London: traversing the city’s stories, line by line

by Charles Critchell

Central London tube map, 1937. Source: The London Tube Map Archive

Lines, points, and colours: the Tube map has become ingrained in my consciousness. Having moved to London and set up shop in a hostel off Gloucester Road, curiosity naturally got the better of me. It just so happened that my move coincided with the 150th anniversary of the Tube, and, to celebrate, Penguin published twelve books – a different story for each line. I quickly set about hatching a plan. The rules were simple: each book could only be read on, or at, a destination on its corresponding line, and this arguably excursive adventure would almost exclusively occur on a Sunday.

To think that such a great city as London can be reduced to lines, points and colours is disconcerting, though look a little harder and you soon realise that for many Londoners this is London. Harry Beck, the Tube map’s architect, immortalised an icon below ground to rival those above, whilst the tube would go on to shape the suburbs that define the city as the vast, sprawling entity standing today.

I soon realised that Beck’s map was not only a tool which would enable me to navigate my way around the city, but a gateway to what could turn out to be some interesting experiences, a bit of fun, and who knew what else? Here are a few of those journeys.

Beck’s London Underground map from 1933

 Nostalgia and memory

Living and working on the Piccadilly Line made Peter York’s book the natural place to start. In The Blue Riband, York talks of ‘Big London’ destinations, and refers to place names so romantic and nostalgic that you feel you always knew them: Hyde Park Corner, Piccadilly Circus, Covent Garden… This assemblage of well-heeled addresses oozes empire and old world money. It is the line most frequented by tourists, which was exactly how I felt when I first arrived – impressed, indulgent, and yet mildly embarrassed for being so. In time, my sense of passing through was replaced with that of a weary worker, as my job as a construction site manager soon bred a familiarity with the places I was based.

Events and belonging

The Central Line found me tracing the route of the London Marathon from St Paul’s down towards Monument. In his book, The 32 Stops, Danny Dorling likens the Central to the trace of a heartbeat on a cardiac monitor. Walking against the sea of runners as they neared the 24-mile point got me thinking about this analogy.

Although my involvement was limited to watching – and occasionally shouting words of encouragement – it gave me a sense of camaraderie – a sense of belonging.

I had the same feeling when I had waited at St Paul’s only a few days before at the funeral of Margaret Thatcher – the carnival atmosphere replaced by a more sombre one, though still expectant, still excited nonetheless. It is the city’s ability to host these spectacles, ones both long in the making and others more impromptu that gives it the capacity to either to delight or disgust. Rarely is there indifference.

Detachment and displacement

Indeed the sensation of belonging is more commonly offset by that of detachment. Whilst you can seldom escape people in the city, you can certainly feel alone; caught up in your own grinding routine, being propelled forwards by unseen forces indifferent to your feeble remonstrations.

This is something the Tube re-enforces, particularly the Bakerloo Line, with its beaten-up stock, springy seats, and that overpowering musk. It is this familiarity which sets you at ease, giving way to vacant stares, and numbness to those around you. Perhaps it is the Tube’s willingness to become that ‘third space’ which allows Londoners to cope with the pace of everyday life, detachment as a break from the world above.


Detachment, displacement, escapism; call it what you like, the luxury of feeling as if you’ve physically left the city when in fact you have not, was where the Northern Line, unexpectedly, fitted in. The bloated black line, which seemingly envelops London, is a source of constant mistrust and anxiety in William Leith’s book, A Northern Line Minute.

For me though, at the height of a long hot summer, it spelled escape; the villages of Highgate and Hampstead to the north and the sprawling fields of Clapham Common to the south, bookending the dense mass in between.

Illustration by Charles Critchell
Illustration by Charles Critchell

Chance encounters

The luxury of being able to meander around unhurried can lead to a certain type of chance encounter, the sort which punctuated my Tube-based wanderings. From stumbling upon tucked away community gardens such as those in Vauxhall or Angel, oases successfully resisting the urban furore around them, to clambering up the Monument for a panoramic view of the London Marathon. It’s the small breaks the city throws up which leaves you optimistic of more.

Then there are other encounters, a product of the frantic pace of city life, which confront you head-on and can lead to people and places both irresistible and inescapable – potentially life-changing discoveries, as opposed to merely welcome distractions. Alighting at Bethnal Green on the Central Line led me into a family-run boxing gym, where I was taught by a former Olympian.

An exchange of uncertain smiles with a girl sitting opposite me one day led to a six-month relationship. It was only after she had kissed me on the cheek, on a Tube at Piccadilly Circus, the place we had first met, that I realised it was to be the last time we’d see each other.

Completing all twelve books had taken me a little over nine months. In that time I had experienced many things: some I was searching for, whilst others had simply washed over me. While these stories provided the framework for my city-wide excursions, it is the Tube itself that remains the catalyst; part of the machinery which ensures the irrepressible wheel of the city continues to turn, and that life goes on.


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