Underground maps sometimes throw up names that seem out of sync with the city or culture they appear in. A case in point is Onkel Toms Hütte (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) here in Berlin. I’ve always wondered about that name. What link could there possibly be between this leafy west-Berlin suburb, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic abolitionist novel? Reader, I googled it. The area takes its name after a Gaststätte (restaurant-pub) built in 1885. Its owner, Thomas, or Tom, built some cabins in the beer garden where patrons could seek shelter from the rain, and eventually the restaurant gained the name ‘Onkel Toms Hütte’, a jocular nod to the 1852 internationally best-selling novel. Sadly, the restaurant was knocked down in 1977.
It still seemed worth an expedition, though. Apparently, the restaurant was located near the junction of Riemeisterstrasse and Onkel-Tom-Strasse, and at this spot I found myself on a warm and humid July afternoon some weeks later. No signs of the Gaststätte, though, but across the road I spied the eastern perimeter of the Grunewald Forest. I went to have a look, and had not gone far into the forest when I saw what appeared to be the concrete foundations of a stepped garden, moss-covered, and cracked out of shape by the roots of tall trees. I’d found it but needed to celebrate and confirm my discovery, and an enquiry at a near-by pub, the Rodelhütte, confirmed that I had indeed found the ruins of Onkel Toms Hütte. The beer I drank to celebrate was none the worse for being served by the friendly landlady of the Sledging Cabin, rather than Tom.
My mind now wandered to Swiss Cottage on the Jubilee Line in London, another underground name that seems somewhat out of place. I used to live near it, and remember a rather out of place structure stuck between the junction of Finchley Road and Avenue Road, a mock chalet-style pub called Ye Olde Swiss Cottage. The current pub stands at the site of the Swiss Tavern, an inn from 1805, though this tavern was not what was known as the Swiss Cottage. That name was given to a farmhouse and one of its outbuildings that stood nearby – this was at a time when the area still reflected its countryside past. The outbuilding, or cottage, was first a dairy, then a tollhouse, and was, for whatever reason, deemed to look Swiss. The tavern was named after it, and cottage and farm stood undisturbed for nearly 200 years until it was knocked down in the sixties. The modern spirit of the age could not stamp out the name, though, and once the underground station had been expanded, Ye Olde Swiss Cottage was erected.
Neither the original Swiss cottage nor the American cabin remain today but their names live on and stand out as foreign and somewhat maverick in a sea of ordinary suburban place names.