Walk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground Mark Mason

Random House, pp.376, 12.99

Did you know that on the Central Line’s maiden journey to Shepherd’s Bush, one of the passengers was Mark Twain? Or that The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Sign of Four were both commissioned by the same publisher at the same London dinner? Or that Harrods dropped the apostrophe from its name in 1921, a full 19 years before Selfridges followed suit? My guess is that you probably didn’t — which is where Walk the Lines comes in.

Did you know that on the Central Line’s maiden journey to Shepherd’s Bush, one of the passengers was Mark Twain? Or that The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Sign of Four were both commissioned by the same publisher at the same London dinner? Or that Harrods dropped the apostrophe from its name in 1921, a full 19 years before Selfridges followed suit? My guess is that you probably didn’t — which is where Walk the Lines comes in.

In 2010, Mark Mason walked overground along the entire route of the Tube: all 403 miles and 269 stations of it — although, as he explains in a characteristically scrupulous footnote, the number of stations is a matter of some controversy. (His own firmly held view is that the two Edgware Roads and Hammersmiths should be counted separately, but not the two Paddingtons.) In most books like this, the answer to the obvious question — why? — would be pretty obvious too: because the author had flogged the idea to his publishers. Mason, though, isn’t so easy to write off as a literary chancer.

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Four years ago, he wrote The Importance of Being Trivial, which was equally stuffed with facts great and small — but which also begged the question whether their appeal to the male mind meant that men often tend to the mildly autistic. Walk the Lines feels less like an exploration of the same theme and more like a practical demonstration.

Take Mason’s evident satisfaction in applying ‘good old-fashioned male thoroughness’— as he only semi-comically calls it — to solving the logistical problems posed by the bigger lines, with their many loops and branches. Or his clear displeasure that the Square Mile is no longer a square mile: in the 1990s some minor boundary changes increased the City of London to ‘an annoyingly inexact 1.16 square miles’.

Given that Mason walks at an average speed of 2.31mph — he also keeps us fully informed on statistics — the book is necessarily impressionistic about London’s present-day inhabitants. (The people on the Seven Sisters Road ‘seem happy enough’.) But, thanks to his encyclopaedic knowledge of almost everything, he supplies an endlessly fascinating, if undeniably random guide to their forebears. St James’s Park station reminds him that James I used to keep elephants in the park itself, and that each was ‘allowed a gallon of wine a day to get through the English winter’. His pub crawl round the Circle Line leads to a vivid account of the 1850s pub crawl where one of the more belligerent drinkers was Karl Marx. (Cue a footnote pointing out that Lenin and Stalin first met in the Crown in Clerkenwell.)

The result does build into a wider picture of London — not just as a city, but as an idea. Mason plainly loves the place and his various explanations of its appeal are no less convincing for often being contradictory. But all the time the smaller facts keep on coming, with virtually no station, however obscure, left unaccompanied by some weirdly memorable nugget. Roding Valley, for instance, is ‘the least-used anywhere on the network’ — while, perhaps more desperately, ‘Woodside Park is notable for being the last station alphabetically.’ (Cue a footnote pointing out that the first is Acton Town.) Even when he reaches station 269, he’s still in full flow, with the news that ‘Preston Road opened specifically to serve the 1908 Olympics clay pigeon shooting site.’

Despite its engagingly breezy tone, then, this is not a book for everyone. Yet in the end that’s its point — and maybe even its glory. Mason seems quite happy to accept that many people may never understand why he bothered, hoping only that those who do will also realise that nobody could have done it much better. (Or anyway, more thoroughly.) And in that, he triumphantly succeeds.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: History, London, Non-fiction, Train, Travel, Underground