View Comments
On track to decoding the Tube s lexicon
London Underground: The iconic Tube sign. Picture: Steve McKenna

Riding the London Underground one typically busy Monday morning, I glanced up at the iconic Tube map and began surveying the tangle of coloured lines.

More London
TAKE THE BUS
IN LOVE WITH LONDON
SCULPTURES OF LONDON
ST PANCRAS RENAISSANCE HOTEL
TACKLING THE THAMES ON FOOT
MAKE THE MOST OF OLYMPICS
HOW TO GET AROUND LONDON
HEATHROW EXPRESS
BLOCKBUSTER ATTRACTIONS

My mind started to race at all these peculiar names. And I wondered.

Why on earth is Elephant and Castle called Elephant and Castle? Is Swiss Cottage as lovely as it sounds? And what is a station called Cyprus doing in east London?

At the next stop, I grabbed a copy of the map (first designed by Harry Beck in the 1930s), highlighted some of the weirdest, most interesting and evocative station names, and decided to spend a day checking them out. I also bought Cyril Harris' classic book, What's in a Name? Origins of Station Names on the London Underground.

I was staying at a friend's place in Walthamstow, a fairly nondescript suburb at the northern end of the Victoria line. Handily, it's three stops from my first port of call - Seven Sisters. Just 10km from the capital's tourist attractions, the Sisters is a world away from the grandeur and prestige of the Westminsters and St Paul's.

Emerging from the bowels of London, I find puddle-strewn streets lined with bay-windowed Victorian terraces, ugly blocks of flats, fruit and veg markets, newsagents, kebab shops and a greasy spoon cafe, where I order a bacon and egg sandwich, a steaming mug of tea and ask the cockney geezer behind the counter if he knows why this suburb is called Seven Sisters. He doesn't ("Sorry guv!").

I leaf through my book. According to Harris, the name derives from seven elm trees that were planted in a nearby green during medieval times. After my breakfast, I have a look. But there's no sign of them. Slightly disappointed, I head back underground, hoping for more luck at my next stop, Burnt Oak, a half-hour Tube ride away.

One of the bonuses of riding the world's first subterranean railway (founded in 1863) is the huge people- watching opportunity. Around three million use the London Underground daily - though a record 4.5 million travelled on the service on August 7, during the Olympics. While the vibe during the Games was unusually upbeat, most passengers usually conform to the generally accepted behaviour: never attempt to strike up a conversation with someone you don't know, try your utmost to avoid eye contact and bury your head in one of the free magazines or newspapers handed out at stations, or fiddle with your smartphone.

Burnt Oak turns out to be another of London's growing multicultural diasporas, though it's home to quintessentially English Watling Park, a place festooned with grassy stretches, oak trees and squirrels.

Incredibly, there's a cluster of half-chopped, holed-out and burnt trunks. Flicking through Harris' book, I discover that the Romans used this area as a boundary mark where fires were lit, hence the title Burnt Oak.

Pleased that it at least partially lives up to its name, I have high hopes for my next two stops - Swiss Cottage and St Johns Wood. Could there be a more romantic neighbourhood duet in London?

Stepping outside Swiss Cottage station, I'm faced with Ye Olde Swiss Cottage, a kitsch wood-beamed, balcony-laden, fudge-beige shaded pub.

Separating us is a five-lane racetrack. Cars, lorries and big red buses zoom past and it takes me a few minutes to cross. The station, I learn, takes its name from ye olde pub, which was originally called the Swiss Tavern, then Swiss Cottage in the early 19th century.

From here, it's a short walk to St John's Wood, where the Beatles famously stood on a zebra crossing for their Abbey Road album. The suburb is blessed with beautiful Georgian houses and a wonderfully calm (in London terms) high street with nice boutique shops, cafes and restaurants.

And there is a wood, of sorts, though the park opposite the Lord's Cricket Ground - home of many an Ashes tussle - is actually a former church burial ground containing a few dozen trees. It was apparently more like a forest in the 13th century when the Knights Templar of St John of Jerusalem ruled the area.

The distinctive London Underground map. Supplied picture

I zoom down to west London's White City. Named after a strikingly white stadium built in the area in 1908 to house the Franco-British Exhibition, and the 1908 Olympics. Today it's a fairly drab district, its showpiece a giant Westfield shopping centre.

From there, I head east on the Central line and change at Oxford Circus (named as it was on the old road to Oxford), where I jump on the Bakerloo line for Elephant and Castle.

I hadn't expected to see a trunk- wielding mammal or a genuine medieval castle, with turrets and ramparts, let alone both of them together. For this reason, I'm not too disappointed at what I find as I leave the station south of the River Thames.

There is, naturally, a pub called Elephant and Castle (which the station is said to be named after) and several elephant-shaped metal-rimmed figures that herald the station.

There's lots of traffic, an absolute monstrosity of an apartment block with garish blue panels, and a shabby-looking shopping centre that has become one of the hubs of London's growing Latin American community. Walk around here, past the Colombian restaurants, and you'll hear more "holas" than "hellos".

From Elephant and Castle, I take the Northern line to London Bridge and change to the Jubilee line. Canada Water is next but it looks nothing like the Great Lakes. Timber shipped from Canada used to end up in the nearby dock.

More train travel
GREAT TRAIN JOURNEYS
GLACIER EXPRESS
ORIENT EXPRESS
CANADA BY TRAIN
THROUGH THE ROCKIES
EUROPE'S RAIL TRAIL
SCOTLAND BY RAIL
SYDNEY-LONDON BY TRAIN
MOSCOW-NICE PACKED IN IN INDIA

The stunningly modern Canary Wharf station (designed by ace architect Sir Norman Foster) is next up. In the bygone days of empire, this was the focal point of London's docklands industry, the launch pad of its maritime and colonisation projects.

Much business was done with the Canary Islands (hence the Canary in the name) and global trade also explains why there are such stations nearby as West India Quay, East India and Cyprus - areas heavily linked with British imperialism.

These stations are technically not part of the Tube and instead belong to the DLR (Docklands Light Railway), which this year is celebrating its 25th anniversary, servicing what is now London's mini-Manhattan - a financial district of gleaming skyscrapers, plush shopping blocks, waterfront bars and eateries. A stone's throw away, there are dreary housing estates and enough traffic to make you choke and wish you were back on the train.

After an enlightening but enervating adventure, traipsing from pillar to post and uncovering the origins of some of London's many weird and wonderful Tube names, I'm yearning for something more glamorous. A real Swiss cottage, or a West Indian beach, would be just the ticket.

Another glance at the London Undergound map further fuels my London wanderlust: Park Royal and Theydon Bois sound nice, don't they?

FACT FILE

• An off-peak day travel card on the London Underground and DLR costs from £7.70 ($11.40). See tfl.gov.uk for timetables, fares and maps.

What's in a Name? by Cyril M. Harris costs £4.99. You can buy it from the London Transport Museum (ltmuseum.co.uk), which is near Covent Garden Tube station, and explores the link between transport and the growth of modern London since 1800.