Camden Town is, perhaps, the oddest station on the London Underground network, both for its multi-directional travel possibilities (on no less than four different branches of the same line) and for its unique clientele. Camden is arguably1 the bohemian capital of London - particularly at the weekend. You can be sure that, if you are travelling on the Northern Line on a Saturday or Sunday, very few of your fellow travellers would get through an airport check-in unhindered: either because their faces would set off the metal detector alarms, or because they would be savaged by the sniffer dogs. These people are attracted by the weekend markets and the live music venues which are a topic for discussion elsewhere.
The Station Building
Sitting proudly at the bifurcation of Camden High Street and Kentish Town Road, Camden Town station first opened on 22 June, 19072. It's a typical Northern Line station of the period, clad in blood-red glazed tiles which have the amazing ability to:
- last around a billion years without maintenance - a useful feature for any London Underground structure; and
- repel the London filth while doing so.
The station sits on both the Edgware and High Barnet branches of the Northern line, going north, and serves both the Bank and the Charing Cross branches going south. This unique placing makes it one of the most infuriating places to catch a train, excluding Earl's Court3.
An interesting psycho-geographical point to note is that the adjacent crossroads of Camden High Street, Parkway and Kentish Town Road used to be a site for public hangings, and is rumoured to be haunted by a witch who was hanged there. She allegedly practised the dark arts from the place where 'The Black Cap' pub now stands. This may explain why so many Goths feel inexplicably drawn to the area.
Barriers to Entry
Camden Town station was one of the last stations in inner London to have automatic ticket barriers installed. In the good old days, it used to have a full complement of the helpful and cheerful staff so typical of London Underground, who would check your ticket4 and allow you to proceed into or out of the gloom. Or, for most of the year, into the gloom in either direction. The delay in installing barriers occurred because it was widely predicted that it would result in total transport meltdown (due to Camden being overrun by tourists and ethnic-goods-bargain-hunters every weekend). It hasn't, but you used to be able to walk through the station building as a short cut and the barriers have put a stop to that.
Because of the sheer volume of weekend traffic, Camden Town tube had been increasingly unavailable to locals as somewhere to get to via the tube. Before the barriers were installed, the station had been operating as 'interchange and exit only' at weekends between 1000 and 1700hrs for some time. This meant would-be tube users had to schlep to the much more sedate stations at Chalk Farm or Mornington Crescent5 instead, both of which have lifts rather than escalators. The barriers seem to have helped matters a little, and Camden Town station is now 'interchange and exit only' between 1300 and 1730hrs on Sunday, when the markets are at their busiest.
Access to the platforms is by a pair of escalators, which don't really have enough capacity when the station is busy. If you're trying to travel during peak hours, it's likely both the escalators will be bringing people up from the platfoms and you'll be herded off to the right for an (increasingly less rare) opportunity to jog down the spiral staircase originally provided for use in emergencies.
Why It's So Complex Down There
Imagine the four branches of the Northern Line as a very big letter 'X', or two pairs of trousers sewn together, middle to middle at the waistbands - that's the basic track layout. The platforms are located on the thighs of the upper pair of trousers6. Going north, it's quite simple - trains come up one of the 'legs' (from either Bank or Charing Cross), go through the complex bit in the middle7 and can emerge in either the High Barnet 'leg', or the Edgware 'leg'. So by the time the train reaches a northbound platform - and these are neatly and helpfully labelled 'High Barnet branch' and 'Edgware branch' to avoid confusion - it's already decided which leg it's going up and can't change its mind. Going south, things are far more complicated. Trains come down the legs from Edgware and High Barnet, and reach the platforms BEFORE they come to the interesting bit in the middle. This means that not only does a train have the option of exiting via either southbound trouser leg, but they can (and often do) also change their mind shortly before they reach the platform, or even while they're waiting there.
A set of four of the London Underground's wonderful 'dotty boards'8 are based at the bottom of the escalators. There's one for each platform, and they spout reams of misinformation about which platform the next train is going to appear on. There's a monitor with the same information on it at the bottom of the stairs, if you're forced to use those. In addition, during periods of high demand, an authoritive-sounding Underground employee provides anyone who looks even slightly less than fully certain about their direction with further misinformation in a delightfully confident manner. The trouble with all this is that somewhere, out of your reach, there are another group of Underground employees who have the power to change the destination of a Southbound train as circumstances dictate9. So when this happens, the weary Southbound traveller is advised to simply pick the platform that feels most likely and stick with it.
London Underground are planning to solve most of these problems by redeveloping Camden Town station. Their proposed scheme, however, involves compulsorily purchasing the buildings surrounding the station - including the HSBC Bank, The Electric Ballroom and Buck Street Market (which is the first market you come to heading north out of the station towards Camden Lock - the one labelled 'Camden Market') - and levelling the entire site to build a six-storey 'landmark' building. This has proved rather unpopular with regular Camden aficionados as well as traders and residents, who make the point that Camden isn't about having stylish steel landmark buildings, and removing the historic Electric Ballroom and adjacent Market will drastically alter the individual character of the area which makes Camden what it is. Many have joined the 'Keep It Camden' campaign, which argues that such a large development is unnecessarily intrusive and that building a large, multi-storey shopping mall below ground plus a huge corporate glass office block, shops and flats above would give the place the character of a corporate bank during office hours. The BBC London website sums up the arguments from both sides quite neatly.
Camden Town Tube in Popular Culture
The eastern exit of the tube station stars, alongside the seven nutty boys from north London, on the cover of the second Madness album Absolutely. You can also see it in a number of their videos, particularly on the inserts between songs on the compilation Complete Madness10.
The 20p Kid
On his video The Definite Article, the popular and absurdist comedian Eddie Izzard tells the story of when he was done for fare-dodging at Camden Town station as a teenager, and ended up being pulled in different directions by four policemen for five minutes, which somehow went down on the charge sheet as 'resisting arrest'.
A Load of Old Tobias?
Tobias Hill has written a book called Underground which happens to centre around Camden Town Station. Although the book is no great shakes, it does contain some interesting-if-true facts:
- Camden Town is a very deep station in places; there are underground shelters built during the war which stretch many metres below the platforms.
- There are unused platforms.
- South Kentish Town station (one of the so called Ghost Stations, see Ex-tube stations) is just up the road and may be spotted by the keen tube freak both above and below ground (the grille covering the entrance to the underground complex referred to by Mr Hill is there, down the left side of Ca$h Converters, but we challenge Mr Hill to rip it off with his bare hands, however mad keen he is on the totty that might be down there... ahh, artistic licence in action).
Spare Some Change?
On emerging disorientated from the station, or alternatively after being denied entry to it on a Sunday afternoon, why not hang around and chat a while to the friendly vagrants outside the station and the HSBC bank? They are usually keen to share their Special Brew/life stories/dogs/language with the visiting hitchhiker.
Other delights to behold are the fast-food stalls immediately adjacent to the west exit, and the Half Way House Pub across the road to the east. Sitting, like the station, on the corner of two roads, it's a far easier place to meet up with friends than the huge, over-rated and usually over-crowded World's End nearby, and it's especially easy to meet up with people whom you didn't set out to meet up with, such as strange Scandinavians from Luton (at least in one Researcher's experience...). The hitchhiker with a bit more time to kill would be better advised to nip across Camden High Street and up Inverness Street to The Good Mixer which is substantially better than both the pubs right by the station.