The polls are wrong: the Piccadilly is clearly the best tube line

Piccadilly line trains in depot at Northfields. Image: Getty.

It’s official: the Docklands Light Railway is a Tube Line, and a popular one at that. YouGov have polled Londoners about their favourite Tube Lines, and the DLR is in second-place, with the Overground taking the bronze medal. (Top of the pops is the Jubilee.)

For me, the question of which Tube Line is best is both practical and emotional. How much use to I get out of it? What does it say to me about the city I was born, grew up and live in today?

As far as emotion goes, there are six contenders: the Central, Victoria, Northern, DLR, Piccadilly and District lines. Between them, these are the lines that contain: my school, the flat I grew up in, my first job, first girlfriend, first serious girlfriend, and essentially everywhere I’ve lived for a period of time longer than six months.

The Central Line, of course, cannot be anyone’s favourite line, as it is cramped, smelly and at times hotter than an oven. The warm glow of passing by the place I was born is overridden by the warm haze of travelling on the Central line, and the fear that I may die while doing so. In any case, the emotionally resonant stops are also covered equally well by the District line, which has the advantage of being roomier and serving both my current workplaces (the NS offices and the Palace of Westminster).

The Northern Line, too, has to be immediately eliminated from the running, too, although it’s a harder call. There are a lot of places on it that I have a great deal of affection for – Angel, where I have been going to the cinema for basically my entire life; Warren Street, which is exactly equidistant between one of my best friends and me; and is as a result where I go to watch football more often than not; the stretch of stations from Camden Town to Woodside Park, where I spent a lot of time as a teenager, and each of which has a cherished memory attached.

But it also contains the most irredeemable stretch of south London, from Oval to Balham. South London tends to get a worse rap that it deserves, I expect because it hosts so many fans of Chelsea Football Club and also because it’s an easy gag, but that little set deserves everything it gets. It’s increasingly become a holding pen for people who hate London, but are forced to live here for work or other purposes, and are clearly counting the days until they can move out to some improbable commuter village like Virginia Water or Egham. You know, the kind of people who complain that no-one talks to each other on the Tube and are responsible for killing all of the interesting shops in Covent Garden.

That leaves the real contenders: the District, DLR, Victoria and Piccadilly Lines. For reasons of practicality, the DLR has to bow out here: though I used to take it to work, it simply isn’t useful enough to be the best Tube line. It also only really has two flavours of London – the East End and the city’s banker belt, and the two are in any rate increasingly co-terminous – and the best Tube line has to contain all, or at least a significant chunk of the city’s various flavours.


On that metric, the District Line has a good case to be the definitive Tube Line. It has both flavours of suburbia – posh people who’ve lived on the outskirts for ever; people leaving the inner city for more space or fewer black people. All of the city’s great cultural institutions are within walking distance of a District Line stop. It represents almost every bit of the inner city, and, emotionally speaking, my birthplace, secondary school and a variety of emotional milestones that I prefer not to dwell on here, all took place in parts of the city you can reach on the District Line.

But the problem with the District is also its weakness: it is so broad that it takes ages to get anywhere on it and it is riddled with tourists the year round. It’s a line of last resort – if there is nothing better, take the District Line, and very probably a large book to occupy the time. If there is an alternative, take that, it’ll be quicker.

The Victoria Line has the reverse problem: it is quick and convenient but essentially covers a very small stretch of London. You can’t honestly say that the Victoria Line has all of the city on it.

That might make it seem like the Piccadilly takes the crown by default: faster than the District (just about) but larger than the Victoria. But the Piccadilly is my favourite not because it’s the last line standing but because, to me, it’s the best line of all.

Like the District, it contains essentially every one of London’s forms. It could only be more comprehensive if it had a spur to Lewisham, really, but if you want to “get” London, if you got off at every station of the Piccadilly and walked around for a bit, you’d understand it. You can reach most of the city’s big museums and art galleries, albeit with a slightly longer walk than the District; and the various types of inner and outer London are well-represented. From a sentimental perspective, it, too, ticks off where I grew up, where my football team plays, where I went to school – again, with something of a schlepp compared to the alternative, but still, it works.

And, most magical of all, thanks to the Eurostar station at Kings Cross and the airport at Heathrow, it’s the only Tube Line that can genuinely take you anywhere in the world. You could, provided you have enough money, get on the Piccadilly Line with your passport and decide to go to Hawaii or Paris or wherever you wanted, just like that. (And with a quicker interchange than the luckless visitors who try to change from Monument to Bank.)

And that’s why, whatever the polls may say, the Piccadilly is the best of all possible lines.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at our parent title, the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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This article was amended at 1730hrs at request of the author, in an attempt to reduce the grief he was getting for his contention that Chelsea was in south London. 

 
 
 
 

A warped mirror: on gentrification and deprivation on London’s Caledonian Road

The London Overground crosses Caledonian Road. Image: Claude Lynch.

Capital cities are, more often than not, a focal point for the stark divide between rich and poor – places where the most economically deprived meet the most economically empowered. In London, these divides can be more than stark: they can be close, even intimate, and there are districts where crossing the street can be like entering a different world. One such street is the Caledonian Road.

Known local as “the Cally”, Caledonian Road runs for about a mile and a half, from Kings Cross to the Nags Head junction in Holloway, and was built in 1826 to provide a new arterial route to the north from the West End. At first, developments on the road were sparse; among the first notable buildings were the Royal Caledonian Asylum, which gave the road its name, and H.M. Prison Pentonville.

For some time, the northern half of the road was seen as far removed from central London, which stymied development. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 19th century residential development really got going. By the time Caledonian Road station opened on the Piccadilly line in 1906, the area was flush with Victorian terraces.

These, though, mainly lay on the eastern side. To the west, the proximity of King’s Cross prompted the development of heavy industry, particularly the clay kilns that were helping to build Victorian London proper. The divide had begun:  the east side of the street, the area known as Barnsbury, was notably quieter and calmer than the west side. Ever since the 19th century, the ‘V’ formed by Caledonian Road and York Way has been known for a high incidence of gang violence and social problems.

As in many parts of London, the end of the Second World War brought a chance to start from scratch. Many of the slums to the west of the Cally had been bombed to smithereens, and those that remained still lacked gas and hot water.

But this was the era of municipal dreams: Islington council cleared the slums and constructed the Bemerton Estate. Instead of reflecting the industrial history of the area, the estate reflected Barnsbury back at itself, treating Caledonian Road as some sort of warped modernist mirror. The square gardens of Barnsbury were reimagined as the spaces between the highrises of Bemerton, and this time, they were actually square.

The estate was immediately popular, its open design prompting a renewed sense of community in the west. But it didn’t last.

Square gardens on one side, not-so-square on the other. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric

As far back as the 1950s, Islington had already become synonymous with gentrification. Forty years later, before moving to Downing Street, Tony Blair’s London residence was Barnsbury’s leafy Richmond Crescent. House prices in the area have gone through the roof and now Barnsbury is mainly home to a the professional elite.


At the same time, though, Caledonian Road’s warped mirror has given Bemerton the exact opposite: in spite of attempts to rejuvenate it, downward spiral of deprivation and antisocial behaviour have blighted the estate for some time The promise of inviting square gardens and communal living has been inhibited by crime and poverty; the gardens lie empty, while those in Barnsbury thrive.

The disparity of wealth across Caledonian Road is regrettable. That’s not just because it speaks to a wider segregation of London’s rich and poor – a phenomenon exemplified last year by the Grenfell Tower fire in Kensington & Chelsea, the richest borough in Britain. It’s also because, in the Bemerton Estate, planners had thought they saw an opportunity to offer more Londoners the idyll of square gardens and leafy streets, often reserved for the richest.

It might be too much to claim the estate as a failure; events such as the Cally Festival aim to bring together both sides of the road, while other council programmes such as Islington Reads help to foster a greater sense of neighbourhood.

Road should never divide us; rather, they should unite those who live on either side. The spirit of Caledonian Road should cross the gap – just like the railway bridge that bears its name.