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.
You can read Scott’s account of our trip here, and Robert’s here.