The long and confusing history that explains why Charing Cross and Embankment are so weird

The exterior Charing Cross station in 1983, when the underground station was still the terminus of the Jubilee line. Image: Ben Brooksbank

On this issue, as with so many others, the travelling public of London divides into two camps.

There are loads of us who, as tourists or new residents, have finished a journey to Charing Cross by changing from the District and Circle lines to the Northern or Bakerloo lines at Embankment only to realise it’s an obscenely short journey that’s best done above ground.

And then there are those who, staggering home from Heaven at some small hour or other, have been driven half mad by the length of the corridors at Charing Cross, where getting to the Bakerloo line platforms from the ticket hall seems to involve walking through several dimensions.

So why are these two stations so problematic? The answer, as with so much about the Tube, lies in its history.

The first underground railway to come through these two stations was the District Railway (now the District and Circle lines), which was extended from Westminster – its first eastern terminus to Blackfriars in 1870. It ran through the newly completed Victoria Embankment, and called at Charing Cross, The Temple and Blackfriars.

Except it wasn’t Charing Cross. It was what we today call Embankment. As it was easier to use the new Victoria Embankment than to tunnel directly under Charing Cross mainline station, the new underground’s interchange was a little to the south of the station – but serving Charing Cross was still very much its purpose, so the station was called Charing Cross all the same.

About 20 years later, the Baker Street & Waterloo Railway company put a bill to parliament asking for permission to build another underground railway. The new line would have stations at Baker Street, Oxford Circus, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Embankment, and a terminus and depot at Waterloo. The bill passed in 1893, all sorts of extensions and route changes were proposed, rejected, accepted and ignored while funds were found, and construction began in 1898.


The Baker Street & Waterloo Railway opened on 10 March 1906. Trafalgar Square station was just north-west of Charing Cross mainline station; Embankment station was alongside the District Railway’s existing Charing Cross station, at this point 36 years old, just to confuse everybody. You could change between the two stations underground, but you were technically changing from Embankment station to Charing Cross station. Nice.

In the turn-of-the-century underground railway frenzy, another line was taking shape nearby. The Charing Cross, Euston & Hampstead Railway company was founded in 1891, and successfully put a bill to Parliament in 1893 to build a railway from Hampstead to Agar Street, by the Strand in front of Charing Cross mainline station (which, today, is just opposite that horrible single-storey Superdrug).

In 1902, the company proposed three new bills, applying for extensions in various directions. One of these was a short spur south of its approved Strand terminus to Victoria Embankment, to link up with the then-running District Railway station. Though the other two extensions were not approved, the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway Act 1902 was passed, and construction started that July.

(As an important side note, a 1905 act gave the company permission to modify its route at Charing Cross, and tunnel directly under the front of the mainline station.)

David Lloyd George in 1907, the year he opened the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway, here with Winston Churchill.

David Lloyd George, already an MP for 17 years by this point, opened the railway on 22 June 1907. Its southern terminus at what is today Charing Cross, and was then actually called Charing Cross, rather than at the Victoria Embankment, as had been allowed by the 1902 bill.

So at this point that we have one station with two names (Charing Cross and Embankment served by the ‘Bakerloo’ Railway and the District Railway at today’s Embankment station); another station with the same name as half of the other station (Charing Cross, served by the CCE&H Railway); and another station sitting on its own with a different name (Trafalgar Square, the Bakerloo Railway’s station one stop north of ‘Embankment’).

Confused yet? Here’s a tube map from 1908, which shows the slightly silly situation as it was.

The 1908 tube map. The London Tube Map Archive at Clarksbury is incredible. 

In 1910, the now-merged London Electric Railways company applied to restore the expired 1902 permission to extend what’s now the Charing Cross branch of the Northern line to the Embankment. A single tunnel would continue in a loop under the Thames, to a single platform allowing an interchange to the District Railway and the ‘Bakerloo’ railway. The permission was passed in 1911 and the extension opened on 6 April 1914. You can see the loop, which closed in 1925, on this map, where it’s marked as ‘Charing Cross loop’. It’s also the best map ever, so save the link for your records.

A schematic of the lines around Charing Cross and Embankment. Image: CartoMetro.

Following this extension, the deep-level platforms were called Charing Cross (Embankment) and the District Railway platforms were still called Charing Cross. In 1915, the whole station finally got one name.

It was Charing Cross.

This set off a whole chain of station renamings. The Bakerloo station to the north remained as Trafalgar Square, but the Charing Cross, Euston & Hampstead Railway station became Strand, and the Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway (now the Piccadilly line) branch line terminus changed its name from Strand to Aldwych.

We have two very enjoyable cutaway diagrams from this point, which give you a sense of how what’s now Embankment station worked.

A cutaway of what is today Embankment station from 1914. Below ground on left, the single CCE&HR platform. Image: Charles Sharland via John R. Day.

A cutaway of what is today Embankment station, from Popular Science Magazine in 1921.

This arrangement of the three stations and their names – Trafalgar Square, Strand, and Charing Cross  remained in place for most of the 20th century. You can see it in this extract from the underground map in 1920.

The 1920 tube map. Image: Clarksbury.

In 1926, the Charing Cross, Euston & Hampstead Railway closed its tunnel loop and opened a second platform at what’s now Embankment and an extension to Kennington. That’s how it appears in the first diagrammatic (rather than geographical) Harry Beck map from 1933.

The 1933 tube map. Image: Clarksbury.

It’s still there in this 1958 map.

The 1958 tube map. Image: Clarksbury.

And in this 1968 map, where you can see the outline of the upcoming Victoria line.

The 1968 tube map. Image: Clarksbury.

But everything (not actually everything) changes by the time you get to this 1977 map.

The 1977 tube map. Image: Clarksbury.

What was Charing Cross, with the Bakerloo, Northern, Circle and District lines, is now Embankment. And though the Bakerloo station ‘Trafalgar Square’ is still in situ, the Northern line artist formerly known as ‘Strand’ has vanished completely. What happened?

Enter stage right (or stage left if you’re from south of the river) the Fleet Line, which is what the Jubilee line was called before the Tories made a silly pledge in the 1977 Greater London Council elections to rename it in honour of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, and then went and won the things in a look-at-our-shiny-new-leader-Margaret-Thatcher jumbo swing of 14.5 per cent.

Construction on its first phase began in 1971, with a terminus planned at Charing Cross – although the tunnels continued for a short stretch to pave the way for the second, third, and fourth phases, to Fenchurch Street, Lewisham, and Hayes respectively.

Strand station, on the Northern line, was closed in 1973 to make way for the construction of the terminus platforms and passenger detritus – which included below-ground passages to connect the Bakerloo line platforms at Trafalgar Square and the Northern line Strand platforms.

A staircase at Embankment tube station. Image: Thomas Leuthard.

In August 1974, what was then Charing Cross station became Charing Cross Embankment, and when the Jubilee line opened and the Northern line station re-opened, the complex we now know as Charing Cross became Charing Cross. In August 1976, the southern station became Embankment. Hence what you can see on the 1977 tube map from earlier on.

So to understand the problem with Charing Cross, it makes sense to think of it as being a bit like Green Park. There, the Piccadilly and Jubilee line platforms are miles away from each other the corridor of death and the Victoria line platforms sit roughly in the middle.

The diagram below is a good guide. It shows the Northern line platforms at the back right, running roughly north to south, and the Jubilee lines in the foreground, running roughly west to east. The long corridor just behind them dribbles off the page in the bottom left hand corner, heading towards the Bakerloo line. That's a long corridor. 

A cross-section of Charing Cross, when the Jubilee line still ran there. Image: TfL

But when the Jubilee line was extended in 1999, the Charing Cross Jubilee platforms were closed, and we were left with a really long tunnel between two stations that were never intended to be joined up.

Meanwhile, one station south, we’ve ended up with three deep-level platforms very close together and easy to change between (the Bakerloo’s two platforms and the Northern line’s northbound platform) and one slightly less convenient (the Northern line’s 1926 addition, the southbound platform). Oh, and the station’s only there at all because the 1860s constructors of the District Line couldn’t be bothered to tunnel to Charing Cross mainline station itself, so went for the easier, nearby-ish option.


So, what are the take-home lessons?

One is that the early days of the underground were a gaggling mess of private companies scrabbling around without much thought for long-term strategy.

The other is that if you find yourself compelled to change from the Bakerloo line southbound to the Northern line northbound, you’re better off doing it at Embankment than Charing Cross.

Just so you know.

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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Park Life: On the repeated incineration of Alexandra Palace

Alexandra Palace from the air. Image: John Bointon/Wikimedia Commons.

Head directly north in a straight line from the official centre point of London at Charing Cross, and the first park of any real size you’ll hit is Alexandra Park. You’ll know you’re headed in the right direction when you spot the whacking great palace sat on the hill in the middle of it.

But Alexandra Palace and Park aren’t the former home of some forgotten bit of the nobility: they were actually purpose built for more or less their current use, as a venue for North Londoners to get up to a wide variety of things that may or may not be considered fun.

Various Victorians, including Owen Jones (presumably not him), one of the architects responsible for the Crystal Palace in the south, thought an equivalent in the north might be worthwhile, and used the same cost-saving manoeuvre: while the Crystal Palace had been built from the construction materials of the Great Exhibition, it’s northern counterpart used parts from the 1862 International Exhibition in Kensington.

Proving some kind of point, I guess.

Initially known as “the palace of the People”, it took on a marginal air of aristocracy when the park opened in 1863, the same year that the future King Edward VII married Alexandra of Denmark. The building opened in 1873, and copied Crystal Palace again, by almost immediately burning to the ground.


But two years later they’d nailed the bits back together and finally the people of North London had something to do other than complaining how long it’s going to take them to get to this birthday party in Peckham.

One of the more notable features of the next century or so of the park’s existence was its racecourse, known as The Frying Pan, because it looked a bit like a frying pan on whatever the Victorian equivalent of satellite photography is (balloon rides or imagining things, I guess). Popular for much of its life, attendances dwindled in the 1970s. Who wants to look at horses when television’s in colour now?

It was the favourite course of famous sexist and horse describer John McCririck – he’s been linked to efforts to get it rebuilt, and has instructed his wife to scatter his ashes on the site. Hopefully local residents will be warned so they can shut their windows first. Though the outline of the course is visible from above – the cricket pitch sits in the middle of it – It otherwise only survives in the names of a couple of now trendified gastro-pubs, the Victoria Stakes and the Starting Posts.

Early non-horse based physical activities available included going up in a balloon (mainly to draw pictures of what the race course looked like, presumably) and then jumping off the balloon while wearing a parachute if you were, for example, waitress turned daredevil Dolly Shepherd, commemorated in a mural on the side of the palace. There was also a lido, which legend states was used to wash visiting circus Elephants. It is unclear whether this is connected to the dubious cleanliness that to its demise by the early part of the last century.

Winter sports have been an unlikely intermittent features of the park: you prod the some of the undergrowth on one side of the hill, you might be able to uncover the remains of what was once London’s most popular dry ski slope, ideal for if you didn’t want to have to lie to all your friends about how much fun your first skiing holiday had been. Though long since defunct, in 1990 it gained a spiritual successor in the palace’s ice rink, which among other things has been home to various ice hockey teams, most recently the ‘Haringey Huskies’, it says here.

Less glamorous from this angle. Image: Ed Jefferson.

But back in the 1980s the palace and park were briefly threatened with being entirely sport-based. After the palace decided to have a belated centenary celebration and burn down again, there was a proposal to redevelop the whole thing into a massive sports complex, including – good news, snow haters – a brand new dry ski slope. In the end nothing came of it – the existing building was retained and most of the sport associated with the park now is of the indoor variety: among many other things, the palace hosts darts and table tennis tournaments.

The park does see a bit of the action. Aside from the football and cricket pitches, a popular brand of energising drink sponsors an annual soapbox race, and there’s a miniature golf course that makes up for being golf by a) being miniature and b) allowing you to drink while playing (well, if you book the whole thing for an office party circa 2011).

Sadly the park’s best sport of all has been retired: watching puce-faced CityMetric writers attempt to run to the top of the hill the palace sits on, while placing bets on whether they will reach the top before keeling over and dying (2015-2018).