I don’t travel down to London for fun all that often – mostly because after a week commuting into the city, my ideal weekend is one that doesn’t involve a train journey – but on the rare occasions that I do, I make sure to cover as much ground as possible. Yesterday, we notched up a whopping 28,000-odd steps, taking in Chinatown and Canary Wharf and several places in-between (and beyond).
We began with a trip to the British Library, purely on the basis that we needed the loo and the security queue is shorter there than it is at the British Museum. But, as often happens at the British Library, a pop-up exhibition caught my eye. ‘Cats on the Page’ was a purrfect start to the day. Think case upon case filled with well-loved tales of cats; personal favourites included Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat, Edward Leah’s The Owl and the Pussycat and Judith Kerr’s Mog.
Whenever possible – and especially on days when the currant bun is at full wattage – we’ll walk in preference to taking the Tube. So walk we did: down Marchmont Street, past The Brunswick (a sixties creation with shops and restaurants at street level and tiered, greenhouse-esque flats atop them), through Russell Square (where bursts of lilac and yellow crocuses fringed the path) and on to Chinatown. Destination: Kowloon Restaurant and Bakery (21-22 Gerrard Street; cash only), where we bought freshly-baked buns. Lanterns, red with gold tassels, hung across the streets; crates of food were stacked outside restaurants and shops.
Laurence had his eye on a street food spot in Soho which didn’t open until twelve, so we retraced our footsteps, eventually coming to a halt outside a hole-in-the-wall. Pleasant Lady (23 Greek Street; card only) serves up jianbiang, a savoury crêpe slathered with egg on one side and peanut sauce and chilli oil on the other and stuffed with fresh coriander, salad, crispy wonton fries and fried dough, made to order in front of your eyes. It’s a hefty portion: enough to keep you fuelled up for an afternoon’s sightseeing, put it that way.
Months ago – three, to be precise – we’d booked onto a Hidden London tour; we fancied doing something for our anniversary, rather than buying presents, and this fitted the bill. We meandered along to Holborn, then cut down towards Strand. On Surrey Street, we joined the twenty-odd people who’d also signed up for the ‘Hidden London: Aldwych – The End of the Line’ tour.
Aldwych was one of a number of stations which followed Leslie Green’s distinctive but simple design: dark red glazed tiles on the exterior, cream and teal (the second colour varied between stations) tiling inside, with wood panelling and timber poster boards.
The Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway, a merger of two separate Tube projects, opened in 1906, linking Hammersmith to Finsbury Park. Aldwych (then named Strand) opened a year later, as a branch line to Holborn. Fearing the station might not be used as much as expected, developers tightened the purse strings: of the three lift shafts dug by hand only one actually held a lift; just a single set of stairs and passages to the platforms was completed; and owing to the short trains, only the half of the platform visible to passengers was tiled.
Down the spiral staircase we went, round and round; a hundred and sixty steps beneath the ground. Through the passageway, peeling paint illuminated by strip lights, down another flight of stairs, emerging onto the eastern platform.
This platform closed to passengers in early 1914; low footfall coupled with the fact the station only provided a shuttle service to Holborn meant there was simply no need for two platforms. Later that year, when the bombs began to fall, the disused platform was converted into a storage space for some three hundred paintings, by the likes of Turner and Michelangelo, from the National Gallery.
In 1917, Aldwych became the first station to close on Sundays. By 1922, light use of the station led to the closure of the booking office; passengers subsequently bought their tickets from a booth in the lift, which we saw towards the end of our tour. During World War Two, the V&A and the British Museum stored their treasures (including the famous Elgin Marbles, which were lowered down the stairs to the platform using a rope and pulley system) there. Aldwych wasn’t just a safe space for works of art; the western platform served as a public shelter during the Blitz, complete with a canteen, library and live entertainment.
Back up the stairs, down to the western platform, briskly now; the tour guides chivvying us along. (I’m not sure why they were in such a rush; it would’ve been nice to have had time to pause and take things in.) Today, this platform – sometimes decked up as another station – is widely used for filming purposes; Atonement, V for Vendetta and The Imitation Game all include scenes shot at Aldwych.
Before leaving, we stood inside the original Otis lift; when the two trapezium-shaped lifts are at the same level, you can pass between the two by lifting the catch on the door in the middle of the panelling. From 1958, Aldwych was only operational during peak hours, and in 1994, having run at a loss for several years, the line closed, permanently.
Above ground, it was hot and sunny; a winter’s day with global warming written all over it. We meandered along Fleet Street, past the crowds gathered around St. Paul’s, up One New Change. We’ve been up once, maybe twice, before, but I never tire of aerial views, especially when they’re free.
Skyline shots taken, we set off for Bank. Our next stop was Mudchute City Farm, out on the Isle of Dogs. We bought a bag of animal feed for a quid from the farm shop, then headed off to befriend the farm’s furry residents. Horses – white, chestnut, slate grey – with glossy coats stood in the stables, their heads peeking out of the shadows.
Up the path, hens, roosters and turkeys strutted around a large enclosure; a sign saying ‘Free range children’ was nailed to the fence. Ahead of us, goats with goatees (and a llama); the cutest of all were the Golden Guernseys. We fed a few handfuls of feed to the goats, before venturing over to the sheep, which were spread across two fields. Mudchute is home to five breeds of sheep, but our favourites (by a large margin) were the teddy bear-esque Southdowns and the multi-horned Jacobs with their mottled fleeces.
I love cows, goats and sheep, but of all farm animals, pigs are my favourites. We saw Middle Whites caked in mud, Large Blacks (large by name and by nature, weighing in at a whopping three hundred kilos when fully grown) and gorgeous gingery-coloured Tamworths.
Since we hadn’t explored the Isle of Dogs before, we decided to wander back through Canary Wharf – busy even on weekends, when the banks shut up shop – and up to Limehouse Basin. Along the river, there are stunning views of the City, some four miles to the west.
With the light fading, we caught the DLR back into the centre and rounded off our day out with tea at Pizza Union (246-250 Pentonville Road). You’d be hard-pushed to find somewhere with a better quality/price/speed of service ratio: pizzas have thin, crispy bases and a generous amount of toppings; most, if not all, of them are under six quid; and they’ll make the journey from pizza oven to plate in under ten minutes.
- If you’re a cat lover (like yours truly), get yourself down to the British Library on or before 17th March to see ‘Cats on the Page’. The best things in life, including this exhibition, are free.
- My verdict on Hidden London: Aldwych? Whilst it was fascinating to see a station which is ordinarily closed to the general public, it’s overpriced for what it is. If you get the guides we did, you won’t be given much time at all to admire the interior before you’re rushed on to the next part of the tour. Give it a miss and save your hard-earned cash for something else.
- To access Mudchute City Farm, catch the DLR to Crossharbour and cut through Asda’s car park. Entry is free and, as of February 2019, the farm is open daily 09:00-17:00.