In the London Underground, the beginning of a new Elizabethan era | Way of life
The London Underground train rushing me to Paddington station is a bit unusual. In place of the usual cyclists – rushed, eye contact-avoiding commuters and world-weary big-city hipsters – there are retirees, teenagers, families, all excited to be here. It’s May 24 and the Elizabeth Line, the most exciting thing to hit Transport for London from the double decker bus, opens today. It took about 30 years in the making, cost about 19 billion pounds (about $23 billion) and is four years behind schedule, but no one seems to care. Strangers even talk to each other, an extinction-level phenomenon on the Tube.
The line, which stretches from Heathrow Airport and remote Reading in the west to Abbey Wood and Shenfield in the east, is a boon for anyone arriving at Heathrow; not only will this allow visitors to get to central London in record time, it will also open up swaths of the city in an unprecedented way.
Listed by the nearest Elizabeth Line station, here are six places worth visiting, offering Punjabi cuisine, soaring Victorian architecture, Abba and more. Some are widely known, others less so; all have been made more accessible by the line.
My grandfather William Hawkes was a stationmaster at Southall. He would have a hard time recognizing it today. There’s a new glass-fronted station building for the arrival of the Elizabeth Line, and beyond that this outer suburb looks very different from what it experienced before World War II. Then it housed Welsh migrants, among others. Since the 1960s, it has been London’s most important center of Punjabi culture and remains an iconic South Asian neighborhood.
Turning north from the station, you first pass the Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, a large Sikh temple on Park Avenue, then Saravanaa Bhavan, part of an Indian chain that bills itself as the “Indian Vegetarian Restaurant number 1 in the world. The building has its own history, having housed Glassy Junction, a legendary Punjabi pub, until it closed around a decade ago.
I go to a local culinary institution, Rita’s Chilli Chaat Corner, which opened in 1968. The food is generous and good value, the service friendly, and Rita’s Royal Mix Chaat (about £13.70 $) huge. It’s a symphony of flavors and textures: crunchy papdi crackers, samosas and tikkis, chili and coriander sauces, chole (a chickpea curry) and bhel, puffed rice with sweetened tamarind chutney.
By the time I’m done, I’m more than full. Tentative plans to buy jalebi, a deep-fried sweet snack, go out the window, but I stop at Quality Foods, a supermarket offering subcontinental treats, to buy some spices.
They moved Paddington Bear. Until recently, a statue of London’s most famous marmalade sandwich fan stood under the clock next to Platform 1, away from much of the station’s human traffic. Now, thanks to the arrival of the Elizabeth line, it has been moved. Where to go ? “Oh, he’s near the pastry stand,” a station employee told me. “He was a little awkward here.”
I find him surrounded by yellow security barriers. More photos for Paddington, at least in the short term: there was a steady stream of people short and short queuing for their Kodak moment. (Fortunately, there’s still a Paddington book-shaped bench on Platform 1, which performs much the same function.)
Paddington’s new perch gives him a slightly better view of the resort’s vast magnificence. Built as the terminus of the Great Western Railway in 1854, it is second only to St. Pancras among London terminuses in terms of delight. Three wrought iron arches support a canopy that rises and falls over the station. Walk to the western end and climb to an elevated walkway for the best view – and a close-up of gently curving ironwork.
Tottenham Court Road
The rise of working from home on Fridays means that the old canard of the hospitality industry, “Thursday is the new Friday”, may finally have come true, at least for some office workers in London. So what does Soho, historically London’s most energetic but often quiet central district during the pandemic, look like on a Thursday night in late May?
One of the Elizabeth Line exits at Tottenham Court Road station leads directly to Dean Street, arguably Soho’s main thoroughfare. Just after 7 p.m., there are crowds outside the Toucan, Nellie Dean and Crown & Two Chairmen; Old Compton Street buzzes with noise, taxis weave their way behind groups of oblivious 20-somethings. In the Coach & Horses on Greek Street it’s a little quieter, although the bar staff are busy. (London Pride beer tastes great.) Meanwhile, there’s barely standing room in the French House, inside or out, but there rarely is.
On Wardour Street, a Toyota Prius chants, rather incongruously, “California Dreamin'”; a young man with a painted white face, à la Marcel Marceau, plays “Michelle” by the Beatles in front of an inexistent crowd on Archer Street; and bass echoes around Great Pulteney Street, emanating from an event at the Daily Paper clothing store.
As you walk through Leather Lane, you notice a pattern. A five-minute walk from Farringdon station, this historic street market has become famous for its great lunch options in recent years, but one option is about to rule all others: falafel. There is Falafel Time, Dukan 41, Falafel & Grill House, Balady and many more too.
How do you choose? It probably doesn’t matter. I opted for Falafel Time, where I was provided with a large assorted box containing not only falafel but also hummus, halloumi, tahini, chili sauce and salad for under £7 ( about $8). It’s delicious, harmonious and gone in five minutes.
However, Leather Lane is not the only market near Farringdon Station. There’s also Smithfield, the city’s old meat market, where it was once easy to grab a huge English breakfast and a pint of beer at 7am; now only the Fox & Anchor, northeast of the market, continues this tradition. At 2 p.m. on a Tuesday, however, the market is as dead as its produce, although there is much noise from conversion work on the western section into the new Museum of London.
The Exmouth market, to the north, is lively. An Italian is on the phone, gesturing enthusiastically, his voice gradually gaining in intensity. A couple walks around chatting in French. Across the street is Furanxo, a Spanish deli, and, better yet, Cafe Kick, a long-established bar with table football and a levity that suggests Lisbon or Marseille, France, rather than London. .
A small group, possibly 12 in number, gathered outside a hexagonal black building just south of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford. They await that night’s performance in the new Abba Voyage experience, a live show featuring avatars of the Swedish pop sensations. There are families, teenagers and people old enough to have seen Abba in his heyday, all dressed in Abba t-shirts. They are impatient: a nearby countdown indicates that there are 5 hours, 10 minutes and 25 seconds until the show.
Further north, near London Stadium and Stratford station, five equally enthusiastic young men are trying to get themselves a bike and a trailer – an electric trailer, no less – to get around a little faster. They fail. There’s a lot of performative huffing, huffing and screaming, but not much progress.
I was last inside the Olympic Stadium in 2012, the night British athletes won three gold medals; “Super Saturday”, the British press called it. It is now home to West Ham United, London’s fourth most popular football team, the focal point of a booming new neighborhood. However, not everything is new here: in Hackney Wick, about a 10-minute walk away, the Lord Napier Star – closed for around 25 years, abandoned and entirely graffitied – has recently reopened, bucking the trend of pub closures that dates back decades. It’s in the heart of what has become one of London’s most unlikely nightlife spots.
There are two Woolwiches, it seems, separated by Beresford Street. To the south is old Woolwich, buzzing with blue-collar life but could use some cash. To the north there is the regenerated Royal Arsenal, home to the new Elizabeth Line station, which has seen a lot of investment in recent years.
Until the late 1960s it was the largest munitions and armaments factory in the UK, reaching its peak during the First World War when around 80,000 people worked there. In the square in front of the station there are mature trees – lime, plane, sycamore, chestnut – and the 18th century Dial Arch, once a workshop, now a pub. It inspired the formation of Arsenal Football Club, based in Woolwich until it scuttled north of the river in 1913.
There are several ways to get back to town from Woolwich. You can take a boat (like the Thames Clippers Uber Boat) up the Thames to Battersea Power Station or walk west along the Thames Path. No one could blame you, however, if you decide to go back underground and find out what else the Elizabeth line has to offer.
Hawkes is a London-based writer.