Friday, June 09, 2006

The East London line: Terminating Shoreditch

Londoners the world over have an earnest fascination with abandoned tube stations. Oh to be able to explore inside those mothballed tunnels, just to see what the interior of each station used to look like. And yet the irony is that most of these stations closed through lack of traffic. A wholly insufficient number of passengers were using Aldwych, and Ongar, and Down Street, and Verney Junction, for example, so they were all closed. But now you have the opportunity to visit another poorly-used station before it closes down forever. Today it's Shoreditch's turn to be wiped from the tube map as part of the extension of the East London line. It's not yet too late to take one last look.

In remembrance, I've been out taking a virtual journey along the East London line. Let's start down at New Cross and New Cross Gate, then head north station by station taking in all the interesting sights along the way. Terminating Shoreditch.

London's abandoned tube stations
Disused stations on London's Underground
Aldwych (closed 1994)
Ongar (closed 1994)
Down Street (closed 1932)
Verney Junction (closed 1936)
Shoreditch (closes 2006 - full details here)

The East London line: past, present and future

The East London line's a strange one. It goes from nowhere to nowhere, which is why the majority of Londoners have never ridden on it. It's only five miles long, and shorter still outside peak hours. It skilfully avoids central London, almost grazing the edge of the City but not quite. The line has a pitiful nine stations, most of them tiny and unloved. Some of the stations are much too close together, while others are far too far apart. The tracks burrow through some of the poorest swathes of east and southeast London, linking just a few yuppie enclaves along the way. On the tube map the line's represented by a feeble, almost anaemic, orange colour. The trains are only four carriages long, each borrowed from the line's big Metropolitan cousin. And it takes only fourteen minutes to ride from one end to the other. It's sometimes hard to work out why the line still exists.

And yet the line is also both unique and historic. Its origins predate construction of the first official London Underground railway. Its deeper stations retain a real sense of subterranean Victorian character. It provides the only public transport link across the Thames east of Tower Bridge and west of Docklands. And at its heart there's the Thames Tunnel (of which more later), whose construction was quite literally ground-breaking.

Here's a brief East London line history:
(and if you need a map to follow, try here)
1825: Marc Brunel begins construction of the Thames Tunnel between Wapping and Rotherhithe - the first tunnel in the world to be built beneath a navigable river.
1843: The Thames Tunnel opens, but only to pedestrian traffic. It's not a great commercial success, and closes twenty years later.
1869: The newly-created East London Railway uses the tunnel to run trains from Wapping underneath the river to New Cross Gate.
1876: The line is extended north to Liverpool Street, with trains running as far south as Croydon and even Brighton.
1880: A branch line to New Cross opens.
1884: A short spur line is built just west of Whitechapel station to link the East London Railway to the Metropolitan line (it still exists).
1913: The northern link to Liverpool Street station is severed.
1948: With nationalisation of the railways, the ELR passes to London Transport.
1995: The entire line is closed for three years for the urgent modernisation of the Thames Tunnel and for construction of a new interchange with the Jubilee line at Canada Water (opens 1999).
2006: Shoreditch station closes forever.
But it's not just Shoreditch whose days are numbered. In two years time the entire line will shut down (again), this time for at least 18 months, to enable construction work for the East London line extension project to take place. By 2010 this won't be some tinpot little tube line any more, it'll be a fully fledged overground railway joining Dalston in the north to Crystal Palace and Croydon in the south. To be honest that still doesn't sound like a route many people would ever want to use but hey, a new orbital railway connection is not to be sniffed at. And the old Shoreditch station will be long gone, buried forever beneath new inclined tracks leading up to a new station above Shoreditch High Street. Last chance to see.

East London links
East London line history
East London line photos
East London line bloggers
East London line extension
my East London line flickr gallery (ongoing)

The East London line: New Cross / New Cross Gate

If it weren't for a local pub, this heavily built-up area of south east London would still be known by the rather more charming name of Hatcham. The old name slipped out of favour when a tollgate was set up on the main London to Dover road beside the Golden Cross Inn. This became known as the New Cross Gate, and that's how SE14 evolved into New Cross. When the railways came the area gained two rival stations a few hundred yards apart, one nearer the gate and one slightly further away. The East London line diplomatically forked in two and linked to both.

New Cross Gate

Opened: London, Brighton and South Coast Railway - 1839
Opened: East London Railway - 1884
Distance to Surrey Quays: 2.1 km
Departing from: platform 1
Listen carefully: you might hear the next train whistle as it approaches round the curve
Change here for: London Bridge, Brockley and East Croydon
Exit: no ticket barriers
Outside the station: a busy main road packed with traffic, narrow pavement, Sainsbury's, Currys, JJB Sports.
Annual passenger throughflow: 2.9 million
New Cross

Opened: South Eastern Railway - 1849
Opened: East London Railway - 1884
Distance to Surrey Quays: 2.3 km
Departing from: platform D
Look carefully: you might spot the driver sneaking a crafty fag while he swaps ends
Change here for: London Bridge, Hither Green and Kentish places
Exit: ticket barriers
Outside the station: Tan's Cafe, PDSA pet hospital, Henry & Son Hairstylists, gloomy pedestrian underpass.
Annual passenger throughflow: 2.6 million

It's a real East London line lottery travelling down to the bottom end of the line. Half of the trains heading south from Surrey Quays go to New Cross, the other half to New Cross Gate. Do you wait six minutes for the next train heading to your chosen destination, or do you hop aboard the next available service to the alternative terminus and stroll between the two at the other end. It might be quicker. And it's not that far to walk, only another six minutes, even if this particular high street isn't the most salubrious of thoroughfares.
"The gypsies, the travellers and the thieves
The good, the bad, the average and unique
The grebos, the crusties and the goths
And the only living boy in New Cross
(Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine, 1992)
Between its two stations, New Cross Road is lined by run-down shops of the non-chainstore kind. Many of the goods on sale have had previous owners, some of them legally. Most of the so-called meat on sale is fried, oily and convenient. The display in the window of the betting shop still shows an Arsenal player wearing anachronistic JVC strip. There used to be a Woolworths in the high street, but it scored a direct hit from a V2 flying bomb in one of the worst civilian tragedies of WW2 (168 shoppers died). Backpackers can now find cheap accommodation in a well-lubricated hostel above the New Cross Inn. Cultured locals might be more interested in top(-ish) quality nightclub entertainment at The Venue. The two most impressive buildings you'll see here both belong to Goldsmith's College - one the old Deptford Town Hall, the other the stunningly modern Ben Pimlott Building (pictured). Very tasteful, but probably not worth making a special effort to see. Hurry along now.

Local celebs:
born here: Steve Harley, Gary Oldman
lived here: Robert Browning, Marie Lloyd, Barnes Wallace
met here: Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer (at the Goldsmiths Tavern)

The East London Line: Surrey Quays

Next stop, the Rotherhithe peninsula. It wasn't so long ago that most of this area was wholly uninhabitable, just a broad expanse of marshland tucked inside a big bend in the Thames. No good for living, perhaps, but perfect for parking an awful lot of ships. The Howland Great Wet Dock came first in 1696, renamed Greenland Dock a few decades later when the Arctic whaling industry moved in. The docks expanded to accommodate trade from Canada, Scandinavia and the Baltic, specialising more in timber and imported foodstuffs than piles of oily blubber. Eventually an astonishing 85% of the peninsula was covered by a network of watery basins, and the docks provided employment for many thousands of Londoners. Meanwhile an enterprising canal company attempted to build a waterway from here to to the south coast through Surrey. The canal was a financial disaster, stretching only 3½ miles to Peckham rather than all the way to Portsmouth, but the area is still named after the Grand Surrey Canal to this day.

Trade thrived until German bomb damage helped spark the inevitable post-war decline. The Surrey Docks gradually closed, the warehouses fell derelict and most of the basins were filled in. A prime target in the 1980s, therefore, for the regeneration policies of the London Docklands Development Corporation. And blimey, what a transformation they've wrought here since then [full details]. South Dock has become a marina edged by modern housing. Greenland Dock (which is huge) has become a watersports area edged by modern housing. Norway Dock has become an exclusive pond surrounded by posh houses on stilts. Russia Dock has been almost completely filled in and turned into a linear woodland park. There's even a man-made hill in the middle of it all with surprisingly impressive views across this newly residential landscape. If only the transport links were a little better you might even want to live here yourself.

And then there's the shopping centre, because you can't have regeneration without a big Tesco, a BHS and a selection of minor chain stores. The extensive car park out front reflects the mix of clientele inside, with tacky England-flagged Fords parked up beside gleaming pristine 4x4s (although, to be honest, there are rather more of the former). If you fancy a meal try Pizza Hut round the back, or maybe the neighbouring Arbuckles burger restauarant (which used to be called Fatty Arbuckles, but they've recently dropped the reference to cholesterol-induced heart failure). For entertainment there's a big cinema and an equally huge bowling alley, because that's the height of good taste that is. It was all a bit reminiscent of southern Essex, I thought, only with much nicer communal water features.

Surrey Quays
Opened as: Deptford Road (1884)
Renamed: Surrey Docks (1911)
Renamed: Surrey Quays (1989) to match the neighbouring shopping centre and to make the area sound posher
Northbound platform: original brick, with ornate black and red painted ironwork
Southbound platform: a more modern painted finish, with Victorian yellow- and red-topped pillars
It's a long wait for: a southbound train to either New Cross or New Cross Gate (could be up to 10 minutes)
It's an even longer wait for: trains on the new extension to Clapham Junction (could be up to 10 years)
Exit: long thin glassy ticket hall, ticket barriers
Outside the station: newsagent kiosk hole, the middle of a major road junction, Surrey Quays Shopping Centre
Annual passenger throughflow: 1.6 million

The East London line: Canada Water

Whilst all the other stations on the East London line are about a century old, this one's nigh brand new. The Victorians didn't bother to build a station here, there was no need. Rotherhithe station's only a few hundred yards to the north, and Surrey Quays only slightly further to the south, not far to walk at all. And there was nothing much here at the time either, just the big watery expanse of the Canada Dock, and a lot of blokes unloading bacon, cheese, grain and timber.

Nowadays only the northern half of Canada Dock remains. It's become an ecology park, apparently, which seems to mean a few bushes along the water's edge, one twirly wind turbine and some remote ducks sitting on a small wooden raft in the middle. Looming over the area is a fortified grey box - Harmsworth Quays - within which copies of the Daily Mail and Evening Standard roll hot off the presses. According to big lettering on the roof this is "the home of quality newspapers", although some might beg to differ. There's an enormous sports shop here too, the legendary Decathlon. Unlike JJB Sports and other chav-outfitters, this long warehouse sells proper equipment for playing proper sports, and at very reasonable prices. If you can't afford one of the local townhouses or apartments, maybe a £20 tent will do.

And today there's a station. The Jubilee line extension cut through in 1999, and a brand new interchange with the East London line was required. It's all posh chrome, grey tiles and dazzling open space underground, with a giant circular glass atrium above. The whole structure provides a huge contrast to every other ramshackle station elsewhere along the line. But there's still a surprising amount of nothingness outside. This is some of the ripest prime estate in southeast London, but at the moment much of the immediate area remains as waste grassland cut through by muddy commuter-eroded footpaths. There's an ongoing battle between the landowners (who see a multi-million pound investment opportunity - mmm, shops and highrise apartment blocks) and local campaigners (who see a valuable community resource - mmm, swans and water features). So far the environmentalists have managed to protect the remainder of Canada Dock from infill, but much of the surrounding area remains earmarked for some very serious commercial redevelopment. The car park's going to be built on, for a start, and that sports shop will make way for a hotel and swimming pool. Once pretty much nowhere, it looks like Canada Water is already doomed to become a mighty big somewhere.

Canada Water
Opened: 19th August 1999
Platforms: squat, sleek and very grey
Change here for: Jubilee line, lots of buses
Distance from the next station down the line: it's only 550m to Surrey Quays (which is visible from the northbound platform)
Distance from the next station up the line: it's only 320m to Rotherhithe (the fourth shortest inter-station journey on the entire tube network)
Exit: an epic ascent up a series of escalators, across an expansive subterranean hall, through a row of ticket barriers, up some more escalators, finally emerging from inside a giant glass drum
Outside the station: bus station, tower blocks on the Canada Estate, a big dock, swimming ducks, undeveloped wasteland
Annual passenger throughflow: 7.6 million

The East London line: Rotherhithe

It's only a tiny patch of land beside the Thames, but the old riverside village of Rotherhithe drips history. You have to hunt for the old stuff carefully these days, surrounded as it is by rather less characterful housing estates, but the ancient heart still beats. The lanes around the old church are narrow and cobbled. Tall converted warehouses block the neighbouring Thames from view. Real ale pints are supped inside a half-timbered quayside pub. But what's that big white cylinder beside the old brick building with the tall chimney? What exactly is the East London line's world famous claim to fame? And why is there an American tourist taking photographs in the churchyard? Here's why.

1620: The Mayflower sets sail
Rotherhithe was the home port of Captain Christopher Jones, master of the Mayflower. His children were baptised in the local church, St Mary's, which at the time had something of a reputation for puritanism. Cap'n Chris usually sailed his merchant ship to France, but in 1620 he was hired to carry a group of religious separatists across the Atlantic to the New World. Legend tells that he stopped off for a pint at the Shippe Inn on the Rotherhithe waterfront before climbing aboard from a flight of nearby stone steps. And so the Pilgrim Fathers set off on their epic voyage. And then they set off again from Southampton harbour. And then they set off again from Plymouth, which is the location most of the history books remember. The ocean crossing took more than three months, with one birth and one death along the way. Captain Chris remained with the settlers during a particularly fierce winter before sailing back to Rotherhithe in the spring with his crew. He died the following year and was buried in St Mary's churchyard, although nobody's quite sure precisely where. And the Shippe Inn still stands, now renamed the Mayflower. If you can fight your way through the charmingly gnarled bar then there might just be room to sit out on the rear jetty above the Thames, sipping a pint or three, looking out over the spot where America's destiny began.

1843: The Thames Tunnel opens
It had never been tried before anywhere else in the world, a tunnel underneath a navigable river. But Sir Marc Brunel (Isambard's Dad) believed it was possible and attempted to dig a tunnel between Rotherhithe and Wapping beneath the Thames. First he built two huge cylindrical shafts on the surface, one on each side of the river, then his got his miners to dig down until each structure had sunk beneath the level of the riverbed. Clever man. He also invented the tunnel shield which allowing his miners to edge slowly forward in relative safety. Even so, in 1828 the Thames broke in through a weak spot in the roof of the tunnel, flooding the lower chambers and drowning several of the miners, delaying construction by several years. The tunnel was finally opened to the public in 1843. Fashionable Victorians flocked to promenade through this new underwater marvel, an amazing twin-bore arched corridor lit by flickering gaslight. Two million visited in the first year alone, but the novelty didn't last. Market traders and hawkers gradually moved in until the tunnel had degenerated into a seedy backwater haunted only by pickpockets and prostitutes, surviving only as a curiosity. In 1865 the tunnel was sold to the East London Rail Company who laid tracks and ran services through from the Metropolitan line.

The Brunel Engine House just north of Rotherhithe station is now a small museum telling the story of the tunnel and the people who constructed it. It's only a small exhibition but it's packed with information and artefacts, and £2 feels a fair entrance price. You can read all about the Brunels and their subterranean struggle, peruse displays of tunnel-related ephemera and squint into a cardboard Victorian peepshow to get a feel of how the tunnel must have looked in its heyday. In the lower gallery there's also 20 minute video to watch, although half of the film appears to be a London Underground propaganda piece explaining why ten years ago they felt the need to close the tunnel and spray almost all of the original brickwork with concrete 'for safety reasons'. But at least this gruesome preservation means that the tunnel remains open, and tens of thousands of people still travel through Brunel's first engineering marvel every day. I bet they don't even notice.


Opened: 1884
Distance from the next station down the line: it's only 320m to Canada Water (a very short walk)
Distance from the next station up the line: it's only 500m to Wapping (a very short swim)
Crossing the southern end of the platforms: the vehicular entrance to the Rotherhithe Tunnel
Platform mural: bold colourful sketches of local landmarks with arty scribbles
Exit: stairs, then mini escalators, then ticket barriers
Outside the station: tree-lined Brunel Road, a few old dockworkers' cottages, lots of modern non-dockworker's non-cottages
Annual passenger throughflow: 1.1 million

The East London line: Wapping

I could write reams about Wapping (and probably will one day, so I won't go overboard now). As far back as Tudor times this was the heart of maritime London, home not just to sailors but to boatbuilders, ropemakers and a considerable abundance of innkeepers. Over the centuries Wapping attracted considerable amounts of lowlife, with prostitutes something of a local speciality, and convicted pirates were hung from an infamous riverside gibbet. These days you're more likely to see an estate agent on the prowl, but they go about their business unpunished. Most of the old warehouses on the waterfront have been snapped up by the upwardly mobile [photo], although you only have to walk a block or so inland to find rows of rather more down-at heel council apartments. The river remains Wapping's best feature [photo], and if you look carefully you can still discover alleyways which lead through to seaweedy steps down to scrappy beaches on the Thames foreshore. And right where the gibbet used to be, on Execution Dock, now stands a station...

Of all the stations on the East London line, this one's my favourite. Not that you'd guess from outside. The squat station building [photo] looks nothing like Wapping's surrounding warehouses. Brunel's original tunnel shaft has been painted a dull creamy colour and resembles a municipal water tank. The tiny replacement ticket hall tacked onto the front of the building looks more like a misplaced corner shop. But things change once you're through the ticket barriers with a choice of two routes down to the platforms. Just for once don't take the lift, it's dead ordinary by underground standards. But the stairs are something else, twisting fifty feet down inside the cavernous vault of the old tunnel shaft [photo]. The elevator and its machinery takes up much of this dark space, but the original pre-Victorian brickwork still dominates. If you don't stop to admire the view you might reach the bottom before the lift (although it's 84 steps back up so the reverse might not be true).

Two short flights of narrow steps lead down to platform level. For the best views head for the northbound platform, because this faces directly back down the Thames Tunnel [photo]. The railway tracks in the right-hand tunnel are clearly visible dipping low beneath the river, shining in the gloom like two parallel silver threads. Daylight floods in through a narrow opening at the opposite end of the platform, while above your head a curved brick arch stands heavy over the station. Both platforms are particularly narrow, far thinner than would be permitted under current health and safety legislation. Indeed initial proposals for the extension of the East London line called for both this station and Rotherhithe to be permanently shut down (too small for planned volumes of traffic) but thankfully Ken stepped in and scuppered that.

While you're waiting, take a look at the enamelled murals commissioned during the station's last major refit in 1995. Nick Hardcastle's charming illustrations look like meticulous Victorian engravings, with subjects ranging from the construction of the Thames Tunnel to contemporary life inside local pubs. Staring at the walls you can almost imagine standing here in 1869 when the first steam train puffed through, filling the tunnels with acrid billowing steam [photo]. But by now there should be the headlights of a modern electric train visible in the tunnel, ready to whisk you onwards, back into the 21st century. Enjoy your last few moments beneath the Wapping shaft, because there isn't another station quite like it.

Opened: 1869
Annual passenger throughflow: 1.1 million
Note for visitors: If you want to see the historic tunnels properly floodlit, staff at the the Brunel Engine House organise the occasional 'guided journey' for a fiver (including the last two weekends of this month) [photo]

The East London line: Shadwell

Shadwell isn't the loveliest of spots. It might have been once, a very long time ago, but the Tudor villagers and wealthy sea captains are long gone. Thomas Jefferson's mother Jane was born here, but even her family quickly upped and left. "Poverty-stricken" is probably the best adjective to describe the area, and has been for well over a century. Tower Hamlets council owns much of the housing round the station, and it shows. In fact there are two stations here, one on the East London line [photo] and one on the DLR. It's a very short walk between the two, round the corner into Watney Street past a pie and mash shop, a Bangladeshi supermarket and a closed-down pub [photo]. A huge turquoise sign on the railway viaduct dominates the view - Shadwell, it blares, as if to say "there is a way out". In a couple of years' time, when the East London line extension is built, both stations will be shut down and remodelled. A gleaming future beckons, but it's most definitely not arrived yet.
n.b. This is not Shadwell, Virginia - the American settlement where Thomas Jefferson was born.
n.b. This is not Siadwel - the shambling Welsh poet played by John Sparkes in 80s hit comedy Naked Video.

Sights of Shadwell: Cable Street [photo]
A giant mural on the side of the Old Town Hall commemorates the 'Battle of Cable Street' in 1936. Sir Oswald Mosley tried to stir up racial tension by marching his fascist Blackshirts through the Jewish East End of London. Ordinary Londoners, however, were determined that the march should not pass and set up a series of barricades along Cable Street. A pitched battle was fought which resulted in the arrest of several participants but also the dispersal of Mosley's walkabout. Sir Oswald is long dead, but he would no doubt be shocked and appalled by modern Shadwell and its integrated multi-ethnic mix.

Sights of Shadwell: News International [photo]
Fifty years after Cable Street another series of pitched battles was fought in the streets of Shadwell. Rupert Murdoch bought up a cheap patch of land here under pretence of setting up a new London newspaper, but instead constructed his new News International headquarters. Striking print workers found they had no defence against the activities of Fortress Wapping and, after a violent year of confrontation, gave in to his cost-cutting working practices. The Sun has been shining out of Shadwell ever since. It's probably no coincidence that one of the nearest shops to the main entrance is an Oddbins off-licence.

Sights of Shadwell: Tobacco Dock [photo]
In the midst of rampant 80s retail optimism, the old tobacco warehouse in Pennington Street was transformed into an extensive exclusive shopping centre. The building was most impressive, from the inside if not from the outside, blessed with brick-lined vaults, great timber roof trusses and cast iron fittings. Unfortunately the shops were too far from the tourist trail, and too pricey for the locals, so it wasn't long before Tobacco Dock closed down. You can still visit and see the two full-size 'pirate' ships they left outside, but unless the side gate is open you won't be able to get up close, peer in through the dirty glass and wonder what might have been [photo].

Opened: 1884
Distance from Wapping: 800m
Platforms: wide arched brick space, open to daylight at each end [photo]
Platform mural: charming and lively yellow-ish sketches of local landmarks, by Sarah McMenemey [photo]
Exit: ticket barriers
Outside the station: Cable Street, a dedicated cycle path, Peter's Pie and Mash shop, Itthadi supermarket, joyridden cars abandoned in the canal [photo]
Annual passenger throughflow: 1.5 million

The East London line: Whitechapel

It's only right that the East London line passes through the very heart of London's East End. And Whitechapel is very much a place of 'passing through'. It grew up as a medieval village on the main road into town from East Anglia, a last staging post before the city walls at Aldgate. Being outside the jurisdiction of the City it attracted workers, traders and chancers, but also ever-increasing poverty. A succession of Irish, Jewish and German immigrants moved in, worked their way a few rungs up the ladder and moved out. Generations of salt-of-the-earth Cockneys grafted a living crammed into back-to-back terraces. Since the 1970s the Bangladeshi community has been on the ascendant, absorbing their culture into the local mix. The worst slums may be long swept away, but the colourful heritage of this historic neighbourhood continues to evolve.

Whitechapel Road, which passes the front of the station, shows the contrast more than most [photo]. The white chapel which gave the area its name is long gone, and a tall modern mosque stands proud over the roadway. The street market still sells fruit, clothing and carpets but with an Asian flavour. Blacksmiths, tailors and pawnbrokers have been replaced by betting shops, sari emporia and Poundbusters [photo]. The vast Royal Hospital, home to London's air ambulance, is due to be almost completely replaced by a landmark 18-storey monstrosity within the next six years. The Grave Maurice pub, haunt of the Krays and the odd Morrissey cover, has been transformed into a charmless salsa bar [photo]. The famous Whitechapel Library has been closed down, replaced further along the street by a gleaming glass 'Idea Store' [photo]. The bland shell of the East London Mail Centre, where the Royal Mail's miniature underground railway once terminated, looks ripe for demolition. And the stableyard in Buck's Row, where Jack the Ripper slashed his first victim, has been razed and replaced by an anonymous parking bay [photo]. History doesn't hang around for long in Whitechapel.

Tomorrow this will be the end of the line. That's nothing special because the East London line always terminates at Whitechapel on a Saturday, but it won't be going any further for several years after tomorrow. Platform 6, awkwardly located over a winding footbridge, can be mothballed. There'll be no more trains arriving round the curve from Shoreditch [photo], not until 2010 or thereabouts when the upgraded ELL extension finally opens. But by 2015(ish), when Crossrail finally arrives, today's Whitechapel station will be almost unrecognisable [plans] [plans]. An enormous new ticket hall will be slammed down on top of the open-air District line platforms. Long escalators will burrow down to a new interchange concourse beneath the East London line tracks. Two deep wide-bore tunnels will help whisk commuters away to Heathrow, Docklands and Romford. The whole station will become a complex mix of sleek modern engineering and an endearing Victorian shambles. Like I said, it's always all change around here, but the past never quite fades away.


Opened: as Whitechapel (Mile End) in 1869
Renamed: Whitechapel in 1901
Distance from Shadwell: 1.0km
Change here for: District and Hammersmith & City lines (up the stairs from platform 5) [photo]
Change here one day for: Crossrail (a bit contentious, this one)
Platforms: a deep brick cutting, half open to the elements, crossed by various roads and railways [photo]
Up at the far end of the platforms: lots of huts and portakabins
Platform murals: cuddly local scenes in vibrant colour
Exit: up some old steps into the old ticket hall, through new ticket barriers
Outside the station: non-white, no chapels
Annual passenger throughflow: 8.9 million

The East London line: Terminating Shoreditch

Finally, the end of the line. After more than a century of intermittent service, Shoreditch station gets ditched tonight. It's all in a good cause, to allow the extension of the East London line northward into the tubeless wastes of Hackney, but in the process the old station gets to be wiped from the map. Not that it'll be sorely missed, not outside the ranks of the anoraked tube afficionado, because this is one of the least used, most rarely open stations on the entire underground network. But it's also strangely charming... at least for the next few hours.

Shoreditch has the air of a small rural station, accidentally dropped slap bang in the middle of the metropolis [photo]. The single track curves round from the southeast, channelled up a deep brick cutting [photo]. Grass grows up between the rails, while wild green weeds edge the disused second platform [photo]. A couple of small red lamps on sticks mark the limit of travel, although the track continues beneath the station building before petering out into the undergrowth [photo]. It's surprisingly quiet too, given that mainline trains to and from nearby Liverpool Street rumble by on the opposite side of the far arched wall. A half-timbered signal box looms above the station on a neighbouring viaduct, like a tiny cottage on stilts [photo]. There might be one or two expectant passengers hanging around for the next train, or there might not. A cleaning operative waits patiently in a small hut at the end of the platform, ready to clear litter from the next train in three minutes flat, should it ever arrive.

Trains don't arrive here very often. Weekday mornings between seven and half ten. Weekday afternoons from half three to half eight. And Sundays from seven until three. And that's it. The rest of the week the station's in limbo, the front door's locked and all the trains terminate back at Whitechapel. It's been good practice for the future.

But eventually a nigh-empty train will arrive. A dribble of passengers will disgorge onto the platform [photo] before making their way beneath the canopy to the foot of the stairs [photo]. It's a short climb up to the tiny ticket hall, which has the look of a cosy village scout hut [photo]. Several green doors lead off into unexplored backrooms, one of which is home to the lonely station supervisor. So quiet is the place that you can still pick up a copy of the Metro newspaper here during the evening rush hour. Not that it's much of a rush, of course.

Outside Shoreditch station, in a cobbled alleyway beside a block of flats, the urban reality of backstreet Spitalfields hits home [photo]. A grizzly old bloke is probably slumped up against the wall swigging industrial strength cider, egged on by an equally sozzled group in the corner of the park. Three lads are stoking a perpetual bonfire inside the big metal bin on the pavement. And how did all those shoes end up dangling from the overhead cable across the street - surely some local hurling champion must be responsible [photo]. Cross the park (if you dare) and you'll stumble upon the unexpected charm of Spitalfields City Farm. It'd be nothing impressive to you lot living out in the real countryside, but Tower Hamlets residents don't get to see a donkey very often. Just the one, mind, and just the one pig too, but there are several goats, a proper gaggle of geese and some rather splendid ferrets. Alas the farm was built directly above the East London line and so, when construction begins on the new extension, the paddocks out the front are doomed. Thankfully Tilly the Shetland pony and the rest of her friends are scheduled to remain.

But most of the handful of passengers emerging from Shoreditch station turn right, not left. It's only a very short distance up the alleyway into Brick Lane - one of the most lively streets in the capital [photo]. Here the Bangladeshi community mixes with Shoreditch's trendy arty set in a lively symbiosis of dynamic cultures. You can wear your embroidered hat to the Jamme Masjid mosque on the corner of Fournier Street., or you can wear your rectangular specs to the bar beside the Old Truman Brewery. The curry restaurants are numerous and legendary, although personally I much prefer the 24 hour beigels. And once a week there's an extremely well-attended street market, which explains why the station opens on Sundays. Sorry, used to open on Sundays.

So, if this is one of the busiest streets in East London, how can the station have been so poorly used? Well, it's not easy to find for a start. It's at the quieter end of the lane, just past the spice/alcohol epicentre. There's just one tiny roundel sign, with paint peeling like athlete's foot, beckoning lamely to passers-by [photo]. The station's name is wholly inappropriate too, because the heart of 'real' Shoreditch is a good ten minutes walk away, at least. If only somebody important at TfL had thought to rename the station Brick Lane instead (because that's exactly where it is), maybe more trendy young things in the West End might have looked on the tube map and thought "ooh, let's go for a curry on the East London line". Alas not. On average no more than 700 people enter Shoreditch station every day, which is a pitifully low number. Across the London Underground, only stations on the Hainault loop of the Central line are less busy. The ELL's Shoreditch service won't be missed in the future, not by more than a handful of real people anyway.

But a few locals will be inconvenienced after the station doors slam shut, so TfL are obliged to run a replacement bus service on their behalf. Look, there it is on the updated tube map. Unfortunately this looks set to be a particularly useless replacement bus service. The problem is Brick Lane, which is too narrow to support bus traffic. Shoreditch's replacement buses therefore have to stop up on Bethnal Green Road, which is in completely the wrong direction, and then follow a distinctly roundabout detour over to Whitechapel. It would be much quicker to walk from Shoreditch to Whitechapel instead, or even better to Aldgate East, rather than taking a ride. Pity the poor bus drivers, soon doomed to repeat this mindless journey several times a day carrying virtually no passengers at all.

So if you want to visit Shoreditch station don't bother waiting for the bus, come down here today. I bet you won't be alone [photo]. The trains into this little backwater terminus will be packed tonight, full of Londoners come to pay their last respects [photo]. And they won't be staying for a curry either. These irregular passengers will be hanging around the ticket hall absorbing the station's doomed ambience [photo]. They'll be hovering at the end of the platform snapping pictures destined for their blog or photo-sharing website. They'll be shooting camcorder footage of the last train to pull in [photo], and they'll be battling for a seat on the final train out [photo]. In the digital 21st century, tube station deaths no longer go unreported or unremembered. But the genuine Shoreditch, a station to nowhere used by nigh nobody, will have faded away rather earlier in the day. And that's the station I prefer to remember [photo].

Last train in: 8.31pm
Last train out: 8.34pm
Shoreditch terminated: 8.35pm

Opened: 10th April 1876
Closed: 9th June 2006
Distance from Whitechapel: 800m
Annual passenger throughflow (2005): 0.4 million
Annual passenger throughflow (2007): 0

Other people's photographs of Shoreditch station
Arrangements for the closure of Shoreditch station
Underground history: Shoreditch station
Last trains - East London line timetable

www.flickr.com : East London line gallery
70 photos, terminating Shoreditch

All of my East London line reportage on one page (in the right order)

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