As you would expect of a young person at the weekend in a thriving metropolitan city like London, last night I was out with some friends.
And then, we got to 11 PM and the little dance started. The dance of “When do I need to leave here so I don’t end up stranded in Canada Water on the way back to Wapping?”
This little dance is predicated on the fact that (absurdly to someone who used to live in New York) the Tube doesn’t run all night. No, instead, around midnight, like a tired pensioner it switches off all the lights and goes to sleep.
In a move that is invariably controversial, I sometimes dare to voice some criticism of the beloved London Underground to my friends. My main points of criticism, in order of increasing annoyance, are 3) what is up with the roof shape of some carriages that means I have to bend over like I am Gandalf entering a Hobbit house? 2) why are the trains not climate-controlled so people don’t pass out like dying fruit flies every summer? and 1) for the love of Larry, why oh why does the Tube not run all night?
The Tube is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, marking the date the first underground journey was made between Paddington and Farringdon on what was then the Metropolitan Railway. The Tube is the oldest metropolitan underground railway in the world, an excuse often trotted out in response to my frustrations: “You, you upstart young American, must be kind to the Tube. It’s very old, and they weren’t able to solve problems like that back when it was built!”
To be fair my own native underground transport system in Boston, currently known as the MBTA, was opened just 34 years later in 1897 and it also doesn’t run all night. But it doesn’t have either of those other two problems, because they’ve done work since that allows people to stand up straight and not get boiled alive like lobsters. (Plus there’s a nifty song about it which I personally guarantee you’ll never be able to get of your head.)
But never mind all of that. My point is, there I was, out with friends, and just as the night began to hit the sweet spot between ‘just getting started’ and ‘too many margaritas’, I had to hightail it for the hills because if I didn’t make a move RIGHT THEN, there would’ve been no way to get back until 6 AM the following morning. (It might also be the case that I was deceived by the TFL journey planner, which does occasionally plan very strange routes for no reason I have yet been able to determine. Gremlins, maybe.)
Londoners seem to have a built-in homing device allowing them to instinctively know every night bus route that could lead them homewards in the dread dark hours between the Last Tube and the First Tube. A corollary instinct allows them to know without looking it up exactly when their Last Tube (or Tubes, if they’re in for a multi-pronged journey) will run. I live in terrible awe of this skill, for I do not possess it and wander in the wasteland of dread every time I find myself out past bedtime.
It must be admitted that I am tremendously spoiled, for I used to live right smack in the centre of town and wherever anybody could possibly want to go out in the wee hours, I could always walk home from there. I didn’t have to do these things like planning and thinking ahead and making sure I had enough change for the night bus and whatnot. Night buses and I were barely on nodding terms.
But now I live in the slightly less central neighborhood of Wapping. Though wonderful in many respects it is not the easiest place to get to, despite being not really all that far from anywhere. I think many people who live here would say that this inaccessibility has contributed to its charm, by staving off the madding crowds and keeping a local, village-y feel about the place. But this doesn’t help me when I am trying to get home of an evening. It was thus with genuine terror that I fled my night out and raced back as though my principal form of transport were an enchanted pumpkin–and an unreliable one at that.
I recognize that this state of affairs is entirely my fault: I should memorize the night bus routes that go near my house. And I should stop being such a wuss, because it’s not like getting caught out by the last tube is the same thing as suddenly being dropped into the frozen tundra of Antarctica and told to survive by my own cunning.
When I arrived at home, I complained of my fears and frustrations to my housemate. He promptly looked up all the night bus routes for me, emailed me a map, and pointed out that they do in fact run between the hours of 12 and 6 AM, so I should have no fear of putting them to good use in future should I once again find myself out with friends. Why the Journey Planner tried to convince me that circumstances were otherwise and there was no transport available in those hours is, as I said before, beyond me.
But I can now go out without undue fear, for I know I can point my shoes homeward at any hour and the 150-year-old strength of the London transportation system will aid me. Just not necessarily underground.