A festive walk around London’s terminal stations during the COVID pandemic
Ending 2020 in tiers
On December 2nd 2020, more than nine months after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and at the end of a second national lockdown, England was divided up into three tiers. Each local area was allocated to one of the tiers with a promise that the decision would be reviewed every two weeks. The aim of the system was to ensure the right level of intervention in the right places and so manage further outbreaks better.
There were differing restrictions on what could and could not be done in each tier; people living in tier 1 were relatively free whilst those in tier 3 faced the strictest measures. London was initially placed into tier 2 which whilst prohibiting different households from meeting indoors, at least meant that restaurants could still operate.
Pubs could serve alcohol but only if it was accompanied by a “substantial” meal. A nationwide debate immediately started on what exactly was classed as substantial; for example, would ordering a scotch egg be enough to get a pint of beer?
Then, just two weeks later on December 16th, with the numbers of infections increasing rapidly, London was moved into tier 3. Non-essential retail was allowed to continue but restaurants and pubs were reduced to offering takeaway service only. Most closed completely. As Christmas approached, things were already looking bleak; they were about to get much bleaker still.
In the end, London’s experience of tier 3 lasted just four days. From Sunday 20th December, with a new more contagious variant of the virus spreading fast, the city and much of South East England was placed into a brand new tier 4. This was effectively another lockdown with all non-essential retail closed and strong advice given to stay at home as much as possible.
Two tiers ago
Back in early December, when London was still in tier 2, I decided to spend a Friday walking around the city to see exactly how things were and to visit a few pubs whilst that was still permitted. I am not a particular fan of Christmas itself but I always enjoy a festive London pub crawl at this time of year. In normal times the city looks quite magical with its winter lights and I usually find most people are in really good spirits and ready to chat.
These are certainly not normal times of course, so this year I opted to do something slightly different. I decided to visit a few pubs but also to make a circular tour of the capital’s 13 terminus stations. I wanted to see for myself just how busy each station was and I was curious about how much of the festive spirit I would encounter at each one. My plan was to start at London Bridge and then walk clockwise around the stations. The route I planned was almost exactly 13 miles.
Here is a brief account of my walk. It was actually only made a couple of weeks ago but things are moving so fast that it now almost seems like ancient history. The two weeks that the capital spent in tier 2, with its restaurants open and “substantial meals” in its pubs, will likely go down as just another short chapter in the history of the pandemic.
I have also included some brief information on each station for those who may not be familiar with London and its railway termini.
1) London Bridge (1836)
Wearing my face mask and being extra careful to practice good social distancing, I alight from the 9:53am arrival from Hastings onto platform 9 at London Bridge. It is encouraging to see that almost everyone on the trains and stations is following the “face and space” advice these days.
My journey up has been very quiet. This is the “new normal” of course; since March it has been possible to get a set of two or three seats to oneself in rush hour, and even though there may be some people choosing to stand towards the end of the journey it never feels too crowded. A bay of four seats per passenger now seems to be the norm off peak.
The station obviously feels much quieter than it did pre-COVID. According to the most recent statistics available, London Bridge served around 63 million people between April 2019 and March 2020, making it the 4th busiest in London and the UK.
These figures are well out of date though; we now know that at the height of the spring 2020 lockdown rail passenger use fell to less than 10% of normal; even now it is only recovering to around 35%.
Although London Bridge is actually the oldest railway terminus (it opened a full year before Queen Victoria ascended to the throne) in the capital, it has recently undergone a billion pound makeover, so it could also claim to be the most modern London station.
I have mixed feelings about the modernisation. The new lower level concourse, which links all 15 platforms (9 through and 6 terminating) for the first time in history, is certainly spacious and stylish. I think the wood-lined ceilings are particularly pleasing and the designers certainly deserved the RIBA architectural award that they received.
At the same time, I find the new platforms, devoid of any facilities, quite cold in both senses of the word. There is now a much longer walk to the Underground too. I often find myself missing the old layout with its quicker walk up from the tube and a wait in the warmth of the Pumpkin coffee shop right up there on the platform.
This morning all of the shops are open but none of them seem to be doing particularly good business. It doesn’t feel remotely festive to me but at least there is quite a decent-looking Christmas tree over in the north western corner near the exit to Tooley Street.
I walk out of the station and over London Bridge itself. I turn left and walk alongside the Thames. The railway bridge taking the tracks into my next station is right in front of me. (0.56 miles from London Bridge)
2) Cannon Street (1866)
The steps up to the entrance of Cannon Street are decorated with a rainbow in support of NHS workers. Inside the place is pretty much deserted at 10:30am and there are actually more members of staff than customers. The Cafe Nero is open though but there is only one person inside getting a coffee.
There are lots of COVID warning notices and plenty of hand sanitizer, but I can’t see a Christmas tree; there certainly isn’t one in the same place as there was last year. It seems they haven’t bothered this year and who can really blame them.
In fact the only remotely seasonal thing I can find this morning is a bit of tinsel tied around the railings next to the Wetherspoon’s opposite platform one. The pub is named for engineer Sir John Hawkshaw who built the station as well as the bridge that leads to it.
There are four railway bridges across the Thames in central London; all of them take trains that serve areas to the south of the city towards stations located just north of the river. Hawkshaw’s bridge serving Cannon Street is the most easterly and was the last of the four to be built.
Cannon Street is London’s tenth busiest terminal and according to those (now outdated) 2019-2020 figures serves around 18 million passengers a year. Many of those users are concentrated on the peak hours during the week, when the station’s regular local trains are supplemented by longer distance services to and from the Kent coast and Hastings.
Given its location in the heart of the “City” financial district, Cannon Street is probably one of the stations that will continue to suffer even after COVID. There are already signs that, even after the pandemic is over, commuters will retain their new home working methods and possibly only come to the office 3 or 4 days a week. The railways are already trying to adapt to this by offering different types of more flexible season tickets.
I walk through the quiet streets of the “City” and then head back towards the Thames before reaching my next station. (1.14 miles from London Bridge)
3) Blackfriars (1864)
Just next to the entrance to Blackfriars I spot a sign of the growing economic crisis; there is an empty shop with a notice on the door announcing that agents of the landlord have taken possession. Businesses all over the financial district rely on commuters for passing trade and with the move to “working from home” many are unlikely to survive.
There is nothing much that is festive at Blackfriars either. Just about the only thing I can see is the Lola’s cupcake stand in the entrance concourse. It is decorated with holly and there is a picture of a Santa-themed cupcake on the side. The menu offers a deal to buy five cupcakes and get one free and wishes everyone a “Merry Christmas”. There is absolutely no one else around to appreciate it though.
I go up onto the platform and walk across the bridge towards the entrance on the opposite side. Blackfriars used to have its platforms only north of the river but it has now been cleverly transformed to straddle the Thames and there are now exits on both banks.
Ten years after Blackfriars was opened in 1864 the line was extended a little further north to another terminus at Holborn Viaduct near St. Paul’s Cathedral. That station was demolished in the 1980s and replaced by City Thameslink on the route through an old cross-city tunnel that goes north towards Kings Cross and St Pancras.
The Thameslink trains that now pass me on the through platforms are heading to or from that cross-city tunnel and form a frequent service between places like Gatwick Airport and Brighton in the south and destinations such as Bedford, Luton Airport and Cambridge in the north.
These days most trains actually head through Blackfriars, but the station still has two bay platforms so it can be considered a terminus. The trains that do terminate here form the half-hourly service to and from Sevenoaks. Blackfriars is the least used of all 13 stations with just 10 million passengers in 2019-20.
I exit the station on the South Bank side and stop to get a coffee from a kiosk near the entrance. The laugh that I get from the guy who serves me when I ask about business says it all; not only is it deadly quiet today, he explains, it is completely unpredictable; one day can be a little busy, the next day can be totally dead.
I continue with a pleasant walk along the river past the South Bank Centre and the Festival Hall. In normal years this area would be filled with people enjoying one of the capital’s largest Christmas markets. Today there is nothing here apart from a few mulled wine stalls. I walk in front of the London Eye and arrive at my next station. (2.2 miles from London Bridge)
4) Waterloo (1848)
I am surprised to see a couple of Chinese tourists taking a photograph of the main entrance to Waterloo station. It is not that the impressive Victory Arch, built to commemorate the end of the 1914-18 war, is not worthy of a picture, it is just very unusual to see any foreign tourists in London these days.
With around 90 million passengers a year, Waterloo is usually the busiest station in the whole country. It also has the record for the most platforms: 24. It was extensively rebuilt in 1922 and, to my mind, it is the best laid out of all the large stations.
As I go inside I can see that the famous clock, one of London’s classic meeting places, is flashing a festive green and red; at 11:20am there are a few people waiting underneath it. The station’s Christmas tree is close by; it is impressive enough but I think the electric cable stretching from the top of it right up in to the ceiling slightly spoils the effect.
I have a soft spot for Waterloo. That is partly because it was the first station I ever commuted into (from Hampton Court in 1985) and partly because it features in one of my all time favourite railway films, John Schlesinger’s classic 1961 documentary: “Terminus”.
Although most of its shops are open, Waterloo doesn’t really feel at all crowded today. This is perhaps just as well as the main train operator, South Western Railway, is making announcements about train cancellations caused by COVID-related staff shortages.
Before I leave the station I head over to the old Eurostar platforms which have now been restored for domestic use. There is absolutely no one around and it is incredible to think that back in the years 1994-2007 this was London’s busy rail gateway to Europe.
I head out of the station and cross the Thames on one of the footbridges that are on either side of the railway as it goes over Hungerford Bridge. My next station is straight ahead of me. (2.9 miles from London Bridge)
5) Charing Cross (1864)
It seems some of the employees at Charing Cross are making a bit of an effort to be jolly. I see one in a Christmas sweater and another in a Santa hat. As I am wearing a face mask it is impossible to smile in appreciation; I try a thumbs up instead and I am rewarded by one in return. The place is practically deserted; a couple of food outlets, including the branch of Burger King are closed, but at least there is a Christmas tree.
The six-platform terminus at Charing Cross is effectively the west end “sister” of Cannon Street in the City. All South Eastern trains that pass through London Bridge end up at one terminus or the other. The station is London’s ninth busiest and although it is only one place ahead of Cannon Street it usually feels a lot livelier, perhaps because its traffic is less concentrated on the peak hours.
I have always found the station quite cramped and it is not really one of my favourites. Trains leaving here also have a frustratingly slow exit from the city as they are forced to call at both Waterloo East and London Bridge before they can finally get up to speed.
In front of the station is an impressive 1865 replica of an “Eleanor Cross”. The original cross, which gives the station part of its name, used to stand close to here and was one of several built between 1291 and 1295 in memory of the wife of King Edward 1st. It used to denote the geographical centre of London.
The site of the first cross is now in Trafalgar Square and that place is still regarded as the capital’s central point to this day. I walk over to the north side of square and admire what is probably London’s most famous Christmas tree.
The Norwegian spruce is a gift from the people of Oslo and is given in gratitude for British help during the Second World War. A tree has been donated each year since 1947 and it is always decorated in the traditional simple Norwegian style.
It is nice to see that the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, to be celebrated this year between 10th and 18th December, has not been forgotten either; there is a large menorah candle standing next to the Christmas tree.
I walk up The Mall and then head to the left side of Buckingham Palace towards my next station. (4.2 miles from London Bridge)
6) Victoria (1860)
There is a fruit and vegetable stall on the way to Victoria. I stop to buy chestnuts and persimmons. The friendly stall holder tells me that business is really slow and he complains about the fact that the supermarkets seem to be still raking it in regardless.
Just outside the entrance to the station is another more festive looking stall. On closer inspection I see that it is part of the ”Kingdom of Sweets” chain that seems to specialise in retro chocolates and American candy. The stall in the form of a Swiss chalet and is decorated with fairy lights. I think it looks a bit sad standing there all on its own; almost as if has been abandoned by a Christmas market that has now moved on somewhere else.
Victoria, consistently the second busiest in the UK, is actually two stations in one; there is a South Eastern terminus serving stations in Kent and a separate South Central one serving Brighton and the Sussex coast. They are linked together inside but they were built by two different companies at different times.
Victoria has been my preferred gateway to the capital for over twenty years. It is now the London station that I use most and the one that feels the most familiar to me; I have travelled in and out of it at all hours of the day, browsed in all its bookshops and grabbed something to eat from almost all of its fast food outlets.
It is probably the busiest station I have visited so far today, so it is a little strange that quite a few of its shops and fast food outlets are closed. The Burger King on the South Eastern concourse is in darkness but at least the McDonald’s opposite is open and the employees, some dressed as reindeer, are busy serving lunch.
I have a quick wander around and admire the tree located towards the centre of the South Central concourse. I spot a group of Christmas charity collectors who are in the middle of a briefing meeting. I think it must be difficult for them; not only are there fewer people around than usual, most of them, in this COVID-19 secure environment, are not carrying coins.
I leave Victoria and walk up to Hyde Park Corner. I go through the park along the side of the Serpentine Lake to the exit at Lancaster Gate. From there it is just a short walk up to my next station. (6.4 miles from London Bridge)