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.
THERE ARE DOZENS OF DISUSED RAILWAYS around London.
A good number of them have taken on a second life as footpaths, cycle routes or nature reserves, in doing so losing nearly all of their former distinguishing features save a bridge or embankment.
But occasionally you’re lucky enough (and it is a matter of luck, given how methodically they were invariably dismantled) to find a disused railway line turned right-of-way that boasts more in the way of substantial relics: the hulk of a platform, for instance, or the stump of a waiting room.
Or, if you’re really lucky, a Network South East sign.
Perhaps I should explain the appeal of doing this sort of thing. Then again, perhaps I can’t. You either get it or you don’t.
Two people who most certainly get it, and who kindly invited me to accompany them on this particular quest to discover the remains of the old Croxley Green branch line in Hertfordshire, are Scott and Robert. I was only too happy to join them, and they proved excellent company as together we threaded our way on an atypically balmy September Saturday through the outskirts of Watford.
We were not the first, and won’t certainly be the last, to beat a path this way. Since this line was closed – unofficially in 1996 and replaced with a bus service, then officially in 2001 – I’m sure there have been plenty lured by the novelty, incongruity and, yes, thrill of seeing ghost stations of the like of Watford West and Croxley Green, with their signs and notices still intact but the final train long since departed.
Diamond Geezer wrote a few months ago of just such a trip, combining his impressions of what used to be here with descriptions of what may one day be here again.
For this is a line that clings to life not just in the form of giant Network South East-branded signage.
Part of it may yet re-emerge clothed in the garb of the Croxley Rail Link, a proposal to connect Watford High Street on the Overground, where we began our walk, to the Metropolitan line just north of Croxley station.
The old tracks would be used for almost all of this “new” branch line, with a genuinely brand new chunk of track needed only at the western end, near where the disused Croxley Green terminus currently stands in rather undignified semi-retirement.
For the time being, however, the entire line exists in a comatose state, superficially dead to the world but occasionally twitching into coherency in pleasingly unapologetic ways.
From Watford High Street we strolled through a series of rather unexceptional side streets and alleys, searching for the first signs of the line. Robert led the way, having wisely plotted a route in advance and saved it all on his iPhone. Scott and I were in his hands, but none of us needed to consult a map – not a conventional one, at least – during the entire day.
Instead we were free to let our attention get caught by other local attractions: John Barrowman, for instance, who was promoting a forthcoming appearance at the Watford Colosseum in his usual understated fashion:
Or this perplexing sign outside a factory of pre-Thatcher-fontage:
Or the man who emerged from a branch of Coral the bookmakers, yelled “FUCKING CUNT!” at the top of his voice, muttered a hasty apology in our direction, then walked off slapping his head repeatedly before kicking the side of his car and climbing inside, still spluttering with rage, and roaring off down the road.
Of the three former stations we were looking for, the first, Watford Stadium, was entirely submerged beneath greenery.
It’s probably more appreciable in the winter; for us, the mere glimpse of a lamppost or glint of a rail was all that was on offer. Others have found a way to reach the old platforms and even stand on the tracks. We moved on as a small crowd of children from a nearby modern housing development began circling on their bikes.
Both the second and third stations had more to show for themselves, not just in the guise of those iconic Network South East signs. Here’s Watford West, complete with… steps!
Plus some humorous graffiti (easier to see if you click to enlarge):
The three of us made a careful point of taking turns to capture all of this for further reference:
En route to Croxley Green we got a proper look at the tracks, courtesy of a gap in the railings alongside another new housing development:
While at Croxley Green itself there was a semi-tatty noticeboard, conveniently placed at the ideal height for posing in front of.
Having, ahem, written a song about this place, but never having actually seen it before, encountering Croxley Green was something approaching excitement for me. Hence this rather ridiculously preening, which Scott and Robert graciously indulged:
While all this was going on we received a number of beeps from passing motorists. Quite what they thought we were doing depends on whether you choose to treat their actions as gestures of appreciation or derision. The fact all three of us were loitering near a signpost that read “Community Toilet” may have created a different impression entirely.
From there we trekked all the way up to Croxley station on the Metropolitan line, passing along the way signs advertising CROXFEST 2011.
This, inevitably, became something of a talking point. We wondered what sort of entertainment appeared at such an event. Some budding local talent? A famous name from within the neighbourhood? At one point we heard the sounds of some performers drifting across the Metro-land suburbs. Betjeman would have shuddered. We weren’t that smitten either. Much more pleasing was the food and the rest we subsequently had at a pub near the station.
I really hope the Croxley Rail Link is approved. I don’t feel that much sentiment towards a disused line that has yet to acquire a real sense of history or be refashioned as a useful footpath, or which would have demonstrable rather than just symbolic worth were it to be reopened. Besides, there are so few “new” railways being built in this country, for such a relatively tiny one as this to not get to go ahead would be rather depressing.
Plus if it came to pass, here would not only be a new railway line for folks like us to explore, but a new disused railway line to boot, in the shape of what is currently the Metropolitan line between Croxley and Watford: tracks that would be taken out of service once the Croxley Link became operational.
It’s the gift that keeps on giving!
Thanks again to Scott and Robert for asking me along. Here they are, enjoying an empty Metropolitan line carriage on the way back to central London.
I HAD ONE DAY OF rovering left. And I had at least three days’ worth of track still to travel.
There is an eight-day version of the North West Rover available – Robert’s used it – but I didn’t have the means, motivation or clean clothes to spend nine nights away from home. Not this time, anyway.
One of the lines I’d had my eye on from the outset was the Cumbrian Coast line: that thin, winding track that somehow clings to the edge of the coast all the way from, conveniently enough, Carnforth to Carlisle.
It’s another line often (justly) placed in that ubiquitous category The Most Beautiful Railways In Britain and I felt it demanded to be seen. Except the services are rather infrequent and slow, and I intended to break my journey at Ravenglass in order to take a ride on the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway.
Some quick calculations revealed that, by the time I’d reached the end of the line at Carlisle, there wouldn’t be much daylight left for me to see much else.
Hence the route for my fourth and final day using the North West Rover ended up looking like this:
Within a few minutes of leaving Carnforth I was already by the sea. Four days in to my travels I should really have got used to such a juxtaposition. But it still seemed a novelty. Railway lines and coastlines do not, had not, co-existed naturally in my mind. Writing this, back in London, they still don’t.
The first stretch of track round to Barrow hugs the edge of Morecambe Bay, crossing two specially constructed viaducts that carry you high above the vast banks of sand and endless rivulets of water.
Apparently I was brought to this part of the world on a family holiday in 1979 or 1980. I have no memory of it whatsoever. I’ve seen photos of the trip, in which everything looks very brown. You could argue the whole world looked brown in the late 1970s, except here, round Barrow and Ulveston and Grange-over-Sands, it still does.
Barrow in particular is the kind of place it’s best to appreciate by standing with your back to it and looking in the opposite direction:
Around this point in the journey someone got off the train carrying an air rifle. Nobody seemed at all concerned. Not that there were many people on the train to get concerned; beyond Barrow, I had most of the carriage to myself. I could, for once, sit at a table seat and feel unconcerned about spreading all my clutter beside and in front of me.
Outside, the landscape had turned very Melvyn Bragg: earthy, crumpled and a bit melodramatic. This was the view from a bit further along the line, at Kirkby.
The sun appeared to be so low in the sky it could easily have been late afternoon. In fact it was only about 10.30am.
I was the only person to get off at Ravenglass. The station was equally empty of people. As were the streets in the adjoining village. As were the boats in the adjoining harbour. I hurried quickly to the entrance to the steam railway.
I suddenly realised I’d been completely mistaken about what I was coming to visit.
I’d assumed I was about to ride behind a proper, full-size steam engine, in the comfort of giant carriages done up in suitably antiquated livery.
I was, of course, totally wrong. The Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway, besides sharing a name with a history tutor at Liverpool University with whom I had a major falling-out in the mid-1990s, is a miniature railway. The tiny trains run on narrow gauge tracks. The carriages are barely big enough to sit upright in.
One glance at the website – sorry, one proper glance at the website – would have confirmed all of this and not left me feeling rather cheated.
No matter. I still enjoyed it. Here’s the engine that pulled me and a few dozen passengers up into the Lake District fells and to the little hamlet of Dalegarth, which is within sight of Scafell Pike, the highest point in England.
This photograph is atypical in that it doesn’t feature any old men also taking photographs of the engine. I counted at least five of them, all having an agreeable time and all snapping away with aplomb.
I had a bit of time at Dalegarth to snoop around the visitors centre, opened in 2007 by the great Pete Waterman, and to wander into the surrounding countryside and along the bed of the river Esk:
Here’s a bit of blather I recorded on the return journey:
There was a good hour to kill before I could pick up the next train to Carlisle, so I spent a bit of time looking round Ravenglass itself.
The village was a bit too similar to the one in The Wicker Man for my liking. I didn’t see another soul. People clearly lived and worked here… or did they? In the harbour boats sighed and creaked with the wind. People surely tended and sailed in these craft… or did they?
I walked past a tiny building that advertised itself as a post office. A handwritten note in the window said it was closed for lunch. I walked on, turned round, walked back, looked in the window and found the note had now gone and the post office was open. Except I’d seen nobody enter the building.
I stepped inside. An immensely old man rose from behind the counter. He eyed me coyly. The place was an absolute pigsty. I identified a bag of Seabrook’s crisps (MORE – THAN – JUST – A – CRISP!), paid for them and left. I didn’t look back.
There was still time to kill. I looked inside the museum at the old Ravenglass station, where this poster, which for some reason I found highly amusing, was on display:
I also discovered another bit of antiquated signage, but this time in the waiting room on the platform of the mainline Ravenglass station. Who is the Secretary of State of Prices these days?
Just as I was the only person to get off the train, so I was the only person waiting to get on. I’d enjoyed my visit to Ravenglass, but was glad to be moving on. Even if that meant moving on to Sellafield, which the train driver announced with a little too much vim in his voice, and through which we passed at an unnerving crawl.
The line was still clinging to the edge of the mainland. The station at Seascale has, on the one side, the railway line and on the other, the sea.
While here’s the view from my carriage a little way south of St Bees, where to all intents and purposes the train could have been travelling right along the beach.
Indeed, the line comprises a single track from Sellafield all the way up to Whitehaven. No trains can pass. No trains would dare to.
By the time I reached Carlisle I felt like I’d overdosed on unusual sensations and atypical landscapes. But I now had to make a decision. Where to go next, before it got dark and, more importantly, before I ran out of time and my rover expired?
I went over the border. I got on a scuzzy train full of teenage school kids and went up to Dumfries.
And then, because I could go no further north, I turned round and came back again, on an equally scuzzy train full of different teenage school kids.
I sort of gave up at this point. It was starting to get dark and any attempt at heading anywhere other than back to Carnforth would have meant making most of the journey in fading light and poor visibility.
I could have taken a train along the route of Hadrian’s Wall to Hexham, which I imagine is pretty attractive line – but not last thing on a Thursday afternoon in October.
Instead I called it a day.
I needed time to take everything in and do a bit of motionless thinking. But inevitably the first thing I thought was: I’ve got to go home tomorrow.
Worse: I had to be on a specific train and sitting in a specific seat.
Worse still: I realised there was so much yet to see and so many lines along which to travel.
Conclusion: I had more than enough reason to return, and hopefully not before too long.
Amended conclusion: Just not, perhaps, to Blackpool.