Earlier this year I saw a superb adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere directed by Jenny McConnell Frederick at Washington, DC’s Atlas Theatre. The story’s protagonist, Richard Mayhew, rescues a mysterious wounded girl he finds on the London sidewalk and he is soon plunged into an underworld of “London Below” where the struggle between good and evil, heroes and monsters, plays out among imaginary spaces with familiar names of London Underground tube stations. I had been to London before many years ago, but Neverwhere inspired me to reconnect and incorporate a few days in the city into the itinerary of a recent trip to Europe.
My impressions of London were not unlike those of Richard Mayhew:
“Richard had originally imagined London as a gray city, even a black city, from pictures he had seen, and he was surprised to find it filled with color. It was a city of red brick and white stone, red buses and large black taxis, bright red mailboxes and green grassy parks and cemeteries.”
“It was the city in which the very old and the awkwardly new jostled each other, not uncomfortably, but without respect; a city of shops and offices and restaurants and homes, of parks and churches, of ignored monuments and remarkably unpalatial palaces; a city of hundreds of districts with strange names – Crouch End, Chalk Farm, Earl’s Court, Marble Arch – and oddly distinct identities; a noisy, dirty, cheerful, troubled city, which fed on tourists, needed them as it despised them, in which the average speed of transportation through the city has not increased in three hundred years, following five hundred years of fitful road-widening and unskillful compromises between the needs of traffic, whether horse-drawn, or, more recently, motorized, and the needs of pedestrians; a city inhabited by and teeming with people of every color and manner and kind.”
“When he first arrived, he found London huge, odd, fundamentally incomprehensible with only the Tube map, the elegant multicolored topographical display of underground railway lines and stations, giving it any semblance of order. Gradually he realized that the Tube map was a handy fiction that made life easier but bore no resemblance to the reality of the shape of the city above.”
The Tube became the theme of this trip for me, quite timely given that the system is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. The first tunnels, dug shallowly under the street surface through cut & cover method, were the world’s first underground railway, which opened in 1863. The wooden cars ran between Paddington and Farringdon, pulled by steam locomotives. That’s over 30 years earlier than construction of the oldest subway tunnel in the United States still in use, part of the Boston metro system dating back to 1897. Later the locomotives became electric and with improved technology tunnels were dug deep underground, supported by circular cast-iron frames that gave rise to the Tube’s name. Today London’s Tube has expanded to 11 lines with stations both under- and above ground. The Tube truly is a lifesaver for easy travel around the city. While the commute may seem quite mundane, we have Neil Gaiman to thank for bringing the magic back to station names such as Blackfriars, Earl’s Court, Islington, Angel, Hammersmith, or Knightsbridge.
If you can make it to London this year and want to celebrate the Tube’s legacy, don’t miss the London Transport Museum at Covent Garden – lots of fun. And while you’re in the area, enjoy a bite of traditional – and delicious – local food at Porters English Restaurant (17 Henrietta Street) such as Yorkshire pudding, Scotch egg, shepherd’s pie, and spotted dick (not what you might be thinking =)
And since we’re on the topic of transportation, let me leave you with a tip that will make it well worth your time to read this blog. London is not cheap, we all know it. If you want to save on both getting around and getting into the city’s top attractions, make sure to purchase Travelcard passes (either day passes of 7-day one) from one of London’s train stations – such as Victoria or Paddington – and not at Tube stations. The passes sold at train stations come with a booklet full of more than 150 2-for-1 admission deals on attractions ranging from the London Tower to the Globe Theatre. Off-peak day pass, valid after 9:30am costs £7.30 and will pay for itself even if you use just one 2-for-1 deal. If you need just a few single rides, get an Oyster card instead. Whatever you do, don’t buy your Tube rides in cash unless you are planning on just one or two – either Travelcard or Oyster card offer a better deal. Enjoy London!