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Page last updated at 11:47 GMT, Monday, 19 July 2010 12:47 UK
So you think you know the Tube?

The London Underground
City gentlemen travelling on the Tube, circa 1939

BBC London talks to author Andrew Emmerson about his new book, The London Underground, and he also chooses 10 little known facts about the world's first underground railway system.

Describe your book in one sentence.

It's a shortish book about the London Underground for people who are not interested in trains. But I think rail enthusiasts will enjoy it as well.

Hasn't the subject been done to death by other writers?

Yes, but not from this angle. This book is for people who want to learn about the social changes the Underground brought about and the 'arts of the Underground', all without spending a fortune. Think of the innovative architecture, the lovely old posters and the other design angles.

The London Underground
People have been dissatisfied with the Underground since it opened and probably will always find something amiss
Andrew Emmerson
The London Underground

Anything else that's different about this book?

Yes, the eye candy. The book is full of colour illustrations, some more than 100 years old, that really bring the past to life. Few of the photos have been seen since they were taken, so they will be entirely new to most readers.

People moan about their commute — the delays and the overcrowding. But do we secretly love the Tube?

If complaining gets it out of your system, then a good moan is therapeutic. People have been dissatisfied with the Underground since it opened and probably will always find something amiss.

Outside the rush hour travelling by Tube can be very pleasant though. Without the Tube we'd be mighty stuck anyway, so it's a necessary evil.

Your book is largely historical, so was Tube travel more agreeable in the past?

Not really. Generally it was noisier, less comfortable and not so well lit. It's easy to be nostalgic about the past but it's hard to argue that Tube travel was better 100 or even 50 years ago.

What's the strangest fact you discovered when you researched this book?

When Morden station opened in 1926 the Underground provided covered shelter for cycles and nearly 500 cars, along with petrol pumps, workshop facilities and mechanics for servicing passengers' cars. It was the first of its kind in the country and being so far ahead of its time, it didn't last long.

Finally, what motivated you to write this book?

This is the kind of book that I wish I had been able to buy when I was a teenager — but nobody has ever written it till now. It also gave me the opportunity to create a picture album of all of my favourite images of the Underground.

Andrew Emmerson is a seasoned writer on technical and historical subjects. The London Underground published by Shire Books at £5.99, is his eighth book and the fourth for this publisher.


The London Underground

An underground river and dive bar

Sloane Square station used to have a licensed bar at platform level (the Hole in the Wall, closed in 1985). It is also the only place where a 'lost river' runs over passengers' heads. This is the River Westbourne, which flows towards the Thames encased in an iron sewer pipe above the eastern end of the platforms.

Freight on the Underground

There were goods trains on the Underground until 1960 or so. Steam trains delivered meat to Smithfield Meat Market, running mostly at night to avoid delaying passenger trains.

Take a book to read

The longest journey you can make without changing trains is from Epping to Ruislip (or vice versa). Riding ten times round the Circle Line from Edgware Road back to Edgware Road would be further of course.

Going green

Half of the Underground network in fact runs above ground. What's more, it provides 10% of the city's wildlife habitat for around 1,000 animal and plant species.

A number of stations have flower gardens or vegetable allotments tended by the staff in their spare time and there is also an annual Underground In Bloom competition that a quarter of the stations and depots enter.

Nothing but a façade

When the Circle Line was constructed between Paddington and Bayswater in the late 1860s the work it was necessary to demolish two houses in a rather exclusive terrace of homes in Leinster Gardens, Bayswater.

Afterwards the gap in the houses was filled by replica buildings that are in fact mere facades five feet deep. The illusion is extremely convincing and nos. 23 and 24 Leinster Gardens are complete with railings, door and ornamental plants (but no letterboxes).

In the 1930s, a hoax was reportedly played on high society guests who were sold expensive tickets to a charity ball at this address. It was only when they turned up in evening dress that they discovered the practical joke. Even today taxis and pizza deliveries are still sent to this address.

Stations that smell

Several stations on the Underground have characteristic smells. Embankment (Circle Line) has a musty, damp smell form a leaking water conduit that passes overhead, for instance.

St James's Park and Euston Square (Circle Line) both exude a powerful phenolic or carbolic odour. This comes from brake block dust and these stations are where many (if not all) drivers test the Westinghouse brake.

Tolls on the Underground

Paying fares would make sense to most passengers but being charged just to use the passageways may sound like a strange notion. Nevertheless, this seemed a reasonable means of recovering the substantial construction costs from people who were not actually travelling by train.

A case in point was on the lengthy covered way that runs for a quarter of a mile beneath the streets from South Kensington station to the Science and Victoria and Albert museums. It was opened in 1885 and for some years a penny toll was charged to non rail passengers (the remains of the booking office windows were still visible at each end of the subway until about 1970).

Into much more recent times a fee was charged at Earls Court station, which forms a very handy (and under cover) short cut for people walking from the Earls Court Road to Warwick Road.

Furthest-flung tube tunnels

The most westerly London Underground tunnels are 29 miles west of London in deepest Surrey, underneath the club house of Wentworth golf course.

Twin cast-iron Tube tunnels 100 feet long were installed there during the Second World War, using components marked LPTB (London Passenger Transport Board). Still in situ but now sealed off, they were never intended for trains but instead used as a signals centre by the 21st Army Group in the lead up to D-Day.

Phantoms and fantasies

In its century and a half existence the London Underground has acquired a mythology of ghost stories, few of which bear scrutiny (but still make a rattling good tale).

At Bank station it is said that that the Black Nun still searches for her executed brother. A tall man in a frock coat, top hat and gloves has been seen pacing the platforms at Covent Garden, whilst at Farringdon the cries of the Screaming Spectre (murdered in 1758) are heard echoing down the platform.

Many more tales can be discovered by searching for 'underground ghosts' and 'ghosts of the London Underground' on the Internet. In addition the Underground provides a background to many short stories, novels, television programmes and feature films.

Record breakers

The first attempt to cover the whole Tube network in just a day took place on 13 June 1959. Now the 'Tube Challenge' for visiting every station in the shortest time possible is recognised by the Guinness Book of Records.

There is not and cannot be an all-time winner, simply because the number of stations on the network has changed over time. At the time of writing the official Guinness World Record stood at 17 hours, 12 minutes and 43 seconds (set on 24 July 2008 by Steven Karahan and Andi James).

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06 Aug 09 |  People & Places
In pictures: Inside the Northern Line
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