diamond geezer

 Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The least used station in... Essex
(Annual passenger usage: 13386)

Having already visited the least used stations in Berkshire, Hertfordshire and Greater London, I'm continuing to downscale by visiting Essex. This eastern county has a myriad of branch lines, and it's hard to second guess on which of these the lowest passenger total might be found. The runt of the litter turns out to be on the Braintree line, a six mile single track spur diverging from the mainline at Witham. The station in question boasts an hourly train to Central London six days a week, and a connecting service on the other, yet still only attracts an average of 40 passengers a day. Having been, I can see the issues, but I was still pleasantly surprised to find a couple of places well worth visiting nearby.

It had to happen eventually, and it happened at White Notley - I was the only passenger to alight, and nobody else got on. That's a pretty good definition of a quiet station, and this one's definitely quieter than most. There's just one platform and it's really long, sufficient to fit a 12-car commuter service destination Liverpool Street. Walking from one end to the other takes three minutes, round a gentle bend to the edge of a waving wheatfield. Immediately beyond are a haybarn and a level crossing solely for farm use, a yellow telephone and several exhortations to remember to close the gates. All four benches (and the only CCTV cameras) are up the other end, closest to the level crossing and station exit, where one suspects passengers in the know always alight.

Loudspeakers kick in twice an hour to warn of the next train at platform 1, and occasionally warn that unattended baggage may be destroyed, although it's not clear by who. No ticket machine has been deemed economically viable, so occasional ramblers should collect a Permit to Travel instead. If it's raining the small shelter by the bike rack could probably squeeze in the day's entire passenger complement, although they might not all stay dry. And outside the two times an hour a train turns up it's really very quiet, bar the rumble of traffic down Station Road, which is little more than your average country lane. Importantly there's nowhere to park, indeed you'd likely block the road if you tried, which must be one reason why passenger numbers are so low. [6 station photos]

About a quarter of a mile down the lane, which I wouldn't enjoy walking along after dark, lies the village of White Notley. This is a proper Essex village, by which I mean the centre's old and pretty, while a couple of more modern roads contain most of the housing stock. I looked in vain for a shop, the only commercial premises seemingly a funeral director's, while the sole pub was under scaffolding and sheeting awaiting gastro-rebirth. The River Brain flows past the backs of some of the prettier cottages, crossed by a ford and a more recent-looking single track bridge. Meanwhile the village sign celebrates White Notley's Saxon origins, with St Etheldreda's on Church Hill dating back just over a thousand years, and originally built on the site of a Roman temple. But if I've made all this sound attractive, and even if the five hundred who live here might agree, you'd be better off not bothering to take a special look.

Instead you should have turned left on leaving the station and headed up Station Road, again taking care to dodge the traffic haring inbetween the hedges. And then right along the verge of the main Witham to Braintree road, which I suspect is easier after it's been cut, so many thanks to the local council. And after just over a mile of slightly awkward walking you reach the proper local tourist site, which is Cressing Temple Barns.

What we have here are two of the finest 13th century barns in the country, built originally for the Knights Templar, hence the name. They're both huge, as you'd expect from a storage facility aimed at funding a crusade, and remarkably intact triumphs of timberwork as proven when you step inside. Outside there's a Tudor Walled Garden, looking lovely at the moment, as well as a wellhouse and a slew of farm buildings. Several of these contain examples of metal- and wood-working tools, while the Elizabethan granary - the oldest in the county - has an evocatively undulating wooden floor. And kept at a respectable distance is the Visitor Centre and Tiptree Tea Room, which is of course where the majority of the visitors were holed up. In good news entrance to the entire complex is free, unless there's an event on (like this weekend's Healthy Living Show), but the website's good at listing those so you can plan your visit to either hit or miss.

"Would you like to hear The Tale?" asked the old lady sat reading outside the Granary. A passing family turned her down, but I took Helen up on her offer and was treated to a 45 minute tour of the site with comprehensive background detail. Helen's husband was one of the guiding lights who helped oversee the restoration the Barns when Essex County Council took them over, three weeks before the Great Storm whipped all the tiles off the roof. His great interest was historical carpentry, of which this is a tiptop example, and Helen used her spotlight to point out several of the more interesting joints. Her animated conversation brought the exhibits in the Wheat Barn to life, and there was obvious pride as the widow described the discoveries her husband had made. "Do tell everybody else how interesting this place is," was her parting shot, and it is, so I am. [5 barn photos]

Continue for another half mile along Temple Lane to reach a fascinating 20th century site, Essex's very own Garden Village. Silver End was just a hamlet in 1925 when windowframe magnate Francis Henry Crittall decided to site his next factory here and house the workers alongside. He hoped they'd be able to live and socialise without ever having to leave the village, so built the largest village hall in the country (including a 400 seater cinema), and added a three-storey department store alongside (alas since burnt down and replaced by a very mediocre parade). Crittall and family built and moved into The Manors (now an old people's home), and ensured the provision of churches and a school. There's also a pleasant central park with ornate gates and a memorial garden, and a number of heritage boards depicting scenes from the history of the village.

But what sets Silver End aside is its collection of Modernist houses, many of them flat-topped beauties, with different designs repeated in sequence along the development's core road network. Broadway and Francis Way have some of the better cuboidal stock, generally painted in the same light cream colour as the houses in White Notley. Front gardens are of a good size allowing space for well-tended vegetation and/or parking, plus some smartly-clipped hedges out front. Silver Street's houses are more distinctive, down one end at least, with cute triangular protrusions above each porch. On Runnacles Street the porches have an almost Japanese flair, centrally placed on some relatively large detached frontages. Other designs are more ordinary, yet still airy and spacious, and the whole place feels at least a decade ahead of its time.

I doubt that the 4000 current residents of Silver End see their village as a tourist attraction, although many are clearly very proud, as the parish council website attests. I hoped I'd get away with walking the various streets and being intermittently impressed enough to whip out a camera, and through judicious timing survived without being eyed too strangely. I enjoyed looking out for original Crittall windows, unreplaced by modern frames, and was slightly sad to spot the only undemolished industrial building in a fenced-off central zone. And yes, I know it's only a couple of days since I invited you to look at twenty photos of Croydon, but I thought you might appreciate another twenty of Silver End, if only because it's architecturally as striking in a rather different way. And potentially reachable by train. [slideshow]

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