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 illuminatingthe station, as an Essex stereotype in a onesie arrived to purchase a ticket. He rode one stop to Chigwell, obviously, and I rode home.