When I first moved to London I used to spend a day every other weekend or so on an ‘explore'; London’s got such a variety of neighbourhoods, architecture and cultures and too many people spend their time with Zone 1 blinkers on, corralled by the Circle line. And so, I added a few more zones than otherwise necessary to my travelcard and went to find out what was at the end of the wires of the tube map circuit diagram, stopping off at a few places along the way.
Often tube lines stop because there’s really nowhere else to go; the metroland population thins out too much to make further track worthwhile. However, at each end point there’s a very different feel, often a more suburban version of the towns along that particular stretch of line but only of that particular stretch of line. A stop 10 miles on the Northern line northbound is very different from a stop 10 miles on the Bakerloo line northbound.
Occasionally things get changed around; take the Central line for example. That red jugular bisecting the city; it stretches out into Essex; from Theydon Bois to Epping, the terminus, you’re travelling through wide open fields; 10 minutes ago you were in London’s biggest building site, Stratford.
But Epping wasn’t always the end of the line. Up until 1994 there was, what had become, a shuttle service between Epping & Ongar. That must have been a long journey and maybe the lure of the M11 on the doorstep was what finally killed off this little single track branch line. In 2004 however, enthusiasts re-opened the Epping & Ongar railway (EOR), putting to one side the fact that they had to stop pretty short of Epping itself, of which more later. And, given I was due to grab a beer with a mate in East London, that’s where I disappeared off to today; to finish those earlier explorations and tick off the end of the spiritual Central line.
The day hasn’t exactly been plain sailing though. The shiny Jubilee line whisks you to Stratford and the Central line is reliably efficient to Epping. But due to ownership issues, access rights or simply a lack of track, the EOR runs from North Weald to Ongar (with a little spur that gets closer to Epping at Coopersale but which has no platform and the train simply reverses back). The website proclaimed a bus service, the ‘201’ would pick me up from the front of Epping station to the front of North Weald. Sadly, there is no 201. And even more sadly, its successor, the 501, is every two hours. Yes, two hours. I guess I’ve been in London too long: that kind of frequency, even on a Sunday, does… not…. compute. I get impatient if I have to wait 5 minutes for a tube. I don’t think every two hours qualifies as a ‘service’, especially when I have 90 minutes to wait ’til the next one.
A sane person would have done one of two things: gone home or got a taxi. I’m not only bloody/single minded but a bit tight fisted too and so I decided to walk it. I’m guessing it was 3-4 miles; 3-4 miles of trying to re-programme the ‘I feel a letter coming on’ urge. That said, this part of Essex is very pretty; Epping is a beautiful market town despite the occasional rain that cooled my furrowed brow. Most of the walk was along the edge of the forest and I beat the bus easily.
This is obviously a preservation effort in its infancy; little signage, no official recognition of it being a tourist attraction in the slightest. A single diesel unit does the to-ing and fro-ing with slam doors that brought back memories of the first couple of years commuting out of Waterloo. Rickety, bumpy, the sense the track is a little belt & braces. Still, it was quaint and you get the feeling from the raft of special events that it relies on the passionate, regular support of a hard core – complete with pints of real ale served from the guard’s van at appropriate times.
Ongar, like Epping, is a single road, village-y town; today’s leaden skies weighed heavy over 11th Century churches and the spit-and-sawdust pub where I chose to grab a bit to eat. It was when my fish & sunburnt, oil-drenched chips arrived that spit and sawdust started to seem appetising. A little late for lunch perhaps, given the condition of the food; 2 or 3 weeks perhaps.
Back at Ongar station for the return trip I looked around the meek displays and the considerably less meek Swedish steam locomotives sitting in disrepair. One was apparently the train from the film Anna Karenina if that means anything to anyone reading. I did wonder what they were doing here. On a large heritage railway, sure, a great big hulking steam engine, from Sweden why not? But here, on a tiny little commuter branch line I wasn’t sure it would fit, even less sure that the hilly, nervous track would cope with the weight. A Thomas or Edward at the most; a Percy, definitely, but not a Gordon.
I have to admit the return trip was one of the most surreal experiences, well, this week at least. Someone, a regular it seemed, was playing his guitar in the carriage; it sounded, hmmm, ‘Bluegrass’ sprang to mind but I’m not sure if that’s right. I certainly felt like I should have been in the old West perhaps, not heading to North Weald. In a London Lines first, see and hear for yourself.
This time I knew I was closer to the bus for the return leg and had spotted the North Weald Airfield Museum just down the road; enough for half an hour’s aeronautical diversion. Following the rather more official-looking signs I arrived at what appeared to be a house. The signs insisted it was a museum. My brain vehemently declared ‘house’. I rang the doorbell, still within the apparent opening times but there was no answer. Slightly relieved, I skulked back towards the bus stop. 30 minutes to go and the dominant part of my brain kicked in again. Yes, reader, I walked again.
It’s these little quirks, these frustrating inconveniences, this lack of polish that make these days so memorable. Sure, I could do my well-rehearsed South Bank tour to the latest visitor, knowing we’ll be there just in time for a tube with the flexibility that if that gallery is shut, there’s a great little market around the corner. But that’s only part of London; there’s the individual, suburban, public-transport taunting part, on the frontier between metropolis and countryside, which either is too many peoples’ home (and that’s their limit) or simply not on the radar of cosmopolitan Zone 1-ers. And that’s precisely why I love the ends of the lines.