Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from my recently released book Adventures in Anglotopia. Available now from bookstores everywhere (links at the bottom). You can order a copy directly from us (we have copies on hand and it will ship right away!).
The Tube Station at Heathrow Terminal Five is relatively new when you consider the overall age of the London Underground. This is often your first introduction to the Tube, and that’s fine. Better a brand new station than an old one. When presented with the options of getting from well-connected Heathrow into central London, you realize you perhaps didn’t bring enough money with you on your trip. A taxi is almost a hundred dollars. The Heathrow Express, the other train to Paddington, is £25 one way. It’s the most expensive rail journey in Britain by track length versus cost. A bus does not appeal. So, you opt for the Tube – the cheapest option.
It’s a deceiving ride at the start because the train is practically empty. You get comfortable, thinking that you’ll have it to yourself. Buckle in and get ready, because this is the longest way into central London and will take at least forty-five minutes. As you leave the tunnels of Heathrow, the train fills with the warmth of that English sun for which you came all this way. It’s slightly disorienting – you thought the Tube was all underground? Well, it’s not. Out in the suburbs, or the outer zones, the Tube is mostly above ground. It only goes underground when it gets more toward central London.
From this vantage point – you get a strange view of London you weren’t expecting and the guidebooks don’t tell you about. You’re seeing what London is really like for the people who live there. It’s the back garden tour of London. Some back gardens are nicer than others. You see the uniformity in London’s architecture that varies from Victorian to Edwardian, to post-war Modernist, to modern glass box tower blocks. You can’t help but think large parts of this area of London look slightly shabby. You’re not wrong in thinking this. London is not a gleaming, perfect city – even in its tourist heart.
You’re tired after your transatlantic flight. It’s early. The sun is nice, but you can’t help nodding off a bit as the train rocks back and forth as it speeds towards central London. But you never fall asleep, because the train is always coming to a gentle stop, thanks to the skill of your Tube driver to pick up more passengers. It’s not safe to fall asleep anyway. You hold your bag closer and closer as more people get on. You begin to think about the end of your journey; it’s still pretty early, and you know your hotel won’t be ready until the afternoon. All you want to do is sleep, but you can’t.
You’re in London, how could you sleep?
No one talks to you. Everyone minds their own business on the Tube. People read books, listen to music (some a bit too loud, you tut), read the free Metro newspaper, or just zone off into space, knowing they’ll be at work soon. You’re not at work.
You’re in London for fun, which the locals may find a bit odd.
This is all a novelty for you, but it’s not for them. They don’t really even care that you’re there, except they’re slightly annoyed when they see your luggage taking up so much space on the train. Your bag is probably too big, but packing for London is always a challenge. No matter how hard you try, you can’t fit everything into a single carry-on bag. You did your best. Best to just ignore the glares. They will get worse the closer you get to central London.
“Please mind the gap,” the announcer occasionally says as the train stops at stations with the most London-y names you can imagine.
The places sound like magical, fantasy names in a Tolkien book. You wonder what exciting things there are in these places. In all honesty, there isn’t much of interest there for you, the tourist. These are places Londoners live. They’re delightfully banal. Streets are filled with rows of houses that look similar. High streets are filled with charity shops, fried chicken shops, fish and chip shops, and other fast food chains. And the bookmakers, taking bets on everything. A lot of the time, they’re not very nice places. You can understand why you keep hearing about the “death of the high street,” because even the people who live there don’t really want to visit them. Not everyone can live in a twee village with a posh high street.
“Please mind the gap.” It’s a soothing phrase. You don’t remember hearing anyone tell you to be careful on your public transport system back home.
Then, the light of London’s sun is gone.
You go underground somewhere near or around Earl’s Court.
You really begin to wonder about these place names. Who is Earl? And what’s in his court? Do they mean Earl in the titled Earl of Grantham sense or Earl as in the bloke’s name was Earl? Was there a palace where Earl held court? Or is it a tennis court? You’ve heard it’s a cheap neighborhood near central London,. but you’ve also been warned away from there by several people. So, you picked somewhere else to stay. This is where you go back underground.
The train seems to go faster when it goes through the dark tunnels. The warm London sunlight is banished by the darkness of the tunnels, and now you have artificial lighting to bear down on you. Now, there’s only room to stand. You cannot get your bag any closer to you. You hope the Londoners don’t hate you right now. Most probably aren’t even paying attention to you at all – just another tourist in the way. It’s a shame transatlantic flight arrivals coincide with rush hour on the Tube. Even though the train is packed, you could almost hear a pin drop, save for the noise of the train and the tunnels outside.
People start to get off the train, but it seems even more people get back on.
Your stop is close; you can feel it. You’ve been watching the map above the door for almost the whole journey. It gave you something to look it, so you didn’t look with too much curiosity at the Londoners around you. You start to hear names you’ve heard in your dreams of London.
South Kensington. Diana lived there.
Knightsbridge. That’s where Harrods is.
Hyde Park Corner. That’s where you can scream crazy ideas at anyone who will listen.
Green Park. That’s by Buckingham Palace, where the Queen lives.
Piccadilly Circus. That’s where the famous billboards are.
Leicester Square. That’s where the theaters and cinemas are.
Covent Garden. That’s where the famous market is.
Holborn. You don’t know what’s there. You can’t place it.
Then, you get to Russell Square. It’s your stop!
You’re in London!
The train comes to a stop. You push your way out with your bags and everyone makes way – just another tourist arriving in London.
You step out onto the platform, a beautiful circular space, with green tiling all around. An old clock hangs above the platform. There are giant ads opposite the platform, adverting things Londoners should be interested in or buying. You see one for the movie you hoped to see while in London; it won’t open back home for months. You stand for a brief second, searching for the black and yellow “Way Out” sign. As you begin your walk along the platform, the train accelerates out of the station, and it makes the most wonderful sound.
It takes a gush of wind with it and fills your nose with the smell of London’s grime, cleaners, and detritus. It’s the most wonderful smell, not like that urine and cigarette smell you get on the Paris Metro. You’ve arrived in London. You follow the signs to the exit and arrive at the lift. It feels like it takes ages to get there, then ages to get you to the surface. You wonder just how far underground you are.
The elevator deposits you into the ticket hall and the gate line ahead of you. It’s the most wonderfully old space, almost exactly as it was over a hundred years ago when it was opened for the first time. As you tap your Oyster card (because you’re a tourist who comes prepared) and exit the station, you turn around and admire the beautiful crimson station tiles. This has to be one of the most beautifully designed stations on the network.
You turn right thinking that’s the way to your hotel, but as you go a few blocks and check your map again, you realize it was left, so you immediately turn around and head back towards the station, passing it again.
You enter Russell Square, a beautiful leafy green space in the middle of the city, and soon find your hotel. As you suspected, it’s too early to check in, but you’re able to leave your bags with the concierge. You leave the hotel and find a café; time for a quick breakfast and a cup of tea to get you going. You find a hole in the wall, a place where local workers gather – not the kind of place tourists swamp. The food is hearty, greasy, and delicious. The two cups of tea you down wake you up and prepare you to make the most of your first day in London.
You get up and walk back to the Tube station, tap in, and go down to the platforms – this time awake and aware of where you are.
You’re in London properly. Finally!
You look at the map between the platforms; you’re not sure where you want to go. There are so many possibilities — so many favorites. You immediately think, “All right, if I go to Covent Garden, I can get a Ben’s cookie, then see the market, then walk down Long Acre towards Trafalgar Square to see some art at the National Gallery.” Already, that’s the perfect start to any trip to London.
You turn right towards the platform. It’s relatively empty now. It’s late morning. Londoners are at work. The Tube is now for the tourists, and you can take it anywhere in London. It’s now your London. The dot matrix sign above the platform indicates there’s a train approaching in two minutes. You wonder how accurate that is. When the train arrives in two minutes, you realize it’s very accurate. You hop on the train.
“Please mind the gap,” the voice tells you again.
And you’re off. Next Stop Covent Garden. Next stop your London trip you’ve waited so long for, your London dream.
Your trip to London has finally begun properly. No more airports, no more shuffling. The Tube will take you everywhere you want to go now. It will hold you, it will keep you safe, and it will transport you. When you leave London a few days later, you’ll miss it. You’ll miss that rocking feeling and holding the railings for dear life. You’ll miss the free newspapers in the late afternoon, handed out at each station. You’ll miss the smells as the Tube comes into the station and you’re hit with that gust of wind. You’ll miss watching the platform, hoping to see the station mice scurry about. You’ll miss watching the darkness of the tunnel ahead in anticipation of the lights announcing the arrival of your train. Most of all, you’ll miss the sense of exploration. You’ll miss stepping onto a platform, open to the possibility of traveling anywhere on the almost 400-station network. London is all yours to see and explore.
Most of all, you’ll miss just being there and inhabiting the place.
“Please mind the gap.”
You wonder if you can bottle the sounds, the smells, and the feelings to take home with you.
But you always have a reason to come back, again and again.
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