On January 10, 1863 the first section of the London Underground opened, between Farringdon and Paddington – the first subterranean railway in the world. It was an instant success, copied widely across the globe and giving its name to an entire system. And despite some under-funded and unloved years, it is now enjoying a renaissance.
My first memory of the London Underground was not travelling on it. In the 1950s, I was brought up in a flat on Campden Hill between Kensington and Notting Hill and during hot summer nights I would hear a ghoulish noise that so frightened me I made my mother sit outside the bedroom until I drifted off.
It was not until much later, when researching my history of the Underground, that I realised the source of the noise. The Circle line passes under Campden Hill and near the flat was one of the open sections left uncovered to save money and to provide ventilation for the steam trains.
These walled-in enclosures acted as echo chambers and when the trains passed late at night, the noise of the horns they sounded to warn workers on the line would reverberate far and wide
Later, though, I grew to love the source of my sleepless nights. For a teenager in the 1960s, the Underground was a huge playground. You could hop on a train and go to distant parts like Cockfosters or Morden, or even reach right into the rural hinterland of Ongar or Chesham.
And it was virtually free since to leave the system, you just mumbled the name of the nearest station and shoved a couple of pennies into the hands of the grateful ticket collector who was often known to share the spoils with his or her employer.
The trains were red and warm and had a characteristic smell of sweat and warm seats which, oddly, I still get a whiff off when I cycle past Maida Vale station but for the most part has disappeared. Oddly, too, they seemed mostly to function at weekends unlike now, but in truth the system was dying. Ridership was declining and the motor car was seen as the way to get around town.
What a contrast with today. More people are using it than ever before and there seems to be no end to the growth. Billions has been spent on improving it and now a new super Tube is being built, Crossrail, which will allow full-size trains through central London in Tube-depth tunnels for the first time.
Even with the great improvements of recent years, many Londoners fail to appreciate the history of the Underground. When the first section between Farringdon and Paddington opened in 1863, the first underground railway in the world, it became an instant success. More than 30,000 flocked onto it that first day and despite the smoky atmosphere, the dark tunnels and the hard seats for third-class travellers, it was so well used that the system quickly expanded.
The Circle line was completed in 1884 – though it was never called that, as it was shared between the District and Metropolitan Railways. By then, there were extensions out to numerous London suburbs such as Putney and Ealing and the system just kept on growing.
The first deep Tube was completed in 1890 between Stockwell and King William Street, and by 1907 all the current lines, except the Victoria and the Jubilee, had been completed. It’s just a shame that the massive expansion of the Victorians and Edwardians was not kept up, and now we find ourselves short of a line or two.
Indeed, throughout much of the 20th century, the Tube did not receive the recognition that it deserved. Without it, London would be nowhere near as affluent or economically efficient.
Yet investment has often been provided only begrudgingly by politicians who fail to understand its importance. Now, though, with more than100 cities across the world, including many relatively small ones, having developed their own Metro systems, the value of this new invention is now widely accepted.
So as you travel around the system in the next few days, take a look at its architecture, at the little features that reveal its history like the tiles coloured differently at every station on the Piccadilly line, allowing those who could not read to find their required stop. Marvel at the diversity of people from all classes and of all ages who rely on on it, day in, day out. In short: learn to love your Tube.