The London Bombs by Sarah Jane Sherlock

By | July 17, 2005

The London Bombs
My Story: Sarah Jane Sherlock

I am not directly affected by the bombs, and nor is any of my family, for which I am extremely grateful. I can’t imagine what it must be like, to fear a loved one’s remains are still underneath the Piccadilly Line train or scattered somewhere in Tavistock Square. It just is awful.

I was on my way to a course near Euston when the bombs went off. I twice tried and twice failed to get on a tube that morning, once before the bombs and once afterwards (I now realise). Fortunately, neither my planned route nor my various diverted routes took me close to the bombs – although, if the bus bomb really was intended for Charing Cross on the Northern Line, I would have been heading north on that line at roughly the time the bomber was heading south. Luckily for me, there were problems on the Northern Line that morning, so I wasn’t able to get on it and neither was the bomber.

I planned to catch the Northern Line from Balham to Euston or Mornington Crescent. But when I arrived at the station at about 8.40 am, Balham and at least eight other stations on the Northern Line were closed because of a defective train; it was unusual but had nothing to do with later events. Like hundreds of other people, I then had to find alternative routes into central London, so everywhere was more crowded than usual. After trying and failing to get on a bus, I got to Victoria via an overground train at about 9 am, and joined a long queue on the main concourse to get to the tube. Tube staff were letting us through in sections, closing the black gates at the top of the steps at intervals so that we couldn’t all push through. Again, this was unusual, but I thought it was part of the “normal chaos of the day”.

As we waited, they announced that trains were not stopping at Euston. I re-adjusted my plan and decided I would get out at Warren Street and walk the rest of the way. I eventually reached the front of the queue and was allowed to walk down the steps leading to the tube. As I did so, a light on the wall started to flash, saying “Do Not Enter”. I was surprised and irritated, but, as no official did anything, I carried on.

I now realise that the three tube bombs had gone off, and this was probably the London Underground’s “Amber Code” going into action, but none of us had any idea of it at the time. (“Amber” apparently means: let all trains get into stations and then evacuate everyone. “Red” means: stop all trains now, wherever they are.) I didn’t get very far. I had just gone through the ticket-barriers when they announced there had been a power surge and the whole of the underground was being closed. I had never known that happen before and didn’t know what to make of it.

So I turned round, went back up the steps and got on a 73 bus going from Victoria to Euston. All the buses were overcrowded and many people were walking. We got stuck in traffic just outside Victoria and fellow passengers joked that it was a good thing the Olympic bid had been decided the day before, because good old Sebastian would have had a hard time persuading the IOC to give the Games to London if it was in gridlock as they met.

I was sitting near the front of the bus, so was able to hear some of what was being said over the driver’s radio. I heard someone tell him that the emergency services were being sent to King’s Cross. Another passenger said there had been an explosion at King’s Cross. The driver then announced that the bus would not be going to Euston or King’s Cross. A teenager next to me had been planning to go to Cambridge University for an open day. He was already running late. He decided to try to ring National Rail enquiries and friends to find out what was happening. To his immense surprise, his phone wouldn’t work. He kept repeating “This has never happened before”.

Only now do I realise how true that was. At the time, I simply suggested that everyone was probably using the phones – and, as I said it, I began to wonder why. The teenager and his friend realised they were not going to get near King’s Cross, let alone get a train, so they very sensibly gave up the idea of the open day and got off the bus in search of an early lunch.

I stayed on the bus till it got to the end of Oxford Street, caught another bus up Tottenham Court Road to Euston Road, then walked the last bit to my course. I still had no idea what was happening, and no way of finding out. All I knew was that ordinary chaos had turned into extraordinary chaos. No wonder mobile phones had stopped working. Euston Road was jammed solid with traffic, and nothing was moving. The pavements were crammed with people walking. Walking was clearly the quickest way to get anywhere. Tavistock Square is just to the south of Euston Road. I am not sure of timings on my journey (it was chaotic, and all I knew was I was late and something odd was happening), but I now think I must have walked past Tavistock Square quite soon after the bus had been blown up. One of the people on my course saw it happen. She took a little time out of the course to recover, but then joined us again.

Some of the roads around Euston were already cordoned off by the time I arrived, but I got to my course in Eversholt Street at about 10.30 am (an hour later than I’d intended). (One person walked for two hours to get there.) It was only then that I began to learn what was happening and was appalled. The course organisers asked how we were and said that we could use the office phones to contact our nearest and dearest and let them know we were all right and find out if they were. We agreed to carry on with the course. None of us was directly affected and we realised there was nothing we could do to help; there was no transport so we couldn’t go home; so we might as well stay where we were and carry on.

It was strange. We could hear sirens wailing all day and see helicopters hovering overhead. The course organisers gave us updates from the nearest police station as the day went on. They advised us not to drink tap water, because, since the explosions happened underground, there were concerns that the water supply might have become contaminated. The course organisers went out and bought four days’ supply of bottled water. (Interestingly, no one else seems to have received this advice. Certainly, my parents never did.)

During the afternoon, mobile phones started working again and we started to receive text messages which loved ones had sent us hours earlier. One message included the rumour that there were to be more bombs during the evening rush-hour. That night, the course organisers arranged for all 68 of us to be taken home in shared taxis. I went to stay with my parents, since they live closer to Euston than I do, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to get back in to central London the next morning from Balham, and it was an especially good time to be with family.

London was eerily quiet that night. After thousands of people had walked home, the streets were deserted – no traffic, no people, and all the pubs, theatres and shops were closed. The only time I’ve known London to be remotely like that was after the Great Storm of 1987 (when a tree fell on our house, into my brother Patrick’s room, and he slept right through it!). The big difference, of course, is that then it was the forces of nature at work, not “man’s inhumanity to man”.

The Landmark Education course I was on was pretty intensive (four days, from 10 am to 11 pm each day, Thursday to Sunday), so I didn’t hear or see much news till Monday evening. The shocking events didn’t really hit home to me till Tuesday morning, when I was on a tube to work. My mother had asked me not to travel on the tubes on Friday, so I didn’t, but I was on them on Sunday and Monday and everything was fine. They were less busy than usual, but there were no delays on my routes (which did not involve any of the three bomb sites).

But on Tuesday morning, I arrived at Balham to find that the City branch of the Northern Line was closed. Then, as we travelled north, we were told there was a security alert at Euston and trains were not stopping there. My train was absolutely packed, it was hot, and it kept stopping in a tunnel. I suffered a claustrophobia panic attack and had to get out at the next station. I remembered that some people had been trapped underground for two hours on Thursday, and I thought that even if this was a false alarm, I couldn’t bear to be stuck in such conditions for so long. I thought I would faint. I also thought that if I was going to die, I would rather die above ground. (Bit crazy, that. Unless I am cremated, they will say nice things about me and then shove me back in the ground!)

When I climbed the stairs out of Clapham North, I was so glad to be alive and well and to see the sky and the trees and to breathe the God-given air that I burst into tears. I got a bus to Stockwell and thought that, if it didn’t look too busy, I would get back on a tube. But the northbound Victoria line had just been closed – probably due to more security alerts.

I then had to find new bus routes to work, which was a bit of a challenge, because I don’t know that part of London very well. I spent half-an-hour wandering round the Elephant-and-Castle roundabout, trying to find the right bus-stop. I was two hours late for work, but everyone was very kind and gave me chocolate and told me about the Silverlink Metro. This overground train service follows a very strange route around the edges of central London, with stops at Clapham Junction (near Balham, where I live), Finchley Road and Frognal (great name) (near where I work) and Canonbury (where my parents live).

That is how I am travelling to work, for the time being. It adds about an hour to my journey each day, but I feel much happier – as does my mother! I use other overground trains and buses the rest of the time. I have been back once in a tube at an off-peak time, but not during the rush-hour. It is very hot and unpleasant down there in the summer at the best of times, and there are bound to be many security alerts, diversions and delays over the next few weeks. The chief advantage of the tube is speed: if it doesn’t offer that, it ain’t worth it, for me.

An interesting postscript about the mobile phones is: did they stop working because of “system overload” (received wisdom, at the moment), or were the networks turned off deliberately, once it was known that bombs had gone off? Subscribers to the latter theory say that the powers that be could have been trying to prevent further bombs from being detonated remotely using mobile phone signals. They might have succeeded in that. Who knows?

With much thankfulness for being alive, and sorrow for the dead, wounded and bereaved,

Sarah Jane Sherlock

17 July 2005