LONDON’S RING OF RAILWAY TERMINALS sends hundreds of trains hurtling a similar number of miles across the country every day. You can leave King’s Cross at 9am and be in Thurso, the most northerly point on the network, ready for a late-night snack. (Note to self: must try this some time).
But there are also a few trains that set off from the capital only to come quickly to a complete halt. They brush up against and sometimes tiptoe over the edges of county boundaries, but go no further. These curious stumps of branch lines, sprouting so promisingly from the likes of Liverpool Street, Victoria and Waterloo, wither rather than plunge out across south-east England. They expire in high streets, leafy glades, cul-de-sacs and, in one case, open pasture.
Inevitably, these ends of the lines started catching my eye on the map. Inevitably, I became intrigued by their existence and location. And inevitably, I have now visited them all.
In clockwise order:
1. Enfield Town
Oh dear. Despite its location on a busy street full of shops, this is not a place that smiles at its passengers. Scowls might be a better word.
A poster outside advertised a £45 “rail and sail” trip to Amsterdam “from this station”. I considered taking up the offer; it seemed a reasonable price to pay to put an immediate and healthy distance between me and Enfield Town. If only there had been somebody in the booking hall to sell me a ticket.
A previous incarnation of this station was both the birthplace of Disraeli’s father and the schoolhouse of John Keats, though possibly not simultaneously (though that would have been one hell of an education).
Of this long-vanished building, the Victoria and Albert museum states that: “nothing could exceed the beauty of the workmanship, the bricks having been ground down to a perfect face, and joined with bee-wax and rosin, nor mortar or lime being used. In this manner the whole front has been first built in a solid block, the circular-headed niches, with their carved cherubs and festoons of fruit and foliage, being afterwards cut out with the chisel…”
What an inheritance:
Two trains an hour run from here to Liverpool Street, rising to four at peak times, and even more on match days at White Hart Lane. It’s a sad little line that struggles to ever shake off the less agreeable kinds of north-east London urban sprawl, before petering out in Zone 5.
The same largely goes for…
…except there’s a rather lovely tree just behind the buffers:
Chingford is a name that, for a certain generation, will only ever mean one thing: Norman “There’s something weird about people who want to go and have electrodes attached to their penises” Tebbit.
Norman “Jimmy Savile did a great deal of good as well as wrong” Tebbit was MP for Chingford from 1974 to 1992. Given his well-publicised espousal of bicycling, I doubt he used the station much. And despite now being Baron of Chingford, Norman doesn’t live anywhere near the place, having houses in Bury St Edmunds and Islington, the latter of which he bought from “two men who were obviously – I mean they were terribly nice.”
I seem to have wandered a little off topic, but the upshot is this: Chingford station building, unlike its former parliamentary representative, is charming and inoffensive and worthwhile and accommodating. It dates from 1878, a time in which Norman “I’m a polygamist, you see, and I’m discriminated against because I’m not allowed to marry several women” Tebbit wishes we all still lived, yet is trying to adapt to the 21st century, even if this does mean a load of wires inelegantly strung about the place:
Four trains an hour run from here to Liverpool Street. The line was originally planned to continue north-eastwards into Epping Forest, but Queen Victoria came up in person to take a look, and said no. Thank goodness we don’t have royals getting involved in public projects nowadays, eh?
3. Bromley North
Continuing clockwise into south-east London, this is easily the finest building of all the capital’s mini-termini. And that’s because it was given a swish between-the-wars makeover by the Southern Railway, one that survives pretty much intact to this day:
But it has a paltry service and you can’t get from here to central London without changing at least once. A shuttle service trundles between Bromley North and Grove Park three times an hour Monday-Saturday. Because of this, there’s less of a bustle than at Enfield Town or Chingford. When I was visited, around four people got off and three got on. One of whom was me.
The atmosphere was more like a rural halt than a station serving a busy town. But then Bromley South does that job, and gets almost six times as many passengers a year as a result.
Dazzling typeface alert!
Four trains leave here every hour: two to Charing Cross, two to Cannon Street.
The Charing Cross services were almost scrapped in 2004, until local councillors and the Hayes Village Association mounted one of those “campaigns” beloved of the press, about which few specific details ever emerge, but from which success almost always, if peculiarly, emerges.
I found travelling down this line more enjoyable than any of the others so far, thanks in part to the variety of landscapes and neighbourhoods through which it passed, but also its string of stations with rather romantic names: Eden Park, Clock House and Elmers End.
However there’s almost nothing of note about Hayes station itself and I would have written the whole place off were it not for those giant letters above the entrance. Why not pause, reader, and take another look at them?
Into deepest south London, and the branch line that ends here begins its short life at Purley, a name that I encountered first as a teenager. I still find the word “Purley” stupidly amusing, but then there’s no Caterham for taste.
An average of four trains run from here an hour, two bound for Victoria, two for London Bridge. That’s a decent service for one of these baby termini, a fact that can’t be wholly connected with Caterham’s profile. For this is a comfortable town, with enough comfortably secure incomes to have your main supermarket as Waitrose and, for its neighbours, a brood of boutiques and specialist shops. It was the first unashamedly well-off end-of-the-line I’d encountered. But then I remembered that I was in Surrey, which for me sometimes seems to be the hardest word.
I should point out an entire season passed between my visits to Hayes and Caterham. Summer had now arrived, though I found this to be more in evidence on the platform than anywhere else:
…which was the most appealing feature of the place.
6. Tattenham Corner
Here the level of disposable income felt like it had risen a notch or two higher still. The line comes to a graceful stop alongside a very posh row of houses on one side, and rolling fields on the other.
I was within whinnying distance of Epsom racecourse. Indeed, this is the station the Queen used to command the Royal Train to roll to whenever she felt like a spot of nag-watching.
Around three trains an hour depart from here. I can’t deny the station is kept well and is in a prime spot. But there’s very little of it. Just a sparse platform and a tiny, charmless building that serves as a ticket hall. There it is, a fair distance behind the main station sign:
It’s all a bit arid.
I walked from here to the next station on the list, along immaculately-tended suburban drives with verges just as closely-mown as the voluptuous front gardens. This all felt a world away from Enfield Town, which is probably exactly what its residents wanted.
7. Epsom Downs
This was even more isolated. As I followed a cul-de-sac through a ultra-new housing development, I wasn’t entirely sure the station existed. I couldn’t believe this was the only way to reach it. But it was – save for a hike over pastures from what looked like a nearby country estate:
I was the only person to get on the train at Epsom Downs. This was on a Saturday afternoon: surely the peak time for families to be heading into London? But no. I thought again about the houses I’d passed on the road up to the station. They all seemed occupied… yet not a soul was about. And not a sound was to be heard.
It all felt acutely unreal, like a fake landscape built for a film set. The station building, such as it is, spends most of its time being a pre-school nursery – or “kindergarten”, as it horribly insists on calling itself.
One train leaves from Epsom Downs once an hour. It is easily the least-served of all the termini. If I lived here, I’d find that maddening. For I would want to spend much of my time as possible getting away from the place.
8. Chessington South
I was in south-west London now, and as with Chingford, Chessington South wasn’t meant to be the end of a line. A railway was intended to run on from here all the way to Leatherhead. Only this time it wasn’t royalty that called a halt, but Adolf Hitler.
I was quite taken by the station’s leafy surroundings. The eponymous World of Adventures is somewhere nearby, but I didn’t see or hear a trace. Frankly, the station provided enough of a world of adventure itself, being not merely blessed with a naturally tranquil setting, but some eye-catching and rather daring platform architecture:
It needs a spot of paint, but I think South West Trains are doing up all the stations on this branch. They’d already tarted up some of the platforms further up the line. Trains run from here to Waterloo only twice an hour, but I was minded to declare this my favourite location of all the toytown termini. Including the illustrious…
9. Hampton Court
It’s the oldest of the lot and also the poshest. A stall selling HOMEMADE HANDICRAFTS was in the station entrance when I visited. Everyone but me seemed to be dressed befitting a night in noble circles at the palace, or a night on the tiles back in the West End.
Parts of the place date back to its opening in 1849. Some of it was supposedly given a lick of paint for London 2012, but if so it’s already peeling off:
Four trains run from here to Waterloo every hour. A rogue Network South East sign lurked impishily to one side.
Despite its titular associations, I was more taken not by Hampton Court but by the station I passed through on the way here. Yes, Thames Ditton is a new entry in my top 10 favourite station names.
That’s it. Nine ends of the line, all within the jurisdiction of Transport for London, all ceasing, evaporating or simply chopped off before wriggling out of Zone 6.
As usual I’m not sure what I’ve proved by doing this inventory, other than experiencing some of the huge inconsistencies of care bestowed upon the capital’s outposts.
Still, I got to nose at a few people’s front gardens.
So Surrey, I said.