Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: It’s more, much more, than simply the end of the line

The bank holiday saw Wivenhoe celebrate the coming of the railway 150 years ago

The bank holiday saw Wivenhoe celebrate the coming of the railway 150 years ago - Credit: Archant

This is the last trip for a while and the last in this trio of articles about the journey from London into Essex.

I return to Essex from London on a sunny Friday afternoon. It also coincides with this week’s celebration of the railway coming to Wivenhoe 150 years ago.

I’d been intending to cover the local angle more fully but became side-tracked by some surprising things I learned about Liverpool Street station at the opposite end of the journey.

If the train out of Liverpool Street dawdles slowly enough for the first mile or so, after it has emerged into light you may see tucked into several small arches on the right side some mysterious-looking stone carvings. I first noticed them many years ago and often wondered what they were. Eventually, after talking to a retired railway man, I discovered they were pieces of the original statuary from the old Liverpool Street station.

Surplus to requirements after the station’s makeover during the late 1980s, the stoneworks were stored under the arches. Too impressive to throw away and yet too cumbersome to steal, they’ve remained there for over two decades.

There would have been little room for such exotica in the shopping mall modernity of the new 1990s station. I suspect, too, that they’ve simply been forgotten about.

The old station, for those of us who remember the early 1970s, was a dreadful place. It was dark, seedy, and damp; still soot-begrimed from the last years of steam. Pigeons haunted its rusting girders and rotten canopies, while the filthy tracks and their various crannies were full of cigarette ends and other ancient litter.

Most Read

Crammed under an old stone staircase leading from the street to the station concourse was a pub called the Apples and Pears. It was smoky, beery, slightly sticky and you had to keep one eye on your luggage. Despite these dubious attributes it was still more enjoyable somehow than the type of sanitised “drinks-led refreshment solution” which our present hospitality-providers prefer to herd us into.

Looming proprietorially over the station concourse, overlooking platforms 9 and 10, stood the Great Eastern Hotel, by now bearing only traces of its former Victorian grandeur.

Liverpool Street station, the gateway to Essex and East Anglia, by the late 1960s had become fairly ghastly. In addition to its having been built on the site of the original Bedlam lunatic asylum (mentioned last week) it had also received some serious wartime damage. This didn’t, as you might expect, occur in World War Two but in the Great War. During a bombing raid in May, 1917, the station took an estimated 1,000 pounds of bombs, killing 162 people and injuring many more. Further disaster was destined to follow.

Liverpool Street, though, wasn’t the only London station serving the east of England. When the railways were built, there’d been an earlier station, Shoreditch. Renamed Bishopsgate in 1847, it had shared the job of serving all points east, along with Fenchurch Street station. Within three decades it had become too small for purpose and so, in 1874, the grand new Liverpool Street station was opened.

Bishopsgate became a multi-level goods station, complete with cranes and warehousing. Thus it remained, until December, 1964, when a huge fire, requiring 20 fire appliances and 235 firefighters to deal with it, destroyed the station completely.

The fire killed two people, in addition to destroying hundreds of railway carriages and motor vehicles. Bishopsgate Station’s upper levels were demolished and the site lay derelict for 30 years until its demolition in 2004.

Liverpool Street, therefore, built upon the site of a notorious lunatic asylum, had witnessed in its time a catastrophic bombing and a massively destructive fire. Such things will not generally imbue an area with a pleasant psycho-geography. With death and madness having soaked into its very stones, some might even venture that the place was damned ground.

To the morbidly-inclined, this might seem an interesting idea, perhaps. But we are talking about London, a large, ancient city with an eventful history.

Colchester, 60 miles up the tracks, is much smaller, and yet can still punch above its weight in the death and madness stakes. The scars of the Boudiccan Revolt in AD60, for instance, remain not far beneath the surface of modern day Colchester. The English Civil War siege wasn’t exactly a cake-walk, either.

As for madness: as a teenager living here in the early 1970s, I was always given to understand that, at one time, Colchester could boast more hospitals and annexes assigned to the care of the mentally ill or disabled than any other part of the UK.

The Liverpool Street station of today, however, is a vast improvement upon the one I first knew. My recollections of it have become hazier with each passing year. I do, though, recall one curious vignette from the mid 1980s. A commuter was walking purposefully through the crowded station one evening to catch his train. Suddenly, a gleeful drunken tramp appeared, grabbed him and began to dance him forcefully around the station concourse in an ungainly and demented waltz.

The fear in the innocent commuter’s eyes, whilst this went on, was not to be forgotten. The tramp released him after what must have seemed to his victim an interminable 30 seconds or so.

In this brief collision between the worlds of order and chaos, nobody intervened. For some reason, that image of the old Liverpool Street station has remained with me, ever since.