My first experience on the London Underground – the Tube – totally shaped how I viewed London above ground. I was in 8th grade traveling with my parents to London, Paris, and Rome. Our hotel was near Paddington Station and we used the Tube to get pretty much everywhere. I thought the city had to be so spread out. Though the rides on the Underground were mostly under 10 minutes long, I didn’t understand how anyone walked anywhere. None of the tourist attractions seemed near each other with the exception of Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus as you can see one from the other.
When I returned to London for my Master’s, I still had this concept of the city being unwalkable. Fortunately, this notion was greatly disproved – and on my first day in town. After I dropped my luggage off at my temporary home, I went for a walk to kill the time before I could actually get to my room and take a much desired shower. From High Holborn I quickly came upon Covent Garden. As I wandered a bit further west I soon found myself in Leicester Square.
I paused for a moment when I saw all the ticket booth signs and movie theatres indicating my arrival to Leicester Square. How were these two locations so close? We “had” to take the Tube when I was with my parents. But the entire process of purchasing tickets, getting down to and then up from the platforms, and the ride itself took the same amount of time if not less than walking. The size of London above ground was forever changed. In no time the city no longer felt unmanageable and intimidating, rather it became intimate and welcoming.
Never having lived in a town with a good public transport system, or a town with a need for one, the Tube was the best introduction. I loved/love/will forever love the Underground maps, the great variance in station atmosphere and design, the ease of use, and the reminder to “Mind the Gap.” Even during rush hour in the summer when I was sweating and smelling the sweat of those pushed up against me, there was still a part of me that loved it.
I recently learned that the London Underground will be celebrating its 150th birthday/anniversary in January. The 150 great things about the Underground blog was created by an admirer of the Tube. The photographer/blogger has taken pictures of 70 things (at the time of posting) so far that he finds architecturally, historically, and even aurally interesting about the Tube and its stations. As a London-ophile, looking through the list I enjoyed having the little details be made explicit as I long to return and check them out in person. Happy 150th, London Underground!
On Thursday, July 7, 2005 four bombs were detonated in Central London during the morning rush hour. Three, triggered within a minute of each other at 8:50AM, exploded on the London Underground: the Circle Line between Liverpool Street and Aldgate, the Circle Line between Edgware Road and Paddington, and the Piccadilly Line between King’s Cross-St. Pancras and Russell Square. The fourth bomb was detonated on the top level of a double-decker bus in Tavistock Square at 9:47AM. In total 56 people were killed, including the four suicide bombers, and around 700 were injured.
I never thought being lazy could save my life. The morning of the 7th my alarm went off at 7:30AM. I had made plans the day before to meet friends at the London School of Economics library to work on papers. The plan had been to get up, shower, gather my notes and books, and walk down Holloway Road to the Holloway Road Tube station on the Piccadilly Line. The train would have made stops at Caledonian Road, King’s Cross-St. Pancras, Russell Square, and then Holborn, where I would have disembarked, and walked the short distance to campus in Central London. The trip would have put me at the LSE library at approximately 9:00AM. But, like most students at that early hour with no class to attend, I turned off my alarm, rolled over, and went back to sleep.
Two hours later there was a knock on my door. My flatmate, Meghan, came in and said the Tube had been shut down due to some explosions from power surges. She had a job interview in the south of London and was trying to figure out how she would get there. Her tone was one of frustration and annoyance.
About 20 minutes later she came back saying that not only was the Underground shut down but a bus had blown up. Her tone this time was of urgency and concern. The Tube shutting down due to power surges is one thing; a bus being blown up is another. “Are you serious?” was the only response I could produce.
I got out of bed and we went downstairs to watch the news. We channel flipped amongst the BBC 24-Hour news channel, CNN Worldwide, and local channels. They just confirmed what Meghan had said – that there were three explosions on the Tube and one bomb on a bus.
The UK channels kept using the word ‘explosion’ when referring to the Tube so I was unclear as to whether bombs were involved in light of the bus bombing. I called my parents in the US at 6:30AM EST to let them know I was okay. They had been asleep and had no idea what I was talking about. They turned on their television and told me there were four bombs. The theory of power surges proved false.
My way of processing the events was by donning my ‘media analysis’ cap and picking out the differences between what my parents were hearing and what we were hearing. Perhaps it was trivial to be paying attention to word usage at a time like that but it was all I could do as I grappled with the situation.
Bomb was a word I understood; I was used to seeing and hearing it from US news sources. But my UK news never used the word bomb pertaining to the Underground. Was it a case of the US media outlets being overexcited or the British outlets being understated? Was the meaning of the term ‘explosion’ being put through my American filter where it isn’t synonymous with bomb? Was it synonymous for a Brit?
Midday the Metropolitan Police Commissioner made a statement instructing people to stay at home and if they were already in the City, to stay at their office, university, wherever, and to not travel to central London. What I found most interesting was what happened next. The American news anchor asked if this was because it was suspected that there were more bombs. The Commissioner responded with a slight chuckle stating that no, that wasn’t the concern. The concern was that there was just no way to travel and get around the city so why bother coming in. The phrase “keep calm and carry on” came to mind from this practical thought process. His answer summed up quite well the UK response to this horrific day.
That evening I decided to stay with friends living south of the Thames. I did get on a bus, and, yes, I consciously did not sit upstairs. On a normal day, though people rarely speak to each other on the bus, you can hear the engine, mobiles ringing, and babies crying. That day even the engine was eerily quiet. There was definitely a great sense of loss and concern floating amongst the silent passengers.
I ended up having to walk the last couple of miles through the city center due to reduced service. At the time I was concentrating more on getting to my friends’ place than anything else. I do, however, remember how deserted the streets were. London is a huge metropolitan city that has people out at all hours. That day, I encountered almost no one.
A week after the bombings the transportation system continued to experience delays. The Piccadilly Line remained closed as bodies were still being removed. My flatmates and I had to rely on buses. My usual one bus for 30 minutes to reach school turned into multiple buses for two hours. With all the extra time my mind kept going back to what might have happened had I not decided I wanted more sleep. That was one day I was truly thankful for my lazy moments.
London. London. London. I’m going to London! That is all that went through my head for weeks after I received my acceptance letter to the London School of Economics and Political Science. For a long-standing Anglophile, cultivated by years of watching British comedies on PBS, crushing on Wills, swooning over Cary Grant, solving and committing murders with Angela Lansbury, and, of course, enjoying the magic of Disney in the forms of Hailey Mills (Pollyanna, The Parent Trap), Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, and Robin Hood, this was a dream come true.
But, the closer the date came for me to get on that plane and fly to England, fears and doubts began to bubble up. What worried me was the chance of a recurrence of what I experienced with culture shock while in the Netherlands. Two and half years had passed since I studied in Utrecht. Surely, by being more aware of culture shock I could reduce its severity, right?
This was my master’s degree. I didn’t want any shock-related issues to affect my studies. I couldn’t ignore the memories of how paralyzing culture shock had been for me, but I didn’t want to start off my year being bogged down by them. Nor did I want London to be ruined or tainted by a past it didn’t write. I tried to focus on making a fresh start. I had no notions of the people I would meet, nor any goals for the flight. I tried to remain excited about going.
The plane arrived at Heathrow early in the morning. Groggily, I made my way to the luggage carousel and through customs. It wasn’t until I was waiting for the Heathrow Express to take me to Paddington Station that it hit me. This was it. I had arrived. I was in London. THE London. Soon to be MY London, I hoped.
Once at Paddington Station, I switched to the Underground. I loved the Underground from previous trips. The map was easy to understand and I never feared getting lost. And if I did, I could console myself with some of my favorite chocolate from the Cadbury vending machines. I needed to take the Bakerloo Line to Oxford Street and then transfer to the Central Line. The Central Line would take me to my stop, Holborn Station. On the map this looked simple enough. It wasn’t.
First, I encountered morning rush hour. This is not the time to be navigating the narrow hallways connecting platforms of the Tube with one large, heavy pull piece of luggage and a book bag protruding from my back. Not only are there more people, but they are all in a hurry, and, therefore, try to jam as many of themselves into a car as possible. I tried not to take up too much precious space, but it was inevitable, and I drew irritated glares.
Then, I came across my first ever stations that didn’t have escalators and elevators. This meant lugging my overstuffed suitcase up and down what felt like hundreds of steps. My hand began to burn. I could only make it five or six steps at a time before I had to stop, readjust my grip, and continue. What the hell did I pack?!
Arriving at Holborn Station, I finally had an escalator, but only after a small flight of stairs. Fortunately, the residence hall I was staying in until I found my own accommodations was just down the road according to the directions I had. 178 High Holborn. By this time, I also had to use the restroom, or, I should say, the loo. A bursting bladder and blistered hand were not how I saw this arrival going.
As I made my way down the road, I used the numbers on the buildings across the street to guide me as I could not read the ones on my side because they were either missing or too high up on the facades for me to easily read. The numbers were going up – 131, 132. I was going the right way. When I reached a really ornate building with a marquee over the sidewalk that read Holborn Hall, I thought I was at my destination and minutes away from relief.
As I approached, however, the building number told me this was 193-197. What?! Somewhere between the 130s and the 190s I had missed it. How was that possible? I didn’t recall seeing anything that indicated a residence hall or even a building owned by the school. I turned around and headed back for another look.
Reaching the Tube station, I had gone too far. I knew the hall was down this road, but for the life of me, I couldn’t find the number. I retraced my steps between the station and Holborn Hall for what seemed an eternity to my hand and bladder. I needed Sherlock Holmes. Clearly not finding the building, I decided to go a bit further down the road.
Bingo. Not two blocks from Holborn Hall was the residence hall. I could actually see it from the spot where I kept turning around. Well, didn’t I feel the fool for getting so close again and again. That’s when I realized that on this street the numbers on the buildings ran in opposite directions. The ones across the road counted up and the ones on my side counted down. I felt a little less foolish then. What a morning.
Perhaps the tone of my arrival was indicative of the next 12 months – struggle after struggle. I sure hoped not. Though, as far as struggles go, these were not even blips. Perhaps it was a reminder to me that annoying stuff will happen, but it’s how I deal with them that counts. I knew from the Netherlands that if I held onto each little negative thing that happened, the accumulation would eventually tear me down. This time I’d listen to the old adage and not sweat the small stuff.
Once inside the long sought-after residence hall, I relinquished myself of my bags, used the loo [insert huge sigh of relief], and walked back out of the building. Once on the sidewalk, I turned left as I didn’t desire seeing the same section of street I had been pacing for the past half hour.
Left was a great choice. It offered new sights and no previous causes of irritation. I decided to take another left, and before too long, found myself in Covent Garden smiling from ear to ear. I wondered if Eliza Doolittle was around. London. London. London. I was in London!