diamond geezer

 Monday, December 05, 2011

Anyone for a new book about trains? Ben's written a 142-page tome about some of London's vanished railway stations, entitled Do Not Alight Here, and it's officially published today. This pocket-sized book contains details of 12 guided walks you can follow, along with a few short tube journeys where all you have to do is look out of the window. A nice idea, and, at £6.95, nicely priced too. So I bought a copy at the weekend, and have been out trying to use Ben's book in real life. I thought I'd try following walk number 12, from Shadwell to Bow Church, because it ends at my house with a cup of tea. What a shame there isn't a map, I thought, as I set off. But I suspect I know why there isn't a map now I've finished the walk...

Walk 12 The Real Eastenders: walking the Tower Hamlets
(from Do Not Alight Here by Ben Pedroche)
"1 hour 30 minutes"

Shadwell station isn't disused, indeed it connects the reopened East London line and a DLR-topped viaduct. But that's OK, because all of Ben's walks start somewhere accessible, so this is perfect. Except I immediately got a bit lost. Ben invited me to "turn right on to Martha Street keeping the rail viaduct on your left", except the rail viaduct was on my right, and it took me a while to realise that reality was correct and the instructions were wrong. Ah well, at the end of the street I did indeed find another Shadwell station, namely Shadwell & St George's East, which I'd never have spotted otherwise. Telltale shuttered doorways hid long-since dormant stairwells, closed in 1941, alongside a modern noticeboard advertising a £4.99 car wash. Good start.

And then a walk. Quite a long walk, almost fifteen minutes, but then railway stations tend to be a non-trivial walking distance apart. Ben doesn't talk much about the walk, because his isn't a book about general East London history. Instead he has something to say about Limehouse station, not that this is disused either, and all he can point at are some mysterious black doors under the bridge. He has nothing to say about the severed viaduct ahead, even though this is very disused, because intra-station architecture isn't what the book's about either. Instead he offers a later diversion to a rail bridge off the main road, where there was once another Limehouse station but isn't now. There's not a sign of it, not from down below, although you'd see more from the DLR were you on board. OK, so it's interesting to know that this backwater street alongside St Anne's Church once merited a railway outlet, but otherwise there's nothing to see here.

Walking on, it's up Burdett Road to Burdett Road station. This is no longer a stop on the Fenchurch Street-Southend line, it disappeared in 1941 when Mile End tube proved more of a draw for passengers. And what's to see here? Ben claims there are "traces" of station under the viaduct, but I couldn't see anything entirely convincing. Today this looks like a bog standard rail bridge beside a go-kart track, so all I got was an imagined view of what might have been here before. Hmmm, so far I'd been walking for an hour and seen only three disused stations, two with negligible evidence of ever being stations at all. Still, never mind, carry on.

I hadn't read ahead carefully, so I thought I was half an hour from home, but no. It was a heck of a long way to the next disused station, as I might have realised if only I'd knocked up this Google map before I left. "Continue along, passing Mile End Park", which is no brief stroll. "Turn left onto Mile End Road", which is in completely the opposite direction to the walk's final destination. And then "after a few minutes" (which meant ten minutes) "turn right onto Globe Road." All in all it was a mile and a quarter to the next station, which felt like an entirely unnecessary detour when there was nothing to see but another redeveloped railway bridge. OK, so there was also what might have been the original entrance to Globe Road station disguised as the doors to a snooker club, and there was also a pub called the Railway Tavern which doesn't serve passengers any more, but this was starting to feel more like a tour of locations than of disused things.

And then (deep breath) another mile and a quarter to the next disused station. Quite an interesting mile and a quarter, from a non-infrastructure point of view, but not ticking any boxes for railway relevance. Eventually Coborn Road delivered something intriguing, courtesy of the original arched entrance to the station alongside a low bridge. You could easily walk past this unassuming boarded-up doorway without noticing it, but look, this unexpected portal was once the fast track to the City. It was getting dark by now, because I'd underestimated how long Walk 12 would take, as it seemed had Ben. It eventually took a total of two hours to reach Bow Road and Bow stations, the former now a William Hill betting shop, the latter an empty space where a car hire firm trades. What with leftover staircases visible overhead and the remains of platforms down below, there were more disused station remnants in the last two minutes of the walk than there had been in the first 118.

Shadwell to Bow Church is less than two miles direct, but Ben's sinuous tour had taken me round the houses for five. That's because East London's disused stations aren't linear, so wandering between them was never going to be easy. But I did get the feeling from my map that Ben had researched some fascinating locations, then strung them together within a not entirely practical walk. I wondered if I'd made an elementary mistake by tackling the final walk in the book, in case that was the leftovers, so I knocked up a map for walk number 1 as well. And, blimey, that was just as impractically tortuous. From Holborn to Tower Hill in seven miles, via Clerkenwell, Aldwych and Waterloo (in that order). If anyone can manage that in the designated 2½ hours, I'll be amazed.

So, is Ben's book worth buying? Absolutely yes, it's packed with in-depth railway history and paints a vivid picture of what there is to see in each location today. Are the various locations worth visiting? Sure, next time you're passing, or if taken in short bursts, although you should be prepared not to see very much because disused stations are like that. And are Ben's walks worth walking? Maybe not. I enjoyed my tour of unfamiliar Tower Hamlets, because I'm like that, but true rail history nuts would have got tired and bored long before the end. Make sure you read each route carefully in advance, maybe even trace a map, else you might be meandering for hours. One for the bookshelf, I think, rather than the road.

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