diamond geezer

 Friday, June 04, 2021

London has ten public footpath level crossings, just ten, and half of them are in the London Borough of Havering. If you have three hours spare you can walk them all...

Walking Havering's five Public Footpath Level Crossings

1) Osbourne Road (RM11 2BJ)

The first three are on the Romford to Upminster line, because minor foot crossings are most likely to survive on quiet single track backwaters with not many trains. The railway divides one group of leafy residential avenues from another, denying vehicle access for three quarters of a mile so this pedestrian cut-through is very welcome. To start the walk make your way to Osborne Road between Romford and Emerson Park stations (the 193 bus delivers) and look for the broad alleyway between the semis at 125 and 127. At the far end are a swing gate and a volley of notices, one reminding you to keep your dog on a lead and another saying No Trespassing in English, Polish, Romanian, French and Spanish. A decent line of sight down the straight track means it all feels open and safe, and crossing the line takes barely two seconds. I was surprised that Network Rail classify this as the most dangerous of Havering's quintet, this mainly due to the 'large number of users' which turns out to be about 120 a day. I spotted three other users and two dogs. On the far side is a brief stretch of whoppingly high fence to discourage shortcuts, then an alleyway leads off in both directions behind sheds and back gardens. It'd be easier to escape if the end of Courage Close wasn't bricked up. Reassuringly nobody's planning to close this crossing, which is more than can be said for the next two...

Fork right along the alleyway to join Hillview Avenue - a world of well-kept bungalows with Avon catalogues on doorsteps. At Godfrey's Bakery turn right past Emerson Park station and the Hop Inn micropub, then left into Burnway at the Oh My Cod! chippy.

2) Butts Lane (RM11 3NA)

This has a much narrower alleyway, as befits a more minor crossing. It may not bode well that the house on one side is up for sale and the other has already sold, but if you've always wanted a 3-bed semi backing onto a level crossing (and don't mind people using the stile to peer over into your back garden) now's your chance. Again there are signs aplenty on the approach, including the usual Stop Look Listen and a more modern exhortation to put your mobile phone away. Line of sight is again excellent, indeed you can plainly see the end of the platform at Emerson Park in case the half-hourly service is waiting there. Low green railings deter trespass trackside. The path on the far side is shady and doglegged, and emerges beside a massive detached house which appears to be mostly garage.

But the crossing's days are numbered because it's on Network Rail's longlist for closure. Over 100 crossings in the Anglia region were the subject of two rounds of public consultation in 2016, the aim being to improve safety and reduce risk. Results in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk were finally confirmed in 2020, but the orders for 'Essex and Others' await approval from the Secretary of State. The crossing attracts only 30 pedestrians a day and isn't fully accessible thanks to stiles on both sides so Network Rail are happy to divert users to a footbridge quarter of a mile down the road. But their main argument really boils down to "without the closure of the level crossing there is a risk of a future incident at this location", which is essentially a reason for shutting anything.

Footpath 170 emerges at the end of a cul-de-sac, then weaves through pines to a string of bungalows on Woodhall Crescent. Ignore the footbridge leading to St Andrew's Park, pleasant though that is, and keep your eyes peeled for Footpath 172 on the right.

3) Woodhall Crescent (RM11 3ST)

This is the excellent one, the footpath that descends into Hornchurch Cutting where the Pleistocene ice sheets ground to a halt. The change in level means that a zigzag ramp is required on both sides, affording an excellent view on the way down that eventually opens up to reveal a pleasingly straight track. At the foot of the slope is a motley selection of deterrent infrastructure, including three steps, a funnel of wooden fencing and a trackbed of black plastic spikes. The whole thing has a whiff of adventure about it, not to mention the fact it's also a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest. Alas Network Rail want to close this one too. There are only two dozen users daily who could easily use the footbridge on nearby Wingletye Lane instead, indeed the crossing's been here since these were fields and increasingly looks like a bypassable anachronism. If you want to experience it for yourself, maybe come soon.

It's the best part of an hour's walk to the next crossing so don't undertake this expedition lightly. You'll pass Upminster Bridge and Upminster stations, probably via the windmill and the high street, before veering around the District line depot to reach the lower middle class suburb of Cranham. Keep going until the end of Nightingale Avenue, where the Green Belt starts, and enter the Brickfields nature reserve. The next crossing is unsignposted behind the row of trees on the right.

4) Brickfields (RM14 1EJ)

Now that we've nudged beyond the extreme of built-up London, this one's a proper footpath that happens to cross a railway. It's also a proper railway this time, the main line to Southend, which means several trains an hour rattling through at up to 75mph. And yet here we are, permitted to stroll across the line unchecked, protected only by a slew of signs and a two-step stile on either side. One of these stiles has a separate gate for dogs, but not the other, and the instruction Cyclists Dismount ignores the fact you couldn't have ridden straight through anyway. And yet despite the obvious risks there are currently no plans to close this crossing, I suspect because there's no nearby alternative, this being the only north-south connection between Cranham and the M25. Network Rail's census again suggests just two dozen users daily, perhaps because the only way out to the south is across a large buttercup meadow where horses graze, and the state of the mud suggests the path is an utter quagmire for much of the year.

It's the best part of an hour's walk to the next crossing, very little of it along roads, so only try this next part if you're superkeen. First follow a private path across Cranham Golf Course, where I watched pudgy Pringled youth mis-hitting tee shots, then enter the realm of the very excellent Thames Chase Forest Centre. Here a cafe and visitor centre cater to families who almost certainly drove here and might perhaps venture out into the surrounding community woodland. A public footpath exits the forest immediately alongside the M25, then you're aiming for the village of North Ockendon and another footpath which crosses the moat beyond the church. Good luck, this corner of London is defiantly and atypically rural.

5) Eve's (RM14 2XH)

Havering's fifth and final foot crossing can be found on the railway line between Upminster and Ockendon a few hundred metres inside the Greater London boundary. This used to be a remote spot, a brief interruption on a barely relevant footpath between North Ockendon and Pea Lane, but then in the 1980s the M25 arrived. It scythed across the landscape on an embankment, deftly dodging the railway beneath, but severed the route of Footpath 252 which was forced to divert alongside the motorway instead. I arrived by following a long hedgerow to a wire fence with a stile - single step this time - and waited for the train to Grays to zip by. This is the least substantial level crossing of the five, and the footpath beyond barely distinguishable along the edge of a dry sprouting field. When Network Rail did a nine-day survey in July 2016 no users were recorded, which I can well believe, so it's no surprise they plan to close this one too. It's probably for the best, another major road project is planned for the vicinity so Eve's crossing would inevitably have been snuffed out anyway.

Even when you reach the edge of the field, civilisation (aka Ockendon station) is still over a mile away. I was forced to dodge traffic along a country lane because the only shortcut across a field was blocked by a wall of shoulder-high nettles. But the walk was absolutely glorious, which I suspect I'm only saying because I haven't done anything similar for well over a year.

• Network Rail's level crossing database is here, including an interactive map and a downloadable spreadsheet.
• My map of London's ten public footpath crossings is here.

London's five other public footpath level crossings are:
» Angerstein (Greenwich) - alleyway across freight line, recently scheduled for closure.
» Trumpers (Ealing) - also across a freight line, see Geoff's video here.
» Golf Links (Enfield) - along a minor footpath up Crews Hill way.
» Lincoln Road (Enfield) - south of Enfield Town, closed to road traffic in 2012.
» Bourneview (Croydon) - almost in Surrey, between Kenley and Whyteleafe.

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