This wasn’t the first time I’d turned up at Earls Court station at 1.30 am. Forty seven years ago as a fresh-faced student new to the lights of London I’d rented a bedsit in the Cromwell Road. Paranoid about being late for my first day at college in Wimbledon, I got up and dashed for the District Line, only to find the gates well and truly closed. Surely not another strike, I thought. And then I realised I’d set my alarm wrongly and had been in bed for less than an hour.
Last Wednesday it was different. The gates were wide open and we were waiting excitedly for the big happening. Yes, we were here for the dress rehearsal of the 150th anniversary of the Underground and were about to go on an amazing journey by steam train, no less, on the Circle Line!
We felt very proud to have been invited, though Transport Commissioner Sir Peter Hendy introduced us to the assembled dignitaries as ‘these two blokes from Bath who come to anything if it’s free’. He’s got us well sussed then!
I’m no train spotter, but the sight of the immaculately restored train thundering into the station was a never to be forgotten thrill. And to actually ride in one of its original first class carriages with its velvet banquets, bevelled mirrors and smell of countless layers of gleaming varnish was like going through a portal into the past.
How surreal to burst out of the smoke-filled tunnels into the brightly lit stations, deserted save for a lone cleaner leaning on their broom, grinning from ear to ear, or a group of engineers in their hi-viz overalls pausing from their nightly duties to cheer us on our way.
Our compartment, which had steam heating, gas lighting and wide leather straps to lower the windows was a perfect capsule of the Victorian age. To think that only a few months before it had been languishing in an orchard, in use as a chicken coop!
Reaching the end of our journey along the actual route of the world’s first underground railway, I wished I’d worn a top hat (I have several, naturally). I would have raised it in a salute to not only skill of the restorers but also to the incredible organisation that must have gone into this unique event.