I recently chanced upon a hardback copy of Walk the Lines by Mark Mason in a charity shop, and after reading the description on the dust-jacket, I thought I’d buy it and give it a go.
This book is a travelogue about walking the length of all eleven London Underground lines. In other words, London – and a fair bit of its outskirts – by foot. It’s undoubtedly an eccentric challenge, but it presents us with a very insightful view of modern London in all its forms – suburbs, industrial estates, open fields, the inner city and the point at which a poor area ends and an affluent one begins.
It’s not just about the places, mind you. On the way, Mason meets an interesting range of people, including the City of London planning officer, a novelist, a trainee cabbie and an actor from The Archers who did the ‘mind the gap’ announcements for part of the Piccadilly Line. He gets to climb up the NatWest Tower and Barnet Church. And he even manages to walk to Heathrow Airport.
As one would expect, there are some great pieces of Tube trivia here – for example, when the Metropolitan Railway opened in 1863, the Prime Minister (Lord Palmerston, who was 78 at the time) refused to attend on the grounds that at his age, he preferred to spend as much of his time above ground as possible. There is also an explanation for the convention of standing on the right on escalators. On a wider note, there’s a useful definition of what constitutes a modern-day high street from a man who, over the course of this book, has walked along rather a lot of them: “A high street ain’t a high street unless it can sell you a rawlplug.” (By this definition, I am pleased to report that High Road in East Finchley meets his requirement.) There is also plenty of food for thought for people who like maps, and in this sense Mason goes beyond the ‘I went to Stanfords to buy my maps’ travel-writer cliché.
Now an account of a series of walks, however interesting, may get dull after a while but Mason mixes things up to keep the reader interested. He is at various stages accompanied by fellow-walkers. He turns his Circle Line walk into a Circle Line pub crawl. Later on, he does the Jubilee Line by night, offering a nocturnal perspective on London. And by spreading his walks over several months, we see the city (and environs) through different seasons as well. Each walk tells a different story about the same metropolis.
I really enjoyed this book, despite the fact that Mason is rather disparaging about Edgware (perhaps inevitably, it gets compared to that other Northern Line northbound destination, High Barnet, and comes off second-best). This was a good idea for a book, and in Mason’s hands it’s a very good read. If you live in London, or are interested in London, you’ll find something to like here.