An alien landing on planet Earth might, on arrival in London, take one look at the tube map and assume that Acton rivals the West End and the City as the centre of gravity of the British capital.
If that sounds exaggerative, just look at the extraordinary connectivity of this area. Giving its name to numerous rail stops, Acton is the only part of London with all four compass points represented in its station names. There are other stations on top of those — and there used to be even more. To add to the confusion, many of them have had name changes.
No offence to Acton, but if our alien visitor has it all wrong — and if this is just liveable suburbia rather than an alternative heart of London — then how do you explain the amazing and ever-changing network of rail linkages in this part of town?
How many stations are we talking?
Acton — with a population of around 60,000 — gives its name to no fewer than seven stations. We know that London's rail and tube network is notorious for disparities between north and south, east and west — but just to put that into perspective, consider that the entire borough of Hackney has never had a tube station.
Acton Main Line (National Rail)
Acton Central (London Overground, North London line)
South Acton (London Overground, North London line)
Acton Town (London Underground, District and Piccadilly lines)
East Acton (London Underground, Central line)
North Acton (London Underground, Central line)
West Acton (London Underground, Central line)
If you include Chiswick Park (London Underground, District Line) — which was once known as Acton Green — then it's eight stations.
And, as David Knights of Acton History informs us, there were once even more stations around here. A station called Park Royal & Twyford Abbey, on what's now the District line, closed in 1931. And there were stops at Rugby Road and Woodstock Road on a line closed to passengers in 1916, and at North Acton and Old Oak Lane on another disused line which ran on-and-off till 1947.
Oddly, a second South Acton sat next to the present South Acton; it was served by the District line and the distance to Acton Town was so short that staff called the journey 'the tea run' — because you could get there and back in the time it took to boil the kettle.
Are all the current stations actually in Acton, though?
One quirk of railway nomenclature is that stations aren't always where their names claim they are. Goodge Street station is not on Goodge Street. Clapham Junction serves an area more accurately described as Battersea, not Clapham. (You'll remember that Londonist has gone round sorting out the names of London's tube stations so they make a bit more sense.)
It seems the Acton 'brand' is so strong that even stations that aren't technically in Acton still want to pretend they are. We like to call it the Estate Agent Technique.
Amanda Knights, also of Acton History, pointed out to us that not all of the present-day "Acton" stations lie within the area's traditional boundaries. They're not in the old Acton parish, nor the old municipal borough of Acton, nor even the present-day borough of Ealing.
Under those definitions, Acton Town is, frankly, a borderline case at best. And East Acton is well and truly rumbled.
But what's meant by "Acton" anyway?
The case of East Acton brings us on to an important point, which is that Acton and East Acton are historically considered separate places. A trawl through old maps of Middlesex shows the pair growing up as independent villages; Acton itself being a medieval settlement recorded in the Domesday Book. The 1850 Ordnance Survey also shows Acton Green, to the south, being separated from both of these by fields.
All of which is to say that maybe what people call Acton now isn't really one place at all. Maybe it's just a word for any unclaimed land between Ealing, Twyford, Park Royal, White City, Hammersmith, and Chiswick.
A history lesson
Whatever you want to call this area, we still want to know why it's so well-served by rail connections above and below ground.
Acton was once a rural stop-off on the road from London to Uxbridge. David Knights tells us that it quickly became a beneficiary of the rapid expansion of the Big Smoke in the 19th century. A change of law in 1859 allowed 'common' land to be privately owned, and developed. Acton began to see an influx of wealthy new residents who wanted a better quality of life than was offered in the city itself — but who still wanted to be able to access that city quickly.
The station now known as Acton Central — once just called plain old Acton — was the area's first station, arriving in 1853. The line which served it allowed commuters an easy journey into the City of London, and onwards to touristy destinations like Richmond and Kew. That route still effectively exists — as the North London line — on the Overground.
Acton Main Line — also just called Acton once upon a time — came in 1868 when the Great Western Railway (GWR) line out of Paddington finally decided to install a stop there. Later that century, the District line came, and the Central and Piccadilly lines were extended through the town. Stations were laid down across Acton to cater for specific housing estates which had sprung up.
Into the 20th century, and Acton was fast becoming an industrial centre, dubbed 'motor town' (just like Detroit) for its specialism in automobiles. It played a significant role in aircraft-making in the first world war. In time, the development of the railway was actually prompting the development of the town rather than simply responding to it; the GWR constructing a housing estate in the 1920s to house its staff.
So you can’t really separate the growth of Acton from the growth of the railway. Each station appeared with its own justification, and retains its own usefulness today. The question really is, why can’t every part of London be like Acton?