The Real Underground

Published on 6 March 2003 in , ,

Update December 2008: Since this post was published, the map itself mentioned has, sadly, disappeared. It was originally moved to the Transport for London website but they seem to have lost it…

In his (wondeful) book, Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson shows his cruel and sadistic streak when talking about the London Underground.

"Here’s an amusing trick you can play on people from Newfoundland or Lincolnshire. Take them to Bank Station and tell them to make their way to Mansion House. Using Beck’s map – which even people from Newfoundland can understand in a moment – they will gamely take a Central Line train to Liverpool Street, change to a Circle Lune train heading east and travel five more stops. When eventually they get to Mansion House they will emerge to find they have arrived at a point 200 feet further down the same street, and you have had a nice breakfast and done a little shopping since you last saw them. Now take them to Great Portland Street and tell them to meet you at Regent’s Park (that’s right, same thing again!), and then to Temple Station with instructions to rendezvous at Aldwych, What fun you can have! And when you get tired of them, tell them to meet you at Brompton Road Station. It closed in 1947, so you’ll never have to see them again."

Bill’s book does show its age in one small part – Aldwych Station was closed in October 1994. Ironically Notes from a Small Island was published in 1995, but books take time to write and Bill was living in North Yorkshire at the time and couldn’t really have been expected to keep up to date with the intricate details of the London Underground. Although even LU isn’t always up to date – signs proclaiming that the Holborn-Aldwych branch line is still open, can be found in many stations, and if you pay a visit to Charing Cross station, you’ll find a bold sign from the late 1970s which proclaims the Bakerloo line terminates at Watford!

Anyway, I digress.

Beck’s first map of the London Underground became a design classic – instantly recognisable and understandable by all, and forms the basis of the tube map to this day. That said the first map of 1933 is very different to the map of 2003, and not just because lines like the Victoria and Jubilee have been added to the system.

As the tube network grew and grew, so it was that more needed to be shown in the same space. Over the years, the central zone of the map has become taller and narrower. Some lines and stations have been moved closer together (notably Bank and Monument which are in essence one station with two names). The overall presentation of the map is now very different – cleaner and crisper than the original. But ultimatly its based on the principles laid out by one man.

As a non-native of London, I have always tended to use the tube map to easily find my barings when locating somewhere I don’t know.

Whilst being an easy way to quickly work out where you are, it is a rather flawed approach for two reasons:

  1. South London has very few tube lines running through it.
  2. The tube map isn’t geographical.

As I don’t venture south of the river very often, the first of these points is easy to ignore, but the second is actually a rather important point to remember. The fact is that Beck designed the tube map to make it easy to understand the way the lines work and how they interconnect, not visually represent the layout of the capital city of the United Kingdom.

How I wish I’d known that during my first visit to London in 1996 when I did something close to Bill Bryson’s game. Staying in a hotel near Russell Square, we’d board the Piccadilly Line at that station, change at Holborn for the Central Line and go onto Tottenham Court Road.

Quite a roundabout journey when you consider that Russell Square is only a few minutes away from Tottenham Court Road.

Anyway I digress. Again.

Recent browsing of the old World Wide Web saw me see a rather wonderful little website called The Real Underground.

By the power of (the normally demonic) Flash plugin, it morphs the Central Zone of the 1933 tube map into the Central Zone of the 2003 tube map. It then will morph the 2003 tube map into a real geographical map of London.

It’s a rather impressive piece of Flash, and will reveal that London is just a bit more of a disorganised mess than you’d ever imagine.

Thankfully it was realised that a proper geographical map is of little use to you when trying to plot of tube journey, but the revalation that the bottle shaped Circle Line is actually more of a squashed petrol pump handle shape, is one that should not be missed!