Friday, March 01, 2013

CENTRAL: Ten line facts

When it opened in July 1900, the line was known as the Central London Railway. The line was soon nicknamed the "Twopenny Tube" because it charged a flat fare. Only on 23 August 1937 did the current Central Line name come into use.
The Central is London's longest underground line, with 46 miles of track. It also boasts the longest possible journey on the network - 34 miles from West Ruislip to Epping.
The line was opened by The Prince of Wales (soon to be Edward VII) who made an eighteen minute non-stop journey from Bank to Shepherds Bush.
The lifts at all the original stations have been replaced by escalators, except at Holland Park, Queensway and Lancaster Gate.
Central line trains are now 20 years old. Each is 132.3m long, and its eight carriages contain a total of 272 seats.
The western end of the Central line originally terminated at Shepherd's Bush. Tracks were extended to Wood Lane in 1908, Ealing Broadway in 1920, Greenford in 1947 and West Ruislip in 1948.
The eastern end of the Central line originally terminated at Bank. Services were extended to Liverpool Street in 1912, Stratford in 1946, Woodford and Hainault in 1947, round the Hainault loop in 1948, Epping in 1949 and Ongar in 1957. The Epping to Ongar shuttle closed in 1994.
During World War Two, before the eastbound extension of the line opened, an aircraft-component factory operated in the twin tunnels between Leytonstone and Gants Hill. It was 2½ miles long.
The Central line's official colour is Pantone 485
The Central line has a split of services that you may not have noticed. West Ruislip trains go up the Epping branch, and Ealing Broadway trains go round the Hainault loop. Generally speaking. [full line history here]

CENTRAL: Down the line

Every month this year (with the exception of January), I'm focusing on one of London Underground's underground lines. Last month I kicked off with the Bakerloo line, and this month I've decided to move on to the Central. I know it looks like I'm working through in alphabetical order, but that's just a coincidence, honest. Expect a March filled with various Central-related posts, here and there, every now and then, on diverse topics. As before I'm introducing things with a ride along the line, this the Underground's record-breaking longest possible journey. I've always wanted to do that...

It's 34 miles from West Ruislip to Epping, a journey scheduled for completion in an hour and twenty-five minutes. Normally only the driver goes from one end to the other, but I thought I'd join him, from the heart of Hillingdon to the edge of Essex. The journey kicks off in bright sunlight, although that doesn't stop some muppet in the West Ruislip control room pressing the "In these adverse weather conditions please take extra care..." button for an unnecessary tannoy announcement. Trains head off to Epping every six minutes from either side of the island platform, so pick carefully, and let's start the stopwatch.

To start with I have the entire carriage to myself. It won't last, as our journey through the metropolis rises to a midtown crescendo then fades away into the suburbs. In less than a minute we've passed over the Metropolitan line (a lost linkage opportunity?) then alongside a large Central line depot (where the Vickers Aquamatic washes trains). Ruislip Gardens isn't as green as its name might suggest, more the name of the housing estate to one side. My first fellow passenger is a coffee-clutching smartphone user with a ponytail, though very definitely not the Shoreditch type. At South Ruislip a silver Chiltern train rushes by without stopping, because these outer interchanges aren't important to long distance travellers. One day HS2 will pass this way too, running to the north along parallel tracks, but not if the angry residents of Northolt etc get their way. The Central line runs intermittently in elevated section, offering a mixture of rooftops, treetops and warehouse roofs. The view has improved considerably by Greenford, from whose raised platforms spires and hilltops can be seen amid the entire expanse of west London.

By Perivale there are five of us in the carriage, two jabbering away "yeah yeah yeah" about the cost of pay as you go. It may be mid-afternoon but, out here in Zone 4, passengers are having to make do with reading a Metro because the Evening Standard is for inner Londoners only. Housing slowly makes way for business and industry as we descend into the secluded heart of the Hanger Lane roundabout. We cross the Piccadilly line for the second time, skirting the Park Royal trading estate, before joining up with the Ealing Broadway branch of the Central at North Acton. A pig-ugly Holiday Inn peers down from the embankment above, adjacent to several other brown buildings designed by the same school of sadistic architects. By contrast the housing estate at East Acton has the finest chimneypots along the entire route, and even Wormwood Scrubs scrubs up well, its variegated gables seasonally visible through a screen of leafless branches.

The tracks swap sides (via an underpass) so that trains roll into White City on the right, then swap back again shortly after departure. We've dipped below ground now, where we'll stay until Stratford. Somewhere in the darkness is the site of the old Wood Lane station, built on an inconvenient loop, and ahead is the sharpest curve on the entire underground network, but only for those travelling in the opposite direction. Westfield shoppers board in number at Shepherd's Bush, joining BBC types from the previous station, and it's starting to feel busy on board. One particularly wide bloke is taking up 1½ seats, while a narrow chap takes up two by resting his trainers on the moquette opposite. Holland Park and Notting Hill Gate are a little gloomy, the latter station frequented by unexpectedly stereotypical blondes who flounce aboard and natter.

A late arrival on the platform at Queensway manages to dash aboard between the closing doors without quite looking foolish. Then at Lancaster Gate two passengers deliberately allow our train to depart, intent on waiting for a Hainault service, not our Epping. We get our first "standers" at Marble Arch, the first boarders to ignore spare seats in favour of hanging around by the doors. And that's just an omen of what's to come at Bond Street, where central London hits big time. In they pour, one shovelling a Quarter Pounder inelegantly into his mouth, another lady finally taking the plunge and squeezing into the half seat beside the Three Hundred Pounder.

We've been running for nearly forty minutes and are now about halfway through our journey - currently rumbling beneath the retail turmoil of Oxford Street. Oxford Circus is the first station at which more people get out of our carriage than get on, but that's only because the horde of waiting shoppers have refused to spread out down the platform. At Tottenham Court Road a lady drags her small red suitcase over my feet "sorry" and plonks awkwardly "sorry" into the seat beside me "sorry". I'm voting Holborn the most crowded station en route, the first place where someone has to wander down and stand between the two rows of seats. Things could be much worse though - a couple of hours later people will be standing in vain on the platforms at Chancery Lane and St Paul's unable to squeeze aboard.

I'm expecting the brakes to screech as we round the sharp curve at Bank, but they don't. Instead a few financiers hop across the gap and ride one stop to Liverpool Street for their mainline train home. This is where the overcrowding situation in the carriage finally eases, with everyone now allocated a seat or at least their own place to lean. Those who remain on board are the true East Londoners - the skateboarder holder, the phone clicker and the headphone nodder - on the long run through to Bethnal Green. We stop. The doors open. "Ladies and gentlemen, please stand behind the yellow line as the train approaches" announces a disembodied voice, synchronised by some unseen idiot.

The cross-platform interchange at Mile End works like a dream for those who need the District line, on this occasion more by accident than operational design. Red Suitcase Lady stands as soon as we depart the station because she wants to alight at Stratford, but doesn't realise that's three minutes away and soon regrets her premature decision. At last we emerge into the sunlight, after ten miles underground from one Westfield megamall to another. And at last there are seats again, two of which are nabbed by a Rizla roller and a probable alcoholic. Leyton marks a full hour since we started out, and the first occasion we've been travelling fast enough for the train to rattle.

We shadow the A12 arterial to Leytonstone, where the line splits, and we're taking the overground route. Suddenly trackside looks properly suburban again, as do the stations. Snaresbrook has cute ironwork, and a cafe on the southbound that dispenses caffeine to early morning commuters, while South Woodford used to boast "The Railway Coffee Tavern" but no longer. It's school chucking-out time by the time we reach Woodford. A gaggle of girls hide away in the waiting room to gossip, while a lone boy boards the train, flips open a lime green iPad and downs a can of generic energy drink.

There are just ten passengers in the carriage as we cross into Essex, following a line of commuter settlements up the Roding Valley. Thin tongues of garden back down to the railway from neat rows of semis, interrupted at Buckhurst Hill by a very British Rail style station. By contrast Loughton has a splash of architectural brilliance that looks much more London Underground, its platforms dominated by "kidney-shaped flat-slab canopies" and "pairs of freestanding lamp-standards". After Debden it becomes clear we've finally left the metropolis behind, as schools and houses make way for fields and flowering gorse. Now only single cottages dot the countryside, and Theydon Bois feels more like a rural halt.

Ahead can be seen traffic on the M25, with streams of lorries rumbling ever closer until we pass underneath. And that's almost it, nearly an hour and a half after our journey began, because the town ahead is Epping where this train terminates. We pull into the left-hand platform by the ticket hall, and most of the remaining passengers head off to the adjacent oversized car park. The line to Ongar stretches deceptively ahead, unused now for almost twenty years because Transport for London has no desire to serve a minor Essex backwater. The driver emerges from his cab and wanders back down the train, which in six minutes time will become another record-breakingly long return journey to West Ruislip. Whilst this line may be called the Central, its outer extremities are truly anything but.

CENTRAL: End of the line

Five tube stations have the word Ruislip in their name, but only one marks the end of a line. That's West Ruislip, way out in zone 6, where Central line trains from Epping terminate. In case you've never been, I have, and here's what I can tell you about the place.

1) The station
There are nicer stations than West Ruislip, but there are far worse. Central line trains run either side of an island platform with a central canopy, and departing passengers need to check the signs carefully before boarding. The peculiarity here, shared with South Ruislip down the line, is that Chiltern trains have separate platforms alongside. They don't stop that regularly, not outside peak times, but it's nice to have the opportunity to travel further. We'll come back to this. The front of the station has a broad façade with a gently bending porch beneath a lantern roof. It could easily be something TfL had designed, except this place was built by British Rail in the 1960s. Immediately to the right of the entrance are your usual food stores and takeaway, but to the left is a minor police station, which suggests this area is a hotbed of crime. It doesn't look it. Immediately opposite the station is a golf course, and a Harvester-style restaurant which runs comedy nights and slimming classes to pack 'em in. We're right on the border between Ruislip and Ickenham, which is why this station used to be called Ruislip & Ickenham, then West Ruislip (for Ickenham) before losing the Icky bit. A lot of fresh flats are being built just down the road at Ickenham Park, on the site of what until fairly recently was RAF West Ruislip. But mostly what's down the road is Metroland, and a very pleasant corner of Metroland too.

2) The extension
West Ruislip wasn't scheduled to be the end of the Central line. When the western extension was mapped out in the 1930s the line was due to go further, all the way to Denham in Buckinghamshire. But the war came along and interrupted things (which is one of the most overused phrases on this blog) and the original plans had to be curtailed. The problem was the golf course across the road from West Ruislip station, and all the undeveloped land beyond it. After World War 2 this became part of the Green Belt, which meant no houses could be built beyond, and without houses there was no point in continuing the railway. If you look over the side of the bridge opposite the station you can see where the dream ended. Two dead end sidings terminate at a pair of unconvincing looking buffers, while a single track links up to the Chiltern line beyond. The Central line could have been the only tube line to exit Greater London twice, but it wasn't to be.

3) The missing station
Denham station already existed when the Central line extension was killed off, but one intermediate station never materialised. That would have been Harefield Road, a halt approximately halfway along the unbuilt section, shortly before the Chiltern railway crosses the Colne Valley. What a fantastically remote and unlikely spot for a station this is. A lonely bend in a minor road, surrounded by fields and woodland, and not a house in sight. The only folk living within half a mile are farmers. There is one other business here, that's Uxbridge Skip Hire, who run their operations down a bleak track which goes by the name of Skip Lane. Public access is along a pavement from nowhere, or the U9 bus runs through - Hail and Ride only. As for the town of Harefield itself, that's two miles away, and an absolutely 'no' to walk to after dark. There is no conceivable economic justification for a station in this location, indeed there's an air of Blake Hall about the place, for those who remember the pointless platform at the Ongar end of the line. But that's the point. Harefield Road station was meant to generate development, not to serve it. Had the Central line extended, these fields off Harvil Road would have been swallowed up by acres of semis and bungalows, and a parade of shops, and a school, and who knows what else besides. Instead the Green Belt has done its job and this place remains mostly unspoilt, at least until HS2 appears and carves a whopping cutting out of the adjacent woodland.

4) The missing link
A few hundred yards south of West Ruislip station the Central line passes over the Metropolitan and Piccadilly lines. It doesn't stop, indeed there's no convenient way to change from one to the other. When Tube Challengers come this way they have to run, unless the hourly U10 is passing by, that elusive bus of legend. It would be foolish to add a new interchange station here - West Ruislip is much too close - so the trek to Ickenham or Ruislip remains. But there have been mutterings, even semi-coherent plans, to link the lines together. Hillingdon council would love nothing better than to divert Central line trains away from West Ruislip and off towards Uxbridge. That would bring three different lines into the heart of the town, and offer commuters a greater choice of routes into the city. I'm not convinced that Uxbridge station could cope with the additional trains, and I don't think residents of West Ruislip would be very happy either. But a link wouldn't be as difficult to achieve as many other pie in the sky interchange schemes. The two lines are already joined via a track round the back of Ruislip depot, where large numbers of Central line trains are stabled overnight. It'd take some major reorganisation to create two-way passage, and the carriages full of ballast currently stored up the sidings would need to be shunted elsewhere. London Reconnections discuss the issues here, in some detail. This potential junction is quite hard to see, except from a train, although if you stand on the road bridge at Austin's Lane you can see the dead end buffer where the Central line might one day merge. I wouldn't hold my breath waiting, to be honest. Until which time West Ruislip station will continue to be the end of the line that shouldn't have been the end of the line, imperfect but immovable.

CENTRAL: Out of place

One unusual feature of the Central line is the number of stations named after places elsewhere. Here's why and how.

Holland Park: This station is named after Holland Park, a green expanse that was formerly the grounds of Holland House, which used to be a grand Jacobean mansion until most of it was firebombed during the Blitz, and which had started out in 1604 as Cope Castle, but which was renamed Holland House in 1625 when it was inherited by the Earl of Holland’s wife, that's not Holland across the North Sea, that's Holland one of the three medieval subdivisions of Lincolnshire, the southeastern Part whose main towns are Boston and Spalding.
Lancaster Gate: This station is named after an entrance to Kensington Gardens, an entrance which lies adjacent to the Italian Gardens, which were given as a gift by Prince Albert to his beloved Queen Victoria, one of whose titles was Duke of Lancaster, a dukedom first bestowed in 1351, and which survives as Duchy of Lancaster (a portfolio of land and assets held in trust for the sovereign), hence the gate alongside the gardens was named Lancaster Gate in the Queen's honour.
Oxford Circus: This station is named after the junction between Oxford Street and Regent Street, the latter street created by John Nash for the Prince Regent in the 1820s, with Oxford Circus created as a roundabout on Oxford Street, which used to be called Tyburn Road because it led to the gallows at Tyburn, and was renamed in the late 18th century, not because the road goes to Oxford but because the surrounding fields were bought up by the Earl of Oxford, not one of the original earls dating back to 1142, but a dormant peerage revived for the statesman Robert Harley.
Tottenham Court Road: This station is named after the road leading north to Tottenham Court, which was the manor-house of the Manor of Tottenham, first owned by William de Tottenhall during the reign of Henry III, later an Elizabethan mansion of three storeys with two wings which stood in 1½ acres within a moat, patched up several times over the succeeding centuries until it was eventually demolished in 1808, located not in Tottenham as you might expect, but on what is now the corner of Hampstead Road and Euston Road, opposite University College Hospital, roughly where the northern entrance to Euston Square tube station is, which might instead have been named Tottenham Court.
Liverpool Street: This station is named after a minor street alongside the mainline station, a street named after Lord Liverpool, the UK's third longest-serving Prime Minister (1812-1827), whose father appears to have been awarded the title for no geographical reason whatsoever.
Newbury Park: The station is named after an extensive interwar housing estate, itself named after Newbury, one of the 24 demesnes of Barking, a manorial division of land originally owned by Barking Abbey, back in the days when Barking Abbey was really important, the name 'Newbury' being first recorded in 1321 and nothing at all to do with the town in Berkshire.

CENTRAL: Line up

There are a lot of escalators on the Central line. They weren't there when it opened, there were stairs and lifts. But now there are almost twenty stations with diagonal-shifting people-movers. And some of them are record-breaking.

Greenford is well known for having the only escalator on the Underground that you ride up from the ticket hall to reach the platforms. The Central line runs through on a viaduct, just high enough above street level that having to take the stairs would be a pain. The escalator is 30 foot high, that's 9.14m in metric. And there's only one. The down escalator was converted to a staircase a while back, making two hard ways down and only one easy way up. Greenford station was scheduled to be step-free by now, but funding issues caused TfL to pull the plug in 2009 when work on a lift was only part-completed. Preparatory cable and drainage work remains, but only after £2.9m had been spent preparing a lift shaft that'll never be used. It would have been the Central line's only step-free station west of Stratford, but there's Mayoral priorities for you. Instead there's just the one escalator, rolling ever upwards, to reach the platforms.

Even more special, it's a wooden escalator. You don't get these anywhere else on the tube, not any more. Escalators with timber surfaces were phased out after the King's Cross fire for being a combustible risk, but Greenford's has survived because it's not underground. It's quite evocative going for a ride, for those of us who remember these wooden workhorses all across the network. Chunky treads ascend, all threaded together, with convenient grooves into which to drop a scrunched up ticket or a cigarette paper. You suspect it wouldn't be quite so dangerous to catch a stray shoelace here as it would be on a modern metal chewer, but best not stop to find out. Once at the top it's almost tempting to walk back down the stairs, turn round and glide back up for another go. But best not. The platforms up here are fascinating too. Crammed between the two Central line platforms is a single-track FGW terminus, from which you can ride (occasionally) on one of the least used rail lines in London. I will do that one day and write about it, honest.

Chancery Lane
Chancery Lane is well known for having the shortest escalator on the Underground. There are some pretty short escalators elsewhere, like a 6.46m climber at Canning Town, and a 6.31m riser at Heathrow 123, and three 5.60m at West Ham. But Chancery Lane's escalator is piddly, a mere 4.57m, that's fifteen feet in old money. If you choose to take the stairs instead, and you can because a staircase runs up the middle between the pair of escalators, there are only 25 steps. Twenty-five steps is nothing, unless you're elderly, or have a pushchair or a suitcase, in which case whoever installed this mini people-mover is a god. However record-breakingly short it is.

If you're thinking hang on, aren't the escalators at Chancery Lane quite long, that's because there are two sets. One rolls down from the ticket hall, and that's 50 foot long, which is proper big. That takes you down as far as the landing alongside the eastbound platform, which is where half the station's passengers need to go. But a peculiarity of the Central line means the westbound platform is stacked underneath the eastbound, hence the need for the tiny escalator to take everyone else a little further down. Even more peculiarly, the situation one stop down the line at St Paul's is reversed. There the eastbound platform sits underneath the westbound, don't ask me how, but somehow the tunnels swap elevations somewhere under Holborn Viaduct. But the lower escalator at St Paul's is eighteen foot high, that's 92cm more than at Chancery Lane, so Chancery Lane takes the crown.

Except Chancery Lane doesn't have the shortest escalator on the Underground any more. That honour belongs to Stratford station, again on the Central line, as of September 2010. That's when platform 3a opened, to ease congestion before the Olympic by allowing doors to open on both sides on westbound trains. It also made it possible to access the central line direct from the main ticket hall, via an existing escalator. And that was a very short escalator, at only 4.1m, which is half a metre less than at Chancery Lane. You have to be fairly lazy to want to ride this one instead of walk up the staircase alongside, but people are lazy, and the escalator thrives.

And Greenford no longer has the only escalator on the Underground that you ride up to reach the platforms. Stratford has one too, the same escalator that trounced Chancery Lane in the shortness stakes. What a shame it's such a dullard. Stratford's record-breaker isn't even a proper Underground installation, more an incidental people-mover in the general vicinity of a shopping centre. But the Central Line still punches above its weight in the interesting escalator department. Why not ride one today?

Escalators shorter than 6m
4.1m Stratford: Ticket hall up to Central
4.57m Chancery Lane: Westbound up to eastbound
5.12m Notting Hill Gate: Eastbound up to westbound
5.15m Tottenham Court Road: Up from Northern
5.49m St Paul's: Eastbound up to westbound
5.60m West Ham: Up from Jubilee
5.64m King's Cross: Northern up to Piccadilly
5.76m West Ham: Up from ticket hall
5.88m Canning Town: Jubilee up to DLR
5.99m Westminster: Up from District

CENTRAL: Walking the Hainault Loop

Once you ride past Leytonstone, the Central line links with no other railway line except itself. The Hainault loop is a peripheral peculiarity, poking out into the heart of the borough of Redbridge, and traversed by few other than the borough's residents. The north and east sides of the loop used to be part of the Great Eastern Railway, joined southwards from Newbury Park to Ilford. Then London Transport tunnelled a fresh connection from Leytonstone, opening in 1947, and the Central line's loop was born. It has ten stations altogether, many of them architecturally intriguing, and trains take just over twenty minutes to travel from one end to the next. I thought I'd walk it. I do this so that you don't have to, remember - indeed on this occasion I'd strongly recommend that you don't. From urban sprawl to inner Essex, there are finer strolls. But hang on in there, especially if this corner of London is unknown to you. [map] [16 photos]

I thought I'd start from Wanstead. I couldn't face the trek along the A12 from Leytonstone, plus I'd walked that way before as part of the amazing Linked project. Wanstead is an oasis of pleasantness, but only because the dual carriageway has been hidden in a cut and cover tunnel beneath the village green. The station stands in contrast as an outpost of modernity, a clump of rectilinear boxes topped off by a plain concrete tower. Charles Holden designed it, his plans diluted by wartime austerity, but striking all the same. Those seeking class and culture should head north along the High Street, past the George pub and its plaque "In Memory of Ye Cherry Pey". Alas the Central line follows the A12 east, from here all the way to Newbury Park, and that's the weary road I had to tread.

Cars splashed downhill, past sidestreets abruptly chopped mid-terrace when the new road was driven through in the 1990s. I'd picked a rotten day for it. The rain should have been clearing but instead chucked down even heavier, which is not what you want when striding alongside an arterial. I could have hidden beneath the footbridge, one of the few ways across this tarmac divide, but thought I'd better press on because there were still more than ten miles to go. At the foot of the slope the houses ceased, because this is the floodplain of the Roding valley and much better suited to allotments and sports pitches. Ahead the North Circular crosses the Redbridge roundabout on stilts, only a short distance from the foot of the M11. It's not an easy environment for the pedestrian, funnelled through the middle via a twisting footpath, just remote enough that "what if..." thoughts of solitary crime begin to surface. But nah, absolutely fine.

Here's Redbridge station, another Holden classic. Again there's a tower, but this one's Buckinghamshire brick, while lower down's mostly curves rather than straight lines. The exterior is roundeltastic, not just circles on poles but a whole series wrought in iron as part of a fence around the top of the stairwell. It's all a bit Piccadilly line, but differently quirky and not quite so grand. The station was sited on a traffic island beside the roundabout so it could best be served by local buses, augmented these days by long distance coaches pausing to disgorge motorway folk onto the tube.

You can tell that the main road came first because the next stretch is arrow-straight, with acres of semi-style housing off to each side. This is proper interwar ribbon development, with front gardens shamelessly backing onto the A12 rather than curling away in disgust. Almost all are paved, with hardstanding for a couple of cars and very few attempts at horticulture. A word of advice to the householder who's planted a row of artificial flowers and surrounded them by rings of white pebbles - it's not classy, and a blatant fake when spring's late. If you think London's ugliest building is in Archway or Colliers Wood, perhaps you've not seen Wentworth House. Imagine a shoebox balanced on a coffee table, and now strip away everything lovely about your mental image. The ninth floor office suite is currently up for grabs for an annual rent of £34K, but only a visually dysfunctional boss would move their workforce here.

There's very little to Gants Hill station above ground, just what looks like a redbrick scout hut in the middle of a major roundabout. Dip into the subway, signposted by some lovely solid roundels, and the tiling's bright and sunny. But only if you descend the escalator do the true glories of Gants Hill reveal themselves, notably the arched space between the platforms with uplighters reminiscent of the Moscow Underground. If you like worshipping bits of the Underground, make sure you venture out to this Holden temple to pay homage. But alas I wasn't going to the platforms, I had more of Eastern Avenue to walk. Oh joy, more dual carriageway and exhaust fumes, and more terraced semis facing onto the road. Most of those living out here have wheels, and automotive businesses thrive, be that tyremen, repairguys or in-car wi-fi hi-fi fitters. There's also a sizeable Asian population around here, which again you might not be aware of because you've never visited, reflected in the occasional houseproud façade and pillared balcony.

A major road junction ahead looks like it ought to have the next tube station, but that's only a giant JD Sports on the corner. This is Grays Corner, a retail crossroads where the pub is now a McDonalds drivethru, and where the local newsagent is Fags & Mags. Ilford War Memorial Gardens are the only evident heritage hereabouts, a 1922 survivor watched over by the bronze figure of a soldier, overshadowed on both sides by millennial redevelopment that used to be hospitals. Nobody built a Holiday Inn here because there's something to see, more because cheap beds on the edge of town near the tube are always desirable. And Newbury Park is just down the road - the station nothing special, but the bus station, whoa! Oliver Hill's semi-cylindrical copper roof is breathtaking, especially alongside suburban mundanity, and the worthy winner of a Festival of Britain award. A fine place to pause awhile... maybe even the rain'll stop.

CENTRAL: Walking the Hainault Loop

I'm walking the Hainault Loop, a safari through outer northeast London. First I trudged three miles along the southern edge, along the arterial A12, and now I'm following the Central line north as it swings north out of deep tunnel and into the countryside. There will be horses. There will be muddy puddles. There will be further relentless housing estates. And at the end there will be Essex. [map] [30 photos]

Enough of Eastern Avenue. The dual carriageway slogs on towards Romford after Newbury Park, but I needed to follow the Central line suddenly north. Oaks Lane sounded promising, a reminder of when everything round here was fields, although in reality rows of semis leading to an unexciting stack of flats. And then the houses on one side stopped, and the vista opened out to reveal fields. Not exciting fields, more flat green expanses of partly grass, but a welcome change of scenery all the same. To the left a footpath crossed the railway heading for an unseen Sainsburys, but I pressed on towards proper rural, up a pitted track (notionally a bridleway) to a clump of buildings surrounded by agricultural detritus. This is Aldborough Hatch Farm, an outpost of the village of Aldborough Hatch across the fields, part-swallowed by suburbia. I would have taken a photo but the owners were standing around outside, and nothing screams "Neighbourhood Watch" louder than a stranger unexpectedly snapping your outbuildings. They drove off in their 4×4 along the lane, dirt splashing as they rolled, past a couple of very damp looking horses.

It's not far, not far at all, to the edge of Fairlop Waters Country Park. This is the dull corner of the park, unless you like golf. A wooden signpost pointed past the lake to Fairlop station, but I followed the shorter finger along the lane towards Barkingside - the briefer non-muddy option. Redbridge council hides a youth offending centre at the tip of Station Road where most won't see it, and here too is Oakside Stadium, home to Barkingside FC. They play in the Essex Senior League and are only eight promotions away from the Premiership, although judging by current form that's looking unlikely. For a decent view of any action try the footbridge at Barkingside station, which is alongside. The station building is Grade II listed, this time not for modern reasons but because it's 1903 classical. Cream stone quoins. Granite plinth. Small domed cupola. That sort of lovely.

Just down the road is Doctor Barnardo's Village, this for girls to make up for the fact that before 1876 everything had been for boys. It has 14 cottages set around a rural green, and a children's church, and a Tesco on a patch of land since sold off. But to follow the railway I didn't walk that way, I followed Craven Gardens - suburbanly nondescript to the end and then wow. At Fullwell Cross is my favourite London library, from the outside at least. "A low, circular concrete drum with simple yet varied fenestration, rising above the centre of which is a lantern with arched roof lights and conical - almost tent-like - shell roof with a green copper finish." It could be a crown, or some symmetrical type of hat, but truly it's just circular genius. The architect was Frederick Gibberd, famed for Harlow New Town and for Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, and ah yes, there's the similarity. The council have even used a sympathetic sixties font for the big yellow letters facing the high street... they're clearly well read.

Fairlop station is one of the least used on the Underground, because the Central line passes just too far east to be convenient. Back in the 1940s the station was surrounded on all sides by Green Belt, bar a thin strip of housing running down to Fulwell Cross, a not insignificant walk away. The boating lake will never bring major passenger traffic, nor the golf course and garden centre, but the local High School packs them in daily. Look, it has an Amstrad Technology Wing, courtesy of Barkingside's cheery local millionaire Sir Alan Sugar.
Journey to the centre of the Hainault Loop: I thought I'd take a brief diversion at this point to explore the bit in the middle. Where, I wondered, is the unfortunate settlement in the middle of the Hainault Loop, with a dozen stations all around but none close by. And that'd be Clayhall, an expanse of interwar housing estate merging into several more expanses of interwar housing estate, but this one invisible on the tube map. I took the 169 bus up Fullwell Avenue to its terminus at The Glade, which I think is about as far from the Central line as you can get. All ever so residential and not much more, I thought. But a footpath led off between two blocks of flats to an appealing-looking green space, rising beyond on wooded slopes, and topped off by a distant water tower. It looked intriguingly explorable, were it not for the muddy grass and the flooded path, so I thought better of it. Somewhere to revisit in the summer, I think, but for now, the next bus back.
I alighted back at the roundabout by the New Fairlop Oak - which is both a pub and a famous tree. The East End used to decamp to Fairlop on the first Friday in July for a drunken revel beneath the oak's broad branches. 250 years later many of the East End have moved here permanently, as the jolly mannequin outside the halal butchers suggests. St Francis Church up Fencepiece Road has a green pyramidal spire and a very 30s design, as if it were somehow a church hall that grew too far. Alas it's the last vaguely interesting building for a while, because Hainault is more somewhere to live than a location to revel in. Here the residential avenues swamped both sides of the Central line before the Green Belt set solid, so the entire area is now houses and schools and intermittent shopping parades.

Only on the platforms is Hainault station impressive. Down at ground level there's little but a pair of unprepossessing entrances, watched over by a low bridge and a billboard advertising Sky Movies. Meanwhile on the other side of the road is the entrance to Hainault Train Maintenance Depot - a key Central line stopover. It's reached up an avenue of silver birches, plastered with enough 10mph speed limit signs to remind even the most amnesiac driver. And the sidings block the way somewhat for walkers, not that there are many of us attempting to travel up the line on foot, to be honest. Time for a cut-through up a cul-de-sac, past bungalows and well-tended front gardens, in an entirely this-is-nothing-special kind of way. Only a set of allotments hints at the undeveloped green space beyond, its gate with a passive aggressive message to careless plot owners. But keep going, because at the top of the slope there's a hedge and then a field, and that's the edge of London, that's Essex. Next stop, Grange Hill.

CENTRAL: Walking the Hainault Loop

I'm walking the Hainault Loop, northeast London's very own orbital railway. Previously I've walked east from Wanstead and north from Newbury Park, now finally I'm heading back west. This section of the walk links the three least busy stations on the entire Underground network, because it's semi-rural out here and because everyone owns a car. Technically this is Essex, although never very far from the border with London. Let's see if I can get to the end before it gets dark. [map] [42 photos]

Yes, there really is a station called Grange Hill, adjacent to the suburban estate of the same name. Apologies, it doesn't have a 70s comprehensive school stocked by lovable reprobates, however much you'd like it to. Instead there's a single primary, and some tennis courts, and a mix of housing from flats to "never lived in a flat in their life". The station building would be lovelier had not a doodlebug scored a direct hit in 1944, but Grange Hill's platforms still have a long-ago feel. Part of the neighbouring shopping parade is proper mock Tudor, for your wine and hairdressing needs, whereas the extensions to either side are decidedly less reverent. I watched as two youngsters on horseback emerged from a sideroad between the shops and waited for the traffic to pause. A motorbike roared by, to the obvious horror of the riders' matronly chaperone, until a gentleman in a vanity-plated Merc restored her faith.

There are many ways to walk to the next station. What I'd planned to do was walk up the footpath adjacent to Chigwell cemetery, out into proper rolling fields, but then I looked at the mud and thought again. What I could have done was walk up Mount Pleasant Road and over the top of the Central line where it runs through a tunnel. What I actually did was stumble up a narrow alleyway between the backs of umpteen back gardens, which was almost as squidgy underfoot, to a footbridge across the railway. This affords a clear view straight through the aforementioned Grange Hill Tunnel, which is a very short one, barely 200m long. What I should have done was continue my walk on the other side of the railway, through woodland along a farmyard track, but a local resident with an over-bouncy dog persuaded me otherwise. It's easy to see now that I missed all the potentially good bits, partly through inadequate map reading, but also by visiting in dour grey winter. Mark walked this way as part of his Tubewalker project and found it glorious, but that's high summer for you.

The 'village' of Chigwell creeps up on you. First you think "Lesley Joseph would never have stooped to this", then "OK, maybe Tracey and Darryl might have lived here" and finally "bloody hell, that's beyond even Dorien". Charles Dickens adored the place, immortalising the local pub in Barnaby Rudge. A few cottages from his time survive, notably up the High Road, but Chigwell's streets are now widely infilled by New-Money New-build. Here are all the gastropubs and nail salons a footballer's wife could desire, plus the legendary Debra clothing store for aspiring Towies. Security gate installers must do a roaring trade, but Chigwell's not entirely exclusive, nor indeed unfriendly, and seven-car households remain the exception.

Chigwell station has character, both above and below. The frontage boasts twin pedimented gables, giving the building an appropriately semi-rural stature, although it's very hard to take a photo without finding a 4×4 parked in front. The platforms run in a cutting and are longer than they need to be, so the far end now features dismantled roundels, bulbless lamps and mossy asphalt. There's no way, geographically speaking, that this Essex outpost should be in fare zone 4, but operationally I guess it makes sense. The next station is only two minutes away by tube, over the valley across the viaduct, but I was going to attempt the crossing on foot and that isn't easy direct. First I had to walk some distance down the High Road, past more residential fortresses and a golf course, before turning off down a narrow lane lined by trees. One last push.

Luxborough Lane looks like it's going nowhere, and ultimately it is. But hidden round the first bend, well, here's a collection you might not be expecting. First there's the M11, snaking down the Roding valley on its way to join the North Circular. I enjoyed the view from the bridge, not looking down at the traffic but across to the heights of Buckhurst Hill. Secondly there's a hockey club, that's Old Loughtonians, who have two telltale bright pink and blue pitches. The club was selected as the official training venue for Olympic hockey, so they're now the lucky custodians of true London 2012 sporting legacy. And thirdly, yes, that white igloo-type building really does say Tottenham Hotspur on it. This is Spurs Lodge, where the first team used to do all their indoor training, except they pushed off to new state-of-the-art facilities in Enfield last September. Poor Chigwell, no longer the Premiership hobnobbing location of choice, although I suspect few of the footballers wives have deserted.

A barrier stops cars progressing further, on a brief but lonely stretch of lane down to the river. This is the Roding, which I last encountered eight miles ago near Redbridge. A single angler lurked by the waterside, blatantly fishing during the start of the close season, although who was going to notice him out here? The Central line passed above on brick arches, rather more impressive than crossing via a small metal footbridge with BNP graffiti daubed on the side. Here be mud, which squelched deeper across the rugby pitches ahead. It's a simple lesson in geography - never build houses this close to a river, but it's perfectly OK for grown men to ruck and maul instead. The railway embankment here marks the edge of the capital, to which I was returning. The last pub in Essex looked pleasant, or would have done were it not for a suspicious number of bouquets stacked up round the bus shelter outside.

And here it was, the end of my walk at Roding Valley station. This is the least used station on the Underground, with less than half the number of passengers of second-placed Chigwell up the line. That lack of footfall is reflected on Cherry Tree Rise at Station Parade, which is the only parade I've ever seen constructed with only two shops. But what an intriguing station, for those who bother to visit. There are no ticket barriers, because what's the point? You can enter step-free from either side, thanks to a low ramp installed a few years ago as an easy win. The station manager makes regular announcements "from the control room at Roding Valley", should anybody be listening. And when nobody's around he pops out front and spruces up his topiary locomotive, which has to be one of the most unexpectedly quirky features on the network. The sky was dimming now, with lamplight illuminating the station, as an Essex stereotype in a onesie arrived to purchase a ticket. He rode one stop to Chigwell, obviously, and I rode home.

» map of my walk (not necessarily the optimum route)
» 42 photographs [slideshow]

CENTRAL: skipping down the line

The Bakerloo line is well spaced, with stations pretty much everywhere a station should be. Not so the Central. There are several gaps and missed connections, including at least one entirely skipped community. That's no conspiracy, it's just how the line was built, and there hasn't been either the will or the money to make significant changes since. Here are ten places the Central line could stop but doesn't.

East Ickenham: We've discussed this one already. There'll never be a station where the Central crosses the Metropolitan, because the intersection is too close to West Ruislip. There might be a linking curve one day, but not until the signalling on both lines is compatible, and that's nowhere near. [map]

Park Royal: Here's the next missed interchange with the Piccadilly line. The Central line ducks beneath near Park Royal station, so close that if the platforms had run north rather than south they'd almost have joined up. But although a new connection would be ideally placed for Diageo HQ, it wouldn't be great for anyone who lives round here, and the more convenient station on the Hanger Lane roundabout would probably have to close. [map]

North Ealing: And yet another Piccadilly miss, this time on the Central's brief Ealing spur. Changing to the District line is easy, a brief wander to adjacent platforms at Ealing Broadway. But changing to the Piccadilly involves a three-line shuffle for anyone relying on a tube map, or a walk from West Acton for those with a better grounding in local reality. That makes three non-connections with the same line across West London, all doable on foot, but it seems remiss that 1930s planners failed to realise how useful a Piccadilly/Central liaison would be. [map]

Wood Lane: Here's a lost opportunity that could have been planned better, not that anyone would have known at the time. In 1908 the Central line was extended from Shepherd's Bush to Wood Lane to serve the Franco-British Exhibition and the Olympic Games. The new station was an awkward single-track affair on a sharp curve, improved with straighter platforms in 1920 when the line pushed on to Ealing. Wood Lane (Central line) closed in 1947 when neighbouring White City was opened instead, although the station buildings weren't demolished until 2003 when Westfield was at the planning stage. Then in 2008 a new Wood Lane station appeared on the Hammersmith & City line, on the opposite side of the road to where a previous Wood Lane station had closed in 1959. If you're not following this, sorry, there's a detailed history here, here and here. But the upshot is a mega Wood Lane interchange never happened, just a "walk along the street" link, which is easy but definitely sub-optimal. [map]

British Museum: How useful it would be to have a Central line station very close to London's most popular tourist attraction. And when the line opened in 1900 there was one, a station called British Museum on the corner of High Holborn and Bloomsbury Court. Again the Piccadilly line caused the problem here, because six years later they opened a different non-interchange station on Kingsway. That was much better placed for road and tram connections, so in 1933 the Central line admitted defeat and opened new platforms at Holborn station instead. Up until 1989 the surface buildings at 'British Museum' remained, and you could buy photographic equipment and horseriding gear from the former ticket hall. No longer. Everything above ground has been demolished, and a Nationwide Building Society office (next to My Old Dutch) now covers the site. Below ground the platforms have been bricked up and provide little more than a useful space to store sleepers, but they're sort-of glimpsable if you know when to look. [map]

City Thameslink: A slightly longer than usual gap exists between Chancery Lane and St Paul's where the Central line ducks beneath the valley of the Fleet. Partway along is City Thameslink, the only station inside the Circle line not to get a mention on the tube map. It's almost a ghost station outside peak hours, but is about to get much more important from 2018 when Thameslink is upgraded. Blackfriars is already an important interchange, and Farringdon will become a mega-hub once Crossrail opens, whereas City Thameslink looks doomed to become an annoying halt in the middle because the Central line doesn't stop. [map]

Shoreditch High Street: This is possibly the biggest missed opportunity of all. The Central line runs directly underneath the Overground station which opened three years ago, and yet nobody's made any attempt at all to join the two. No convenient connection exists between Overground above and Central below, none at all... and that's deliberate. The Central line is plenty busy enough at peak times without linking it to other lines and making the overcrowding worse. Crossrail should make a big difference in 2019, relieving the Central of its worst cattle-truck conditions, after which a Shoreditch interchange could safely be built. But don't count on it, London's skint, so network perfection will have to wait. [map]

Roman Road: This one hurts. If the Central line ran straight from Bethnal Green to Stratford it'd pass under Roman Road, through the heart of Bow. But it doesn't, it diverts significantly south to meet the District line at Mile End. Strategically that's the right decision, providing an invaluable connection that improves millions of journeys each year. But for those living in the northern half of E3 the Central line's non-appearance makes the area that bit less accessible, that bit less desirable, that bit less prosperous. In a parallel universe Roman Road Market is popular and Victoria Park is a convenient day out, but instead the Central line runs parallel and Bow misses out. [map]

Pudding Mill Lane: When the Central line punched east from Liverpool Street the planners decided it should be an express railway, so it skips through Tower Hamlets pausing only twice. The longest gap of almost two miles is between Mile End and Stratford - great for those who live in Essex but less good for those of us (raises hand) who live inbetween. In particular the Central line scores a direct hit on Pudding Mill Lane station but doesn't stop, because PML came second, and because nobody could have predicted the Olympics would take place alongside. Instead Stratford has become the megahub, and if you want to visit Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park or go to West Ham's first home match in 2016 then you'll need to divert via there. [map]

Leytonstone High Road: The final railway that could interchange with the Central line but doesn't is the Overground. That's the Gospel Oak to Barking line, the poor relation of the orange network, which somehow manages to miss almost every single possible connection from end to end. Here in Leytonstone a half mile walk is required, which isn't endearing to the casual traveller, but that's what happens when a rail network evolves rather than being planned. Central maybe, but not always convenient. [map]

CENTRAL: Theydon Bois

Head far out of town, to almost Epping, and the Central line halts in the middle of the countryside. Only rarely does the Underground serve a genuine village - Chalfont and Latimer are the only other examples I can think of. But Theydon Bois is proper rural, albeit reborn as an Essex dormitory suburb, with a village pond and ducks and everything. The green is part of Epping Forest, which starts officially just up the hill behind St Mary's church. No littering, no model aircraft, no picking the flowers. A few of the houses facing the green are old and classy, with thatched roofs and perfectly striped lawns. Many of the others are terraced cottages, dating back to an era after the railway came and the village opened to incomers. But head away from the main roads and the houses are newer, more mixed, occasionally Towie aspirational. The local butcher is a "Purveyor of Quality Meats", while bread is still served from a "High Class Bakers And Confectioners". But on Good Friday the parade of shops is closed and only the Tesco Express is serving, with queues way back past the chocolate eggs.

The village boasts three pubs, the most remote named Sixteen String Jack after a notorious 18th century highwayman. You'd have thought twice about taking the road up Jack's Hill back then, with Epping Forest a notorious haunt of bandits. You'd have thought twice about walking into the forest yesterday too, with muddy tracks and marshy puddles where soon a meadow of buttercups will bloom. As for The Railway Arms down by the station, that pub closed in 2011 and is now a forlorn sight. The car park is fenced off, there are legal notices in the windows, and the only sign of commercial life is a remaindered chalkboard advertising the final Neil Diamond Tribute Evening.

The station itself will be 150 years old in a couple of years time, originally opened by the Great Eastern Railway before London Transport snapped the line up. It's the least used station in Zone 6, as you might expect serving a village of a few thousand (and the complete absence of street lights in Theydon Bois can't help commuter numbers either). The platforms are peaceful places, watched over by horses in fields to the east, although the M25 rumbles not too far behind. They're joined by a lattice footbridge, open and narrow, currently littered with salt to prevent unseasonable frost taking hold. None of the daffodils in the flower beds have opened yet, although one looks like it might do soon if temperatures lift. And the name of the village, to save you asking, rhymes with Noise. Although there isn't much of that.

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