Underground Overground Underwater - Part 1

By Rob Last edited 160 months ago
Underground Overground Underwater - Part 1

Last week Londonist received the kind of email from a guy called Tom Marlow. It was the kind of email we dream about receiving:

Last year me and a friend cycled to every London Underground station over six days, including DLR and disused and abandoned stations, making a total of 316. And we swam in every outdoor and unheated pool too! We called it Underground Overground Underwater.

I've written about it, and have a bunch of photos of the stations and

sites, and wondered if this was something you might want to put on the Londonist site?

Would we ever!

So, today and tomorrow, Londonist has the great pleasure in presenting for you Tom's account of this extraordinary expedition.

We hope you enjoy it.

My friend Gavin White came up with the idea, he does things like that, and I ended up joining him for all of it. We both had a fascination with the history of the Underground and the geography of London, the trip certainly opened our eyes to the enormity and diversity of London.

Gav's a Doctor and I am a researcher and at the time we lived in Balham although he's now in Newfoundland. Since the London Underground Overground we have done Berlin U-Bahn system and plan to do NYC at some point in the future as well as all the other major metro networks. Don't ask why but we feel somehow feel we need to now. We did raise money for charity too, Gav for Torture Care and me for Tools for Self Reliance.


Gav’s idea was simple and, many said, stupid. Cycle to every Underground station in London. Include the Docklands Light Railway. And disused and abandoned stations. And swim in every outdoor and unheated pool, pond and lido in London too. That’s a total of 316 stations and six swims. I don’t remember at what point I said I’d go along but Gav was worryingly serious about doing it.

Two OS maps were joined together on his bathroom wall and each and every station was plotted and joined up with green highlighter in a carefully considered route. The neat familiar design classic of Harry Beck’s Underground Map owes more to an electrical circuit diagram than the actual geography of London. Seeing the whole thing exploded in to its true form brought home the area we would have to cover. My handspans walking across the maps tried and failed to diminish the distances from Upminster to Uxbridge and Cockfosters to Kew. And there were places I’d never heard of, Ickenham, Fairlop, Mudchute. No matter, I held on to the belief that it couldn’t be more than a couple of hundred miles leisurely spread over a few days, and this lasted until just before lunchtime on the first day.

Day One: Chesham to Uxbridge

It all started in Chesham. Over beans on toast in the Brown Sugar Café we mull over the journey to come, casually looking over the huge chunk of London that we think we’ll cover in a day visiting 60 stations. After the inaugural photo at the station we spend the first hour lolling through sun dappled country lanes, sneaking under the M25 through woodland on the way to Rickmansworth. In Ordnance Survey we trust and after Watford the map guides us across farmland where we push the bikes through a field to a footbridge over the River Colne. It’s all very scenic and this is an exclusive area.

To get to Moor Park we go down a barriered private road watched by CCTV and coast past a millionaire’s row of mansions. As the property prices fall we get into NW London proper and plough through suburbia, Pinner, Rayner’s Lane. By lunchtime we are only in North Harrow, only twelve down and 48 to go for the day’s quota.

We get out of the rain and take time for lunch and to check the computer that tells us, factoring in map checks, photo stops and general gooning around we are only averaging 6.1 mph. It doesn’t look like we’ll be in Uxbridge for teatime. I never thought I’d say that.

After a chicken sandwich I discover the first and only puncture of the trip. My ten-year old steel framed Rockhopper is otherwise holding up well. Gav’s Cannondale R600, covered in surgical tape holding two bike computers, a pump, D-lock and phone recharger to the frame, seems to be, well, it’s kind of hard to tell.

After South Harrow we take the middle road up an Alpine slope and get to see the impressive jumble of school buildings at the summit. At least we get a nice downhill to Harrow-on-the-Hill and set the day’s maximum speed of 32 mph on the way. After Harrow and Wealdstone (17) it starts raining felines and canines and we take cover in the lee of a builder’s portakabin while it blows over.

North Wembley is edgy but we have to stay out of the rain in the tube entrance while Gav sticks even more tape on to the computer sensor. As soon as it brightens again we get out of there. Kensal Green breaks the monotony with neat terrace houses, a pink car with plastic flowers on the fenders and a wood panelled tube station. Queen's Park is the first sight of the Leslie Green designed red-tiled stations and Maida Vale and Warwick Avenue glow warmly like fireplaces in the evening light.

Paddington is rush hour busy, it’s taken us that long to get here. At Westbourne Park (33) we stop in The Metropolitan for rehydration. Uxbridge looks like a long, long way from here but we agree to carry on for two more hours and see where we are after one more pint of orange juice and lemonade and a packet of crisps.

Never mind the schedule we still have to stop and admire the sights. Wood Lane near BBC Centre is the first disused station we come to. It featured in the Dr Who series Dalek Invasion of Earth. Nowadays the entrance stands alone amidst a levelled building site, the rest presumably exterminated by town planners to save Davros the bother.

Supper is chips and a can of Irn Bru in Park Royal, only 15 more to go.

We hope it will get easier but West London becomes a blur of semi-detached hell and the Western Avenue dogs our progress. Towards Perivale it gets so dark we can’t see the road any more. Ruislip Manor, Ruislip and West Ruislip (57). What is a Ruislip anyhow?


We stop in Hillingdon and fall into a pub by the roundabout for last orders. After one pint of Guinness we set off for the last mile into Uxbridge. All thoughts of tiredness seem to have disappeared and my leg muscles don’t want to stop and now seem to be an extension of the pedals. I am no longer human, I am not a machine. I am bike. And I am cycling into Uxbrdge at midnight, never thought I’d be sayin that. We’ve been on the road for fourteen hours and done 79 miles and 60 stations.

Day Two: Heathrow to Chiswick Park

Day two had to be a short recovery day but starts hard enough with a slog around the perimeter road of Heathrow Airport. After Terminals 1,2,3, Hatton Cross and Terminal 4. it’s good to finally turn the bike around and head east towards civilisation, well, after Hounslow West, with a following wind.

Highlight of the day is running alongside the canal boats and locks on the Grand Union Canal on the way to Boston Manor (68). By the time we get to Chiswick Park (74) it’s time to call it a day and head south of the river through familiar streets back to Balham.


Day Three: Tooting Bec Lido to Upminster

Day three starts with an early morning dip in Tooting Bec Lido. Running up the Northern Line is like shelling peas.

At Stockwell we take a right for Brixton (80) via a skate park, lose the map and find it again before calling in on Brockwell Park Lido.

We resume the Northern Line at the Oval where the crowds are pouring out to see England complete a series whitewash against the Windies but we’ve got to get a move on to Charlton Lido in time to support the campaign to keep it open.

After press photos and BBC coverage we head off up to North Greenwich (95) for the Millennium Dome. The place is weird. One of the newest and most modern stations, empty buses arrive to take no one away. There is a taxi rank of one. Ticket booths and concession stalls lie unused. We go round and continue east past the Thames Barrier and cross the river on the free Woolwich ferry under African skies.

We’re now in Docklands and pick the DLR up at Beckton, heading west towards the futureworld of Canary Wharf that looks a long way away from here. We scoot into the tear shaped Isle of Dogs and head for Island Gardens where we use the foot tunnel built by Brunel to sneak under the river and do the Cutty Sark and Greenwich (118).

Back under the river, no stopping in Wapping but we pass the Prospect of Whitby where Charles Dickens supped. Along to Tower Hill where we meet up with fellow Overgrounder, Alan, who gets us a cream tea and watch paper models of the Crown Jewels being carried off before the final push east along the District Line. Objective Upminster.

We enter the East End. Stratford (139) has a big screen of Olympic coverage and we watch Merlene Ottey in the heats. Alan departs and we begin our run along the District Line. Ian Dury namechecked most of the stops round here, Mile End Road, Plaistow, Becontree and the songs provide a soundtrack to the dismal surrounds. By Dagenham East it begins to get greener and after Elm Park we cross heathland, meeting a pack of horses in the dusk that lift our spirits in the way that horses can without seeming to try. We’re flying now as we knock off the last few into Upminster (151) where Sam and Bill meet us for a morale boost, several pints of Abbott and a chicken burger.

Come back tomorrow for days four, five and six.

Last Updated 22 September 2005