A Northerner On The Tube In The 1970s

Last Updated 24 April 2024

A Northerner On The Tube In The 1970s

Transport author Andrew Martin writes about his experiences as a teen northerner in the 1970s riding the London Underground. You can read much more of this sort of thing on Andrew's Substack, Reading on Trains, all about trains and travel from a cultural and social-history point of view.

A train guard with pipe sticks his head out the window
"The guards were heavy booted, anti-social-looking men, usually pale — from spending too long underground, I supposed." Image: Mike Goldwater from this article

I was a privileged youth, in the literal and limited sense that, as the son of a man quite high up in British Rail, I possessed a 'privilege pass' for the railways.

From when I was aged 14 — in 1976 — I used this to make regular train journeys from our York home to London. Here, I did a great deal of tube travelling, because I was also equipped with privilege tickets for the Underground. I was fascinated by the tube, and it was in part a morbid fascination. I never quite got used to it, and I never have since, which is perhaps why I've written a couple of books about the system.

the inside of an empty bakerloo line carriage
The current Bakerloo line stock dates as far back as 1972. Image: Londonist

Here was a railway operating in conditions of perpetual night, with carriage windows that looked out on pitch dark. Even in the middle of a summer's day, the first thing you saw of the train's approach was the beam of its headlights. I tended not to distinguish very much between the tube lines, but I spent a lot of time on the then-new Victoria, where the subterranean gloom was emphasised by the gentle lunar glow of the clocks at the platform ends, most of which have now been removed.

I once went to London with a mate from York, and he didn't like the longitudinal seats, where you sit with your back to the carriage windows: "It makes me feel sick," he said, "like being on the waltzer in the fairground." There were more seats of the other kind in those days (transverse, side-on to the window), but these seemed to be colonised by lairy Londoners with their feet on the seat opposite.

Two young men asleep on the tube
Northern line, 1975. Image: Mike Goldwater from this article

I tended to sit in the last carriage, where there was a guard. The guards were heavy booted, anti-social-looking men, usually pale — from spending too long underground, I supposed. They closed the doors by pressing two buttons on their control panels simultaneously, using their index and middle fingers, which they seemed to like doing just as some elderly or infirm person was approaching along the platform. As the train pulled away, they hung out of their guard's door — at the time I assumed to look cool, whereas in fact, it was to make sure nobody on the platform was tangling with the moving train. I've got to know some ex-tube guards, incidentally, and they're lovely men.

A map of the northern Northern line
Could resist putting this here. Image: Londonist

Or I might sit in the smoking carriage, this on the advice of my dad, a 10-a-day man himself, who said, "You'll be safe with the smokers." I remember wondering if the sycamore slats along the floors of the carriages were purposely designed to keep the fag butts in neat alignment, because that’s where they ended up, there being no ash trays. Some of the butts were still glowing. Yet this wildness co-existed with an apparent stoicism — almost servility — among Londoners. They put up with these trains that nobody had bothered to paint, and which had no loos. They waited for the passengers to alight first and stood on the right of the escalators.

Prince Charles in the cabin of a Jubilee line train
In the 1970s days, the tube was being 'managed for decline'. Image: TfL

I prided myself on following the etiquette and on my developing knowledge of the network, but I knew nothing of London itself. If I wanted to get from, say, Piccadilly Circus to Leicester square, I'd take the tube. I was like the Chaplin-esque man on the Edwardian poster whose slogan read, "When in doubt, take the Underground." Whenever I stepped out of a tube station, it was like waking from a dream. I'd immediately consult my outdated (even then) A to Z in an attempt at self-orientation, but the streets never seemed to be in the right place.

In those days, the tube was being 'managed for decline'. The car was king, and I subsequently found out that the humble purpose of the new Victoria Line was to assist motorists by encouraging other motorists to leave their cars at home. The air was sooty, particulate; the tiles were falling off the platform walls. On arriving back at York after a day on the Underground, I always had to wash my hair.

Frank Pick
Frank Pick: one of Andrew Martin's heroes. Image: fair use

I kept going back to London though, just to experience the tube, which was indeed a bit like the waltzer: a thrill ride. I approximated to the ideal passenger sought by that great inter-war publiciser of the Underground (and Vice President of London Transport), Frank Pick: that is, a passenger who made journeys he didn't, strictly speaking, need to make. Pick had applied his design genius to the Underground, coming up with the superbly element roundel symbol, which resembles a rising or setting sun according to one's mood — and commissioning Charles Holden to design many elegant station buildings, most of which, like cylindrical Arnos Grove, I never visited in the 1970s because they were too far out. But I did walk round and round the mellowly lit, seductive Piccadilly Circus concourse, designed by Holden to look like an upmarket shopping street at night.

View of York Minster from Station Road, with the City Walls visible in the left of the shot
York was an unlikely inspiration for Frank Pick's Underground branding. Photo: Karl Moran/Unsplash

I was a full-time London resident when I made the gratifying discovery that Pick and Holden were northerners, and not only that: Frank Pick had grown up in York. The effect of the city upon him is discussed by Michael T. Saler in his book, The Avant-Garde in Interwar England: Medieval Modernism and the London Underground. Saler contends that, "the physical layout of York, with its towering cathedral and ancient Roman wall encircling the city, left an indelible impression on [Pick]. York could be grasped as a civic community: the whole was more than the sum of its parts, which Pick did not find to be true for London."

By making the tube coherent, manageable, orderly — York-like qualities — Pick sought to make London likewise. So perhaps my early fascination with the Underground is perfectly logical. It was, for me, a home from home.