diamond geezer

 Thursday, May 21, 2020

London's Disused Railways
North London Railway: Old Ford - Victoria Park

Today I'm completing my walk tracing the disused railway between Bow and Victoria Park (1850-1944). If yesterday was mostly flats, today is mostly dual carriageway.

Just to the north of Old Ford station, somewhat unexpectedly, the trackbed of the disused North London Railway can still be seen. Step out onto the footbridge at the end of Old Ford Road and there it is, an overgrown strip of green running immediately alongside the A12, plain as day.

A quick bit of local infrastructure history. The A12 is part of the East Cross Route, one of the few sections of the GLC's proposed London Motorway Box to be bulldozed through to completion. It was planned in the 1960s, by which time the North London Railway was only being used for freight, so it made sense to build the new road alongside an existing breach in the townscape. Between 1973 and 1984 an ever-decreasing number of trains ran alongside what was then an urban motorway, the A102(M), before the tracks were finally lifted leaving a thin strip of land unsuitable for development. If only the railway had closed before the road opened a much more efficient use of land could have been achieved, but chronology dictated otherwise. [1893 map] [1949 map]

The flats alongside the line are part of the Locton Estate, another Tower Hamlets neighbourhood laid out before the railway closed, otherwise they could have fitted in a couple of extra blocks. The flats on Candy Street are additionally constrained to the north due to the intervention of Joseph Bazalgette's Northern Outfall Sewer. By coincidence this is also the point where his High Level and Middle Level Sewers converge, rising to the surface beyond Victoria Park to continue their journey to Abbey Mills above ground. Thames Water still maintain a depot here to keep an eye.

The former railway has become a stripe of woodland by the time it reaches Wick Lane. Here the abutment of the original bridge lingers on as a graffitied brick wall, easily spotted alongside the letterbox tunnel beneath the A12. Ducketts Apartments across the street are the only housing to have been built on the railway alignment north of Old Ford. Another brick abutment marks the point where trains once crossed the Hertford Canal, not many feet above the towpath, and has again proved irresistible to purveyors of aerosol art.

This brings us to the unlikely tale of Britain's first railway murder, which occurred on this very line in July 1864. City banker Thomas Briggs was heading home on a late train from Fenchurch Street to Hackney Wick when he was robbed and beaten for his gold watch, then thrown from the compartment. His body was spotted on the tracks by the driver of the next southbound train and taken to the nearby Mitford Castle pub where he died from his wounds. A German tailor called Franz Müller was accused of the crime after selling the watch chain to a jeweller, subsequently arrested in New York and sentenced to death by hanging. The incident captivated the nation and led to the introduction of communication cords in all train carriages. In 2011 Kate Colquhoun wrote a fine book about the case called Mr Briggs' Hat, which I have attempted not to over-spoiler.

A few years ago you could have popped into the Mitford Castle for a pint, although by this time it had lost its upper storeys and been renamed the Top O' The Morning. Alas the pub closed in 2013, and in 2015 was demolished to make for way a jarring stack of luxury apartments and a new pub called The Italian Job. This being borderline Hackney the new place majors in craft beer and 'insane sourdough pizza', while the noticeboard outside informs us that lockdown tragically aborted a Mothers Day cupcake-baking class. At least they've reaffixed the heritage plaque outside, but its murderous legend doesn't fit the incorrigible hipster vibe.

Cadogan Terrace, you may remember, is inner London's only single track road with passing places. Its Georgian terraces face Victoria Park and no longer have a railway chugging along the rear, so residents must be doubly pleased. The run of houses broke only for Wallis Road, here reduced to a stubby cul-de-sac after the A12 barged brutally through. At its lowest point a thickly wooded embankment is the sole clue that trains were once carried overhead. For pedestrians or those on two wheels a dramatic footbridge extends further across six lanes of traffic as the East Cross Route splits to meet the Hackney Wick interchange.

The junction's complex because it was supposed to link to the North Cross Route but that was never built, for which residents of Camden, Highbury and Dalston remain eternally grateful. It was also complicated by the presence of the North London Railway, which swept across the left-hand carriageways at what used to be ground level via a brand new concrete viaduct. This touched down on the wooded embankment you can see in the middle of the photo, which was also the site of Victoria Park station, by this time defunct. The viaduct was finally removed in the late 1990s, having carried no passengers and very little freight.

The entrance to Victoria Park station was on the bend in Cadogan Terrace opposite what used to be the park's Station Gate. Today it's a car parking space, immediately behind which the A12 carves by in cutting, summarily demolishing all trace of the main building and two platforms. The brick footings of a former signal box survive on the far side of the chasm above the Hackney on-ramp. A third platform existed to the rear, this time on the Stratford line, because we have finally reached what used to be the junction with what's now the Overground. Don't bother looking out of the window on your next journey between Homerton and Hackney Wick because you won't see it because it isn't there. A12 one, North London Railway nil.

Abandoned stations: Victoria Park-Bow

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