The next new bit of the London Underground won't be in London, it'll be in Hertfordshire. A closed British Rail branch line is being appropriated between Croxley Green and Watford, and the current Metropolitan terminus closed, allowing trains to run instead into Watford town centre. As a local lad, I can't tell you how exciting it is that the railway link promised at the bottom of my road when I was a child is finally coming to pass. So let me give you an on-the-spot update. A tale of seven stations.
It's one of the ten least used stations on the Underground. This surprises me, in a 'village' of ten thousand people, although I guess few of them want or need to travel where the Met could take them. Instead this station survives the upcoming reformation, whereas Watford up the line will be summarily beheaded. I like Croxley station, although that may be bias from using it so often. With its triple gabled dormers it looks like a Metro-land house, deliberately so, designed by Charles Walter Clark in the mid-1920s to help inspire the surrounding suburban development [photo]. Four symmetrical chimneystacks top off the "rural vernacular" look, and apparently there's a flat above the ticket hall, which sounds like a special place to live. The stairs and platforms aren't quite so lovely, although the heritage lampstands add character and there are proper waiting rooms. Didn't quite merit a Grade II listing, but its future is assured.
It may have closed ten years ago, but a fading BR sign still hangs beside the Two Bridges roundabout. In truth the last train to Croxley Green ran in 1996, with the ensuing connection a replacement bus, or later taxi. I used the line throughout the summer of 1983, when there was a choice of rush hour trains to ride, but Croxley Green's demise is an archetypal tale of decline. Having had so many years to decay, there's not much of the station left. An information board offers a "Welcome to Network South East", but there's a gap where the timetable used to be. A set of decidedly rickety stairs ascends the embankment through a curtain of trees to where the wooden platform used to be, but that's decayed and has recently been removed. The gate at the bottom's locked, as you'd expect, but there is a very obvious rip in the fence to the left if you fancied squeezing through [photo]. As urban break-ins go, this is low level stuff. I considered it, tentatively, only to bottle out when a police car chose that precise moment to circumnavigate the roundabout.
The Metropolitan line passes by a very short distance away, hence the long-standing desire to create a link between the two [photo]. Now that link is at the planning stage, with construction of a viaduct due to begin maybe next year. It'll veer off at the foot of Baldwins Lane, devouring some of the Croxley Car Centre's forecourt [photo], then plonk a pier down in the grounds of a building contractor and curve across the dual carriageway [photo]. A laminated poster by the "Welcome to Croxley Green" sign warns that there's a compulsory purchase order on a stripe through the playground, so the families I saw there at the weekend don't have much longer to recreate. And then the viaduct will sweep in towards the old BR line, crossing the Grand Union Canal parallel to the existing lattice bridge (which'll survive) while wiping out some of the picturesque moorings below. The old station won't be needed, it's being bypassed, so maybe someone'll finally come along and demolish it. As for the viaduct, I've had 40 years to imagine what it'll eventually look like, but I still can't quite picture this childhood vista despoiled.
(Ascot Road) There are two Ascot Roads, one a wiggly lane, the other a stonking dual carriageway built in 1996 to provide access to the industrial estate beyond. The first new station on the old line will be built between the two, firmly on the Watford side of the border [photo]. The area's historically known as Cassio Bridge, and there are strong hints from Mayor Dorothy that this'll be the new name appearing on the tube map in 2016. Don't come rushing. Alongside is a forlorn looking clocktower, sans clocks, rising from a patch of wasteland [photo]. This belonged to Sun Printers, at one time Watford's largest employer, off whose presses Woman's Own and the Sunday Times magazine used to roll. Robert Maxwell and the march of innovation did them in, and now a storage company, a Premier Inn and hundreds of flats stand on the site. Only the clocktower, with its green-tiled roof and punched-out S U and N, stands as a reminder of the glory days. It's being renovated, according to a sign on the exterior, to create a most unusual office to let. Wait a few years and it'll have excellent connections.
Watford West The old branch line runs up the back of the Sun Printers site, fenced off from bedrooms whose owners currently get a good night's sleep. It continues round the back of Watford Launderers, a 100-year-old company whose tumblers and steam presses still fill the air with the smell of detergent. And at Tolpits Lane it reaches the site of what used to be the main station, Watford West. Like Croxley Green you might think it was still open because a BR sign still hangs outside [photo]. Only when you turn to face the arched entrance would you spot the barred gate, blocking access down to the platforms. But there is another strong clue, which is the tops of trees sticking up above the edge of the bridge. The tracks have been abandoned for so long that what used to be wayward saplings have grown to great height, and a lot of hacking will be required before trains can run through here again. But they won't be stopping. Alternative locations are planned for stations on the Metropolitan, so Watford West's overgrown platforms are scheduled to be demolished. [photo]
They were going to call this stop Watford Hospital, because that's the main reason for building a new station here. But because it's located on the road to Watford Football Club, Mayor Dorothy thinks Vicarage Road would be a much better recognised name. She's probably right, although the site's otherwise most peculiar. The station'll be built where a single track road (controlled by traffic lights) crosses a hump backed bridge over the railway [photo]. Nobody lives here, not quite. To the north is a recreation ground, to the west some allotments, to the south a huge humming electricity substation, and to the east a primary school. It's the first two of those whose land will be trimmed to fit in a station, and not a 'proper' station either. Expect something more like the DLR than the Underground, no architectural wonder, no ticket office, just a place to wait to be carried away. The costs on this project had to be trimmed to pass the Chancellor's guillotine, so TfL's usual design panache will likely pass this spot by. [photo]
On the eastern side of Vicarage Road, hidden from view by an out-of-control tree, is a minor disused station. It was opened (by Elton John) in 1982 to ease the flow of spectators into Watford's Division One football ground. Special trains ran on matchdays only, allowing fans to be ushered off the featureless platform round the back lanes, avoiding real people's houses. When the football club were relegated so were the train services, and one opportunity to revitalise the line quietly faded away. But the platform is still there, and you don't need a season ticket to visit.
Along the alleyway between Stripling Way and Cardiff Road, near the old railway bridge, there's a very obvious gap in the fence. A well-trodden path leads up into a patch of woodland to reach... ooh, the trackbed of the original railway [photo]. It being midsummer you'd expect the tracks to be overrun with growth, indeed mostly impenetrable, and yet this is not the case. The rails and sleepers are suspiciously free of obstruction, at least compared to the jungle either side, and a clear path leads off in both directions. Head west and there's evidence that local children have made dens up here, including mattresses and a very soggy soft toy. Head a little further and very soon you walk out onto the site of Watford Stadium halt [photo]. Best climb the ramp to the platform, because that's clear and the tracks below are a sea of green. It's a long one - those football trains sometimes had six carriages - but up top only a single red-painted lamppost remains [photo]. Best not attempt this safari on a school day, because the Laurance Haines playground looks straight across. And if you continue down the other side, minding the detritus chucked from the Vicarage Road bridge above, you reach the site of the new Metropolitan line station [photo]. Last weekend the only waiting passenger was a fox.
Or you could have walked east from Stripling Way, across the tracks onto the bridge itself [photo]. It's only wide enough for a single track, so TfL have some serious engineering to do here before the line can open to two-way traffic. But three old rails survive, and almost all the sleepers, though worn and cracked and rusting. Follow these and you're on a proper adventure into the past. The embankment curves round to another bridge, this one across an outpost of the River Colne, then onto a large and fairly remote island. However overgrown it looks there's always a comfortably wide path to follow, sometimes along the tracks and sometimes alongside, as if someone has deliberately carved a way through what was recently jungle [photo]. Further evidence of human intervention are some taped-off areas labelled with signs that say "This area contains nesting birds, do not enter" [photo]. The zig-zag path hasn't been cut willy-nilly, it's been traced with environmental priorities in mind.
Off to the right is the Ebury Way, a disused railway swinging in from Rickmansworth, again with easy access up the embankment. Where the two lines meet, or met, selective tree cutting has opened out a much larger clearing than elsewhere [photo]. One lonely signal still stands, or at least the metal post and ladder remain with an empty cage on top [photo]. Another bridge crosses the River Colne, again low and narrow, again in need of upgrade [photo]. It's like walking through your own private nature reserve, until the backside of an industrial estate intrudes. All this fresh-mown accessibility can only be because surveyors and planners have been walking the line, trying to work out precisely what needs doing when work starts on the Croxley Rail Link (probably) next year. This won't be any place for a stroll then, nor anywhere along the former branch line to Watford High Street. But before the diggers move in, and the trains return, a surprising amount of this forgotten hideaway is strangely accessible.
A mile away, on the edge of Cassiobury Park, another station is in terminal decline [photo]. Watford Met, as it's fondly known round here, will be closing for good once the new link opens [photo]. The good folk of the Cassiobury Estate will need to find another way to reach their jobs in the City, which'll probably mean a longer walk and some more angry letters to the Watford Observer. I was expecting to see more obvious signs of potential closure, like a poster somewhere, but instead the passengers at this peaceful outpost can blot its imminent demise from their minds. You have to pity those who moved into the new flats alongside the station especially to be near a decent train service. But the sacrifice of the few is deemed appropriate for the benefit of the many, when the Croxley Rail Link finally (FINALLY) comes to pass.