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.

1 comment:

Chris Hughes said...

I wonder if those six passengers at Blake Hall were the *same* six passengers every day. I like to think so, perhaps greeting each other every day with a nod, or the occasional "morning!" (and of course, absolutely nothing more).