Thursday, March 16, 2017

To Tulse Hill by Third Rail

Is it a different world this side of the Thames?  Many of us in south London like to think so.  After all, everything south of the river, even Southwark and Lambeth, has traditionally lain beyond the immediate authority of the Cities of London or Westminster over the water, and the diocese of Winchester once came right up to the South Bank, even though St Paul's Cathedral overlooks it directly across the river.  Indeed, it was to avoid trouble from the authorities that the theatres of Shakespeare's time decamped to a transpontine position.

These administrative and ecclesiastical boundaries are relatively faded now. The mass of ‘Greater London’ sprawls greyly to horizons north and south alike, and a single Mayor of London (distinct from the Lord Mayor of the City of London) is responsible for it all. Not without hesitation can Vauxhall or the Borough be described as being in Surrey, a name which now suggests rural red-tiled gables and downs descending into denes.  Indeed, Surrey Quays now seems rather an exotic name for a part of Rotherhithe left stranded by the ebbing away of its historical county.  And the insatiable developers, hungry to thicken the skyline with their towers, have crossed the river from the City.

All the same, there remain some frontiers separating central London from its southern suburbs which have no counterparts to the north.  Chief (or father?) of these is the incontrovertible Thames.  The swathe it cuts through the city tends towards the south, leaving the north contiguous with the centre but cutting off Lambeth and Southwark.  South Londoners wishing to reach the city proper have always had the river to cross first.  So they know the sensation of shooting out onto one of the bridges aboard a bus or train or even sliding into Blackfriars railway station, whose new platforms span the water — and there it is, the sky widening without warning, a panorama folding out along the Embankment, or the Houses of Parliament sailing clear — before landing again in the heart of the city.  Even if few will be led to murmur along lines that ‘Earth has not anything to show more fair’, and even if the feeling can be dulled by habit, it never vanishes entirely and will last as long as the river does.  Those coming to the West End or the City from the north, however, miss it altogether.

The Tube, of course, provides several ways to sneak under the Thames without acknowledging it.  But, as we southerners are keen to point out, most of us are a long way from the nearest Underground station.  The network is heavily biased towards north London and hardly ventures south of the river (apart, incongruously enough, from the bold adventure of the Northern line though Britain's longest railway tunnel to the Underground's most southerly station at Morden).

So as well as crossing the Thames, most south Londoners going 'up to town' have to make a definite change between London and suburban forms of transport: there is a clear moment of arrival in  London.  North Londoners, however, can generally pile straight onto the Tube and are already in the system when they set off (and are they ever out of it?).  In their tunnels they see nothing, poor souls, and there is no perceptible threshold to cross into the city.  Perhaps this is why 'Metroland' is a phenomenon of North rather than South London.

Christian Wolmar's enjoyable history of the Underground, The Subterranean Railway,[1] offers several reasons for this imbalance.  For instance, the geology of London's south is particularly difficult to tunnel through.  Apart from the challenge of drilling a bore underneath the Thames, the deposits of gravel, sometimes ten metres deep, that overlie the typical London clay in this area defied any Tube tunnelling almost until the millenium.

South Bermondsey
Wolmar also explains that, by the time the Underground began to expand out of London at the turn of the twentieth century, the south was already well served by a dense network of suburban railways.  Originally it was North London that had greater need of transport connections, having been neglected by the builders of railways out of Euston and King's Cross.  The main railway companies north of London had their sights set on Manchester, Newcastle, Edinburgh or Glasgow; their far-sighted, single-minded purpose was to send express trains as quickly as possible as far afield as possible, rather than concerning themselves with the places in between.  They decided they had bigger fish to fry than Edgware or Barnet and constructed their lines accordingly, all forging northwards with a smattering of intermediate stations and few east-west connections.  Speed was everything.  ('There we were aimed' was Philip Larkin's impression, racing from Hull straight towards London down the East Coast Main Line).  Until the Underground arrived to fill in the gaps, the northern suburbs had had to be content with stations at intervals along these main lines.

The situation had been different in Kent, Surrey and Sussex.  Across these counties no industrial belt summoned the ambitious; neither 'fields of apparatus' nor 'furnaces / Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen' beckoned the capitalist.  The only sources of traffic comparable to the northern cities were the trans-Atlantic port of Southampton and, further east, Dover or Newhaven, with their Continental connections.  The other main destinations, such as Eastbourne, Brighton and Hastings, had a character different from the northern cities and generated a different kind of traffic, comprising local and regional passengers more than inter-city expresses or heavy freight. (The London and South Western main line was from its earliest days 'a line for farmers, military men, bishops and high class tourists'; commuters later joined and then dominated this list [1]).  Moreover, all of these destinations lay within a hundred miles of the capital.  Sustained high speed was therefore less urgent than elsewhere.

The geography did not encourage fast railways either: instead of natural courses, such as that suggested by the Thames for railways eastwards and westwards, there are dissuading barriers of high ground, miles long, such as the North and South Downs, which it was practical to punch through only in limited places.  A hurdle is presented almost immediately on leaving London by the band of high ground that rises eastwards from Clapham Junction towards Norwood and Sydenham.

More important than speed, then, was comprehensiveness of coverage, and not only for the passengers' sake.  Victorian railway companies competed with each other for territory, and often proved themselves willing to build new lines simply to prevent incursions from rivals.  The smaller distances to be covered south of London gave them less to squabble over and the suburbs, considered an obstacle north of London, were seen here as a market in their own right.

All this produced in south-east England a distinctive railway map, and closer to the Thames the unsung tangle of surface railways on which South Londoners have relied ever since.  It is a dense and wayward network, particularly those lines, in London's immediate suburbs and  leading directly southwards towards Sussex, known under British Rail as the 'South Central Division'.

Geographical map of suburban south London railways, created with use of information © OpenStreetMap contributors
This is the realm of the 'rolling English rail'.  Where the Underground lines in the north, like the main lines, are mainly self-contained and single-minded, the southern suburban lines spread over London like a board game, before sneaking alongside the main lines  into startlingly grand termini (Waterloo, Victoria, Charing Cross, London Bridge).  They are inclined to diversions, to duplicating each other merrily and to steering circuitously around obstacles.  Who could blame London-bound travellers on the Tattenham Corner branch for being more doubtful than Philip Larkin of where they are 'aimed'?  Another difference is that physical rail connections between lines are more common than on the Underground, so that trains can in theory be sent along all manner of routes.  All around the network can be seen chords and spurs leading who knows where?

This game of joining-the-dots has plenty of practical advantages.  One is the relative ease of travel eastwards and westwards, which can usually be done without having to go near central London.   This perspective of North London shows how all the railways (even the Tube) run independently of each other along north-south axes, so that the most practical route from (say) Mill Hill Broadway to Winchmore Hill involves either going all the way into London and out again, or resorting to the bus (which is cheating!).  Their linearity also restricts north Londoners to a single terminus.  Meanwhile South London railway stations are often served by direct trains to two, sometimes three different London termini.  It is unusual to have to change trains more than once or twice between two given stations.

And there are quirks and curiosities to match any of the Underground's.  There are unusual and historic stations such as Peckham Rye or Crystal Palace, which both also see the phenomenon of London-bound trains departing in opposite directions.    Then there is Vauxhall, from whose name the Russian word for railway station comes, and Clapham Junction, the busiest station in Britain by the number of trains passing through.  And there is no shortage of memorable names: Gipsy Hill, or Penge West, or Elephant and Castle, or Tooting.  After staring enough at a map of the network patterns loom forth and swirl around, such as the symmetry between Battersea in the west and Bermondsey in the east, echoed neatly by Queens Road Peckham and Queenstown Road Battersea.
Clapham Junction, unusually quiet
Yet amid these uncritical remarks must be heard another voice, as of a great multitude of commuters, wailing and gnashing their teeth, and saying, "But these trains are always late!  And slow!  And overcrowded!  And infrequent!  And expensive!  And unreliable!  And late!" Their lament is not groundless.  There is indeed plenty that is lacking in the system.  The very layouts that open up the variety of desinations and connections also produce conflicts in movements, particularly the flat junctions which send trains across each others' paths.  They are also impediments to speed and place heavy restrictions on the timetable.  At most stations, the price to pay for the choice of routes is a frequency of trains far sparser than the Underground's typical provision.  One principle might be that everything is possible, but only once every half-hour.

The system's complexity also makes its disadvantages felt by falling nearly to pieces whenever anything goes wrong.  Disruption is rarely contained along one line or in one area, but spreads like wildfire across the congested network.  The failure of a single set of points can cause untold chaos; spectacular delays can be accumulated even over distances of only ten miles or so.  And everyone knows the South London trundle: the hopeful acceleration to about 15mph, before the brakes come on and gradually erode the speed, crawling more and more slowly, approaching the inevitable red signal in denial that at red it will remain, which denial is futile, and the speed falters to an emphatic 0.  Often this process repeats itself all the way home. 

Since all railways, representing a noble ideal, are difficult to construct, maintain and improve, these problems will probably not be sorted out for many years to come.  In the meantime, one radical way of surviving commuting is to become interested in it.  After all, there is plenty of time to sit and contemplate the network's virtues, even if this time is not necessarily set aside voluntarily.  The long wait for order to extricate itself from the aftermath of a signal failure might (who knows?) present a moment meditative enough for some fellow-passengers,  not yet thoroughly hardened, to acknowledge that South London's railways have an atmosphere, if this is the right word, that is not without value.  I think it is the right word, and might even go so far as to say that South London is marked out by its railways.  If the best way to see any landscape is by rail, in South London the railways themselves form some of the best of the landscape.  For one thing, they maintain corridors of woodland that ought to be unthinkable this far into London, bringing the countryside deep into the city (just as roads, conversely, are stains of town on country).  A novice passenger might reasonably think that from Streatham to Peckham Rye stretches a kind of wild garden populated by gables and chimneys.  Possibly the last glimpses of Norwood or Forest Hill as they were when they deserved the names lie hidden in railway cuttings.
North Dulwich
The suggestion of the rural is enhanced by a feature of the infrastructure: the system of electrification, which supplies power not via overhead catenary, bristling with girders and wires, but through a discreet 'third rail' along to the tracks.  This is relatively unusual for main lines and has its own practical disadvantages, but leaves branches and sky unencumbered and surely strengthens the hints of natural seclusion.  As a matter of fact the electrification programme, undertaken by the Southern Railway in the 1920s and 1930s, was the only time these railways have ever been marketed successfully enough to rival the Underground as a distinct brand of suburban transport.  The Art Deco promise of refuge in suburbia brought within comfortable reach by 'Southern Electric' did for the south what 'Metroland' did for the north, and the slogan's enjoyable onomatopoeia probably earned it its footnote in (north-Londoner) Betjeman's poem 'Love in a Valley'.  Incidentally, lest I be accused of being waylayed by technicalities, Betjeman also mentions the third rail in that poem, seeing from his Coulsdon perch that '...White down the valley curves the living rail'.

All these aspects of the atmosphere I have described are probably gathered together most completely at Tulse Hill, a place whose position can only be described as the very middle of south London.  The area itself is much like the rest of the city, except for having served as an unlikely poet's paradise for Jason Strugnell, that literary titan of the 1980s.  As for the station, it is in many ways the South London station par excellence.  It has the word 'Hill' in its name, for one thing; it has direct but distinctly unhurried services to Blackfriars and London Bridge, it lies at the convergence of several different routes, and its capacity is constrained irrectifiably by two overbridges at each end of its platforms, especially when these overbridges are collided with by the roofs of lorries whose drivers have neglected to heed the vehicular height restrictions.  (The bridge at the north end, over the South Circular, had the distinction of being the country's second most collided-with overbridge last year).     Once a day at mid-morning it even has the quirk of a single Parliamentary train to Streatham Hill (no return).    Finally, after standing on the platform and staring enough at the maps during the aeons of bleak winter-evening delays, there is some satisfaction to be gained in noting that from Tulse Hill the points can theoretically be set so that trains might set off in opposite directions, along different routes, and yet be able to reach either London Bridge or Victoria stations without reversing.  When the station was first opened, which will be 150 years ago next year, I doubt there seemed any particular reason for it to have been placed where it was.  Now at least the passenger whose train rounds the excruciatingly tight bends and lumbers at last into Tulse Hill has at least the assurance of being completely lost.

Here then in one place — and Tulse Hill, of all places —may be found a collection of features that are South London's own.  On life goes without anybody noticing; on the railway clunks, neither awaiting praise nor often occasioning the observation that nothing quite like this station would ever be found north of the river.  Whether that is a shame or a relief is not necessarily the most pressing matter of the day, but it is enough to justify the belief that the world this side of the Thames is, at least, different.
Tulse Hill: a two-pronged approach from the south
[1] Christian Wolmar, The Subterranean Railway (London: Atlantic, 2004), p. 14
[2]  R. W. Kidner, The Waterloo – Southampton Line (Oakwood, 1983), p.7.

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