06 September, 2008

District Line: Upminster - Barking

I began this leg of the journey with a tinge of sadness. For this was the last of the big lines, the last of the epic voyages, I had left to take. It would be my final chance to experience a ride on the Underground far far away from the centre of London and feel the might of its extraordinary reach.

I thought it would take me out beyond the confines of Greater London itself, but Upminster is in the borough of Havering and not, as I'd hoped, the county of Essex. District Line trains ran all the way to Shoeburyness between the wars, a somewhat surreal but rather delightful notion. Take the tube to the seaside!

One unrefurbished train (in the old pre-1960s aluminium style with no CCTV or passenger information displays) was still in operation until February 2008. I'm sure, thinking back, I travelled on it, as I remember getting the District Line between Westminster and Victoria one morning and being struck by how noticeably tatty and ancient the train was.

The early tracks were built by the Metropolitan District Railway (no relation to the Metropolitan Railway) and the first segment came into operation in 1868. This particular stretch between Upminster and Barking joined the Underground network in 1902, but quickly fell off again when electrification of the lines meant services had to be cut back to East Ham. Upminster became the eastern terminus again in 1932.

A glance at the sequence of photos below suggests I made this particular trip at dawn as the sun was rising. In truth I did it the other way round, travelling away from London, as dusk was falling. By the time I reached Upminster it was pitch black, so apologies for anyone interested in seeking images of that particular station's architecture. All my camera could really handle was a signpost:

As it happens the station is entirely branded in the style of the local mainline operator, c2c, and there's precious little London Underground livery to be found. It's a suitably expansive terminus and the child in me was excited by the chance to travel back into the city on an express train to Fenchurch Street in the moonlight. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Upminster Bridge, opened in 1934, was infused with the smells of Indian food:

The ticket hall is in the shape of a polygon and the floor tiles have reversed swastikas within them. I'm afraid I didn't pay that much attention to either of these. My stomach was rumbling. It was also a very desolate and unwelcoming place. There was nobody else to be seen, no passengers, no staff, nothing. The wait on the platform, although it was only half a dozen minutes or so, felt more like hours.

At Hornchurch there were signs of life, but only sporadically.

All the stations along this part of the line hail from the 1930s, even if, like Hornchurch, that date refers to rebuilding rather than original construction. There was still an antiquated feel to this place, however, with clunking wooden staircases and flaking paint that reminded me of a badly-kept primary school.

Still, I'd rather have steps than walkways, one of which graces Elm Park:

I appreciate the need for improved access at stations, but the solution here - a giant gangway that slopes up from the platform at a ludicrously feeble gradient - renders able-bodied people exhausted. It also means that, if you hear your train approaching and you're at the top of the gangway, there's an unavoidable temptation to leg it and, as even the smallest child knows, running down a slope brings as much pleasure as pain.

Next was Dagenham East:

Many of the stops along this stretch felt like they should be further removed from suburbia than they actually were. I'd expected to see open countryside. Instead it's uninterrupted housing all the way.

The closer to London you inch, the greater the number of commuters. Here's Dagenham Heathway...

...blessed, unfortunately, with another titanic gangplank from platform to exit. Tottering up this thankless walkway at the end of a hard day's work must nigh-on finish you off. Intriguingly it has been proposed that the Docklands Light Railway gets extended all the way out here, a scheme that would assuredly aid commutes into the east end besides supplying this under-served area of Greater London with better public transport.

Becontree won points for the use of that little-known novelty of transportation, steps.

Upney lost points for another flipping gangway.

I've not seen them anywhere else on the Underground. There must have been some reason for their construction, beyond laziness. Surely?

Barking is c2c property, and is nowadays contained within a small shopping centre.

It's an interchange with the mainline, hence the visible increase in personages, and is also the start of Hammersmith and City services. I'll talk more about that at a later date, but the Hammersmith and City is, at least for two thirds of its route, a ghost line. It doesn't properly exist. I've no idea why Barking is the place from which its services run. It seems a rather abitrary choice.

Anyway, I don't usually appreciate noise and bustle, but for some reason the reassuring hubbub of Barking - ghost lines and all - was for me a reminder of civilisation.


Anonymous said...

Fenchurch Street station! I've only been there once (well technically twice - outbound and inbound) but I think that really is a beautiful station. I was excited about going there as a lifelong Monopoly player, but when I turned the corner and saw this lovely station in the heart of the city, I was absolutely delighted. It's been a while since I've been there - and defintely must again!

Ian Jones said...

I'd never been to Fenchurch Street before I made this trip. Unfortunately when I arrived it was totally dark and I couldn't see a thing. I hope to find a reason to go back there in daylight and explore it properly. From pictures, it certainly looks like a charming place.