24 March, 2008

The East London Line

Welcome to a line that no longer exists.

The East London Line closed, permanently, the weekend before Christmas. The Saturday before that, I travelled along that part of the railway still open to the public. It was a cold, overcast afternoon that threatened rain which - as you'll see - duly arrived. All the stations I visited felt like they'd been put out to grass: dirty, worn, battered. There weren't many people around. The whole atmosphere was one of desertion. It was about as far removed from the spirit of Christmas as it was possible to get. Plus I was ill. It was not the most inspiring of journeys.

Nonetheless I felt a strong sense of history right down the line, and not just because it was about to shut for an enforced hibernation.

Here were some of the oldest railway cuttings in London - in the country, for that matter. Here was the world's first tunnel under water. Here were names and places that carried associations with centuries of London's past: Whitechapel, Rotherhithe, Wapping. Above all, here was a line that nobody, but nobody, would be able to travel along ever again.

Not in this guise, at any rate. The line is scheduled to come back into use in 2010, but as part of the London Overground network, with extensions and appropriations turning the once self-contained stand-alone route into merely an anonymous segment of a giant whole. Never again will there be a strangely shaped, illogically-designed stump of a line sitting just to the east of Liverpool Street on the Underground map.

In one sense it's merely reverting back to its original purpose. When tracks first opened here for public use in 1869, it was as the East London Railway, a line operated by six different companies connecting north and south London and the counties beyond. It was never intended to function as a route that ran from nowhere in particular (Whitechapel) to somewhere else nowhere in particular (New Cross). Goods services rumbled along the line as late as 1962. Passenger trains from Liverpool Street crossed the line as late as 1966. At least incorporation into the new Overground service should see more people passing this way, albeit heading further afield than the East End.

Still, it'll be strange to see it no longer on the map. I'm sure the planners are glad to see the back of it. They could never decide what to call it, what to colour it, how to brand it, anything. For ages it was officially called, as if for punishment, the Metropolitan Line East London Section. Sometimes it'd be coloured purple. Other times it would be purple with a white stripe. It's only been orange since 1990.

The northern terminus, Shoreditch, closed in 2006. Since then trains have started and stopped at Whitechapel, a six-platformed maze of entrances and exits that line up alongside Whitechapel Road where, the day I was there, an enormous street market sprawled as far as the eye could see. The main part of the station was very busy, but the East London section was almost deserted. I almost felt embarrassed standing on it. This feeling would persist along the entire line.

Shadwell was, for a time, called Shadwell & St George-In-The-East, before the vogue for long and geographically-precise names was deemed too frivilous just after the First World War.

As much as I wish this was snow, it's just rain illuminated by a flash bulb.

That orange notice on the right informs the occasional stubborn traveller such as myself that there really is no point passing this way after 22nd December:

A station that's about to be closed is surely one of the saddest places to be in the world.

Wapping is right on the edge of the Thames, and marks the start of the tunnel, built by Marc Isambard Brunel and his son Isambard between 1825 and 1843.

Originally designed for, but never used by, horse-drawn carriages, it's an astonishing sight. You can - you could - see all the way down it by standing at one end of the station platform. It's incredible to think this took almost 20 years to build:

There's a fantastical history behind the tunnel, involving floods, deaths, illness, bankruptcies, bizarre multi-manned human shields, digging equipment designed to sink into the ground, and the Tsar of Russia. Essentially it was built more for the sake of it than anything else, quickly fell out of favour with London's gentry, became a doss-house for vagrants, closed for a time then became the fulcrum for the East London Railway once somebody figured out how to fit a train through.

The coming of the railway totally changed this part of London, restyling it as a powerhouse of industry and shipping and, in the process, bequeathing the city with acre upon acre of disused dockyards. And yet, over on the other side of the tunnel at Rotherhithe...

...the work of Brunel father and son is justly commemorated:

I know it sounds unashamedly childish, but I found riding through this short tunnel strangely thrilling. Or maybe thrillingly strange. At any rate, I saw somebody else taking a photo of it, so I knew I wasn't the only one.

Next stop was Canada Water, where I've been before, and which made for about the most complete contrast you could imagine.

Similarly I next went from a station opened in 1999 to one that hailed from 1884.

There's that orange notice again. I've read that Surrey Quays was only called Surrey Quays in 1989 when somebody somewhere thought its original name Surrey Docks was too old-fashioned and negative. In other words, docks = decay, the past; quays = progress, the future. The locals were not happy.

Lastly, to the end of the line - or rather, the ends of the line, in the shape of New Cross and New Cross Gate.

On paper, it's pointless. On the ground, they're only 600 metres apart. Yet thanks to rival companies rushing to lay tracks through London in the early 19th century, two stations called New Cross were built, one opening in 1839, the other in 1850. And both were called New Cross for ages. For almost 100 years, in fact. Clearly such a colourful anachronism could not be allowed to survive after the First World War, so one was redubbed New Cross Gate - the one that opened first, confusingly.

From here, eventually, you'll be able to continue onwards on board the London Overground all the way down to West Croydon or, ultimately, north westwards towards Clapham Junction and hence, if you so desired, in a massive anti-clockwise direction via Willesden and Highbury & Islington all the way back round to Whitechapel.

For now though, and for the next few years, you can't pass this way at all. The marvels and memories bound up in the East London Line are locked away, its eccentricities hidden from view, its identity abolished forever.


Steve Williams said...

Fantastic, I've been waiting for this for ages. I think the East London Line was one of the first ever tube lines I went on, as during a school trip to London we stayed at a youth hostel in Rotherhithe.

I intended to do this journey the other month, but only got as far as Canada Water before giving up because I couldn't be bothered waiting for a train back at New Cross (Gate). I suppose it makes sense closing it because it always seemed a slightly pointless line - look at the spaced-out signs at Rotherhithe, it's blatantly too short. It would have made more sense to run the Northern Heights as their own line.

Anonymous said...

I have found your blog a few days ago and I am absolutely loving it !
Keep up the good work, mate !

Ian Jones said...

Cheers - first part of the Central Line coming soon.