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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The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.