Once you ride past Leytonstone, the Central line links with no other railway line except itself. The Hainault loop is a peripheral peculiarity, poking out into the heart of the borough of Redbridge, and traversed by few other than the borough's residents. The north and east sides of the loop used to be part of the Great Eastern Railway, joined southwards from Newbury Park to Ilford. Then London Transport tunnelled a fresh connection from Leytonstone, opening in 1947, and the Central line's loop was born. It has ten stations altogether, many of them architecturally intriguing, and trains take just over twenty minutes to travel from one end to the next. I thought I'd walk it. I do this so that you don't have to, remember - indeed on this occasion I'd strongly recommend that you don't. From urban sprawl to inner Essex, there are finer strolls. But hang on in there, especially if this corner of London is unknown to you.[map][16 photos]
I thought I'd start from Wanstead. I couldn't face the trek along the A12 from Leytonstone, plus I'd walked that way before as part of the amazing Linked project. Wanstead is an oasis of pleasantness, but only because the dual carriageway has been hidden in a cut and cover tunnel beneath the village green. The station stands in contrast as an outpost of modernity, a clump of rectilinear boxes topped off by a plain concrete tower. Charles Holden designed it, his plans diluted by wartime austerity, but striking all the same. Those seeking class and culture should head north along the High Street, past the George pub and its plaque "In Memory of Ye Cherry Pey". Alas the Central line follows the A12 east, from here all the way to Newbury Park, and that's the weary road I had to tread.
Cars splashed downhill, past sidestreets abruptly chopped mid-terrace when the new road was driven through in the 1990s. I'd picked a rotten day for it. The rain should have been clearing but instead chucked down even heavier, which is not what you want when striding alongside an arterial. I could have hidden beneath the footbridge, one of the few ways across this tarmac divide, but thought I'd better press on because there were still more than ten miles to go. At the foot of the slope the houses ceased, because this is the floodplain of the Roding valley and much better suited to allotments and sports pitches. Ahead the North Circular crosses the Redbridge roundabout on stilts, only a short distance from the foot of the M11. It's not an easy environment for the pedestrian, funnelled through the middle via a twisting footpath, just remote enough that "what if..." thoughts of solitary crime begin to surface. But nah, absolutely fine.
Here's Redbridge station, another Holden classic. Again there's a tower, but this one's Buckinghamshire brick, while lower down's mostly curves rather than straight lines. The exterior is roundeltastic, not just circles on poles but a whole series wrought in iron as part of a fence around the top of the stairwell. It's all a bit Piccadilly line, but differently quirky and not quite so grand. The station was sited on a traffic island beside the roundabout so it could best be served by local buses, augmented these days by long distance coaches pausing to disgorge motorway folk onto the tube.
You can tell that the main road came first because the next stretch is arrow-straight, with acres of semi-style housing off to each side. This is proper interwar ribbon development, with front gardens shamelessly backing onto the A12 rather than curling away in disgust. Almost all are paved, with hardstanding for a couple of cars and very few attempts at horticulture. A word of advice to the householder who's planted a row of artificial flowers and surrounded them by rings of white pebbles - it's not classy, and a blatant fake when spring's late. If you think London's ugliest building is in Archway or Colliers Wood, perhaps you've not seen Wentworth House. Imagine a shoebox balanced on a coffee table, and now strip away everything lovely about your mental image. The ninth floor office suite is currently up for grabs for an annual rent of £34K, but only a visually dysfunctional boss would move their workforce here.
There's very little to Gants Hill station above ground, just what looks like a redbrick scout hut in the middle of a major roundabout. Dip into the subway, signposted by some lovely solid roundels, and the tiling's bright and sunny. But only if you descend the escalator do the true glories of Gants Hill reveal themselves, notably the arched space between the platforms with uplighters reminiscent of the Moscow Underground. If you like worshipping bits of the Underground, make sure you venture out to this Holden temple to pay homage. But alas I wasn't going to the platforms, I had more of Eastern Avenue to walk. Oh joy, more dual carriageway and exhaust fumes, and more terraced semis facing onto the road. Most of those living out here have wheels, and automotive businesses thrive, be that tyremen, repairguys or in-car wi-fi hi-fi fitters. There's also a sizeable Asian population around here, which again you might not be aware of because you've never visited, reflected in the occasional houseproud façade and pillared balcony.
A major road junction ahead looks like it ought to have the next tube station, but that's only a giant JD Sports on the corner. This is Grays Corner, a retail crossroads where the pub is now a McDonalds drivethru, and where the local newsagent is Fags & Mags. Ilford War Memorial Gardens are the only evident heritage hereabouts, a 1922 survivor watched over by the bronze figure of a soldier, overshadowed on both sides by millennial redevelopment that used to be hospitals. Nobody built a Holiday Inn here because there's something to see, more because cheap beds on the edge of town near the tube are always desirable. And Newbury Park is just down the road - the station nothing special, but the bus station, whoa! Oliver Hill's semi-cylindrical copper roof is breathtaking, especially alongside suburban mundanity, and the worthy winner of a Festival of Britain award. A fine place to pause awhile... maybe even the rain'll stop.