diamond geezer

 Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Tube geek (32) The Chesham shuttle
You can't get any further out on the tube than Chesham. Twenty-nine miles from Aldgate, on the edge of the Chilterns, in the wilds of Zone 9... here you'll find one of the three least used stations on the London Underground. At present Chesham is linked to the rest of the network via a special shuttle train, which rattles backwards and forwards to Chalfont & Latimer every half an hour. But not for much longer. The final shuttle will run on 11th December, after which Chesham will be served by direct services from central London. This change is in readiness for the introduction of new S Stock trains on the Metropolitan line, which'll be too long to fit in the bay platform at Chalfont and can't be chopped in half. So if you fancy a ride on an old four-car workhorse, you'd better get here quick.

Chalfont & LatimerThe Chesham shuttle begins its journey at Chalfont & Latimer's platform 3 - less than three quarters of an hour from Baker Street but almost in a different world. Arrive on the right train and you'll only have a couple of minutes to wait (or arrive on the wrong train and hang around while the driver changes ends and reads the paper). Time enough to confirm that this is indeed a normal Metropolitan line train only shorter, and perhaps less well looked after than the rest. The windows are filthy, and one of the in-car maps still shows Chesham as being in Zone D. Rumble, clunk, and off you go. [photo] [photo]

The single track branchline is completely separate from the mainline up to Amersham, but the two run parallel for a bit before veering apart. Settle back, it's going to be a long run. Chalfont to Chesham's the longest inter-station gap on the Underground, nearly four miles from one to t'other, and timetabled to take nine minutes. I was hoping for a more interesting view, not just warehouses and close-ups of woodland, until suddenly the trees opened up to reveal the Chess Valley spread out below. My visit was perfectly timed for autumn's most glorious weekend, the panorama enhanced by bursts of yellow, red and gold across gently undulating countryside. The outskirts of Chesham are up next, and go on for a while, but in an endearing small-town sort of a way. The train runs above the rooftops across the valley, past some of Chesham's industrial heritage, before cutting around the hillside towards the town centre. Eight minutes, I made it, but still record-breakingly long. [photo]

Chesham station used to have two platforms, but one's long been mothballed and the trackspace at the end replaced by a small garden. Award-winning garden circa 1993, no less, although this isn't the time of year to best appreciate it. The main platform's longer, which'll be useful when 8-car trains arrive in December [photo]. A wooden canopy gives the main station building a pleasant rural feel [photo], as does an old signal box perched across the way. Toilet facilities are provided, because the driver shuttling back and forth all day needs somewhere to go. There's even a poorly-used ticket office, which Boris had been planning to close at weekends (but now won't, not quite, after vigorous local opposition). But there's no next train indicator, because it's a good off-peak bet that the train now standing at platform 1 will be heading to Chalfont & Latimer and no further. For five weeks only. Once the through trains begin, London's suddenly going to get just that little bit closer.

Once you're here, do make sure you head out through the ticket gates to explore Chesham proper. Chesham's a proper Buckinghamshire market town, spread out in residential fingers up several interlocking valleys. Traffic once plagued its high street so councillors knocked down the old town hall to make more room, then completely threw in the towel a few years later and pedestrianised the lot. This is the sort of high street that has a Starbucks and a saddlery, a Waterstones and an independent toyshop, and a hardware store and a whitewashed pub. It also has its own museum, a proper success story powered by local volunteers (although those who live elsewhere may find little inside its two rooms to justify the £2 entrance fee). Here I picked up a leaflet for the "Chesham Heritage Trail", which proved a most interesting way to explore the backstreets and highways of the town. I'd never have found all Chesham's interesting nooks and crannies without it. At one point I got so carried away that I continued up a country lane and reached the pool at the source of the River Chess [photo] (which quite frankly I should have visited earlier in my life given that I grew up a few miles downstream). Tudor cottages and holy wells aren't the sort of thing you expect to find at the end of the Underground, but Chesham has the lot.

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