This map shows London’s 1940s plan for a new underground rail network

St John's Wood station, 1939. Image: Getty.

It's a scary world out there right now. We still don't have a plan for Brexit. The Arctic isn't freezing like it ought to. Donald Trump is Donald Trump. So, let's take a moment off from our busy schedule of legitimate existential terror to talk about something pointless but comforting.

In 1943, London County Council commissioned Sir Patrick Abercrombie and John Henry Forshaw to produce the County of London Plan: a document explaining how the city would be rebuilt after the War to ensure it had adequate housing, transport and green space.

The Abercrombie Plan, as it became known, is one of the great urban planning documents, and one of the great “What ifs”, of British history. It proposed a system of “ringways”, motorway-grade orbital roads, and arterial roads connecting them; in between, urban areas would be separated by a network of parks. Some scraps of this plan came to pass (the Westway, the North Circular, the M25). Mostly, though, it never happened: as it turned out, people didn't want to demolish the city to build great big motorways through it. 

Less famously, the Abercrombie plan also proposed a bunch of new railway tunnels. Which brings us to our map:

Click to expand.

It's not the easiest map to read, so here's what we're looking at:

Project A: The North Bank Loop, a new underground route taking trains from Battersea, to Victoria, Charing Cross and Cannon Street and on to Wapping and Deptford.

Project B: A second loop, taking trains that run into London Bridge underground into a new route connecting the stations on south and north banks of the Thames.

Project C: A deep level replacement for what is now Thameslink, carrying trains from Elephant and Castle through Blackfriars and onwards towards King’s Cross.

Project D: A new deep level version of the northern Circle line, freeing up the existing route to become a freight route (the “Inner Goods Ring”). Not shown on the map, there were also proposals for an Outer Goods Ring, somewhere or other – details on that are a bit sketchy..

Had the plan gone ahead, moss mainline trains from the south would be redirected to one of the new lines. All this, it was intended, would allow the city to tear up a bunch of overground railway linses and bridges, making it possible to redevelop the then-largely industrial South Bank.


These plans went through various iterations over the next few years. New lines appeared, too, including one variously known as “Route 8” or “Route C”: a fast, deep level tube line lining Finsbury Park and Brixton, which eventually appeared, in the late 1960s, as the Victoria line.

But mostly, it never happened. From the perspective of 2016, when the South Bank – railway viaducts and all – is doing rather well, this seems rather a good thing.

Some of these ideas still look pretty good, however. Imagine a sort of circular Crossrail, improving connections between the south London railway network and central London and freeing up space at the mainline terminals. We can dream, can't we?

Anyway, hope you enjoyed that. We now return you to the end of the world.

(Hat tip: David Turner.)

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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How the big freeze of 1962-3 killed off Britain’s canals

Little Venice, London. This was actually 2010, but you get the idea. Image: Getty.

The English are internationally renowned for banging on about the weather. When British drizzle is compared to the hurricanes of the Caribbean or the cold faced by more landlocked countries, our complaining seems wholly unjustified.

Still, our weather can have ruinous effects on whole industries. The particularly cold winter of 1962-63 was the final nail in the coffin of a centuries old water-borne trade.

At one time canals played an essential role in the UK’s economy. In the early days of the industrial revolution, canals snaked across the map, connecting the coal mines of the countryside to the factories of cities. They fuelled the furnaces and kept the hearth fires burning, allowing for cities to rapidly grow in the closing years of the 18th century.

A map of British and Irish waterways. The canal network is in orange. Image: Peter Eastern/Wikimedia Commons.

Economics is rarely sentimental, though, and when more effective modes of travel came along the canals began their slow demise. Whereas European canals widened to accommodate for ever larger boats, the thin British canals –bar the mighty Manchester ship canal – slowly gave in to the supremacy of those new-fangled trains.

The rise of railway also saw the odd canal being bought and shut down by railway companies. In most cases this was simply about eliminating the competition, but in some the straight canals proved a perfect place for new railway tracks – the fate of South London’s Croydon Canal.

Still, the bargepeoples tightened their belts, and the canal system limped on as a viable option for freight until the early ‘60s, when nature came in with the knockout blow. The Big Freeze of 1962-3 was, as the name suggests, uniquely cold for the UK. Records going back as far as 1659 only recorded two winters colder, and the canal system froze solid.

Somerset, January 1963. The snow stayed for so long it stretched phone wires out of shape. Image: Howard Dublin/Wikimedia Commons.

Facing months of no service by barges, industries that had been reliant on the canals switched to alternatives on the rail and road networks. When the ice finally thawed, and with grim memories of that winter on mind, few returned to using the canals for freight. Besides having dire consequences for that years football calendar, the winter mostly finished canals as a component of British industry.

Luckily many of the canals themselves survived to be repurposed, first for leisure and more recently for living. London’s canal system currently holds around 5000 boats, 60 per cent of them permanent homes. These liveaboards, driven there by the desire for the slow life or the rest of the city’s crippling property prices, are changing the face of London’s waterways.
The water dwellers, along with those drawn to these lateral parks for leisure, have brought business back to the city’s canals. Now books shops, grocers, coffee shops and even bakeries can be found floating on the waters.

So next time the trope of the weather obsessed Brit comes up, you can scoff at other countries hailstones the size of Chihuahuas, or sun you can cook an egg in. Tell them that the weather has shaped British history, too – and with huge climatic shifts on the horizon, it shows no sign of stopping any time soon.

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