It may be a month since Robert and I spent a week riding Scotland’s railways, but the memories are still strong. Such as…
Kyle of Lochalsh station
I’d got a sense of how enchantingly remote and enticingly melancholy this place might be from Michael Palin’s 1980 Great Railway Journey for BBC2, where he travelled all the way from Euston to Kyle in order to collect a frankly preposterous piece of signage.
OF ALL THE THINGS to prompt a Proustian rush, the sight of two Max Pax plastic coffee cups, an empty tuna and cucumber sandwich wrapper and a Kids Out Quids In! swirly red hat ought not to number among anyone’s top 10 of the subconscious.
THERE WAS A SMELL OF affluence and hokum. I felt like I’d wandered into an episode of Lovejoy.
It was a few weeks ago, and I was in Norfolk, on my way to one of the country’s least-used railway stations. I’d stopped along the way in the small village of Reedham, where I thought I’d enjoy a pleasant stroll along the river.
But there was something about the place that left me unsettled. Perhaps I should have read the signs. Literally.
LYING IN MY TINY BUNK in the carriage of the train that was carrying me from Nice to Rotterdam in the summer of 1994, I tried not to think about just how exposed I was.
Not literally: I had enough trouble in these circumstances trying not to let my guard down, never mind anything else.
It was more the wider context that threatened to disturb me, and which I endeavoured to put to the back of my mind.
Apart from my three fellow travellers, I was a stranger in a strange land with absolutely no means of contacting anyone I knew if something went wrong.
I don’t think I’d ever placed myself in such a situation before, and for good or ill I’ve never quite done so again.
However I must have done enough to cram such thoughts into a hastily-sealed bit of my brain, for I ended up getting a fair few hours of sleep. This was much to my surprise, and to those of my companions, who it later transpired had barely slept a wink and were bemused, and not a little envious, that I’d somehow stayed comatose for so long.
I was in one of the three top bunks in our couchette. I had a view of the carriage ceiling a few centimetres above my head, and nothing else.
I had to lie on my back the whole while. If I tried turning on to my left hand side I hit the wall, and if I tried turning to the right I would fall on to the floor.
This lack of movement, combined with the scorching heat, turned my “bed” into a coffin of foam rubber, to which I stuck with sweat.
The conditions were intolerable. The whole journey seemed to have been intolerable.
Yet somehow, somehow, I fell asleep.
After a couple more stops were out of the way, it was around 1am that it happened. The steady pulsing of the train’s engine, the regular rhythm of the wheels on the tracks, and the unchanging hum of the carriage machinery all conspired to lull me into a sort of reassured, becalmed stupor.
The next thing I knew it was 7am and I was awake.
I’d made it through the night, unscathed and uncompromised.
I felt absolutely awful, of course, and I knew I looked terrible: shabby, smelly and utterly out-of-sorts.
But it was the morning. And it was cooler. And I was somewhere different.
I went into the corridor and stood, watching the countryside race past.
Outside was northern Europe: plains of uniform fields and acres of monochrome woods with no rocky hills or tropical groves to be seen. Flat moorland stretched for miles.
There were rivers. There were bridges over the rivers. There were ducks nestling under the bridges over the rivers.
And then there was industry. Factories! Power stations! Warehouses! All drab, all functional, all standing magnificent against a soft, sombre sky.
An enormous sense of familiarity, and at the same time desperate longing, crashed over me. These places looked like home!
Though I was now geographically a lot closer to the UK than I had been for quite a few days, emotionally I felt further away than ever.
I hadn’t thought much about home since starting the trip almost two weeks earlier. We were always moving forward, looking ahead, preparing for the next leg of the journey and anticipating the next obstacle.
Now there was nothing left to do but to complete the circle and head back to Britain. With this realisation, everything and everyone associated with home charged back into my consciousness from wherever I’d hitherto quelled them.
I wanted to be back among them as soon as possible, yet I knew it would be a further 24 hours before I set foot on UK soil.
I cursed our stupid timetable – why weren’t we due to sail today? Whose idiotic idea had it been to eke out this adventure so as to include a Sunday afternoon in Rotterdam? Worse, a Sunday evening at the Hook of Holland ferry terminal?
“Well, we are where we are,” someone said – quite possibly me inside my own head.
I now did something rather embarrassing.
I started humming the signature tune of Michael Palin’s Around the World in 80 Days.
I’d watched the whole series on video just before we left. I suppose that by evoking the programme at this moment, I thought rather fancifully I could imbue my journey with a similar sense of the epic and the significant.
In reality, all I got was funny looks from the other passengers, some of whom I recognised – with a shudder – from the previous night’s antics.
Pretty soon we’d reached Rotterdam and were threading our way through a day of deep anti-climax.
I was elated that I’d both got through and ended up rather enjoying our marathon train ride. But I was also maddened by the way were now inching our way towards home rather than hurtling, as had been the case for the previous 15 hours.
Plus it turned out there was a final ordeal to endure.
At the Hook of Holland, the ferry we intended to catch had a hydraulic ramp that wasn’t working. It needed to be welded into place.
I remember standing on deck at about 11pm, looking down through the darkness and watching some of the crew trying to bang the ferry doors shut. It was as if some malevolent travel god, determined to hold up my departure from the continent for just a little longer, was taunting me one last time.
But the ship sailed, and I slept in an uncomfortable seat for a few hours, before waking and stumbling back out on to deck.
Harwich was on the horizon, twinkling in the cool sunlight.
I had never felt such deep love for a container port.
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.