Orbiting London: Going Underground and Overground


Underground train London
A London Underground train, which also goes overground. Photos © hidden europe

If your idea of fun is traveling in circles, then London’s Circle Line was made just for you. In truth, the trains don’t orbit forever and with each 360 degree circuit you’ll need to change trains to continue your orbit. Edgware Road is the usual changeover point.

The Circle Line: Barely subterranean

Like many points on the London Underground, Edgware Road station is hardly underground at all. Slightly subterranean at best, with hints of daylight all around. When Londoners refer to “the Underground” — or even “the Tube” — they are talking of a network of metro rail routes that are more often above the surface than below it.

Sunlight graces an Earl's Court station sign.

Only 45% of the London Underground is subsurface, and that’s mainly lines in the heart of the city. And even there, routes like the Metropolitan, District and Circle Lines are only hesitatingly subterranean, barely burrowing far below the surface. When they do pluck up courage to dive underground, they come up again for air very quickly. Some stations on these three lines (like the big District Line interchange at Earls Court) are positively bright and airy places.

Underground and Overground

Okay, got that? The Underground is mainly overground. Then there is another network called the London Overground, which is also featured on most versions of the famous tube map. The London Overground is even more overground than the Underground, but it does nonetheless have long underground sections, most notably when it dives under the Thames (between Rotherhithe and Wapping, east of the city center).

Outer orbits

Dedicated urban explorers have always been able to circumnavigate London’s core on an orbit further out from the center than the Circle Line. London benefits from a good number of train lines that meander through suburbs and never reach the centre. A mix of those and a creative hop over the Thames using the Woolwich Ferry made for some intriguing itineraries. Thousands of Londoners have spent entire days pondering how to orbit the city without touching Zone 1 (that’s the heart of the city — Circle Line territory).

New orbital opportunities with London Overground

Last Sunday, London Overground introduced new train services that take the challenge out of London orbits. With a network of new high-frequency routes, Londoners now have new orbital options. For London Overground has effectively completed an Outer Circle route.

The circuit runs from Clapham Junction east through Peckham before turning north to slip under the Thames to Shoreditch. From there it is all stops west, skirting Islington and Hampstead, before turning south through Shepherd’s Bush to cross over the Thames by Chelsea Harbour to reach Clapham Junction.

As with the Underground option on the Circle Line, you cannot just orbit forever on the London Overground. Each circuit from Clapham Junction back to Clapham Junction requires an easy cross-platform change of train at Highbury & Islington.

Zones 1-2 Travelcards

True purists like us might venture that the potential charm of the new London Overground circuit is undermined by not sticking just to Zone 2. Between Whitechapel and Hoxton in East London it loses its nerve and cuts a corner, slipping for a mile or two through Zone 1.

Orbital explorers can test out both the Circle Line and the new London Overground Outer Circle route with an off-peak Travelcard for Zones 1 and 2. For a modest investment of just seven pounds, this one-day ticket allows you to crisscross and orbit the city at will. At the moment, that fare is the same whether you pay cash for a real paper ticket or use an Oyster card. From the start of 2013, travelers wanting to pay cash rather than using an Oyster card will need to pay an extra 30 pence for their Zones 1-2 Travelcard.

Well above ground: The Thames Airline

So we have learned that even the finest London orbits are perforce interrupted by the need to change trains and that the Underground and Overground are perversely misleading terms.

Explore the tube map even more and out in Zone 3, you’ll find a line that is barely on the surface, still less subterranean. It is called the Emirates Air Line. For a while, we thought this might be a secret route to Dubai, a sort of trick in the space-time continuum that brought Greenwich (on the south bank of the Thames) within spitting distance of the Arabian peninsula. It turns out not to be a wormhole (Star Trek fans will understand!), but a cable car link over the Thames. It is a good reminder that the Underground is not so often underground.

About the author


About the authors: Nicky and Susanne manage a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine.

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