diamond geezer

 Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The least used station in... Hertfordshire
(Annual passenger usage: 20944)

I've ticked off Berkshire's quietest station, which is Midgham, and now I'm moving north. Hertfordshire boasts eight railway lines with a direct connection to London plus a single track branch line, so it shouldn't surprise you to hear that the least used station is on the latter. [5 photos]

The Abbey Line runs between Watford and St Albans, specifically the Junction and the Abbey, and has done since 1858. Initially there were only two intermediate stations, one the subject of my visit, both of which were mothballed shortly afterwards due to lack of custom. But the people of St Albans loved their rail connection to the outside world, at least until a better link to London came along ten years later and their allegiance shifted. The branch line survived Beeching, but only by stripping itself back to the bare essentials, and today only the track and the platforms remain. There are now seven stations in total, serving the suburban fringes of North Watford and St Albans, whose residents benefit from a fortunate historical accident rather than any burning need. And the Abbey Line is now run as a Community Railway, which means it's better looked after than most, and has a decent website where you can find out a lot more if you're interested.

Park Street is the penultimate station on the line, one before St Albans. What you find when you alight is a single platform, four carriages long, with a wooden fence along one side and a screen of trees along the other. Look in one direction and the solo track curves gently toward the cathedral city, look in the other and it's almost straight. In the centre is a shelter with sufficient seats to easily cope with the average number of passengers per train, and from here a ramp heads down to the car park. I thought the car park looked quite busy, all things considered, until I worked out it was where all the people in the nearby cottages parked their vehicles, their front gardens being entirely inadequate for this task.

Trains run every 45 minutes, which doesn't make for an easy-to-remember timetable, but the line is fractionally too long to make a half hour service viable. Here at Park Street the up train returns from the terminus ten minutes later, so there's a "busy" period followed by tumbleweed for the next half hour. No, you can't buy a ticket here, this is a Pay Train service, although I saw no evidence of this on my trip and could easily have ridden the entire line for free.

As place names go, Park Street is about as generic as you can get. But the place has a lengthy back history, because the street in question is Watling Street. The Romans would have marched through on their way to the northwest, using this as their crossing point over the River Ver, but left no other trace bar bequeathing centuries of through traffic. The village is mainly linear, as you'd expect, with a few modern estate roads branching off. The architectural highlight is an old mill in brick and timber, its interior converted into a four storey office, with a restored water wheel outside for decoration and the real thing underneath. But there are also fourteen listed buildings, mainly cottages, plus a long pair of pre-war terraces and some copper-topped flats, in a textbook meeting of mixed residential styles. Impressively for somewhere of this size there are two pubs, the Falcon and the Overdraught, neither of which have been overly ponced up or left to rot. For takeaways your choice is Rumbles Fish Bar or the Oriental, plus there's a few places that do things with cars, and an independent village shop, and a cricket ground, indeed plenty enough to keep Park Street ticking over.

Where the main road crosses the river the village name changes to Frogmore, with several more old houses but also an industrial estate and the parish church. This lofty flint edifice is Holy Trinity, hence has possibly the best web address of any church anywhere, which is www.hotfrog.info. Head off downriver at the old ford and you'll enter an area of old sand and gravel pits, now ideal for fishing or a muddy walk, or for confronting umpteen goslings and their defiant parents. And take a few strides further through the trees and you'll emerge at a crossing on the railway, having suddenly reached the next station down the line. This is How Wood, a mere 90 seconds from Park Street by train hence technically unnecessary, but the large estate alongside helps make this station 50% busier. Or so the figures say. I stood on the silent platform gazing out across a landscape of lush empty meadow and concluded this could easily be deepest East Anglia, rather than the inner Home Counties.

Enough of the stuff you'll never see because you'll never visit. There is one thing for which Park Street is nationally famous, and that's its roundabout. This fiveway junction to the north of the village is the Highway Code's example of a roundabout sign, and has been for some years, thanks to its interesting mix of motorway and more minor connections.

The only problem is, almost all of this is fictional. The 'A' road crossing from left to right doesn't go to Nutfield and Walsham, and it isn't the A1183, it's Watling Street again, and used to be the A5. That's not the road to Penderton top left, it's the road to Watford and London, via the M1 or M25, not the mythical M14. And straight ahead leads to Hemel Hempstead, not somewhere called Bourne Airport, and isn't even a motorway any more. It used to be, in fact it was one of the very first motorways in Britain, the runty M10. This brief spur was built to lure traffic off the M1 before reaching unfinished links in the capital, depositing them on the Park Street roundabout instead, but a few months short of its 50th birthday it was brutally downgraded.

This is what the actual road sign looks like today, slap bang on the central reservation of the A414 running in from London Colney. It's not quite so pristine as the Highway Code version, but still recognisably similar, with a 'Scrap Cars Wanted' poster attached to one of the supports. I was surprised to find a footpath along this roaring dual carriageway, which itself was very nearly turned into part of the M25, but a cut-through exists to the bungalows at the very top of Park Street, so there is a latent need.

In conclusion, I can think of only one reason to encourage you to visit Park Street, and it's to walk. The Ver Valley Walk runs for 17 miles from near Whipsnade to near Bricket Wood, and has been divided up into eight sections, each seriously well documented in a series of downloadable guides. I followed section seven out of Park Street round the back of some cottages along a footpath barely visible between nettles, then out across a grazed meadow beside a chalk stream rippling with flowered weed. Approaching St Albans the path hugs the urban river through a series of nature reserves, passing a ruined priory before reaching the Abbey station, where you can catch the train back again. Or there are short waymarked routes from each station on the Abbey Line, also with leaflets and posters, should you prefer shorter strolls and more railway. And that'd bump up Park Street's passenger numbers good and proper.

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