Something I’ve been told in the past is that I know my round places pretty well. Certainly places I’ve lived, and I’m able to get a pretty quick feel for places I visit, too.
There’s not really a tremendous secret to it, but I thought I’d share my thoughts on the matter, and maybe a few tips on how you can improve your own knowledge of the city you live in.
I live in London, for those of you who don’t know, and that’s where I’ve spent the last few years honing my skills as a city navigator.
In London, and a lot of other bigger cities, there are 2 fundamental methods of navigation, and both should be mastered if you ever want to be regarded as any sort of authority. Or even if you just want to be able to get around with trying too hard. I’ll tackle the first of these here, and the second in a follow-up post some time soon.
The first method of which I speak is, of course, the Underground Railways. The tube, le Metro, the Subway. Call it what you will, this is invariably the quickest way of getting from A to B in any city with such a system in place. Obviously if there are no underground railways already then you’ll find the hassle of planning, obtaining planning permission, construction etc probably delays you on your journey more than, say, catching a bus.
Now, there are two main areas which combine to form the basic knowledge required to traverse the system: first up, a strong knowledge of the system itself.
I find a good knowledge of “Zone 1” London, as well as some patchy knowledge of the more “rural” Zones 2-6 (they have foxes and everything, seriously) is good enough that I basically never need to look at a map. And let’s face it, nothing says “I don’t really know where I’m going” like having to look at a map. Or ask for directions.*
Underground railway systems can be broken down into the lines, the stations, and most importantly the INTERCHANGES.
Knowing how to get from place to place is pretty pointless of you can only join the dots that are already on the same line, so what’s key is knowing where to change trains to get from A to B via C. Get this figured out, and that’s when you can really become an underground hero.
A good number of lines intersect with each other in a whole range of places, so it can be key to know where’s best to change. For instance, heading north (or south) on the Victoria or Piccadilly lines, you’re best off hopping between the two at Finsbury Park, not Kings Cross.
A deeper knowledge can allow you to traverse the tube like a true pro. For example, when heading to the Kings Cross overground station from the Victoria line, IGNORE signs to “National Rail” and instead follow signs for the Circle, Hammersmith and City, and Metropolitan lines. You’ll find yourself quickly at a convenient street exit which throws you out just outside the overground station. Sure, following the correct signs throws you out inside the station, but it involves an unnecessary walk of a good few minutes though a disorientating maze of tunnels before it does.***
The other “classic” trick a lot of hardened Londoners employ is embarking on their train via the set of doors closest to where they need to be when they alight. Kill time waiting for a train to arrive by aligning yourself correctly, and save time when you get off by not having to fight through hordes of confused tourists trying to make their way to the other end of the platform to follow signs for “National Rail”.
This takes a lot for practice to get right, although there is an app for it, which is why it’s generally only the hardened souls on their daily commutes who use this trick. I, of course, prefer the more human approach and trust to my memory and instincts. Which admittedly does sometimes leave me at exactly the wrong end of the platform. Such is life.
Above all, my key advice to you is this: practice. Studying the maps – even memorising them – can only get you so far. It’s only through riding the system that you’ll really be able to get to grips with it all on the level that’s truly required to become any sort of expert.
In the next instalment we’ll venture above ground, and begin to understand how the two worlds collide.
- when calculating journey times, allow 2 minutes per station and add an average of 3 or 4 for each interchange (this includes walking between platforms and waiting for the next train, and can be honed as your knowledge of different interchanges increases)
- Charing Cross is REALLY close to Embankment
- Leicester Square is easily walkable to Covent Garden…
- Sometimes a walk is nice, too
*polite note to you gents out there**: it’s OK to ask for directions if you need them. It can actually be quite exhilarating, and it’s definitely less stressful than the alternatives.
** and to any ladies who are less than enthusiastic about asking for directions
*** you didn’t hear this from me