diamond geezer

 Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The least used station in... Surrey
(Annual passenger usage: 8960)

I've visited the least used stations in Berkshire, Hertfordshire, Greater London, Essex and Bedfordshire. But they were all quite normal compared to the least used station in Surrey. This is on the main suburban line to Ascot and Reading, three stops past Staines, so you might expect it to be busy. The stations to either side see over half a million passengers a year. But Longcross is different, Longcross is weird, indeed I'd go so far as to say Longcross is creepy. Go if you dare.

Ten years ago, if you'd managed to find a train that stopped at Longcross, you might have had trouble leaving the station. It's seemingly in the middle of nowhere, sandwiched between the M3 motorway, the largest National Nature Reserve in the southeast of England and a world-famous golf course. But more specifically it's here because the Government requisitioned the land immediately alongside the railway for military purposes in 1941, and needed a station to get troops and supplies in and out.

The Department of Tank Design was based on one side of Chobham Lane, with the Fighting Vehicles Proving Establishment on the other. By 1970 this was the Military Vehicles and Engineering Establishment, or MVEE for short, ideal for road-testing armoured tanks and various forms of hush hush technology. Trains remained infrequent, especially given that workers preferred driving, and security guards were prone to swoop on any civilian who alighted at Longcross to query their presence. The MoD finally abandoned their 'secret' test track in 2006, by which time the station was served by only two trains a day in either direction. Things aren't quite so restricted today - a large film studios has since taken over the western part of the site, and the area to the east is pencilled in for housing. But alighting at Longcross still feels like stepping back into the Cold War, sealed off from civilisation, with eyes watching from the trees. [map]

First let's deal with getting there. Longcross is one of a tiny handful of stations marked on the London and South East rail map with an open circle, signifying a limited service. They're not joking. In the morning rush hour there are half-hourly trains from London and three from Reading. Between the peaks just one lunchtime train calls, with nothing for hours either side. Then there are half-hourly trains home in the evening, this time mostly towards London, and nothing whatsoever at the weekend.

Westbound (to Reading)Eastbound (to Waterloo)
0605 0635 0705 0735 0805 0835 0854
1723 1835
0813 0843 0913
1713 1813 1843 1943 2013 2043
(no trains Saturday or Sunday)

Essentially it's a service for workers and nothing more, and deliberately so. I timed my visit for the early evening, and made sure my ticket was a return.

Only I stepped off the packed commuter train at Longcross, less than an hour before dusk, while two wiser passengers got on. It didn't take long to be left completely alone in the forest. The platforms are overlooked by lofty pine trees, with ferns spread beneath, presently at the beginning of their autumnal phase. Both sides have a rudimentary breezeblock shelter, that on the eastbound considerably longer, better suited to keeping 100 troops out of the weather than for comfort. The westbound has an additional building, toilets-sized, though more likely somewhere for the equivalent of a stationmaster to hide away. An sturdy concrete footbridge joins the two, potentially army issue, with bright yellow posts and handrails. One single CCTV camera keeps watch - I was expecting more - pointed downwards so as to be of almost no use. And some wag has added two hoops to chain a bike to, not that I suspect these ever see much action, or any.

So how to escape? The station map on the Onward Travel Information board shows a road you can't reach because of a fence and a lot of green. The green to the north is pristine, but inaccessible, unless you have the key that unlocks the gate. This is the edge of Wentworth Golf Course, an exclusive sportsground intertwined with executive estate, where the PGA Championship takes place annually. The Chinese owners who recently bought the Club have already tried flushing out three-quarters of the members by increasing fees, so it's no surprise they're not interested in rail access, and the gate is checked at least four times a day by security. It's odd they haven't noticed the gaping hole anyone could climb through.

South, then. Again there's a gate, which could once have kept unwelcome passengers locked inside the station, but which is now unlocked. A short walkway leads down to a turnstile, marked Private Property No Public Right Of Way, which for ten years has been the access to Longcross Film Studios. A collection of buildings once used by the army has been requisitioned, including arched brick sheds and several indistinct hangars, with the three main production Stages all close by [map]. Several well known movies have been shot here, including most of Clash of The Titans and Skyfall's Highland finale, plus this is where the Poplar BBC drama Call The Midwife is filmed. I'd not be getting out this way either.

But there is an external footpath. Normally you expect a footpath from a station to be metalled, but this was just a narrow dirttrack between two fences, the station on one side and the ex army base on the other. A row of pines wheeled in close before the path opened out into a clearing beneath two radio masts, then continued a little wider than before. It took a couple of minutes to reach the first potential exit - a track leading out onto the most inaccessible corner of Chobham Common, part-blocked by a slice of concrete pipe and two posts. Best stick to the main path, I thought, as it bent south round a muddy depression, through further trees. There had been no streetlamps for the last quarter of a mile, and this was very much not somewhere I would want to be after dark. I checked my watch to ensure I could get back before sunset, and walked on.

The path opened out onto Burma Road, which looked promising on the map, but had a look of military perimeter about it. The road entered the studio site at what would have been a checkpoint, and is now a point of access for contractors making the eastern part of the site ready for housing. I was expecting the sign on the fence to warn me off, but instead it invited me to adopt a goat courtesy of the Surrey Wildlife Trust. This edge of the site is to become a Ecological Buffer Zone, an environmental sop for the development, but currently houses little more than a few beehives and a lot of undergrowth. Oh, and a couple of cameras peering down from a high pole, adding to the nagging feeling that I must be being watched for the crime of having used a station.

Burma Road's almost half a mile long, and had two empty cars parked up partway down. I fully expected someone to emerge from one of them, perhaps to admonish me for taking photographs, before working out that the owners were probably off dogwalking on Chobham Common which runs all along one side. I stepped through the trees at one point to take a look, following a public footpath fingerpost onto open acid heathland. It's gorgeous walking country, gently undulating, heading west for miles wherever the mansions with acre-sized gardens have yet to encroach. The sun was crackling gold in the sky, its orb now dipping fractionally behind Oystershell Hill, so I got a move on and returned to the road.

Two red wooden barriers had been drawn back beside a layby marked Lorries Turning, at a former checkpoint now used by the studios for HGV access. With the site's main entrance now close by there was considerably more evidence of former military presence, including lumps of concrete positioned defensively on the verge and an MoD sign warning against flytipping or overnight camping. Most unusual was the red and white striped arch for unrestricted access, labelled for vehicles under seven foot tall and less than six foot six wide only, while lorries had to pull over to be let through a gate alongside. Eventually I reached the main road, specifically a shielded roundabout on the B386, leading to a bridge across the M3. There was nowhere for pedestrians to go, nor anywhere it would be particularly sensible to try, bar a continuation of the common beyond the motorway. Time up.

Now let's look at the whole palaver backwards. There is absolutely nothing at the roundabout to indicate that a station lies half a mile up this road. This is possibly wise, because it's impossible to drive there, but there's no hint whatsoever for pedestrians either. Burma Road looks highly unfriendly, as confirmed by leftover MoD signage, and even the open barriers feel like a deterrent. At the first studio entrance there's no suggestion of which way to go, and at the second no indication that you ought to take the minor path into the trees. The footpath through the forest narrows as it continues, without any confirmation that you're on the right track, amid an increasing sense of isolation and helplessness. That Longcross station exists at the far end as a place of safety comes as a total surprise... or would have done had I not walked out and back, there being nowhere else to go.

Luxury homes and the upcoming business park at Longcross are being promoted on a glamorously-marketed website by developers Crest Nicholson. "Heathrow and Farnborough are within 20 minutes drive, and Fairoaks airfield just 10 minutes away", they say, hinting heavily at the calibre of occupant they expect. Their map shows what appears to be an outstanding rail connection, with "an on-site train station providing a half-hourly service to London Waterloo (48 minutes) and Reading (35 minutes)." What potential residents are not told is that the rail service dries up during the day, doesn't run at weekends, and the last weekday train leaves Waterloo at ten to six. There are, obviously, long-term aspirations to improve the service once development reaches a tipping point, but in the meantime best not sell the limousine.

As skies darkened, my solo sojourn on the eastbound platform ended ten minutes before the scheduled departure time. A studio employee emerged through the turnstile and crossed the footbridge to slouch beneath it, joined shortly afterwards by two mixed groups chatting animatedly. Their post-work gossip continued until the train appeared round the bend, at which point they split into two different groups and headed to opposite ends of the platform. One final employee made a dash for the footbridge at this point, afforded the luxury of working close enough to be able to turn up bang on time. And a dozen of us gratefully boarded what would shortly become a rammed service, but early enough to grab a seat. That's Longcross, their private Surrey station, and occasionally unwelcoming of visitors.

» My Longcross Flickr gallery - 20 photos (and slideshow)

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