It'll never again be a commuter railway. The new train service to Ongar is even less frequent than it used to be, and runs very off-peak, and costs rather more than a tube ticket did. But the Epping Ongar Railway breathes new life into redundant rails, and that's very much to be celebrated. What's more, it's the longest heritage railway in Essex and the closest one to London, which gives the EOR every hope of reeling in passengers. I explained some of what's on offer yesterday. Here's the rest of the attraction.
North Weald station used to be a lonely outpost, beyond Epping Forest, past the big airfield. It's much brighter now, or at least it is on a sunny day near the start of summer. There are two platforms, because this was the only passing loop on the line, with the station building on one and the signal box on the other [photo]. A bright green footbridge links the two, a leftover brought in from Loughton down the line, but it's missing something crucial [photo]. But there are no actual stairs, so it's currently unusable. To reach the steam trains on platform 2 you have to walk back out of the station entrance, round a fresh path, across the gated crossing and back up a ramp on the other side. While the railway sources steps, the detour does at least give a brief but special view of parked-up trains [photo]. The signal box provides the best grandstand for viewing proceedings [photo]. It's been lovingly restored, as you might discover if you climb up and they're not too busy pulling levers. Otherwise, if departure time for the hourly train is approaching, best climb aboard.
It's a long train, or at least it was on the opening gala weekend, comprising a multifarious selection of rolling stock. Walk down a bit and you might well get a six-seater compartment to yourself. However, many people seemed to like to crowd the tables in the first carriage, possibly because it was a shorter walk, possibly because it said first class on the window, or more likely because it would be closest to the chuffing steam from the engine [photo]. As pressure builds, prepare for your journey east to Ongar. But don't expect amazing scenery out of the window. This is rural Essex, so all you're going to see is a succession of fields and hedgerows and mildly rolling contours. But this was a glorious sight at the weekend, with yellow fields of rape stretching off to the horizon and abundant white may blossom in close-up. Very little infrastructure intrudes. There are few paths, even fewer roads, and only three bridges along the entire five and a bit mile journey. When one of the only major landmarks along the way is a stumpy mobile phone mast shielded by a coppice, you'd not ride this way for the sightseeing.
Except there is one thing to watch out for, if you're that way inclined, and that's Blake Hall station. So middle-of-nowhere is this halt that they closed it down in 1981, over a decade before the shuttle itself disappeared. The platform was famous, even infamous, by the end of its life for having only six passengers a day. Looking out from the train window at this lonely spot, it's hard to imagine how there were ever that many. A small hamlet is semi-nearby, but the station's named instead after Blake Hall, a minor country house more than a mile to the north. It's the equivalent, in distance, of renaming Tottenham Court Road station "Buckingham Palace", and just as inconvenient. Blake Hall's platform has long been torn up, and the station building is now a private home [photo]. No trains stop here, nor ever will again, but the drivers give a warning whistle as they approach all the same. You'd think the noise might annoy the current resident, but one suspects that anyone who chooses to buy a former station building knows what they're doing, and the goods wagon on the patio alongside the outdoor swimming pool strongly suggests this to be the case.
Blake Hall marks the just-over-halfway point, as you can confirm if you're watching out of the window for the distance markers planted every 200 metres. Historically all metric distances on the London Underground are measured from a zero point at Ongar, even though it's not part of the network any more. Epping's 9.8km away, Aldgate East is about 40 and Chesham is nearly 90. From 3.0 down to zero, expect a long cutting and then more fields and trees as the rooftops of Ongar approach. By now the guard should have trawled through the carriages asking to see your ticket, which is probably a formality given that it'll have been checked earlier at the only other station along the line. It's a job though, isn't it, and there are far more people enjoying their jobs on a heritage railway such as this than you'd ever find on something taxpayer funded.
I'd only visited Ongar station once before, as part of a schoolboy day out way back in 1980, and I can confirm it's changed a lot since then. I remember a desertedplatform and a ticket hall leading out to nowhere much, but this was hugely busier. The signal box at the end of the platform has been restored and brightly painted [photo]. The entire platform has been draped in Union Jack bunting (because the people of Ongar have gone officially Jubilee-bonkers) [photo]. Several old engines and bits of carriage lie decaying along the trackside waiting for restoration. The stationbuildings have been given a major spruce up, including some gloriously non-artificial hanging baskets [photo]. There's a small museum (well, more a room with some old signs and stuff in, but no complaints from me). There's even a shop, selling souvenirs and sandwiches and very reasonably priced cans of cream soda.
But the biggest difference of all was the number of people standing down the platform waiting to welcome us in. Some waved, some grinned, several got in each other's way as they tried to take photos. They bustled around as the driver topped up with water, and chatted to the fireman about the machinery in the cab. For ten minutes the place was alive as passengers boarded, or waited on the platform to watch the old girl steam out. A retired couple walking past the end of the road with their shopping stopped and gawped through the railings, at what's soon going to be a familiar sight [photo]. It was all rather glorious, and unexpected, and a tribute to the scores of volunteers who've pulled together to make this new reality possible. A whistle, a slow chug, and 4953 Pitchford Hall was soon heading off again across the viaduct and back to North Weald [photo]. I waited just a little longer as the noise died away, and the platform emptied, and Ongar was suddenly as quiet as I remembered it [photo]. At every good heritage railway, a true echo of the past remains.