Taking a different track on London’s Culture Line
There’ll be two gold medal certainties when the London Olympics kicks off this July: the overcrowded capital will be sweatier than a weightlifter’s leotard and most visitors will soon be craving a day off to escape from it all. But since hopping the jam-packed Underground in summer is as comfortable as sprinting in a winter coat, following the locals onto a different train is recommended.
London’s Overground network was created in 2007 from several existing lines that snake in and around the capital. Sparkling new carriages – complete with air conditioning – were introduced and paint-peeled old stations were spruced up, creating a popular commuter option. But one route also began attracting visitors with a penchant for off-the-beaten-path excursions.
Trundling from Highbury and Islington station, the East London Line weaves south through blue-collar neighbourhoods and leafy backstreets to suburban West Croydon. And while it’s a pleasant enough ride, 11 of its 23 stations are also just steps from some of the city’s best hidden gem museums. Dubbed the Culture Line, it’s a great day out alternative to London’s ever-packed mega attractions.
With some spare time – and a transit day pass – on my recent UK visit, I hit the rails for a self-directed culture crawl. First stop: the Geffrye Museum in Hoxton.
Transforming a row of 18th-century almshouses, the Geffrye’s 13 antique-lined living rooms illuminate 400 years of home interiors. I learn that 1790s curtains were called “festoons” and that competing over the look of your house made Victorian-era bestsellers of books like Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste.
Enamoured of the comfy Edwardian drawing room – its arts and crafts flourishes include a Morris & Company rush chair – I fall for the nostalgic 1965 living room, with its shag pile rugs and brown earthenware mugs. But before I can curl up on its mod couch, it’s time to hotfoot it back to the station.
Minutes later I’m on clamorous Whitechapel Road where a sun-baked street market of cheap trinkets and East Indian snacks distracts me. Scoffing a finger-licking samosa, I nip across the road into the mammoth Royal London Hospital. Since 1740, it’s been one of the capital’s busiest medical facilities – and its tiny, windowless museum has plenty of stories to tell.
With no other visitors, I peruse jagged old surgical instruments and medical documents that seem closer to quackery. But the star exhibits cover Edith Cavell – who trained here in 1895 – and Elephant Man John Merrick, resident for four years until his 1890 death. There’s a letter he wrote and a model he made of a local church, along with the hood and hat he wore when outside the hospital.
Back on the train and now on the south side of the River Thames, I pull into Rotherhithe station and round a corner to the Brunel Museum, dedicated to one of the 19th-century’s biggest engineering achievements. Built by Marc Brunel and his illustrious son Isambard Kingdom Brunel – their only project together – the 396-metre-long Thames Tunnel was designed to take carriages and carts under the river.
But the world’s first major underwater tunnel was a commercial flop. Poking around the museum – socked into one of the tunnel’s old pump houses – I learn it was 15 years overdue and ruined many investors. Never carrying a single cart, more than a million curious locals walked though after its 1843 opening and it eventually became part of the London Underground system.
Surprisingly, though, it’s still here. The 169-year-old tunnel is now part of the Overground network – which means I’ve just passed through it.
Following a pint and pie lunch at the wood-lined old Mayflower Pub across the street, I’m soon back on track, the half-full train threading me through suburban New Cross Gate and Brockley to Forest Hill where I hike up the incline to the Horniman Museum. It opened in 1901 to house the personal collection of tea baron Frederick John Horniman.
I start with carved masks and medieval torture implements before perusing evocative photos of English rituals, from Celtic festivals to Morris dancing. But the Victorian-style natural history room wins. Lined with stuffed animals, it includes wing-splayed bats and a huge walrus lounging on fake ice. It eyes me as I read the information panel: “From Hudson Bay, Canada, 1886.” The same year Vancouver was incorporated.
But it’s not the day’s oldest animal.
Inching into the multi-arched Crystal Palace station – built when the 1851 Great Exhibition building was transferred to the adjoining park – I dash up the stairs to beat the 3 p.m. last entry time at Crystal Palace Museum. But I’ve neglected one key fact: it only opens weekends and today is Friday. Annoyed, I follow a trail around the park’s tree-flanked lake where I suddenly spot a beady-eyed dinosaur. Then I notice an information board.
In 1852, professor Richard Owen – who coined the dinosaur moniker – helped build 33 hulking models of the newly discovered monsters for a planned attraction. Using an early type of concrete, the dinos where posed gnawing trees, surveying for food and looking highly menacing. While the attraction idea floundered – perhaps the backers lost their shirts on the Thames Tunnel – all the dinosaurs stayed, terrifying visitors for years to come.
Returning northward on the train, I’m pleasantly fatigued after my daylong culture crawl. The best part has been the feeling of comfortable escape: I always had a seat on the never-packed trains and each museum was easily located and admission-free. And I haven’t even seen everything. According to my list, there are six more attractions on the route, enough for another day out. This time, I’ll make it a weekend.
For Culture Line information, see www.cultureline.org.uk. Trains run daily up to 12 times per hour in each direction. A six-zone hop-on-hop-off Travelcard, available from all stations, covers the entire East London Line and costs £8.50. Entry is free to the museums mentioned here, but consider a voluntary contribution.