The Piccadilly Line


The Piccadilly Line is London's premier tube, passing from the airport through the hotel, shopping, and tourist areas of London. How did it begin? How did it reach its current size? Where did the name come from? For the answers, we go back to the turn of the century.

Two private companies had permission from Parliament for two railway projects. The rights to these projects were bought by an American called Charles Yerkes and amalgamated through business cash advances and other financial arrangements.

The new project became The Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway. This snappy name was abbreviated to the initials GN, P & B Rwy. In 1933, when the tube lines were nationalised, this became the Piccadilly Line. The first section between Finsbury Park and Hammersmith was begun in July 1902 and opened on 15 December 1906. The spoil from the digging of the tunnels was used to build up the terraces at Chelsea's football ground.

The Great Northern referred to was the Great Northern Railway that ran (and still runs) from Kings Cross, via Finsbury Park up to the north of England. An arrangement was made with this company for them to build the first part of the new tube using its own land.

The Original Route

The northern terminus of the Piccadilly Line was Finsbury Park. The platforms are right below the overground railway reached by steps. The old Piccadilly Line terminal platforms are now the northbound Victoria / Piccadilly Lines. The area is named after Lord Finsbury who lived nearby; indeed the park was part of the grounds of his house. On the platforms now are mosaics of balloons. This is because the first British balloon flight took place nearby.

From here the line travels in twin tubes southwards under the overground railway. The next stop was Gillespie Road. When the line was opened this was a residential street dominated by a theological college. In 1914, a south London football club Woolwich Arsenal decided to move to north London. Doing so, they dropped the Woolwich from their name and leased the sports ground from the college. Within a few years, the club became one of the most famous in the world and bought the land from the college. In 1932, the station name was changed to Arsenal to reflect the club's importance to the area. On the platforms it is still possible to see the old name written on the tiles partially obscured by adverts.

Continuing under the overground railway, we arrive at Holloway Road. Because of the involvement of the Great Northern, this station is by the railway bridge rather than on a central intersection. The red tiled surface building is typical of this line. Above the entrance you can still see the initials "GN, P and B Rwy". The name comes from hollow way because the road was originally a ditch built by a hermit. Continuing south under the overground railway we get to Caledonian Road, which again, is in the middle of nowhere. This street is named after the Latin for Scotland. Between here and King's Cross there used to be York Road. It was sited (again next to the overground) in an industrial area that quickly became derelict. So derelict that this station was closed in 1932. Between Caledonian Road and King's Cross (on the right hand side) you can still see the ghostly platforms. The red tiled surface building is part of a garage.

Finally we reach the end of the overground at King's Cross. Although the Piccadilly Line at King's Cross intersects with several other lines, these were all built by private companies with no interchange. They were all connected only after nationalisation in the 1933. King's Cross is London's second busiest Underground station (54 million passengers per year) and the one with most lines (six: Piccadilly, Northern, Victoria, Circle, Metropolitan, Hammersmith and City). It certainly makes a good international terminus for the Channel Tunnel. In 1291, the body of Eleanor (wife of Edward I) was brought from Nottinghamshire for burial in Westminster Abbey. Crosses were placed at each of the body's resting places on the journey. This was the site of the penultimate cross (the final one was Charring Cross).

From here the tube follows normal practice for the beginning of the century and travels mainly under the roads. This is so that there wouldn't be any compensation to pay if any damage was done to property at street level by the trains. Still travelling south, the next stop is Russell Square. Unlike previous stations with the platforms between the tracks, this one has them on the outside. This means that the doors open on the "wrong" side. This area was part of the estate of the Dukes of Bedford whos family name was Russell. It is the second largest square in London (after Lincoln's Inn Fields). It's only a short ride to Holborn (named after another hollow this time for the river Bourne). At this station the southbound platform is below the northbound one. The platform design shows columns and statues because this station is close to the British Museum. Next to the higher southbound platform is a single platform for the old shuttle service to Aldwych. This was formally called Strand (opened in 1907) because it marked the north bank of the river before the embankment was built. It was closed in 1994.

From Holborn, the main part of the tube turns rapidly west (to the right) and snakes under the narrow streets to Covent Garden, once the site of London's fruit and vegetable market, now a lively area full of street theatre and live music. The "garden" was originated by monks of Westminster Abbey. Samuel Pepys saw England's first puppet show here. Covent Garden is the deepest station on the Piccadilly Line. On the platform, are one or two older London Transport signs. These have a full red circle rather than the red circle on the white background. The distance between Covent Garden and Leicester Square is the shortest on the London Underground (0.26km). Leicester Square's platforms have a blue film strip along the top representing the large number of cinemas in the area. The escalator here was the longest on the tube (304 steps) until the new one at the Angel. Leicester Square is named after the Earl of Leicester who had land here during the 17th century.

Piccadilly Circus is at the very heart of London. The name comes from "piccadil", a type of collar made by a tailor in nearby Haymarket. The tailor built himself a house which he called Piccadilly Hall. The station's circular ticket office is right beneath the statue of Eros (which is not actually Eros). The platform design was inspired by the neon lights around Piccadilly. Still moving westwards, the line passes under Piccadilly itself to Green Park (first called Dover Street). World War II bombing destroyed the surface building so the ticket office is below the street. Down Street was next but this was closed in the 1932. The building is still there around the corner from the Japanese Embassy. The old station is bricked up and this can be spotted if you sit on the right between Green Park and Hyde Park Corner. This old station was used during World War II as a secret war bunker safe from the bombs and crowds. Hyde Park Corner itself is less busy since the roundabout and underpass were built. Its platforms haven't changed their appearance much since 1906. The surface building is no longer used and is now a pizza restaurant.

Knightsbridge is the stop for Harrod's and so is very busy. The platforms were decorated during the 1930s and so it looks more modern than Hyde Park Corner. The name comes from a bridge over the River Westbourne. Knights would cross this bridge on their way to Fulham to receive a blessing from the Bishop of London before going off to war. From here the tube passes under Brompton Road. There used to be a station called Brompton Road (from "broom town" - a place where shrub grew) just next to the Victoria and Albert Museum; the red tiled surface building is still there and gaps in the bricked up platforms can be spotted. It was closed in 1934. From here the tubes zig zag dramatically as the tunnels attempt to stay under the narrow roads. In fact at South Kensington, the road was so narrow that the tube was built with one platform below the other. This is the stop for the museums (V & A, Natural History, Geological, Science) and the Royal Albert Hall. The area is named after a Saxon family called Kensige who once lived here.

A little further is the unremarkable Gloucester Road, named after the Duchess of Gloucester, and surrounded by hotels. Next is Earl's Court where the first escalator on the tube was opened in 1928. The area is famous for Australian tourists, travel agents and Arabic restaurants. From here the tunnels rise steeply coming up to the surface between the tracks of the District Line. The four tracks share platforms at Barons Court before the short hop to the other end of the original line, Hammersmith. In many of the older stations it is still possible to see the original direction signs stating To Finsbury Park and To Hammersmith.

Later History

In 1911 the line was extended to Acton Town following the existing District Line tracks. From here it split into two. Northwards to South Harrow (1932) and Uxbridge (1933); westwards to Hounslow West (1933). Between 1975 and 1977, this section was extended to Heathrow Airport making London the first city to have an Underground Railway link to its airport. In 1986 a station at Terminal 4 was added. Terminal 5 was added in 2008 giving Heathrow three underground stations.

At the other end, the line was extended to Arnos Grove in 1932 and Cockfosters a year later. The platform architecture of the 1930s can be seen by comparing Manor House (with its square biscuit coloured tiles) and Arsenal (with the original rectangular glazed tiles). Incidentally, the same differences can be seen between Highgate (1939) and Tufnell Park (1907) on the Northern Line.

The Piccadilly Line now has 51 stations and a route length to 70km.

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Just for completeness, here is a little information about the other "tube" lines of the Underground. The Metropolitan, Hammersmith & City, and District Lines are not real tubes and are much older.

Northern Line

Part 1 began as The City And South London Railway (Bank to Stockwell, 1890). Extended to Clapham Common and Moorgate (1900), Euston (1901), Camden Town (1924). Part 2 was The Charring Cross and Hampstead Railway (Charring Cross to Archway and Golders Green, 1907). Extended northwards to Hendon Central (1923) and Edgware (1924) and southwards to Embankment (1914) and to connect with the City and South London at Kennington (1926). South to Morden (1926). North to East Finchley (1939), High Barnet (1940) and Mill Hill East (1941). Hampstead is the deepest station on the entire Underground.

Central Line

Began as The Central London Railway (Shepherds Bush to Bank, 1900). West to White City (1908) and Ealing Broadway (1920); west to Liverpool Street (1912). To Stratford (1946). To Greenford, Woodford and Newbury Park (1947). To West Ruislip, Hainault, Woodford on the loop, and Loughton (1948). To Ongar (1949). The Ongar branch was closed in 1994.

Bakerloo Line

Began as The Baker Street and Waterloo Railway. The newspapers gave the line its current name! First stretch: Baker Street to Elephant and Castle, 1906. Extended north to Edgware Road (1907), Willesden Junction (1915) and Watford (1917). In 1982 the line was cut back to Queen's Park and re-instated to Harrow and Wealdstone in 1984.

Victoria Line

Originally called Route C in the planning stage. Walthamstow Central to Warren Street (1968), to Victoria (1969), to Brixton (1971).

Jubilee Line

Originally a part of the Metropolitan Line (Finchley Road to Willesden Green, 1913; to Wembley Park, 1914; to Stanmore, 1932). Transferred to the Bakerloo Line with a stretch linking Finchley Road and Baker Street (1939). Became the Jubilee Line after being extended to Charring Cross in 1979. Extended to Stratford in 1999.

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