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The Tube: London, England’s Underdround

December 1, 2011 by  
Filed under Travel


Tower BridgeIt happens somewhere between a storied London street and a subterranean society that intimidation sets in. I’m studying an intricate map of colour-coded lines, linking and crossing each other like a game of Snakes and Ladders. Choosing dogged pursuit over walking away with my tail between my legs, I duck into a service station to join bobbing tourists on a nexus of travel and history.

England’s London Underground, widely referred to as the Tube, is the oldest of its kind and the busiest in Europe after Moscow and Paris. Much like the octopus of the New York City Subway, the sophistication of the Tube services hundreds of stations across England’s Greater London Area, albeit in a cleaner fashion. Its world-class transit network is the second largest in the world, and like an old, lumbering friend, screeches to a halt for underground visits with Big Ben and St. Paul.

My journey begins on Earl’s Court Road in the royal borough of Chelsea and Kensington, where before her engagement to Prince Charles, Princess Diana took residence. Director Alfred Hitchcock and Freddie Mercury of British rock band Queen also lived in the posh community, home to the famous concert venue Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre. The narrow European thoroughfare is sandwiched between Internet hubs, banks, restaurants, quaint cafes and a flurry of French whistling through the streets. It’s been months since the London Riots, the city now restored to its safe and friendly nature.

Inside Earl’s Court Station, I purchase a convenient and affordable smartcard that can be reloaded at any transit station in the city. The Oyster pass can also be used on the London Bus, but after a few bumpy rides, I prefer the iconic double-decker – equipped with the city’s overabundance of CCTV cameras – from an admiring distance. Down a flight of stairs and onto the navy coded Piccadilly line platform, I board the train moments after it barrels to a stop. All the seats are taken. Of what I can decipher, a Parisian couple discusses dinner options for the evening – Le Gavroche or Pied à Terre – they just can’t decide – and a trio of Italian girls drool over the shopping on Kensington High Street, which happens to be my first stop.

An unsurprising mix of British and American stores line the main shopping district, which I end up preferring for its quiet, hipster scene over the spectacle of Oxford Circus. Here, shoppers spill in and out of Selfridges, House of Fraser, Top Shop and Primark, a popular low-cost clothing outlet with runway knock-offs. Recently opened in the eastern side of the city where the 2012 London Olympics will take place, Europe’s biggest shopping centre, the Westfield Stratford City Mall, teems with curiosity seekers.

Back on the Tube, I exit at Knightsbridge, where Chanel and Burberry beckon me to enter Harrods. Founded in the 1800s, the globally renowned department store offers the ultimate in luxury shopping and a gourmet food shop where you can feast on sushi and imported cheese. Like a time machine, the train rushes towards the past at South Kensington station, where the grand architecture of the Natural History Museum is enough to skip its interiors. But I cannot not indulge in my interest of dinosaurs. Outside, on the other side of me, a couple metres away, buses and cars leave the space of a nose hair between their flanks and scurrying pedestrians. A stairwell walks underground to a crowded platform, and the ancient artifacts take a distant backseat to what’s waiting at the London Bridge tube station on the Jubilee line. Set across a high-level walkway above the River Thames, the Tower Bridge is the most famous in the world with reason. The suspended masterpiece is an ode to magnificent engineering and a page taken from a fairytale. A backdrop of blue sky and puffy clouds frame the bridge into a postcard, prompting a flash of cameras. Down towards Fish Street Hill, I adjust my eyesight upwards for the Monument Tower, a soaring symbol of the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Keeping time just a few stops away off the station of Westminster is the Big Ben, whose bells have sung through the central location of Westminster for close to 200 years. Majestic in daylight but more so at night, the clock tower’s gleam of gold sets a sheen of romance across the reach of the Thames. All of this is magnified with a ride on the colossal London Eye ferris wheel. I stay grounded by walking past the Houses of Parliament towards the quiet aura of Westminster Abbey. This generation’s royal wedding is still a topic of intrigue, with tourists forming a long, winding lineup to visit the gothic church and its buried monarchs. The adjacent gift shop sells mugs, pens, key chains and teapots emblazoned with the faces of Prince William and Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge.

I travel west through St. James Park to where the newlyweds had their first kiss broadcasted to the world: the royal, sprawling Buckingham Palace. It’s late morning, and I watch the dark, lustrous manes of horses trot towards its façade for the ceremonial changing of the guard. Even though you can’t see her, you feel the presence of the Queen Mother, and I can’t help but stand a bit taller. Early next year, the Palace will celebrate her ascension with the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. Tearing my eyes away, I follow the pigeons to Trafalgar Square, London’s political epicentre and heart of sculptural splendour. Families and couples mill about the beauty, and it becomes clear, even through the rain, that the quietly European city of London rivals some of the world’s best metropolises. My journey concludes with the endless reach of the London Tube, which delivers me to Heathrow Airport, my final stop.


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