lay in the distance, as I found myself a bench to relax on. There was a cool breeze, rustling the branches on the trees above me. The wind blew in my hair and the fresh air was certainly felt. It tasted so much better than the gas fed down on the underground, which got unbearable sometimes.
I sat and appreciated the park for as much as I could, before I would have to make my way back to Marylebone for my train home. I watched as a group of cyclists passed, all seven casually cycling together with their matching electric bikes from stations around the city. I took one last breath before standing from my bench, finding my underground ticket and putting it to hand ready for the barriers. I went down in the lift and across to the platform, to see yet another crowded train waiting for me with the doors wide open. Not knowing how busy the next train was going to be, I squeezed on. With one arm clutching hold of my bag this time and one reaching up above me, I was on.
The doors began to close, another passenger leaped through the gap packing us in even more. I felt sympathy for sardines as the train pulled away, speeding through the tunnel. A sigh of relief every time the doors opened, but nobody left. Nobody could. Instead more people piled onto the train, pushing us all in further. I had found myself further away from the doors and wanting to get off in two stops time.
The train screeched to a halt at Bond Street and the doors slammed open against the side of the carriage. I wasn’t sure if the train was being evacuated as so many people barged their way off. I looked about, but people remained seated, the announcement was made to shut the doors so I guessed it was safe. A little girl was asleep, stretched across two seats down by my knees. Her mother sat next to her reading a book. I don’t know how she stayed asleep through all that, the noise was thundering.
I leaped out of the doors at Oxford Street, changing line to the Bakerloo and catching the first train back to Marylebone. It was pretty much empty, which surprised me. I’m still unfamiliar with the busy periods on the underground, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.
My train home was due to leave in half an hour, enough time for me to get a bagel and a quick drink from the newsagents. The cafe was the the left of the ticket machines, in a long line of different food outlets. I approached the opening in the gateway, as the doors were pulled shut and the lights flicked off. I wasn’t going to be able to have one of the famous bagels. Disappointed, I began looking around for a replacement. Next best option was next door, with a cheap bacon and cheese burger and chips to see me through the journey home. I was expecting something a little bigger to be honest, and instead of queueing up for a drink, I ended up looking around for snacks. This was the shop that doesn’t understand that opening more till’s can cut the length of a queue. With a handful of staff chatting in the corner of the shop, one man on the desk and then a nice healthy queue of five people, you do think to yourself.
I perched myself on a seat on the train, the furthest one down from the doors. Pulling out my iPod and a magazine to read. I was absolutely shattered, but it was so worth it. As I arrived back into the Midlands, I knew I would be back again soon. I just need another excuse…