When I was little, my family often went for a walk in CroxleyhallWoods. We didn't call them by that long-winded name, we called them "The Woods", because everybody in Croxley knew where that meant. A swathe of deciduous woodland, between Watford Road and the Common Moor - nothing special, except by virtue of their local accessibility. We could be there in five minutes, maybe ten with my little legs, slipping down the gravel lane opposite the church and turning off by the allotments. There were only a small number of paths to follow, weaving through the trees and undergrowth, although it was easy to wander off into uncharted greenery and pretend to be completely lost.
We'd always end up down by the railway, we couldn't avoid it, because a triangle of deep cuttings divided The Woods into three parts. At one much-loved spot a bridge crossed the Metropolitan line, close to the junction with the main line, where it was possible (if we waited long enough) to watch silvery trains rumbling round the bend below. But up the lane was another crossing above the railway, more heavily wooded, where no matter how long we waited no trains came. I always listened, in case some ghost service might emerge unprompted from the tunnel below, but I knew deep down that nothing ever would.
This was the silent North Curve, mothballed since 1960, linking Croxley station directly round to Rickmansworth. It used to see regular service, but declining traffic closed it down, leaving only two sides of the Croxleyhall triangle visible on the tube map. More recently things have changed, very slightly, and now a handful of timetabled services run along the curve at obscure times. They're run to get trains into the right positions at the beginning and end of the day, and if the travelling public happen to be awake and want to take advantage, all well and good.
But last weekend, thanks to engineering work between Harrow on the Hill and the edge of Hertfordshire, this rare stretch of line was put into all-day service. A train every half hour between Watford and Amersham [photo], and a train every half hour between Watford and Chesham [photo], these are services normally reserved for the realms of fantasy. And I was in the area, so I took the opportunity to take a ride on part of the Underground I've never travelled on before. [video]
You wouldn't have known the train at Watford station was going anywhere special, not if you'd walked straight past the wall of noticeboards in the ticket hall and ignored the unusual destination on the rear of the train. Passengers who boarded at Croxley were equally baffled, wondering how on earth there might be a rail replacement bus to catch from Rickmansworth because the train was never going that way... except hang on, yes it was. I've ridden this way hundreds of times in my life and the train's always veered left, but this time it veered right along untasted tracks.
I noted with some horror the savaged state of the banks rising to either side. For decades these have been blessed with trees and vegetation, but earlier this year TfL sent in their chainsaw squad and hacked the whole lot down. About 1000 mature trees have been razed, along a mile of track between the Chess and the Gade, allegedly because of risk management and leaf fall issues. This sudden cull has displaced wildlife, and left residents living alongside fuming. The Croxley Green Residents' Association claims the end result is like "a film scene of a First World War zone", which may going a bit too far, but the barren landscape looks to me like an unnecessary corporate over-reaction made worse by an overzealous contractor.
It took only seconds for our train reach the tunnel - at 80 metres the shortest on the entire Underground network - and then only seven seconds to pass through to the other side. I can't claim it's anything special, just a gentle curve of gloomy brickwork, dug deep into the surrounding woodland. But very definitely a tunnel and not a long bridge, as I knew from years of standing somewhere on the roof. The cutting continued, again with little to see, until we reached the points and clattered back onto the main line to Rickmansworth. The curve was so brief that I confess I caught the first train straight back again, just to say I'd done it both ways... and then again, and then again. I think I've got it out of my system now.
But I did have to go back to where I'd stood as a child, back down that leafylane, back to The Woods again. The trees were in bud and the first tentative bluebells were out, a harbinger of springglories yet to come. The paths were quiet, apart from several scampering squirrels and an unidentified bird of prey with a whopping wingspan. A pair of teenage boys sat on an overturned beech trunk, smoking weed, while a young family much like mine trudged happily through the undergrowth.
And at the lane across the tunnel I got my wish, helped greatly by TfL's arboreal slaughter opening up unexpectedly clear sightlines. A noise in the distance revealed itself as a red-faced snake crawling forward through the cutting, then curving gently into the brick portal beneath my feet [photo]. By crossing the lane I watched it emerge on the opposite flank and slither on, far below, before disappearing from view. A few minutes later and its sister rattled through in the opposite direction, again a flash of red tracing the earthen valley [photo]. It had taken forty years but I'd finally seen what I always wanted to see, from above and below, and in both directions. Sometimes, if you wait long enough, even a childhood pipedream can come true.
What's on this weekend? Spring Into Summer Saturday 30 & Sunday 31 May
40 free guided London walks. Purley Festival Friday 29 - Sunday 5 June
Bunting week, below Croydon. E17 Art Trail Sat 30th May - Sun 14th June
250 arty Walthamstow things.