So, do you want the good news or the bad new first? What, the good news? OK, here goes...
The good news is that I've finished the Piccadilly line, the second longest line after the Central line, and I've only got two more to go, the relatively short Victoria line and the rather longer Jubilee line.
The bad news is that I woke up this morning in a terrible mood, and the last thing I wanted to do was go walking. I snoozed the alarm twice before finally swinging myself out of bed, and after grumping my way through breakfast and getting myself sorted for ten miles of tubewalking through west London, my phone bleeped to tell me that my girlfriend had lost her credit card while on holiday in Turkey, so I waited for her to text me the details and fought my way through the bank's voicemail system to cancel both our cards. This hardly helped put a bounce in my step, and I started out at Rayners Lane with the sun and the wind in my eyes and a face like a bulldog's arse. If there had been any cans on the pavement, I'd have kicked them noisily into the gutter, I was that miserable.
Normally a good walk pulls me out of a dark mood like this, but even though I must be careful not to let my grumpiness cloud my judgement, this isn't a terribly good walk; it's a terribly average one. I already did the stretch between Uxbridge and Rayners Lane when I walked the Metropolitan line, and I remember being totally nonplussed by the experience; I'm afraid the same fairly uninspiring tone continues all the way down this branch of the Piccadilly line. It's not that this is a terrible part of the world – the suburbs are generally pretty pleasant and there are far worse places you could end up living – but in terms of walking, it's a bit monotonous, and that's the last thing you need when you're already walking under a black cloud. Ah well, you can't win 'em all.
Rayners Lane to South Harrow
Rayners Lane is not a great place to start a walk. The A4090 is a busy road, the shops lining it are fairly dreadful (unless you like junk food, that is), and apart from the Tube station – which is a large, rectangular Charles Holden design dating from the early 1930s – the only interesting building is the old Art Deco cinema, which is now the European Centre for Zoroastrianism. Its curved white front and tall bay windows are quite delightful, and totally lost among the shops and traffic.
I headed south down the A-road and turned left into Clitheroe Avenue, a randomly picked side street that would take me into Rayner's Lane and on towards the next station (as with Earl's Court and Barons Court, the Tube station has a different approach to apostrophes than those in charge of the road names, so Rayners Lane station is not far from Rayner's Lane – go figure). However, I should have continued along the A-road for a while longer, because not far to the south is Newton Farm Ecology Park, through which you can cut from the main road into Rayner's Lane. I can't tell you what the ecology park is like, as I didn't take this much greener route, but I can tell you that Clitheroe Avenue was littered with wheelie-bins – it is a Monday, after all, and that's collection day in the wheelie-bin mad London Borough of Harrow, as I discovered last time – and the far end of the road is a construction site, so my guess would be that the park is a better bet.
The walk along Rayner's Lane and Eastcote Lane is not one of the most exciting in the world. This is the land of pebbledash, and pebbledash brings me down, so let's fast-forward to South Harrow station, another Charles Holden design, this time dating from 1935, when a new station was opened to replace the original 1903 Metropolitan District Railway building a little way to the south of the current site. I'm a great fan of Holden's architecture, but this one does nothing for me; it feels a bit crammed into the sides of the railway bridge, and although the flat concrete roofs are supposed to lead up to the platform level like a series of steps, the addition of safety railings all over the station (which didn't appear in the original design) rather clutters the effect. Sorry, it's not my cup of tea this one; let's move along, please...
South Harrow to Sudbury Hill
It's more suburbia all the way to Sudbury Hill, but this time there's a difference. The Edwardian terraces along South Hill Road are fairly pleasant and some of the houses along here are quite charming, but the best is yet to come. South Hill Estate is contained in its own conservation area and takes up a number of private roads behind resolutely locked gates (though pedestrian access is allowed, or at least tolerated, though there's no right of way). The estate is home to some very well preserved late Victorian and Edwardian houses along South Hill Avenue, as well as some properties dating from 1910 to 1930 along Orley Farm Road and Hill Close, which were inspired by the garden suburb ideal of the early 20th century. There's no doubting that the architecture is striking, and some of the houses are quite magnificent, but on a wet and rather dull day, the dark brickwork and large number of trees does give the place a slightly dark and dank feel to it, which is a shame as it's clearly a special place. I'll just have to come back when the weather is more summery... in January, perhaps.
At the end of Orley Farm Road you come across day 9 of the Capital Ring which goes from Greenford to South Kenton, and as it runs past Sudbury Hill, I thought I'd join it for a while. I walked this bit of the Ring back in 2007 and have been back at least once since then, but the short section from the edge of South Hill Estate to Sudbury Hill is fairly forgettable; the most interesting thing is a tall green tower along South Vale, which is actually a flue from an underground sewer, ensuring that the stink is carried far up into the sky.
Sudbury Hill station is not far after the national rail station of the same name, and this time Holden's characteristic design is much more in keeping with his work further up the line. It's a block-like structure with a large rectangular ticket hall, fronted by a single panel of windows sporting the London Underground roundel, and the station building below consists of a flat concrete roof held up by two thick columns of brick. The station was opened in 1932, just before the stations on the eastern end of the line, and the big difference with the other stations is the station name, which is picked out in dark letters on the light concrete roof, rather than the white lettering on a blue background that the other stations use. It still does the job, though.
Sudbury Hill to Sudbury Town
From Sudbury Hill, the Capital Ring heads east and south along Ridding Lane, passing the large tower block of Allen Court – it isn't a thing of beauty, especially under grey skies, which only serves to highlight the dull colour of the concrete, but that's late 20th-century tower blocks for you. Pebbledash housing then takes over, sometimes covering entire rows of anonymous terraces in its dreadful mediocrity, and it's a long and tedious walk along Melville Avenue to a left turn off the main road, where suddenly things perk up considerably.
After a straight wander along a tarmac path, the Ring turns right into Horsenden Wood, a lovely 10-acre strand of ancient woodland that's mainly made up of English oak, with hornbeam and hazel underneath. Back in the early 1800s the wood used to be eight times its current size, but some 54 acres were chopped down in the 1860s to make way for crops and hay, and the rest was lost to housing as the suburbs engulfed the area. The remaining wood is being managed back to life, and its gnarled trees and intricate branches are very atmospheric, particularly in the damp.
Even more entertaining is the top of Horsenden Hill, which is just on the other side of the wood. The views from here towards Harrow in the north and Uxbridge in the west are excellent, though the wind was so strong when I climbed to the top that I simply took a few shots and headed down again; so much for relaxing in the sunshine with the world laid at your feet. Indeed, I was so shocked by the force of the wind that I headed down the hill in completely the wrong direction, and it was only when I reached the bottom of the hill and bumped into a Capital Ring sign that I realised my mistake (I wanted to head east, leaving the Ring behind). So I climbed up again, got my hair blown in the opposite direction, and eventually found the path I was looking for, forking off the route I'd used to get to the top in the first place.
The suburbs to the east of Horsenden Hill are pleasant enough, though the architecture is not that thrilling (endless rows of red brick inter-war semi-detached housing don't light my fire in the same way that the Victorians and Edwardians do, but there you go). Sudbury Town station is a short walk along Whitton Avenue East and off a side road, though from this angle it doesn't look like much at all; that's because this is the back entrance, and there's a sloping walkway on the right that takes you over the tracks to the front of the station, where the hallmarks of Charles Holden are somewhat more obvious. The ticket hall is a large rectangular block with four panels of windows, grouped in two groups of two with a large roundel between them. However, unlike most of Holden's other block-based stations, the block doesn't sit on top of a single-storey building, but instead the block is the building, with an entrance knocked through beneath each window panel, and the station name emblazoned along the top of the block, just below the concrete roof. If I'm honest, it looks a bit more like a factory than a Tube station, and doesn't quite have the balance and grace of his more successful block buildings.
Sudbury Town to Alperton
It's yet more suburbia for the first half of the leg from Sudbury Town to Alperton, and in case you haven't spotted it yet, I'm a bit bored of the suburbia in this neck of the woods, so I'll move along quickly, especially as it's all modern pebbledash housing peppered with the odd stretch of between-the-wars red-skirted two-up-two-down yawn-inducing standard-issue semi-detached terracing...
Luckily the monotony is broken by One Tree Hill Recreation Ground, a strip of greenery along the eastern flank of the Tube line that's dominated by One Tree Hill at the southern end of the park, just past a row of poplar trees. One Tree Hill doesn't have a tree on top, and in this wind it's probably a good thing, as I nearly lost my map when I sat down on the lonely bench at the summit to take in the view towards Wembley Stadium. The view is quite excellent, though, and I battled through the breeze to my ham sandwich and crisps, and stubbornly enjoyed lunch while sitting on anything that might get caught in the blast. I'm clearly not the only person to enjoy this spot, too; there's a huge pile of cigarette butts on the ground in front of the bench, and the bench itself is smothered in graffiti, most of it pretty crap, though this one made me laugh:
Mind the gap between your arse and this bench
Tube humour: you've got to love it.
Talking of the Tube, Alperton station is not far from One Tree Hill, through some suburbs and along Ealing Road. As I approached the station, the sound of pneumatic drilling blended with the noise of stationary traffic, while a bald Asian man and a young Asian youth argued in the bus stop, each of them eyeballing the other with just millimetres between their noses, their eyes widened to the point where there was white round all four pupils. I looked away as I walked past – this is exactly the kind of altercation that these days spills over into the knife-crime statistics – and instead headed straight for the station, which is another hulking block-like affair. Similar in design to Sudbury Town, but pushed up against the railway bridge over Ealing Road and with just two panels of clerestory windows, Alperton station is less about finesse and more about dominating the street, though even Holden at his most imposing can't beat the hellish chaos of Alperton when the road is being dug up. The safety rails attached to the station roof don't help matters either, but then most of Holden's creations in west London have been ruined by safety rails; tellingly, you don't find safety rails out on the eastern branch to Cockfosters, though that's probably because the stations are much more beautiful out that way, and most of them have listed status too. It's almost as if Holden used the Uxbridge branch to practise his art before creating perfection out there in Arnos Lane and Southgate. I wonder if that's how it went...
Alperton to Park Royal
I can't resist the Grand Union Canal, so I didn't even try, hopping onto its quiet banks just south of the station with great relief after the chaos of Alperton. The canal isn't at its most beautiful at this point, passing as it does through the satanic mills of the Abbey Industrial Estate and over our old friend the North Circular Road via a two-lane aqueduct. It also stinks to high heaven round here, as the industrial estates surrounding the canal house a number of factories that produce food (though judging by the stench, it's not the kind of food you'd associate with a long and healthy life). On one bench a group of four Asian men stood arguing in an unfamiliar language but with a familiar lilt; when I spotted the half-empty bottle of vodka on the bench and noted the tell-tale bulges in the carrier bags stashed away below, I realised that they were simply speaking an Asian dialect of Drunken Bollocks, the language of park-bench alcoholics the world over. This not a well-loved stretch of the Grand Union, I'm afraid.
The canal takes you to Twyford Abbey Road, which takes its name from Twyford Abbey, just to the north of the road. Unfortunately the Abbey, which was built in 1807 as the manor house of a country estate, is in disrepair and isn't open to the public, and the only hint of it along Twyford Abbey Road is a locked gate with a sign saying 'Twyford Abbey Properties Ltd'. It's a pity, but never mind, because opposite the gate is an amazing development of wood-clad apartment blocks that manages to look like apartments, office space and retail park all at the same time. This is quite appropriate, as this is the northern edge of Park Royal, the largest industrial park in London, though luckily this route only brushes past the edges of this huge complex (I explored the industrial estate in more detail on my Central line walk from Hanger Lane to North Acton, and it wasn't much fun).
Luckily Park Royal station is just past the Diageo Headquarters in the north of the industrial park, on the other side of the Central line tracks, and a very impressive building it is too. Perched precariously on the edge of the thundering A40, the station building we see today was opened in 1936, and although it looks like it might be a Charles Holden design, it was actually designed by Welch and Lander, though it was heavily influenced by Holden's modernist ethos. A tall rectangular tower rises above a circular ticket hall, with windows around the top of the hall letting the light in, and in this case, the light out, because as I arrived at the station, the heavens opened and I had to run into the station for cover after snapping just one rather wet photograph. The skies were so dark that the station staff turned the lights on inside the ticket hall, and when the storm had passed after a few minutes, I popped out to snap the station again in the slightly better light, to be greeted with the much more attractive sight of a fully lit station. That's one of the delights of 1930s Tube station design; when the lights go on, they ooze the same comforting vibe as a real fire on a winter's day or the happy chatter of a country pub after a long slog through the mud. It makes you want to go inside; that's clever design, is that.
Park Royal to North Ealing
Between Park Royal and North Ealing is the Hangar Hill (Haymills) Estate, and a very interesting area it is too. Over half of the houses along the semi-circular roads that make up the estate were built between 1928 and 1930, and although you might expect the result to be uniform houses with similar designs, you'd be wrong, because the estate is a mix of all sorts of different designs. I spotted Mock Tudor (of course), neo-Georgian (complete with columned porches and Georgian-style door canopies), flat-roofed modernist houses, and more standard modern houses with metal-framed windows, bay windows, tiled roofs and a hint of Art Deco. There's a completely bizarre house at 54 Audley Road with a stepped gable above the main windows, and overall the houses have large, well-tended gardens, there's lots of leafy space along the streets, and it all fits in well with the modernist shops around Park Royal station.
North Ealing station comes as a huge disappointment after the delights of Haymills, and my jaw dropped to the floor when I turned the corner into Station Road to find – wait for it – a pebbledash house where the station should have been. Um, hang on, that's a pebbledash house with the words 'North Ealing Station' written across the porch. Damn! It's not a house but a pebbledash Tube station – surely that's blasphemy? After feeding on glorious Charles Holden and Leslie Green creations along most of the Piccadilly line, this left a rather sour taste in my mouth, and I didn't hang around.
North Ealing to Ealing Common
It isn't far from North Ealing to Ealing Common, and it's not a terribly thrilling ride. The North Circular Road (or Hangar Lane as it's known at this point) is constantly busy as it feeds traffic into the huge Hangar Lane gyratory to the north, and the houses along the edges of this busy thoroughfare are tired and worn, as are most of the motorists pooping their horns in the slow crawl north.
Things improve slightly along Inglis Road, which has some pretty houses nudging against more modern blocks of flats, and after a few minutes you pop out into Uxbridge Road, with Ealing Common station to your left. Designed by Charles Holden with an attractive heptagonal ticket hall, this is where I ended for the day, just a short walk from where I live in Ealing.
I first came through here when I walked the District line from Richmond to Ealing Broadway, which seems like a very long time ago now. Time flies by when you're having fun, but today did drag rather; I guess it's safe to say I'm not a great fan of the northwest stretches of the Piccadilly and Central lines, but life would be boring if we liked everything equally. Bring on the Victoria line, I say, and when I think of the Piccadilly line, I'll think of Heathrow to Cockfosters, and the smile will spread across my face, obliterating all thought of pebbledash stations and standard-issue suburbia. Ah, that's better...