Frinton gates: 'Not case of Luddite-ism'

It's a bit like those old black-and-white films where little towns are pitted against the Establishment and the army of bureaucrats bent on applying a one-size-fits-all solution.

Steven Russell

It's a bit like those old black-and-white films where little towns are pitted against the Establishment and the army of bureaucrats bent on applying a one-size-fits-all solution. Only in Frinton-on-Sea, in 2008, there's no happy ending. The iconic railway gates are finally gone and this week the new barriers became fully functional. Steven Russell went to the seaside, now the dust has settled a little…

THE seven files on the floor behind David Foster's desk, plus a couple of carrier bags that mustn't be overlooked, chronicle the Battle of Connaught Avenue. They're full of reports, surveys and correspondence with bodies such as the Office of Rail Regulation. “All this lot here and all this lot here,” confirms the chairman of Frinton Gates Preservation Society with a sweep of his hand and a sigh. “Really, the meat and potatoes of it all.”

For the past week or so Britain has barely been able to open a newspaper or switch on the radio without learning how a campaign to save the town's railway crossing gates ended in the early hours of a Saturday morning. Crews working for Network Rail removed the heavy white gates that used to be opened and closed by a crossing keeper. Automated barriers, which will be controlled from Colchester, are going up in their place and the keepers are gone.


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The changes are among the concluding chapters of a �100m or so resignalling upgrade on the Sunshine Coast Line that links Colchester with Clacton-on-Sea and Walton-on-the-Naze.

Folk in Surrey and Sussex and elsewhere who don't know Frinton from Folkestone might conclude it's all much ado about nothing, but the Essex seaside town is a magnet for news editors. Its mission to prevent its attractive Pleasantville ambiance being infected by the noise and vulgarity common to many resorts gives Frinton an allure of its own.

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The breezes off the North Sea are not polluted by bleeps from amusement arcades, and polystyrene trays containing congealed chip fat do not dam the gutters.

Attempts to alter the status quo are therefore dissected and debated. Over the years there's been concern about ice-cream being sold on the greensward overlooking the sea, fish and chips shops and pubs. (After heated opposition, the Lock and Barrel eventually opened in 2000, where the Blowers and Cooper hardware store once stood.)

Last year the committee of Frinton Golf Club opted to relax one of its oldest rules and allow golfers to show their legs for the first time. Until then, they'd have to be covered by knee-length socks, at the very least.

Now we've got those disappearing gates to think about.

They obviously mean a lot to the place - if they didn't, they wouldn't feature on the Frinton and Walton Town Council crest - but it's wrong to think the fight has been a Luddite campaign to preserve some old bits of wood that are something of a status symbol. (People still banter, good-naturedly, about living “within the gates” - the older and more traditional part - and “outside the gates” - the newer homes, shopping centre, leisure centre and so on, built largely from the 1960s onwards.)

Because, explains David Foster, who's lived here nearly three decades, it's about safety - not a futile attempt to freeze time or preserve Frinton in aspic. It's also about a community feeling it hasn't been adequately listened to by “an intransigent giant with no ears” (Network Rail) with its own agenda.

The gates weren't antiques dating from the late 1800s but workaday equipment that was repaired and replaced from time to time as wear and tear took its toll. “One that was taken down was probably only two or three years old,” he points out.

“I think some people are of a mind that those who want to preserve things are living in the past. But it's not a case of that here; we want to preserve our heritage, but we want to incorporate any updates so they can blend in. We haven't condemned these proposals out of hand; we've looked at them and researched them. Only after that have we decided we don't think they're right.”

There are eight roads near the crossing - three outside the gates and five inside, including Connaught Avenue itself - and levels of both motorised and foot traffic are high. There is also a very high percentage of elderly users.

With a manned crossing, a keeper could quickly deal with any dramas - vehicle breakdowns on or near the crossing, for instance, or people falling down. “The railwayman went to their aid - but that wasn't seen as his job by the authorities,” says David. Now, the eyes of the rail network will be miles away in Colchester, looking at a CCTV monitor.

There will be three seconds of amber lights shown and four of red flashing ones before the man in the box is looking to press the button and bring the barrier down, he explains. “So you've got seven seconds for everyone coming from those eight roads to all make the right decision. Every time. Are they going to try to nip under them? Through them? Are they going to stop? People are going to have a difficulty of judgement.

“People are anxious they might get stuck between barriers, on the line; that the barriers might come down on their heads, or the barriers will get stuck and people won't be able to get wherever they are going.

“We come back to this same line: 'very safe if used properly.' And that's not a bad line; but what they've forgotten is that if people make a judgement of error, it could be their last - whereas when a gate is shutting, it influences their behaviour and they might not take a chance.”

Statistics show that when barriers have failed across the country, delays and disruption have followed, claims the society.

Frinton's crossing is essentially the only way to and from the heart of the town, unless you want to try unadopted roads with potholes, and a bridge that will protest if subjected to three tonnes of weight.

Any dramas, warns the group, will therefore threaten gridlock and inconvenience if not speedily resolved.

Furthermore, says its chairman, substituting a camera for an in-situ human being is “like comparing a donkey to a racehorse”. A rail worker looking at a screen at Colchester, checking to see if it's safe to lower the barriers, will be able to see only a small part of the area, argues David.

“You could have a Scottish pipe band walking up to Walton and back again and he'd never see them!”

It's all designed to do away with labour, he laments - which in reality means saying goodbye to folk who were part of the fabric of local life. To the Frinton way of thinking, it's a false economy and a wonky set of priorities - “a bit like buying a footballer for �10million and sacking the tea-lady because you haven't got any money in the kitty.

“It's completely the opposite to what we want here: a community railway. We didn't want a train-set with somebody pressing a button 20 miles away.

“Modern doesn't necessarily mean safer. It doesn't mean better. Modern means you're not going to have anybody there and you're going to end up with this Marie Celeste railway.”

Mayor Terry Allen agrees. “They seem to want to destroy everything and make everything the same. No-one looks at the quality of life; they look at the finances; they look at this and that. I don't mind change if it's going to be better . . .” His words hang in the air - the clear implication being that these changes are most definitely not a step forward.

Terry's lived in Frinton for 22 years after moving from Forest Gate in east London, and in terms of iconic value has spoken of the gates in the same breath as Paris's Eiffel Tower and London's Tower Bridge.

There are about 400,000 pedestrian movements a year, adds the mayor, whose main concerns include the 400 children going back and forth. Plugged into their MP3 players or chatting, they might not be paying 100% attention when the lights start to flash.

With a crossing-keeper, “when he shut the gates, people stopped. With these cameras, it's like no-one's about”.

Campaigners are weary, David Foster says, of effectively being told “Look, we're railway people; we know best. Highways people are highways people, and they know best. You are members of the public; what do you know?”

“Well, hang on. We use it every day; we think there might be some problems.”

One of the main justifications for getting rid of the gatekeepers was, he says, that the job posed “an intolerable risk”. That, reckon protesters, is simply daft. “It's like us crossing the road, really - only when they do it they have a great big wooden gate between them and the traffic.”

Other arguments cut no ice, either. Like the changes being needed to improve railway performance.

“Performance?! It's four minutes to Walton and four minutes back, with a two-minute stop. How much more performance can you get?”It's been a drawn-out fight, but David's has a ready riposte for anyone tempted to ask 'Why are you bothering?' “The answer is that if you hold something dear, and feel you should make a difference by standing up for it, then you do. There's no point living in a democracy if you don't use it - even if you feel sometimes that it doesn't work.”

Frinton might not have seen the last of its gates - though they will be back as decoration rather than in working order.

Network Rail has promised to return them when the crossing work is finished. “But probably not under the cover of darkness this time,” says David, ruefully. “They'll go into the car park, probably, at the station.” Not that he's convinced about the location. “Once you've had your head chopped off, you don't really want it stuck on a pole outside, do you?”

What the people say

Originally from Manchester, Melanie Whitworth laughs that she now lives just outside Frinton's gates, “so I'm not really posh”. Folk have been talking about the switch from gates to barriers quite a lot, but she feels it's an issue that in the main concerns “older people and those who don't want things to change, and to stay the way they are. I think you have got to move with the times, really”. If barriers get traffic and pedestrians on their way quicker than the heavier gates, that's an improvement. She feels they'll be safe. “More people die (horse-)riding than flying in aeroplanes - I read that somewhere and I hope that's right! - so you have to weigh everything up. I can see both sides, but I think people will be OK once they've got used to them.”

Nick Waltham, who has been a local taxi driver for the past year and a half, says the fate of Frinton's gates has been on the lips of virtually every passenger for months - “that and the weather!”

He's content to wait and see how the changes affect safety, pointing out that the traditional gates haven't in the past stopped youngsters jumping over them when they've been closed. Of more concern is what he claims is a - how shall we say? - variable standard of driving on local streets, with bumps and near-misses. “Let's face it,” he says of the barriers controversy, “in a year's time it's going to be forgotten.”

Ken and Diana Runicles have lived close to the station for five years and are wary about the changes. Ken says most of the recent rail incidents in East Anglia have involved unmanned crossings. Diana points out that both the fire and ambulance stations are in nearby Pole Barn Lane; emergency vehicles could be could be caught up in delays caused by incidents at the crossing.

Care home worker Sarah Wilkinson lives “inside the gates” and works outside. She crosses the line virtually every day and isn't overly concerned about the changes and their implications for safety, content the barriers will be properly monitored and controlled from Colchester.

Guy Hemmings is from the Republic of Ireland and came to Frinton three years ago, via the Lake District. His wife had earlier lived in the town and he's quickly fallen for it, too - so much so that about a year ago he started a website (www.frinton-on-sea.org.uk) to highlight its charms and history.

He's sad to see the gates go - feeling they served both a practical purpose and gave Frinton a sense of identity - but reflects “It is not necessarily the beginning of the end, but it is a pity it was handled so badly.”

Rebecca Baker, who works in a shop in Connaught Avenue, thinks the new barriers are a good idea. “In this day and age you have got to move forward, and it is modern technology at the end of the day, isn't it?”

The Frinton-on-Sea story

1801 population: 31

The extension of the railway from Thorpe-le-Soken to Walton-on-the-Naze in 1864, with an unofficial halt in Frinton, brought more visitors

1871 population: 54

1885: the Marine and General Land Company bought up Frinton-on-Sea and published plans to create a town of terraces, squares, crescents and tree-lined avenues

Engineer Peter Bruff found a water supply at Mistley and formed Tendring Hundred Water Company

The supply of water came in 1888 and Frinton-on-Sea began to develop

The town we know today was created by Sir Richard Powell-Cooper

In 1893 he bought an interest in key bits of land

He planned to develop the resort using some of Bruff's ideas, making sure Frinton was more than just 'another' new town

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