Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

London Underground: A Cultural Geography: Books

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

London Underground: A Cultural Geography: Books

Article excerpt

London Underground: A Cultural Geography. By David Ashford. Liverpool University Press. 188pp, Pounds 70.00. ISBN 9781846318597. Published 30 April 2013

The map of the London Underground, which even today is based largely on Harry Beck's 1933 design, is like no other map of London. At once metaphorical and practical, it guides us effectively around the system but bears little relation to the city above or even the real spatial relations between stations. Any commuter trying to make his or her way home on foot after a strike or an emergency has brought the network to a halt would be ill-advised to use it as a guide.

The gap between ways of travel on the surface and the subterranean experience of the Underground, the disjunction between the topography of the land and travel beneath it, and the reactions to them are the main themes of this book. David Ashford argues that the Underground reconceptualised space and created "abstract spaces of circulation, tied ineffectually to the metropolis above with the inadequate written and spoken messages provided by the railway companies". Perhaps, but the Tube was also, more mundanely, a sensible solution to the challenge of travel in a crowded city.

Before the Underground, the railways had already modified the space and the relationship between towns, while the train timetables had demanded a new standardisation of time throughout Britain. Early Victorians worried about the social and even the physical effects of railways, but Ashford rather overestimates these concerns: travellers and society soon adapted, as the comfortable bustle of W.P. Frith's 1862 painting The Railway Station demonstrates.

Travel underground, however, represented a new and more disturbing challenge. Following the introduction in 1863 of the Metropolitan Railway's Paddington to Farringdon line, with its steam engines travelling on rails only just under the surface, the Underground expanded rapidly. By the end of the 19th century, a network of lines, some of them deep-bored, like the Central London Railway, the "Twopenny Tube", had transformed London's transport system and the daily lives of thousands.

A strength of Ashford's study is his account of literary and artistic responses to the new experience of underground travel. Was this some new hell into which travellers had to descend, or the birth of a modern and brave new world? …

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