Like many of my classmates here in West London I had a childhood enthusiasm for London Transport. I started primary school in the 1960s at a place that was a 3-minute walk from home, through an alleyway. We didn’t have a car but even if we did it would have taken longer to be driven to school than to get there on foot. I started a new school in the 1970s, just before my 9th birthday, and it was still walkable (25-30 minutes) but I took the bus both ways most days.
Many of my fellow pupils (and they were all fellows – this was an all-boys’ school) came from further afield, from places like Ealing and Richmond, which I knew, and Esher, which I had never heard of. They came from these places by public transport, using the District Line for the last part of their journeys. Although the London Underground is commonly called the tube, in recognition of the tunnels that trains travel through, around here there are no tunnels. All the trains go overground.
During the first two years at my new school a few of my classmates and I developed an interest in our transport system, especially the Underground. We each made the odd trip to town, to St James’s Park and Baker Street, where the Information Offices had a bigger selection of maps and leaflets than our local stations. At local stations you could ask for a single tube map or bus map, but at the Information Offices in town you could grab a whole handful, if so inclined. Some of us would keep a tube map in the breast pocket of our blazers, the famous LT logo on display in the way that grown-ups might sport a suitably folded handkerchief.
Other boys collected tickets from tube stations, the further away the better. It was easy enough to get tickets from any station between Ealing Broadway and Hammersmith, but somewhere like Arnos Grove or Wood Green was over an hour away. Anything from these distant outposts of the network was highly collectable. In town there were automatic gates to allow entry and exit to stations. When exiting at places like Piccadilly Circus you would insert your ticket into the gate, the gate would open, and the machine would keep your ticket. Local stations did not have these automatic gates. There was a ticket booth, usually (but not always) staffed by an inspector, and no barrier. If you walked past an unattended booth you were supposed to leave your ticket and walk through but you could keep hold of it instead. This was how I started my ticket collection, and many of my classmates added to theirs. If you were feeling especially brave, and there was a pile of uncollected tickets on the shelf of the booth, you could swipe a few of them as you walked through. It was not allowed, and I was never bold enough to do it, though some of my more confident friends did. They sometimes arrived at school the next day with news of the treasures they had acquired in this way.
In the summer holidays just before my 11th birthday a classmate and I spent a week travelling the length and breadth of the tube network. The “Go-As-You-Please” pass that allowed us almost unlimited travel on all of London’s buses and tube trains cost £1.20 for 4 days or £1.50 for 7 days. We went for the latter option, which also included a guided coach tour of Central London. The information relayed by our guide formed a large part of my boyhood knowledge about our capital and other historical facts. I learnt about the Tower of London, and who Jack Horner was, and the derivation of the word “honeymoon”.
In one of Douglas Coupland’s books (“Eleanor Rigby” I think) the main character writes about walking alongside railway tracks during her summer holidays, aged 13. She asks something along the lines of, “How do you explain to people that children were allowed to do this, unaccompanied?” Her answer: “It was the 1970s”. If you’re wondering how two schoolboys, aged 10 and 11, were allowed to travel every day for a whole week to the outer reaches of London’s transport network, with no adult accompaniment, I offer the same answer: it was the 1970s.
Nothing went wrong. We didn’t argue, we didn’t get lost, we weren’t bothered by strangers, we didn’t lose our tickets. The only time I felt a little nervous was on a visit to Finsbury Park, to play in the park itself. I wasn’t comfortable in this unfamiliar space, in a part of town I’d never visited, surrounded by boys I didn’t know. Nearer home if I were in a local park (The Wreck, Dukes Meadows, or the swings and slides near the railway line) there was always a chance that I’d see people I knew. That wouldn’t happen in Finsbury Park. I was glad when we finished our packed lunches and made it back to the Piccadilly Line.
Occasionally, in the decades since that “Go-As-You-Please” week, I have had to travel to the extreme end of one tube line or another. In the 1990s I did some work for a pharmaceutical firm based in Uxbridge (western reaches of the Piccadilly Line) and recently we went all the way to Cockfosters (the opposite end of the Piccadilly Line), but otherwise there are many places I have only visited because of that single week during a summer holiday in the 1970s.
Within a year or two my childhood enthusiasm for London Transport had waned. The weekend of my 12th birthday there was a series of special events to which I was invited. It included a rare chance to visit Wood Lane, the “ghost station” between Shepherds Bush and Latimer Road on the Metropolitan Line. (As any childhood enthusiast for London Transport will know, the first of those stations is now called Shepherds Bush Market, that branch of the Metropolitan is now called the Hammersmith and City Line, and a new Wood Lane station was opened earlier this century to cater for the Westfield Shopping Centre.) A year earlier, visiting Wood Lane would have been the perfect way to celebrate my birthday, but aged 12 it didn’t have the same appeal. In senior school I was no longer in the same class as my summertime travelling companion and we didn’t hang out much any more. But I have fond memories of our journeys all over this great city, and if you’re ever in the mood to talk London Transport Trivia, I’m your man.