Walking with the ghost trains

There’s something romantic about trains, so it’s not surprising we mourn their disappearance. But losing a railway is not always the death knell for a town, suggests a man who’s been walking where tracks once lay. Steven Russell reports

SOMETIMES, misfortune has a silver lining. When a foot injury temporarily curtailed David Gridley’s ability to run, it opened up possibilities. He thought he’d enjoy some gentler walks while his foot healed, and sought inspiration in a bookshop. There seemed to be hundred of books on pub walks: circular strolls both pleasant and relaxing, and which spotlighted parts of the countryside he’d never really explored. It planted the idea of a possible book project of his own. “I thought ‘Well, if I ever had the chance, I’d try to find an angle: some sort of hidden history people didn’t realise was there...’ One day I think I stumbled across an old railway bridge. I wondered what that was all about – and that was really how it started.”

“It” is his first published offering. Walking the Lost Railways of Essex is a collection of 21 strolls between three and eight or so miles in length – nothing too hilly, and requiring just a decent pair of walking shoes. Along the way they take in pretty villages, churches, country pubs and places of interest.

As well as encouraging folk to enjoy the beautiful countryside, he hopes it will get people thinking about what the coming of a railway did for a community and how things changed if it shut down. He touches on, for instance, the relationship with the famous Wilkins jam factory at Tiptree, and the Elsenham to Thaxted Light Railway that was nicknamed the Gin and Toffee Line after local businessmen William Gilby (a wine merchant) and sweetmaker George Lee.

“I would be very happy if this book does nothing except put back another piece of our lost history by showing how the railways have affected and been affected by the areas that they run through,” says David.

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Those railways are invariably testament to the pioneering spirit and technological triumphs of the Victorians, who backed their dreams with money, muscle and usually style, and took pleasure in their achievements and ambitions. (See the nine-arch entrance arcade at the old Maldon East station, for instance, or the way an extension to rural Tollesbury Pier was added to the light railway line from Kelvedon in 1907 in the hope of opening up that area on the Blackwater.)

“If you were to look at a map of the railways around 1900, then, like most other counties, Essex would have a great deal more branch lines than it does today,” David writes. “In fact, the county has lost 10 branch lines, 41 stations and close to 90 miles of track. The reason why these lines came and went tells us a lot about the growth of Essex.”

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He’s convinced most people don’t realise just how many branch lines have been lost – in the UK in general and in Essex specifically – let alone where they ran and why they closed, as well as how they transformed our nation.

“Today we see the function of the railway to mainly ferry commuters back and forth to work, whereas in the Victorian period it was very different: whether it was new lines to the coast for seaside excursions, freight and goods to fuel the industrial revolution, commuter traffic into London, fresh produce to be delivered overnight on the milk trains, or the light railways built to give a lifeline to depressed rural areas. A new railway meant nothing short of a revolution to areas where the only way to get around was on foot, bicycle or horse and cart.”

Economics, and the impetus of the Beeching Report that sought to stem huge losses, heralded the end for many lines in the 1960s, though some (such as Marks Tey to Sudbury, and Witham to Braintree, escaped the axe).

Echoes remain, though – thanks to railways being great feats of engineering. “...it is precisely because of this huge physical effort that even today, some 40 or more years since some of the lines and stations in this book were torn up, that evidence of them remains, slicing through the landscape, leaving a lasting footprint if only we took the time to stop and look”.

There are quirky stories, such as Easton Lodge on the 18-mile stretch between Braintree and Bishop’s Stortford opened in 1869 by Great Eastern Railway.

“Easton Lodge was built for the use of the Earl and Countess of Wessex, who agreed to pay �52 per year towards the upkeep of the building while also allowing public access. One frequent visitor was the then Prince of Wales, who was later to become King Edward VII. During the Second World War the line was often used to supply local airfields, including the one at Easton Lodge, which was home to the American 386th Bomber Group.”

While the loss of a rail link was often lamented, David is convinced it wasn’t necessarily all bad news, for it stopped some communities becoming commuter towns and losing their attractive characters.

“I’m a great fan of the railway, but I can imagine that if you look at certain towns today that still have their railways – such as Witham or Braintree – they are very big conurbations. If you go to towns that have lost their railway, like Halstead, they haven’t died away at all but have grown at what I think is a more manageable pace. Great Dunmow’s another one. It’s retained ... not an old world look, but it’s a much more manageable town today.

“Railways bring prosperity, of course, but it doesn’t mean, if you lose one, it’s the end of the town or village that’s left.”

David, 43, hails from South Ockendon in Essex and now lives near Canary Wharf in London. He works for a video production and editing company near Blackwall Pier, opposite The O2 arena.

“I never considered myself a traditional trainspotter. I think only once or twice did I go to the end of a platform and take down train numbers! But I didn’t realise we had so many railways in the country 30 or 40 years ago – Essex in particular.

“I got to thinking ‘I wonder what’s left behind. It would be interesting to go back and explore the reasons they came in the first place and what we’ve got left with.’ I’m interested in how a railway changes places and what happens when it goes away.”

After his curiosity gave birth to the book project he spent hours poring over publications and old Ordnance Survey maps, digging out the history and making sure there were enough public footpaths around the lost lines to make a reasonable walk.

His expeditions were generally done at weekends and proved labour-intensive: David had to walk each route twice – once to work out where he was going and to pick out things of interest, and a second time to check his directions and instructions would make sense to a reader!

Not that he minded. “It was a labour of love, really – giving people a chance to find bits of Essex and history that have been lost.”

David’s not one to stick pins in a voodoo doll of Dr Richard Beeching – figuratively speaking. In fact, he has some sympathy for the man handed the job of reforming the rail network and making it more efficient. “Unfortunately, despite the cuts, it still didn’t make money – and it still doesn’t today! That’s the ironic thing.”

It’s an earlier missed opportunity – the “botched” modernisation plan of 1955 – that David puts in the dock. By improving reliability, speed, safety and line capacity, this blueprint was designed to make rail more attractive to passengers and freight operators, and thus combat the rising popularity of road transport.

“In theory this was a great idea,” he argues, “but in practice it became a mess. The plan to spend �1.5 billion on replacing steam with diesel and electric was poorly managed, with confused objectives.

“With the commissioning of new rolling stock poorly implemented and often prone to breaking down, the good money that should have been spent on new, modern services was frittered away on what was probably the last chance to really make the system work.”

David tells the EADT: “The union was probably too powerful at the time, and British Rail itself was too big and unwieldy as an organisation to manage this change; and I don’t think the Government had a strong enough grip on it. If you had the chance to throw that much money at something today, you’d want to have a great deal of control about how it ended up. I just think it was a wasted opportunity and gave Beeching the chance to say ‘We’ve tried to modernise, but look: we’re losing millions every year. It’s time for cuts.’”

You’d have thought Maldon, which has grown hugely since I lived there in the early 1980s, might be a prime candidate for a modern rail link reuniting it with Witham...

“I think there is scope for reopening certain old lines. I think it would have to be possibly on a light railway fashion, or a light tramway, rather than a heavy railway that costs so much money that it would be prohibitive. With the climate today, it’s very hard to see how anyone could find the money. But it would be nice to think that one day we could get back a few of the lost routes.”

It’s somewhat different to 100-odd years ago, when that extension to Tollesbury Pier was laid down, for instance.

“That was a very Victorian kind of thing to do – to build it because they could and because they wanted it, and thinking it would encourage traffic if they did it. I can’t imagine anyone saying that today, unfortunately. There’s always got to be a cast-iron reason for building a railway; and usually what happens is it’s built too late!

“Where I live now, round Canary Wharf, we’ve got the Docklands Light Railway. We’ve just gone through the third extension of the platforms. We’ve had to go through this period of ‘Oh, we can’t cope; we need to make the trains longer.’ And this has happened three times. You can’t imagine the Victorians doing that. They’d have said ‘If we build a railway here, it will encourage things to happen.’”

So, one book done... any more on the horizon?

“That’s a very timely question. I’ve been looking at maps of Kent today and I was thinking about doing the same for that county, or Suffolk. I think Suffolk has probably even more lost railways than Kent. They would make good future books. ‘Watch this space’ is my answer!”

The routes in David’s book include:

n Chappel to Haverhill

n Wivenhoe to Brightlingsea

n Braintree to Bishop’s Stortford

n Witham to Maldon East

n Kelvedon to Tollesbury

n Woodham Ferrers to Maldon West

n Elsenham to Thaxted

n The Saffron Walden railway

n Walking the Lost Railways of Essex is distributed by Swan Books at �11.99 (www.swanbooks.co.uk or 01708 222930)

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