Deep beneath the medieval streets of London lies a mysterious world of transport, where tracks whistle and clack through dark tunnels and underground people move within a culture evolved away from the light of day.
The Tube underworld is fabled across the globe; its platforms and carriages have been glimpsed in spy and horror films; its loudspeaker announcements have been etched into collective memory by pop culture sound bites. And, like any respectable fabled land, the Tube has been explored by millions. It’s even been scribed into an iconic map that has changed the face of underground transport world-wide.
Of course, to an everyday Londoner, the Tube may seem a world away from this mysterious underground land. With the hum-drum of routine commutes, comes an eroded enthusiasm for this grand subway system, and a charming city grumble about all things generally Tube.
But for those visiting London, the Tube remains a ready source of adventure, and a precious tool for accessing, not only the above-ground delights of London, but also real Londoners in their under-worldly habitat.
Here are some tips to help you navigate your underground cultural encounters in the mysterious land of Tube.
You can always tell a newbie by where they stand: If you pay close attention to the ebb and flow of passengers on any Tube ride, you will notice a game of strategic placement being played, especially during peak times. First there is the challenge of squeezing into the curved entrance of the Tube as it is sardined with commuters; like a jar of jellybeans, it is always a trick to pick how many can actually fit in there.
Then, there is the duck and shuffle that goes on between stations, as passengers get ready to alight, try to find their friends or hover for an upcoming seat availability. When there is a bit more room to move, you will find experienced Tube passengers bee-lining for a particular spot in the carriage, with a practiced awareness of which side their platform will appear on.
In contrast, a newbie will often find themselves bouncing about the carriage like a pinball, adjusting to accommodate the crowds and being unwittingly moved further from the door just before their station. It is a fun game to learn.
Use the Evening Standard standard: London tabloid, The Evening Standard, is the routine read during peak ‘hour’ commutes. Seeming to appear from nowhere, The Standard journeys the Tube each evening, being passed from passenger to passenger through an unspoken custom. Passengers fold the paper onto an empty seat when they are done with its flossy content and someone else picks it up from the seat. Sometimes, when it gets really busy, advanced Tube travellers will fold the paper onto the ledge behind the seats.
Expect Tube goers to keep their head and eyes down: Of course, the reality of Tube interaction is a not quite that black and white, but there is certainly a norm of keeping to yourself during a Tube ride. If you can overcome the force of group silence, or raise your head to look someone in the eyes, the reaction can range from sidewards glances and nervous smiles, to the rare extreme of conversation. One of the most dramatic moves you can make is to say loudly and clearly ‘excuse me’ while trying to squeeze through the crowd to depart the train, rather than just passively push towards to door.
While all this may sound quite uninviting, rest assured that Tube passengers are a bit like temporary zombies in a trance; beneath the blank stare there are real people with real feelings, and it only takes a warm smile or humble plea for assistance to make the trance lift before your eyes.
Follow the signs – don’t buck the system: Just think your most sheep-like thoughts and go with the underground crowds. Tube Land is so well signed that all you need to know is which line you’re taking, in which direction and which stop you need for your destination.
Colour coded underground rail lines make for easy map interpretation, although it must be said that you don’t know the underground language of Tube until you’ve mastered the tube map.
If you know where to look and where to go, you can keep pace with the crowds. Network maps are generally displayed at the station entrance, so take a sneaky peek before you enter. Line and connection maps and shown after the turnstiles, down towards the platform, and are often printed on the wall large enough to glance at while you maintain your stride.
Walk left, stand right: Perhaps one of the most in-grained cultural norms of Tube Land is the walking and standing system, which applies primarily to corridors and those ridiculously long escalators. The general rules are: walk on the left (just like the road traffic), unless you are a bumbling slow poke or luggage laden, when you should stay to the right for fear of receiving grumbles and death stares.
Avoid the stairs: I leave you with possibly the single most important piece of information about Tube Land: avoid the stairs. While the escalators and lifts may seem like a slow, congested option, keep in mind that the deepest station below street level is almost 60 metres under, and many stations have hundreds and hundreds of stairs winding in a torturous spiral towards daylight. The people from of the Land of Tube generally know this and avoid the pain, having been forced to takes the stairs on occasions of maintenance and the like.