31 May, 2008

Central Line: Woodford - Stratford

There's no subtle change in the atmosphere of the Central Line as you get nearer to central London. It happens very abruptly. Suddenly you're on a busy line with loads of passengers piling on and off the carriages. The contrast with the sleepy branch line-feel of the stations you've just left behind is jarring.

South of Woodford lies, unsurprisingly, South Woodford. It celebrated its 150th birthday a couple of years ago, along with a near-complete renovation that somehow managed to miss the giant signs on the platforms that still use the station's original name of South Woodford (George Lane). There's nothing at all to distinguish its surroundings. You're now in proper urban sprawl.

At least Snaresbrook has retained a bit of character, thanks to its Victorian exterior remaining largely un-meddled with (the fact you have to walk up a steep incline to reach the station adds to its feeling of grandeur) and some great features on the platform, including wood canopies and rather ornate, well, ornaments.

Leytonstone doesn't appear very distinguished from a distance...

...but up close you discover its walls are lined with brilliant murals and mosaics in honour of local boy Alfred Hitchcock, which were originally commissioned to mark the centenary of his birth in 1999:

It's here that the line dives underground for the first time (that's if you've avoided the Woodford-Wanstead loop-that-isn't-a-loop, which rejoined its parent line just north of Leytonstone).

I read somewhere that Leyton is apparently the most used stop on the entire Underground, but I find that extremely hard to believe. More used than Leicester Square? King's Cross St Pancras? Victoria?

Sure, it's busy, but not in the way that a mainline interchange is busy. Perhaps it just has ideas above its, erm, station. It used to be called Low Leyton. Maybe it's suffered poor self-esteem ever since. Another bit of folklore - to be taken with another huge pinch of salt - claims that to begin with trains weren't allowed to stop here on Sundays as the local vicar had successfully convinced the line managers the railway was "the devil's work".

If it's truly busy stations you're after, take Stratford. Here the Central Line emerges above ground briefly, as if to take a few gasps of air before plunging back into darkness. It's hardly the most tranquil of locations to pause for breath; Stratford is a warren of inter-connecting, overlapping lines that is only going to get bigger and more baffling as time goes on and the Olympics get nearer. Still, it's capped by a marvellous station building that hails from the 1990s when it was decided to route the Jubilee Line this way (along which I have already travelled).

There's only been a Central Line service running through here since 1946, when tunnels were completed linking Stratford (and hence the whole of east London and beyond) with Liverpool Street. Central London is calling. Again. *shudder*

25 May, 2008

Central Line: Woodford - Wanstead

This portion of the Underground usually gets referred to as the Central Line Loop, or the Fairlop Loop, or some other kind of loop.

It's nothing of the sort, as I would find out to my cost. None of the trains performs such a manoeuvre, and in fact it's impossible to do so as a passenger without changing onto different services at least twice. Different services, moreover, that run at different frequencies. Good luck to you if you want to try and get from one 'side' of the loop to the other in a hurry.

In effect what you have is the main Central line service (running from Epping into central London) forming the western half of the loop, while separate services complete the eastern half of circle from opposite directions. It's more a combination of branch lines than a loop. Woodford is where the division occurs; you can either stay on the main line and get to Leytonstone in double quick speed, or go the route of this blog, via Hainault and Wanstead, and get to Leytonstone in twice the time.

Given all this it's no surprise that most of the stations from Woodford round to Wanstead are those least troubled by passengers on the entire network. I did this section of the Central Line on a Saturday afternoon, and invariably I was the only person to not only get off but also GET ON the train at each successive station.

The fact a train only passes along the tracks between Woodford and Hainault (halfway round the loop on the eastern side) once every 20 minutes meant it took me an hour and a half or so to travel five stops...but admittedly the timetable isn't planned around people so desiring to photograph every single station on the London Underground. More's the pity.

From Woodford you actually travel north to reach the first of the 'loop' stations: Roding Valley, built in 1936 and named after the nearby River Roding. It sits on the edge of nowhere, feels like an outpost of civilisation and holds the title of the most lightly used station on the whole of the Underground.

Look, it's raining again.

The wet weather just compounded the sense of abandonment and a feeling that I really ought not to be loitering in places like these. For somewhere entirely absent of people (including any station staff), it was still in pretty good condition.

Remember how so many stations I've visited have a rather shabby or perfunctory minicab or ironmongers next to them? Chigwell's having none of that. Oh no. Its next-door-neighbour is...

...a garden centre. Is there anything more stereotypically fitting for such a shamelessly well-to-do Essex community?

They won't allow any buildings at all alongside the line itself:

While the platforms make you feel like you're in a well-tended glade or National Trust forest:

It's always said that the district of Grange Hill has nothing to do with the shortly-to-become-defunct titular children's programme. This was certainly the case from 2003 onwards when the show suddenly became full of northern kids and was officially deemed as having always been set 'somewhere in Britain', despite the majority of preceding series featuring scenes clearly set in north London. Anyway, I imagine my presence with a camera was put down by these locals to the behaviour of a sad fan.

It's certainly a world away from Chigwell, being a pretty rundown and unwelcoming station. As is Hainault, the next stop along and the place where any remaining pretence of there being a Central Line 'loop' falls apart.

I had to wait here for ages for a separate train that would take me any further. In fact, I had enough time to leave the station, go in search of a newsagents, come back and sit on another train going nowhere for 10 minutes.

Fair enough, Hainault is one of the main depots on the Central Line and bound to involve some sort of a delay. But in effect you're crossing onto a different line completely, one that runs to a separate timetable and can't be relied upon to provide you with a direct connection. Low usage is, I guess, the rationale behind carving up this ostensibly unified bit of the network. They might advertise it as such, though, and not pretend it's a continuous service.

Enough moaning. From here onwards the trains were very frequent. Fairlop looks almost identical to when it was built in 1903.

It's a charmingly subtle, well-maintained station, with a resident dove:

Plus surrounding views of the countryside:

...albeit largely unnoticed by passengers, due to there being, well, largely no passengers. Apart from that person with a camera.

Barkingside is a more elaborately-designed building, and is Grade II listed, but is still as refresinghly underplayed as its neighbour:

Below left, evidence of the first of Boris Johnson's diktats:

And despite now begin back in Greater London, there's still a fair bit of open country about:

Newbury Park was the place where, just after the Second World War, the existing mainline railway tracks that dated back to the start of the 20th century were connected up with the Central Line proper.

Previously services had run southwards to Liverpool Street; now they joined the Underground network and, fittingly, dived underground for the first time on this stretch of the Central Line. To mark the occasion this fantastic structure was built:

It's a bus station, and won a Festival of Britain architectural award in 1951.

Pity there's nothing to match its elegance by way of an adjacent Underground station. Pity there's not really any adjacent Underground station at all. Ditto Gants Hill, which is entirely underground...

...but is worth venturing underground for, because it was designed by Charles Holden and its platform level concourse was apparently a homage to the Moscow Metro. It is, of course, superb:

Redbridge is another one of Holden's seemingly unending contributions to the London Underground. Although construction began in the 1930s, it didn't open for business until 1947. The half-finished tunnels were used as a factory to build aircraft parts during the war.

Holden's signature motif is present and correct:

Likewise at Wanstead, albeit hidden - temporarily - behind a load of metal sheeting and redevelopment junk:

And beyond Wanstead...well, you're back on the 'main' main line and off the loop. Kind of. After a fashion. You're certainly back into the world of bustling, noisy, dirty stations and far far away from near-abandoned Edwardian outhouses in near-silent ruritania.

10 May, 2008

Central Line: Epping - Woodford

I'll never get used to the experience of travelling on the Underground through open countryside - and in a way that's how I'd like it to stay. It's a novelty as much as anything else, and if it became the norm, which it obviously is for those commuters so disposed as to live 17 miles away from the centre of London, I don't think it'd retain as much appeal.

It struck me, while travelling along this stretch of the network, that I probably wouldn't see countryside in quite the same volume again. All of the remaining lines on my journey are, I suspect, in stoutly urban or suburban areas. So this was a bittersweet leg of the voyage. I never suspected I would hold Essex in any sort of particularly wistful regard, but there you go.

Epping is the start of the line, but only since 1994. Before then Ongar was the terminus, even further eastwards into the shires and even less frequented by regular travellers. As far as I can see this now redundant part of the line never really justified its existence; one of its stations, Blake Hall, allegedly served just six passengers A DAY.

Saying that there's a privately-owned heritage railway company that runs special trips on Sundays and bank holidays along part of the route, with the dream - ha! - of one day reconnecting Ongar with Epping and hence the rest of the world.

For the time being, and probably for a very long time, Epping is where it all begins/ends. And it's a uncaringly nonchalent place. Outside even the M25, it's got nothing to do with London or the Underground at all, other than by virtue of some tracks that happen to pass this way. Over which trains have passed since 1865, when the Great Eastern Railway arrived, succeeded by the Central Line in 1949.

You can see very clearly where trains once carried on beyond here, through a now rather sad and sorrowful cutting and onwards past Betjeman-pleasing places like Coopersale Halt, North Weald Bassett and Toot Hill:

The Central Line is the longest on the entire London Underground (46 miles) and even this first stretch of six stations felt like it took about half an hour to complete. Theydon Bois, which I'd always assumed was pronounced after the French spelling, is in fact - according to the in-carriage announcer person - Theydon *Boyce*.

It's the least used station zone 6 - not a particularly difficult title to acquire - and has one the longest platforms on the whole network, thanks to the fact it was originally built and used by dairy farmers serving London. These 'milk trains' into Liverpool Street and the now defunct Broad Street were written into the timetable until an underpass from Leyton to Stratford further down the line was built.

Like all the stops in this part of the world, it seemed uncomfortably quiet and embarrassed by its size. The fact it was raining almost non-stop both here and right down the line just compounded the eerieness. Who lives out here? Who works out here?

Welcome to Debden, home of 'Eats & Bits':

This portion of the network was bolted onto the Central Line after the Second World War; but there had been tracks this way for almost 100 years previously - indeed, the next stretch was first opened in 1856, with Loughton originally acting as the terminus of the Eastern Counties Railway out of London.

It's not the same building, of course; the current one was thrown up in the late 1930s and is grade II listed. It was here that I saw the most recurring evidence of Essex Women going about their business, thanks to a giant branch of Sainsbury's close by. Even though it was pouring with rain these folk were walking around in a mixture of velour pyjamas and tiny flowery numbers, and while not to fall into any lazy stereotypes, they did seem utterly oblivious to the inclement weather. And, naturally, the brilliant architecture.

Buckhurst Hill is a beautiful station, with a palpable Victorian-era feel to its interior and splendidly-tended platforms:

Woodford, though, is a odd jumble of old and new, with yours truly captured on camera in the middle:

The line divides here, venturing off eastwards in a giant loop via Hainault while also continuing southwards towards London. Hence this blog will also veer off, first into silence and then, when time and inclination next allows, the likes of Roding Valley, Barkingside and - yes really - Grange Hill.