About a year ago, the District line platform at Victoria tube station started to smell a little different. Some said the smell was burgers, some said it was steak. Some said garlic bread, some said onions. Some sick losers said it was burnt track grease or a dead rat. To me, it always smelled like the most delicious roast potatoes, cooked in goose fat.
It was one of those changes that 99 per cent of commuters took for granted, leaving a noble 1 per cent to be perplexed as to why they now left Victoria inexplicably famished. On the internet, the most popular theory was that the smell came from Burger King. Some people are apparently able to discern difference between high-street chains, and, to them, the smell was more Whopper than Big Mac. “To me it's the distinct smell of Burger King,” one said.
Meanwhile, others donned their tin hats. “I'm pretty sure Burger King vent their kitchens onto this platform intentionally and then put adverts up on the station.”
Whilst they’re wrong to point the blame at Burger King (whose nearest branch is some distance away in the station terminal), they did a better job at identifying the smell than me. It is burgers. First reports of the smell emerged on social media in early 2017, at the same time as Bleecker – a gourmet burger chain – opened premises on Buckingham Palace Road, directly over the underground station, and, more tellingly, the District line platform. The roast potatoes I have been smelling are, in fact, chips; the steak or dead rat, depending on your nose, a beef burger.
To put it simply, the situation has arisen because the District line is a cut and cover line, which is to say that it was created by cutting a deep trench across London, and then covering it with roofing and structures, such as roads and buildings. It is not genuinely subterranean in the sense of its neighbour, the Victoria line. As such, at both the westbound and eastbound ends of the platform there is an exposed area, which, in this case, opens behind commercial premises. Simple.
Because I’m only an occasional visitor to the District Line platforms at Victoria, not to mention a meat eater and general enthusiast for fried goods, I have always enjoyed the smell and assumed that others felt the same. In reality, a lot of people think it smells not just bad, but unacceptably awful.
“The District Line is bad enough without it making your hair and clothes smell terrible,” says Jac, a District line commuter who has waged a one-woman war with TfL on Twitter over the issue. “Even if you are just on the train too near a door you can end up smelling like food for the rest of the day.”
Social media might amplify negative opinions, but there are quite a lot of people who agree with her. The smell has been branded “gross”, “horrendous” and “manky”, but it seems there’s nothing that can be done about it. A spokesperson from TfL told me that all the vents from local businesses and restaurants are legally compliant, and, given that the source is outside the station’s jurisdiction, there’s nothing else they can really comment on.
The basic problem is this: Bleecker ventilate by outputting smutty kitchen air, whilst Victoria ventilates by sucking fresh air down into the platform. The proximity of these two systems, brought together by incompetence rather than malice, means that neither party is culpable or responsible. In the end, it is, as Chris Christie might say, something of a nothing burger.
The air vent at Bleecker. Image: Nick Hilton.
Inside Bleecker, the old ventilation system has been repurposed and repainted into a hipster artefact. It might well be this exact pipe that is providing commuters with their olfactory curate’s egg.
Even though the chronology, geography and evidence of hundreds of noses point to Bleecker as the source, no one from Bleecker was available for comment, and it is impossible to entirely verify this solution without having terrorist-levels of access to the underground system. Either way, they’re unlikely to change this form of inadvertent viral marketing: as one former London Underground worker told me, “TfL could filter the shop vent, but that's a massive cost and pungent aromas are very hard to filter. They could filter their own vent, but again it may not be practical.” The only organisation which might make some headway over the stink are Westminster council, which confirmed it would investigate the situation.
For now, however, vegetarians ought to beware when exiting at Victoria. So long as Londoners maintain their enthusiasm for expensive, deep-fried fast food, the District line’s meaty stench isn’t going away.