diamond geezer

 Wednesday, May 20, 2020

London's Disused Railways
North London Railway: Bow - Old Ford

Today (and tomorrow) I intend to follow the route of the nearest disused railway to my home, which I have somehow never got round to blogging before.

The line in question was opened by the East & West India Docks & Birmingham Junction Railway in 1850, and was once important, but declining patronage and bomb damage saw it close to passengers in 1944 and to freight in 1984. The trackbed to the south of Bow was reused as part of the DLR in 1987, but the northern tracks were subsequently lifted and have mostly been covered by housing. It's that defunct northern section I'm attempting to trace, aided by the fortunate coincidence that the entire mile falls within my quarantine box.

The North London Line didn't originally go to Stratford but to Poplar, because that's where the docks were. The first westbound trains headed for Islington and Camden, but in 1865 a viaduct was opened connecting Dalston to a new terminus at Broad Street and services were diverted there instead. From Poplar to the City typically took three quarters of an hour, thanks to the inefficiently roundabout route, with trains running every 15 minutes at peak times. You can read a (very) full history of the line on the excellent Disused Stations website, or perhaps join the North London Railway Historical Society to get your four-monthly newsletter fix.

I'm going to start my journey at Bow station, or as it's now known Bow Church. The original station building was on the northern side of Bow Road, with a lofty chapel-like roof and ten arched windows along its frontage, whereas the DLR station was added on a fresh site to the south. Down below were four platforms, the extra two feeding spurs long since built over which allowed southbound trains to head towards Fenchurch Street or Plaistow [1897 map] [1955 map]. The bomb-damaged building was retained as a parcel depot after closure but removed entirely when the DLR was built, and today a lowly car hire lot covers the spot.
Bow station should not be confused with Bow Road, the disused Great Eastern Railway station 100 yards down the road (1876-1949), nor Bow Road, the later Underground station (still operational).

Just beyond the former platforms the two remaining tracks now narrow to one so that DLR services can rise steeply to curve round towards Stratford. But originally the line ran straight ahead with no connection to the Great Eastern Mainline, amid a veritable granny knot of railways dividing up the heart of Bow. I'd like to show you the modern view from the front of the DLR but that would involve non-essential travel, so here's someone else's front-seat video instead.

To see where the line went next requires a five minute walk down to the police station then back up into the Malmesbury Estate. Trains ran along the back of Caxton Grove, whose terraces have long since been replaced by flats or, on the railway side, a scrap of recreation ground. This is the Four Seasons Green Play Area, a breakout space for local families, thus alas locked at present to avoid unnecessary congregation. In normal times I would have entered the 'Dog Agility Area' at the rear and looked over the fence towards the site of an old signal box, but this too is currently an illegitimate option.

Continuing north immediately requires crossing another railway, this time the mainline into Liverpool Street. The chunk of Bow beyond has been comprehensively redeveloped since the war, one of the most recent additions being a slanting brick block on the former railway alignment in Morville Road. Those giant bluebells are part of an oversized community art project round here - we'll be passing two huge anemones and a massive daisy later. Earlier cul-de-sacs covering the ex-railway have Thatcher Era stamped all over them, with a parking space for all. Having walked up Primrose Close and back for no readily apparent reason, I can confirm that the disapproving Neighbourhood Watch vibes are strong.

At Tredegar Road comes one of the few obvious relics of the old railway, a humped bridge. Cars and buses still slow to rumble over it, despite the fact no train's been underneath since 1984 and housing either side ensures none ever will again. Both Victorian parapets survive, in grubby brick, one now with a communal bin store stashed behind.

The next wall of flats is a 21st century bastion, marketed as The Heart of Bow, and then we hit the Lefevre estate, formerly Lefevre Road, Lefevre Grove and Lefevre Terrace. Its blocks are each named after a Roman god or goddess, individually illustrated in cartoon form above the main door, which must have seemed like a good idea at the time. The estate's centrepiece is a linear park brightened by those huge anemones I mentioned earlier, whereas railway-hunters need to slip down one of the forbidding cul-de-sacs to discover the former alignment. Chariot Close, between Juno House and Saturn House, is a direct hit on the up platform of our next station.

This is the same estate viewed from the A12, shielded by a barrier block with fearsomely small windows to muffle the roar of the former motorway. The down platform was at its northern tip. Here we find Old Ford station, an 1867 addition to the line which unsurprisingly faced Old Ford Road. This ridiculously long street once ran from York Hall in Bethnal Green to the McDonald's drive-through at the Bow Roundabout, but construction of the A12 severed it in the low 600s, precisely here.

Old Ford station's L-shaped building had a central arched doorway between three pairs of matching windows, and the words North London Railway written in cement across the facade. Also closed in 1944 the building lingered on until 1967 before being demolished, although the Railway Tavern across the road survives intact. Looking at the mundane flats covering the station entrance today, it's hard to imagine earlier residents stopping to buy a newspaper from the W.H.Smith bookstall in the ticket hall before starting their commute into the City.

We'll continue to Victoria Park tomorrow.

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