In January 1863 the Metropolitan Railway opened the world's first underground railway beneath the streets of London. Construction had taken three years, and the political machinations and fundraising much longer. The original plan had been to link London's northern rail termini to the City, but that final destination proved elusive and the line was forced to end at Smithfield. To save money most of the line was built beneath roads, rather than buildings, using the cut and cover method. The railway followed the Marylebone and Euston Roads, which had themselves been carved across the outskirts of the capital a century earlier, then hooked down to Farringdon through cutting and tunnel.
I'll not go into enormous detail about the construction of the line because you can readaboutthatelsewhere. Instead I thought I'd take you for a walk along the original line, all nearly four miles of it, at modern day street level. It's not one of London's greatest walks, to be honest, given that most of it involves breathing in six lanes of carbon monoxide. But bear with it, because it heads past some of the capital's more interesting places, and because I'll be dipping down into the stations too. Let's start at the Paddington end, and probably not at the Paddington station you're expecting...
Bishop's Road station: There are currently two underground stations at Paddington, both called Paddington, linked only by a pink and yellow stripe on the floor. The original is the current Hammersmith & City line station, at the far end of the mainline platforms, not the rather nicer District line station at the Praed Street end. The Metropolitan Railway snuck in where it could, which meant the unwanted space between the local lines and the Grand Junction Canal, with access from the Bishop's Bridge Road. What had once been a footbridge where anglers dipped their rods in the River Westbourne became a far mightier span when the Great Western Railway Company dug a steaming chasm through the area in the 1830s. Three decades later the Metropolitan Railway terminus opened out onto this bridge, more an apologetic outpost than a fresh station at the heart of the community.
The old Bishop's Road station has long been wiped away, with a complete rebuild in 1933 and another underway. I think there's a stack of original brickwork beneath the bridge, adjacent to the very modern emergency exit staircase, but little else to make this anything other than a depressing place to wait. The platform's gloomy at one end and exposed at the other, with a single Next Train Indicator in the centre giving inadequate advance warning of escape. It's worse than usual at the moment because blue walls surround the main staircase while rebuilding continues. A couple of new staircases have gone in, leading up to an airy ticket hall with circular patterned windows and a long bank of barriers. Apart from the glass there's not much to like, but at least passengers should be swift enough sweeping through.
The latest rebuild of the Hammersmith & City line station is in preparation for Crossrail, even though that'll pass through on the opposite side of the mainline. This part of the Paddington Integrated Project should be complete by 2014, ensuring that increased passenger numbers have been prepared for. Those with suitcases will be glad to discover a new taxi rank has already been built alongside. It's a bit of a trek to reach the picking-up point, because that's at the far end, but much easier to reach (from the H&C) than previous arrangements on Eastbourne Terrace. Scores of taxis sweep in via a special ramp from Bishop's Bridge, with all non-cab traffic prohibited, and a marshal in a box at the top of the slope halts any pedestrians attempting to enter. [More from London Reconnections]
An alternative exit for pedestrians is up a short flight of steps to the canal. Straight out onto the towpath, no less, which is a novel way to leave a station, but in this case fully justified. The Paddington Basin development lies to the right, and Paddington Central to the left. The latter is built on the site of the old Great Western goods yard, hemmed in between the water and the Westway, and has covered several acres with concrete. Here a cluster of soulless office blocks encircles a central green "amphitheatre" ringed with shops, while to one side a boulevard rises to a dead end beside a Novotel. The developers' blurb claims this is "a Place with life and energy 24 hours a day, seven days a week" but, having visited over New Year, I can assure you it's not.
If I've got this right, the original entrance to Bishop's Road station was located where the taxi rank disgorges, opposite the barriered gateway to Paddington Central. It's not somewhere you'd currently want to hang around, although there is a good view across the entire mainline station from further along the bridge. Alas there's no easy access to the rebuilt station, bar an unsignposted diversion through the new development via the canal, so you could that argue public transport access has gone into reverse here since 1863. But Crossrail will be here soon, and it is gloriously appropriate that at bothends of the original line, 150 years on, another groundbreaking project is underway. [10 photos]