Railway walks: The Ebury Way
Rickmansworth → Watford (3½ miles)
The Watford and Rickmansworth Railway should be celebrating its 150th birthday this month, but never survived long enough. It opened on 1st October 1862, a speculative four mile link between two Hertfordshire towns across Lord Ebury's estate. The railway had to negotiate three river valleys, a canal and a section of open moorland, and failed to pass any other population centres along the way. Only a handful of trains ran each day, even in the early years, and passenger numbers remained low. Eventually London-bound traffic was superseded by the more useful Metropolitan line, and so the railway closed sixty ago in March 1952. After a long period of dereliction the trackbed was reopened to walkers and cyclists as the Ebury Way - a nice easy stroll or a family ride, and a fine afternoon out.
You'll find no trace of Rickmansworth station today. This is the station at the foot of Church Street, down by Batchworth Lock, and completely distinct from the Met line station in the heart of town. The terminus and platforms have long since been replaced by a builders merchant, so the Ebury Way starts by sidling its way ignominiously between a metal fence and a housing estate. It gets better, quickly. A cluster of narrowboats fills an overgrown basin off the Grand Union Canal. A former rail bridge crosses almost-the-very-end of the River Chess. And then the path strikes out between two long leafy lakes, each a filled-in gravel pit. These are favoured fishing spots, both for the Croxley Hall Carp Syndicate and for the local heron, who might appear for you on the bankside if you're lucky. Keep an eye out through the trees for the Croxley Great Barn, a gabled monastic storehouse built in the 14th century, with toursavailable on the last Saturday of the month.
The watery vista continues as the Grand Union Canal curves around and underneath the railway. At this point the channel doubles up as the River Gade, very close to where it meets the River Colne - not for nothing is the local authority known as Three Rivers. It's a pleasant spot, close to Lot Mead lock, with Metropolitan trains rumbling across the canal in the background. Divert along the towpath here for a woodside walk to Croxley station (details here), whereas the Ebury Way continues along the line of the former railway. It's a blue and green and pleasant stroll, with another lake or two set beyond the trees, nothing wildly special, but still a proper rural getaway.
Ah, hang on. Beyond the Metropolitan line bridge a trading estate kicks in, thankfully on one side only, but that's not so lovely. A long row of warehouses has been shoehorned into a remote slice of land, plus a mobile phone mast - anything the people of Rickmansworth would rather not have on their doorstep. Best look left instead towards Croxley Common Moor, an extensive but squelchy Site of Scientific Interest. It's wild and marshy and rather lovely, should you care for a detour, but mind your step for hidden cowpats. The cattle roaming free here used to frighten me as a child, at least during the summer months, but I bet the herd's not that scary really. That's my grandmother's old house you can see on the hillside across the moor, overlooking the housing estate where John Dickinson's paper mill isn't any more.
Just beyond the tip of the moor, one of the business units on the right is a little posher than the rest. This is Camelot HQ, home to the organisers of the National Lottery (and definitely not the site of King Arthur's round table). If you ever win a million you'll likely end up in a meeting room here to be advised on what you might do with your windfall. The neighbouring Holywell estate is precisely the sort of neighbourhood which people buy tickets to escape, but the Ebury Way thankfully only glances the perimeter. Beyond Tolpits Lane the valley opens out again, with rolling views to the south across fields and farmland. Ignore the pylons and the spiky electricity transmission station and it's almost pretty. And take a closer look at the final footbridge over the River Colne, or what's left of it, for an original 1862 iron plaque.
And that's about it. Just before Riverside Park the path bends off into Oxhey towards central Watford, no longer following the route of the original line. But that's because there's a junction ahead and another railway is about to swing in from the left. This is the Croxley Greenbranch line, an abandoned railway of some legend and considerable future importance. It was opened precisely 100 years ago, and somehow survived the Beeching axe to run limply into the 1990s. I used to commute to work on this line, for one summer at least, so it won't surprise you to hear I've blogged all about it before. What's new is that the Metropolitan line is now due to be extended this way from Croxley into Watford Junction, with plans now at the public inquiry stage, and scheduled for completion in 2016. Fancy a sneak peek?
Look for a gap in the undergrowth close to the Sustrans cycling totem, and head up the brief slope beyond. Within a few seconds you'll be up on the embankment standing on the actual rails of the Croxley Green branch line, still very much in situ. No train could pass this way at present, it's much too overgrown, with a thicket growing up fast between the sleepers. But duck down and you can follow the railway for some distance east or west, stepping over lengths of twisted black rubber cable as you go. It's not trespassing - the line's unprotected by fencing or signs or anything - but there's still an illicit thrill to standing where you probably shouldn't. Don't expect such access to last. By 2014 TfL's engineers will have moved in, wiping away the thorny stalks and resculpting this narrow curve for a twin tracked future. And before long we'll all be able to ride through this very spot, between Watford Hospital and Watford High Street stations, on a disused branch line brought back to life.