THE PRESTIGIOUS TOLLYGUNGE Club, where we are staying in Kolkata, is close to a metro station. The Club’s manager recommended that we used it to reach the city centre quickly rather than taking a much slower taxi into town.
The Kolkata metro, which now has three lines, began operating in 1984.
We travelled from Mahanayak Uttam Kumar Station, which is above ground to Park Street, which is subterranean. At the ticket office each traveller is given a circular plastic counter in exchange for the fare, which depends on the distance to be travelled. At a barrier operated electrically, the counter is placed on a designated panel, and the gate opens to admit the traveller to the platforms.
The clean trains are very efficiently ventilated with an air-conditioning system. There are sections of the carriages for ladies only. Passengers were using their mobile phones in the underground stretches of the journey, which suggests that, unlike in London either broadband or WiFi is available on the train while in a tunnel.
Electronic screens provided information about the journey and the use of the trains in Bangla, English, and Hindi. Announcements made over a loudspeaker system were in Bangla and English.
The train ran smoothly and passengers seemed very calm and polite. The journey was twice as fast as if we had gone by road. Although we travelled at a quiet time of day, the train was quite full. I imagine that during rush hours, we might not have been so comfortable.
All in all, our brief experience of the metro was very satisfactory. After disembarking at Park Street station, we bravely crossed a six lane main road to reach Park Street, which we discovered has now been renamed ‘Mother Teresa Sarani’, but most people still call it by its older name.
SOUTH KENSINGTON STATION has two street entrances connected by an arcade with a glazed roof. Its subsurface ticket office and foyer gives access to three of London’s Underground Lines: Circle, District, and Piccadilly. But this has not always been the case. People standing outside the southern entrance to the arcade will notice that to its right there is a building faced with the blood red glazed terracotta tiles typical of many London Underground stations. Above the façade are the words “South Kensington Station”, but there is no public entrance to this building.
The arcade used to be the entrance to the station at which passengers could embark and disembark from trains operating on the District and Circle lines, which were part of the Metropolitan Railway. This station was opened in 1868. In 1906, a station on the Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway (now the Piccadilly line) was opened at South Kensington. Its platforms are far deeper beneath the surface than those of the District and Circle lines. Lifts inside the building with the red façade carried passengers to and from the Piccadilly line platforms. This building was then the entrance to the Piccadilly Line station, which was separate from that (with the arcade) which led to the shallower subsurface Circle and District platforms.
In the early years of the 1970s, the lifts to the Piccadilly Line were replaced by escalators. Access to these was made from the concourse that serves the District and Circle line platforms, and then the entrance via the building with the blood red façade was taken out of use. So, what had been two stations became one.
THERE WAS A TIME when one could take a train from London to Portsmouth, cross the Solent by ferry to Ryde on the Isle of Wight, and then take another train from Ryde to Ventnor. This was before 1966 when the station at Ventnor was closed forever. A century earlier, in 1866, this station opened to rail traffic. The closure was part of an extensive plan (devised by Dr Richard Beeching [1913-1985]) to reduce Britain’s railway mileage.
The station, the southern terminus of the isle of Wight Railway, with its associated sidings was located on the site of an old quarry. It was almost completely surrounded by high cliffs. Trains reached it from Shanklin by emerging from a 1312-yard-long tunnel running beneath St Boniface Down. It must have been dramatic emerging from the tunnel to find oneself in the space surrounded by vertiginous rocky walls.
Today, the entrance to the tunnel, through which water pipes now run, is hidden by dense foliage. Nothing remains of the tracks, and only a small part of the former station building (ticket office etc.) remains. The space once occupied by the platforms and railway lines is now occupied by an assortment of buildings, comprising an industrial estate. Trains still run between Ryde and Shanklin, but Ventnor station has all but vanished.
IN THE EARLY 1970s, I used to travel on the London Underground’s line from Golders Green to Euston or Warren Street, both stations being near University College London, where I was a student. Back in those days, smoking was permitted on the Underground. Each Northern line tube train had two carriages for smokers. I have never smoked, but I used to travel in the smokers’ carriages because they were usually emptier than the other ones in which smoking was forbidden. Thinking back on this, I suppose that I must have been passively smoking on the Underground. On the other hand, because there were fewer people in the smoking carriages, my chances of catching other people’s airborne germs must have been reduced.
From an early age, before I became a daily commuter, I liked travelling in the rear carriages of the Northern Line tubes. These carriages contained control panels, which the train’s guards operated to open and close the doors and to inform the driver when the train was ready to leave. As a child, I was fascinated by watching the guard at work. Actually, there was little else to watch after the tube entered the tunnel after leaving Golders Green. Incidentally, what was the rear carriage, was also the front carriage when the train changed direction on reaching the end of a line.
The Northern Line trains I have been describing were built by Metro-Cammell in 1938. By the end of the 1980s, the trains were taken out of service and newer units began operating on the Northern Line. The 1938 trains were shipped out to the Isle of Wight, where they carried passengers on the Island Line. After many years of service on the island, the sea air caused these venerable trains to corrode and deteriorate. In the early years of the 21st century, they were taken out of service.
In late October 2022, we visited the train museum at Havenstreet on the Isle of Wight. One of the exhibits is a collection of old train carriages and engines in a large shed. Amongst these exhibits is one of the former Northern Line carriages built in 1938. Visitors are permitted to enter it. I was delighted to find that the example on display was one of the rear carriages containing the guard’s control panels. Seeing these again after so many years was a curiously moving experience. I felt for a moment that I had been transported back to my childhood days, when travelling in these trains used to fill me with wonder.
I HAVE WALKED past London’s Victoria Coach Station many times without looking at it particularly carefully. Yesterday, the 28th of September 2022, I was early for a meeting at the Embassy of Albania, which is not far from Victoria Station. So, I walked slowly, stopping to look at the Coach Station. I had never noticed before that it is a fine example of Art Deco architecture.
The Coach Station, which opened for use in March 1932, was designed by Wallis, Gilbert, and Partners.
I suppose that my interest in Art Deco buildings was initiated by visits to Bombay (Mumbai), where there are many splendid examples of this style of architecture. Gradually, I am discovering that London also has a rich collection of Art Deco buildings. The Coach Station is a fine and well-maintained example.
THE LAST TIME I flew into Venice’s Marco Polo airport was in the late 1960s with my parents. In those days, the airport was tiny in comparison with what it is now. Back then, there were two ways of reaching the city of Venice from Marco Polo: by bus to Piazzale Roma, or far more expensively, in a private water taxi, in effect a speed boat. Despite my mother’s tendency to become seasick easily, we always took the speedy water taxi from the airport to our pensione on the Fondamente Zattere. In those now distant times, the airport arrival hall was much closer to the shore of the lagoon than it is today.
Times have changed. The airport has grown and is far from the waterfront. Although there are still plenty of speedy water taxis carrying passengers, there is now a regular, moderately priced water bus service, which links Marco Polo to many points in Venice. We used this service.
As we crossed the lagoon, many water taxis sped past us. We passed Murano and the cemetery island of St Michele. Then, as we approached the Fondamente Nuova on Venice proper, I spotted the curious domed Bell Tower of the church of Madonna dell’Orto. I looked at it and felt a lump in my throat as I remembered the numerous times I visited that church with my parents to see the frescos within it. It was one of my favourite Venetian excursions, being taken to see that edifice.
After getting off at the wrong stop (mea culpa) and boarding another vessel, we reached our destination near the Gardens where much of the Venice Biennale happens. There is no doubt that arriving in Venice by traversing the water in a boat is far more dramatic and pleasant than arriving across the bridge by train or bus.
THE WESTERN END of Oxford Street is at Marble Arch. Beyond the latter, its continuation becomes Hyde Park Place and then, after 620 yards it becomes Bayswater Road, before reaching Notting Hill Gate, and then Holland Park Avenue. Oxford Street and its continuation westward follow the probable course of a road or track named by the Romans as Via Trinobantia. It ran from Colchester via London to Silchester (in Hampshire), which was a capital of the Atrebates tribe. According to Ralph Merrifield in his “Roman London” (published 1969), the Roman thoroughfare ran due west from Oxford Street, along what is now Bayswater Road to Notting Hill Gate. After that, it changed direction so that it headed directly to what is now Staines. Merrifield wrote that its course:
“… is closely followed by Holland Park Avenue and Goldhawk Road, until the latter turns sharply towards Chiswick. The Roman road is then followed by two lesser modern roads, Stamford Brook Road and Bath Road, and crossed Acton Green where it has been obliterated by the railways. Half a mile further west it is represented by Chiswick Road, which leads to Chiswick High Road…”
On a map drawn by Ralph Agas (c1540-1621) in the 16th century, the part of the Roman highway known now as Oxford Street was marked “The Waye to Uxbridge”. At that distant time (1561), the western edge of London was as far east as Farringdon, which follows part of the now lost Fleet River. This was the case except for riverside strip of buildings along the north bank of the Thames to Westminster. Oxford Street, so named in the 18th century, has had other names such as the ‘Tyburn Road’, ‘Uxbridge Road’, and ‘Oxford Road’.
A sign on a lamppost on Bayswater Road near to Lancaster Gate Underground station reads “A402 was A40”. The road running along the northern edge of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens was designated in 1923 as ‘The London to Fishguard Trunk Road (A40)’. After the A40 was re-routed, part of it running along the elevated Westway (completed in 1970), the section of the original A40 (and much earlier the Roman road), which ran between Marble Arch and the westernmost end of Goldhawk Road was re-designated the A 402.
Until the early 19th century, what is now Bayswater Road and its western continuation ran through open country, passing Hyde Park, a royal hunting ground established by King Henry VIII in 1536 (and opened to the public in 1637). Before the park was established, the journey west of what is now marble Arch would have been through a rustic landscape and travellers would have been at risk from attacks by robbers, Today, the greatest risk faced by users of Bayswater Road is delay caused by traffic congestion.
SEEING A VINTAGE London bus today (20th of March 2022) brought back some memories from the early 1960s. In those days, my best friend was the son of a medical doctor who worked for London Transport. Nick and I were about 10 years old when we became keen bus spotters. This involved loitering in the open-air bus station at Golders Green station with pencils and notebooks at the ready. As buses arrived in the forecourt, we noted down their serial numbers, which are visible on the sides of the bus or, in some older models, on their engine covers. These differed from the vehicles’ registration numbers. The serial numbers of different models of bus consisted of 1 to 3 letters and up to four numerals, e.g., RF 645 or RLH 24. Routemaster buses, which were replacing older models in the 1960s had serial numbers that began with ‘RM’ or in the case of the extended versions ‘RML’. The double-decker RMs were gradually replacing their predecessors, the RT models (which were in use in London from 1939 to 1979). Although we recorded every bus that passed us, certain examples, e.g., RT5 and RM1, were rare and exciting observations. The two of us and my friend’s younger brother formed the short-lived ‘OBC’, the Omnibus Club, of which we were the only members.
Now in 2022, long after the OBC disbanded, the Routemasters have largely disappeared from London, having been replaced by newer models. So, it was with some surprise that I spotted a RT bus in pristine condition parked in Notting Hill Gate today. For those bus spotters reading this, the vehicle bore the serial number RT1705. It was carrying the route number 28, with its destination board showing “Golders Green”. Today, route 28 still exists, but no longer runs from Chelsea to Golders Green (via Notting Hill Gate and West Hampstead) as it did in the ‘60s. In those days I had a friend who lived in Notting Hill Gate and used to visit him from Golders Green, using that bus route. Today, the same journey can be made using a bus on route 328.
The RT, which I saw today, was being used for private hire. As we were about to travel to West Hampstead, my wife asked the driver if he was going there later. He said he was, but he was not insured to take passengers who were not members of the party which had hired the bus. That was a pity, but as a former bus spotter, who gave up the hobby many decades ago, I was excited to see an RT still working on a London street,
PARKWAY LEADS GENTLY uphill from Camden Town Underground station to a short road called Gloucester Gate, which leads to the Outer Circle that runs around Regents Park. Much of Gloucester Terrace runs along what looks like a bridge, which is lined on its north side by red-coloured, decorative stone parapet.
The bridge traverses a grassy dell that does not appear to contain any kind of watercourse. I wondered why such an elaborate bridge had been built to traverse what appears to be merely a grassy hollow. Well, when it was built, it did cross a waterway, the Cumberland Market Branch of the Regent’s Canal known as ‘The Cumberland Arm’ (www.londonslostrivers.com/cumberland-arm.html). This waterway, built in 1816, ran for about half a mile from the Regents Canal to a basin near Euston Station, running for most of its length parallel to Albany Street. During WW2, the Cumberland Arm, which had up until then been used to transport freight, was used to supply water to firefighting appliances. By the end of the war, the canal had been filled with rubble from buildings destroyed by bombing and then covered with topsoil. All that remains of the Cumberland Arm is a short blind-ending stretch of water near Regents Park Road, on which there is a large floating Chinese restaurant and a few moorings for narrow boats.
The Gloucester Gate bridge with its decorative parapet and elaborate cast-iron lampstands also includes two interesting memorials. One of these relates to the fact that the bridge was constructed by the St Pancras Vestry, the then local authority governing the area (www.andrewwhitehead.net/blog/the-most-pointless-bridge-in-london). There is a bronze bas-relief depicting the martyrdom of St Pancras. It was a gift of William Thornton and sculpted by the Italian Ceccardo Egidio Fucigna (c1836-1884), who died in London. St Pancras (c289-303/4) was born a Roman citizen. He converted to Christianity and was beheaded for his beliefs when he was 14 years old (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pancras_of_Rome). The bronze relief on Gloucester Gate bridge shows a young man being mauled by an animal, possibly a lion. Why this motif was chosen when the saint was beheaded puzzles me.
Near the St Pancras panel, also on the bridge, there is an old but elaborate drinking fountain. A metal plate attached to it has faded letters that read:
“Saint Pancras Middlesex.
This fountain and works connected therewith were presented to the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain Association on the (?) day of August 1878 by
The fountain, known as ‘The Matilda Fountain’, is part of a miniature cave made with granite boulders. A sculpture of a milkmaid stands above the cave. At her feet, there is a wooden pail with two handles. The girl with a rich crop of hair on her head is depicted shielding her eyes from the sun with her right hand as she stares into the distance. Cast in bronze, the female figure and the pail were sculpted by Joseph Durham (1814-1877). Matilda might possibly have been Richard Kent’s wife, but the plaque does not specify this. The sculpture is not unique; several other copies of it, all by Durham, exist. One of these, dated 1867 and called “At the Spring/Early Morn”, can be seen in Blackburn’s Town Hall (https://victorianweb.org/sculpture/durham/1d.html).
Today, the bridge is redundant since the canal was filled-in long ago. However, it is used by many people walking to and from Regents Park and its zoo and a steady stream of vehicular traffic crosses it. Although it has outlived its original purpose, the bridge serves as a reminder of a once important element of London’s continuously evolving transportation system.
RECENTLY, I WALKED in Mahatma Gandhi’s footsteps, neither in India nor in South Africa nor in London, but in southeast England.
I am sure that many years ago, at least once, I travelled by ferry across the English Channel from Folkestone in Kent to a port in France. Whether I was travelling by car or by train I cannot recall. Had I been travelling by rail I feel sure that I would have remembered the pier at Folkestone, but I cannot now recall it. If I reached the ferry by train, it would have had to have been before 2001, when the last ferry sailed from Folkestone.
The first ferry service from Folkestone to Boulogne began in 1843 (https://folkestoneharbourarm.co.uk/history/the-harbour-in-the-19th-century/). Passengers reached the boat from the mainline railway station by local transport. In 1847, a long viaduct was constructed to take a steeply inclined mile long branch line from the main line, which was 111 feet above sea level, to the shoreline. This track crossed the viaduct and a swing bridge, which still exist and separate the Inner harbour from the Outer Harbour. At the seashore, the track ran onto a newly constructed pier, The Harbour Arm, from which passengers and freight could be embarked and disembarked. The pier, which was only fully completed in 1904, had a station, a customs house, and warehousing facilities.
During WW1, the Harbour Arm played an important role in the conveyance of military personnel and materials between war-torn Europe and the UK. In December 1915, the famous spy Margaretha Geertruida Zelle (‘Mata Hari’; 1876-1917) was prevented from boarding a vessel at Folestone bound for France by Captain S Dillon of the Secret Intelligence Service. Another famous person, of far greater historical significance than Mata Hari, stepped of a vessel, the SS Biarritz, onto the Harbour Arm on the 12th of September 1931. This passenger was a Gujarati, the only member of the Indian National Congress, Mohandas K Gandhi (1869-1948), going to London to attend the Round Table Conference. A picture taken at the time (www.alamy.com/mahatma-gandhi-alighting-at-folkestone-kent-england-united-kingdom-uk-12-september-1931-old-vintage-1900s-picture-image346793736.html) shows him, dressed in white robes and a dhoti, stepping along a gangplank. The curved platform of the station on the pier, which still exists, is clearly visible in the picture. He is shown walking towards a group of policemen and reporters, some of whom are holding unfurled umbrellas. His arrival at Folkestone on a rainy day is also recorded in a short but amusingly commentated newsreel film (https://youtu.be/P6njRwz_dMw), which also illustrates the rapturous reception he received in the streets of London.
Far more recently, another arrival at Folkestone has hit the headlines. On the 19th of October 2021, a large puppet called Little Amal (‘amal’ meaning ‘hope’ in Arabic), over ten feet in height, first made its appearance in the UK in Folkestone. Little Amal has been carried on foot all the way across Europe from Turkey (www.creativefolkestone.org.uk/whats-on/the-walk-one-little-girl-one-big-hope/) as part of an exercise to raise the public awareness of the plights of refugee children fleeing their native lands. On British soil, she plans to tour the country for a while. Little Amal did not arrive, as Gandhi did, on a cross-channel ferry bound for Folkestone, but she did make her first an appearance on the Harbour Arm (www.kentonline.co.uk/folkestone/news/little-amal-coming-to-town-255932/). She was greeted by the actor Jude Law.
Folkestone harbour was heavily bombed during WW2 and then the pier was repaired after the war ended. Passenger services to France resumed in 1946, but limitations of the harbour’s depth, which prevented the docking of larger ferries, and the development of roll, on roll-off ports elsewhere, led to Folkestone’s gradual decline as a port. These factors and the completion of the nearby Channel Tunnel resulted in the ending of Folkestone’s life as a passenger port by 2000. After this date, the Harbour Arm and its buildings fell into decline and became dilapidated.
In 2014, the Department of Transport closed the railway line ad the facilities on the Harbour Arm. The following year, it was acquired by the Folkestone Harbour & Seafront Development Company (www.folkestoneseafront.com/). This organisation has tastefully restored the Harbour Arm and its buildings as well as the viaduct leading to it across the water. The rails on the viaduct have been preserved but submerged in the walkway in such a way that their top surfaces can be seen. The sinuous platforms and their canopies have been repaired, as have the signal box (now a café) and the old Customs House. Beyond the station, the pier runs out to sea towards a lighthouse. All along the pier, there are several eateries. Also, there is an artwork by Antony Gormley. What was once a busy transport hub has now become a delightful leisure facility, which along with Folkestone’s transformation as an artistic ‘creative hub’ has turned the town into a place well worth visiting, a far cry from what it was when Gandhi set foot on its pier. My wife and I wondered whether Little Amal, who is quite tall, will have as much influence on the future of the world as did the short man from India, who arrived in his dhoti at Folkestone in 1931.
I am pleased to have walked where Gandhi once stepped in Folkestone because I have also followed in his footsteps in various places in India including his birthplace Porbandar in Gujarat, Rajkot, Bhavnagar, Bombay, Madras, and Bangalore. In London, I have often walked by Friends House on Euston Road, passing the very door through which he left the building to greet his admirers back in 1931. In all these places, there are ample monuments and other reminders of the Great Soul (the Mahatma), but, as far as I know, Folkestone is yet to materially commemorate his brief presence there.