Still Life On The Northern Line



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The significance of the Northern Line to the life – and love – of a Londoner.

It was never intentional, although I am sure, in the way that absolutely anything can be used as a superstition or lucky charm, that there should be Londoners who insist on living in places on a certain Underground line. No, the Northern Line was somehow always part of my London life without my ever giving it too much thought – at least, until now. Do you know what they say about getting out of a hedge maze? That you should follow a wall, and that wall will eventually lead you out. In a similar kind of thinking – as I trace my finger along the stops of the Northern Line on my screen –it led me in, then out, then back into the hedge maze of my life.

It began south of the river. Borough, I thought, looking at a set of directions for my soon-to-be student flat. Borough? How do I pronounce that? Of course there are boroughs in NYC, but I am originally a Wisconsin girl, and the word at the time was mystifying. Borough tube station on Borough High Street, Southwark. On bad-weather mornings or others, when I was running quite late for lectures, I would catch the tube from there and change at the Bank for the District and Circle line, going on to Temple station, where I spent most of my first year lectures at nearby King’s College London. Coming back in the later afternoons, I often travelled down to Elephant & Castle where I would exit the station and immediately enter the rather hideous but vibrant shopping centre, looking, architecturally, every bit a relic from another time. Remember, this was the early ’00s, with not even a whiff of gentrification, and so, when you stepped out of a station, where you were had its own unique feel.

You discover a newfound athleticism running from lift, escalator or down/up stairs to the next train, developing a superhero-like (or perhaps dog-like) quality of pre-sensing the warning sounds of the doors about to close.

In the other two years of my degree, I would ride to Goodge Street, Warren Street or Euston – the last staying in my memory as returning from those lectures, the journey always feeling so long if they coincided with commuter rushes, so that I could go to the shared lectures within the UCL network. When you can’t or don’t walk absolutely everywhere and, as a result, take the tube, you begin to consider London purely as a network of coloured lines and acquire a talent for working out the quickest route to anywhere with a minimum of changes, often without the need to consult a map. You discover a newfound athleticism running from lift, escalator or down/up stairs to the next train, developing a superhero-like (or perhaps dog-like) quality of pre-sensing the warning sounds of the doors about to close.

I can recall significant dates of my life (men, not calendars) by the Northern line as well: most famously, my ex-husband, whom I almost never met and married as he should have gotten off at Charing Cross, the nearest stop to where he was to meet me for a date, but got off somewhere else and ended up running, getting there just as I was on the verge of walking off. There were the dates with the man I would meet at London Bridge tube before disappearing into a bar somewhere in Southwark; it was around the fifth one that he casually mentioned, under the glare of the fluorescent station lights, that he was married. There was no need to go to London Bridge tube after that, although one day I took a train from the overground station to Kent and did not return for some years.

When I finally emerged again after that time, I found myself bound once more to the Northern Line. Firstly, because of a man who emerged from somewhere in North London at Charing Cross tube to meet me for a date. Months after, I caught my reflection in a carriage, riding the line to his place and noting the stops: I hadn’t been further than Euston, and here was Mornington Crescent, Camden (confession: I am sure I have been, but I have absolutely no recollection of how I may have arrived; this may be due to memory or “other things”), Chalk Farm, Belsize Park. As I listened to the rhythm of the doors opening and closing at each stop, it felt complete – going from south to north, from one time in my life to another over the space of almost 20 years, but on the same line I first rode when I moved to London.

Charing Cross Railway Station, Strand, London WC2 5HS

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