When I moved to London aged 18, I felt alone. Wasting hours on public transport made it feel like home

Baker Street station. Image: Getty.

I love the London transport system. At 9.30am, when I can’t get on three Central line trains because they’re too full, I remember why I love it so much. I’ve even got over the dust, which I’ve been told comes from the brakes, coating anything it touches. 

I credit London transport for curing my homesickness, when I felt like I had absolutely no idea where I was. It helped me stick my head above the water, and see things a little more clearly. 

I moved to London for a job aged just 18 – a bit too young for it to be entirely comfortable. I didn’t have the security blanket of university halls or people my own age. I’m not naturally adventurous, yet wasn’t that worried about moving. I thought I was very grown up; but looking back, I was just a naive child.

I realised fast I felt like I was drowning: anxious and tired and confused by the volume of Prets. My northern accent was a constant source of hilarity, the house I shared had a mouse problem, and one of my housemates is still assigned in my memory as ‘Weird Cameron’. I didn’t want to be in my room at home thinking about these problems. 

And so, to waste time, I started extending my commute – deliberately missing my stops to spend a bit longer on the train, or even getting the wrong line to travel three sides of the square. I already paid for the ticket, so why not?

The part of the north I grew up in still has pacer trains, which were meant to break down years ago, yet still connect most of the region’s cities. Apparently, they are getting new ones, but this feels somehow very far away. Power sockets, on Northern trains? Absolutely spoiling us. I like the pacer trains despite their terribleness. But it’s the underground and buses that I really love.

The DLR in the mist. Image: Getty.

Living near Morden, at the bottom of the Northern line in south west London, facilitated the start of this journey fairly well. I began taking the tube up to Angel or even right to the end of the line, just for something to do. 

There are endless good things to see underground, in my humble opinion. Highlights from my journeys included the trips in the lovely Bakerloo line carriages which always made me feel like I’m in the 1970s (the trains date from that era). It’s a bonus if you get to sit in one of the little booths.

Or Mile End station, where all the tube lines and tracks sit next to each other – Central line, District line, District line, Central line. This means you can see sub surface trains and deep level trains all at once, which is pretty exciting. 

I got on the Piccadilly Line and went to Heathrow, just to shuttle through west London suburbs and get an idea of where I was, watching the planes get lower and lower until I eventually reached the airport. I took the Victoria line from Brixton right up to Blackhorse Road, then the Overground to Gospel Oak and home again: I liked just seeing where I was. I’d get the Jubilee line to Stratford and back after I’d finished my shift, safe in the knowledge I was underground for an hour or so, so didn’t have to deal with cooking or lost keys or washing, all the things that no 18 year old wants to deal with. 


My love soon extended to buses too, and trams, and the DLR. I discovered the route 44 from Victoria to Tooting, taking over an hour in rush hour traffic, but driving over Chelsea Bridge lit up beautifully on a dark evening.

Later, when I moved to East London, I’d take the 205 up to Paddington and back again, going through Shoreditch after knowing it was the cool place to be, always getting a sense of what the cross section of London looked like.

The DLR to Woolwich Arsenal, going past the Tate and Lyle sugar and golden syrup factories which seem like a relic against the modern skyline now. Elbowing kids out of the way to get to the front.

The N73 bus once saved my life when, during a brief period of living in another city, I ended up missing my coach home, with no battery and nowhere to stay. (I slept on the bus until the first train back.) The night bus from Vauxhall to Liverpool Street which I boarded at 3am in Vauxhall, fell asleep, and woke up at 4am, back in Vauxhall again.

I realised it was TfL that truly made me feel at home when I was looking at another overpriced room in another house, when the current tenant told me the District line ran past the window. It did: it was the best part of living there. Another bit of track at the end of the garden also meant that C2C trains to Essex sometimes ran directly past my window, too, which made me feel like I was in this with other people.

London buses in the snow last February. Image: Getty.

This habit of extending my commute, deliberately going the wrong way or spending a Saturday on the sweet Metropolitan line to Watford and back again, gave me a sense of resilience I don’t think I would have got otherwise. It started off as something to fill time, and make me anonymous, but I ended up getting a far better sense of where I actually lived. When I met someone from Watford, I could tell them I’d been there (we became friends – my first, in the city). And slowly, I felt less like I was visiting, and more like I had stuff I could be doing or people I could be seeing. 

I am a terrible navigator and timekeeper – ask any of my friends. I’m well known for walking the wrong way even while staring at Google Maps. But I know the Tube and bus networks better than I ever knew the transport systems at home, and it’s given me the kind of resilience I needed to feel like I could call London home.

It, weirdly, hasn’t stopped at London, either. Some of my nicest memories on holiday in New York were getting the train into the city from Brooklyn, and seeing the skyline in the distance. Falling asleep and ending up very briefly in Coney Island. Trying to navigate station closures and route changes (something virtually impossible in NYC).

I live in a slightly nicer flat now, I actually have friends who want to make plans with me – but sometimes I still like getting on the Central line, and just seeing where I end up. It might seem like a big waste of time – and that’s exactly what it is.

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Podcast: Second city blues

Birmingham, c1964. Image: Getty.

This is one of those guest episodes we sometimes do, where we repeat a CityMetric-ish episode of another podcast. This week, it’s an episode of Friday 15, the show on which our erstwhile producer Roifield Brown chats to a guest about life and music.

Roifield recently did an episode with Jez Collins, founder of the Birmingham Music Archive, which exists to recognise and celebrate the musical heritage of one of England’s largest but least known cities. Roifield talks to Jez about how Birmingham gave the world heavy metal, and was a key site for the transmission of bhangra and reggae to western audiences, too – and asks why, with this history, does the city not have the musical tourism industry that Liverpool does? And is its status as England’s second city really slipping away to Manchester?

They also cover Birmingham’s industrial history, its relationship with the rest of the West Midlands, the loss of its live venues – and whether Midlands Mayor Andy Street can do anything about it.

The episode itself is below. You can subscribe to the podcast on AcastiTunes, or RSS. Enjoy.

I’ll be back with a normal episode next week.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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