Sunday, 11 September 2011

Watford Ho!

You know, there used to be a time when the Internet was full of strange, unique things.  You could turn to Google - or perhaps, in Ye Olden Days, Webcrawler - and type in a couple of words and find a fascinating bit of writing about something you'd never heard before.  Probably on GeoCities, with a hot pink background and an "UNDER CONSTRUCTION!!!" gif flashing at the bottom.

Nowadays, of course, everything has been done.  Even the most arcane, bizarre sexual practice has its own support group and forum with a thousand users.  There are whole servers devoted to people who collect pictures of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa eating oysters.  There is a Matrix-like virtual world entirely occupied with people who like making papier mache models of car crashes.  It's a whole galaxy of stuff, and nothing you find hasn't been done before.  Except maybe Two Girls, One Cup.  Once was enough for that.

Where I'm going with this is, what you are about to read has been done before.  Robert and Ian have already covered it in great detail.  They were there, and because I went and spent a week with my net-free mother, I came last in the race to write it up.  Go to their blogs; read their accounts; get their versions.  Feel free.  You might have done it already.  But know this: my version has more off-colour gags.

Where this all started was with Robert's birthday.  He was turning 29, and wanted to go to London to celebrate it.  Since I am a soul of generosity and unselfishness I agreed to go to the capital with him.  I'm good like that.  And because Robert is, like me, a bit odd, he wanted to visit an abandoned railway line and take pictures of himself fannying around in front of the old station signs.

We boarded a gleaming, sexy, glamorous Overground train at Euston.  Blimey, they're lovely.  I've said it before, I know, but I'm not someone who gets excited about trains as a rule.  It's hard not to get excited about the shiny white and orange Overground trains though.  From the funky moquette on the seat to the long extended carriage, it was like riding a train from Logan's Run.  It's lucky Robert was only 29, or Jenny Agutter would have whipped him off the train somewhere around South Kenton to head for Sanctuary.

Ian had also joined us at Euston.  Ian actually lives in London, so he's not as excited by orange trains as Robert and I; next to him we were total amateurs.  I think he looked on our naive jolliness with a sort of patrician air.

We were heading almost to the end of the line, to Watford High Street station, right on the fringes of Zone 8.  I was a bit nervous.  I'd never been to Watford before, even though I'd grown up only a couple of junctions up the M1.  To someone from Luton, Watford is the enemy: it's the home of that accursed yellow football team, so you don't cross into their territory.  You stay at home and polish your straw boater.

Here I was though, in the middle of foreign territory, posing in front of an orange sign.  We were actually here in suburban Hertfordshire to find some much older station signs.  In fact we were hunting out station signs that didn't even have a station attached any more, which is probably a first for me.

Our target was the Croxley Green branch, a spur of railway that heads out from the mainline and round the edge of Watford.  It's been dead for years but for some reason, no-one's tidied up after it, and so the remnants of its former existence still cling on here and there.

Out we set, through back streets, following Robert and his iPhone.  Whereas I will just spend my time staring at Ordnance Survey maps, Robert had embraced the 21st century, and programmed the route into Google Maps.  He wandered in front of Ian and I, waving his phone in the air like it was a geiger counter at Sellafield.  We could only follow in his tracks, bemused.

There it was: Vicarage Road.  I'm not a sporty type, and the only thing I like about football is 22 athletic men showering together afterwards, but there's still a primeval, instinctive loathing of Watford Football Club in me.  The Luton/Watford games were always severe grudge matches, ones that have registered in my frontal lobe somewhere and mean that I saw Vicarage Road as the Hertfordshire equivalent of a Nazi gun emplacement.

It also meant that by comparison to Ian and Robert, I was David Coleman.  I was able to tell them about Watford's footballing fortunes, which roughly coincide with Sir Elton John pumping millions into the club: the minute he vanishes, so does the team's prospects.  We were all disappointed that the club's strip didn't reflect its flamboyant former owner.  Yellow and black; how dull.  Where was the diamante?  Where were the feathers?  Why wasn't there a My Partner David Furnish Stand?  I know Elton's got his hands full with his baby at the moment, but come on Watford.  Get onto it.

Just beyond the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road stadium was a bus stop with a poster for John Barrowman's upcoming appearance in the town.  It was at this point I wondered if Watford was a bit too gay for me.

Luckily there were still those train stations to keep us on the straight and narrow.  Watford Stadium Halt was built during those brief seasons when Watford FC was in the top flight; it was British Rail's last ditch attempt to get people to use the line.  We knew where it was, according to the map, but finding any sign of it was extremely difficult.

Somewhere under there, maybe, possibly, is an old railway platform.  I wandered around to see if I could see any further evidence - a Network SouthEast sign, perhaps, or maybe a statue of Sir Elton pointing the way.  Nothing.  Instead I found myself looking at an electricity substation, imagining that this might have once been the route to the platform.

We were starting to get funny looks from a gang of little boys on bikes, so we moved on.  It was a route through pale brick semis and three storey "apartment" blocks; tiny gardens with cars parked on their square of brick paving; cul-de-sacs and cul-de-sacs.  It was utterly tedious.  Somewhere around 1975, house builders lost their imagination.  The experimental constructions of the Sixties seemed to have terrified Barratt and their colleagues and they decided that all future housing estates would be like this.  Close after close twisting round corners, named after a vague theme (in this case, British islands), and completely bland and tedious.  They were boxes for sleeping in, not homes.

We left the 1980s blandathon and found ourselves back on a main road.  And yes, there it was: a railway sign for an abandoned station.

Hello, Watford West.  There was a square of tarmac, a couple of signs, and an archway leading down to the platform.

I loved seeing the old Network SouthEast logos again.  Unlike Robert and Ian, who grew up in Regional Railways land, the red white and blue colours were part of my childhood.  My home station of Leagrave was plastered in them.  Lamp posts and benches were red; the platform shelters were blue, as were the stairs.  The familiar slanting colour blocks were on all the signs.

We were going to phone that number, but we didn't know what the local area code was.  You'd have to put it on there now, so people could use their mobiles to call it.  Along with a number to text for info and a link to your website.

We queued up to get our photos taken with the sign, much to the amusement of passers by.  I was last and, wanting my shot to be different from Robert and Ian's, I got athletic:

As we moved on from the station, I took the opportunity to grill Ian about his music.  As I've written before, Ian is a talented singer-songwriter, whose Come to Metro-land album is a favourite on my iPod.  I'd listened to its Saint Etienne, Modern Life is Rubbish, character filled music on the train down, and I was bursting with questions about the lyrics.  Sadly, he told me that my theory that By Accident or Design was about a relationship failing under the pressure of a girl's cocaine addiction ("I portioned blame on your allergies/And got a face full of snow") was interesting but completely wrong.

More pertinently, I quizzed him about Croxley Green.  Here we were, headed for the station of that name, and I was with someone who'd actually written a song about it.  It was like going to Waterloo Bridge with Ray Davies.  Once again, I was disappointed.  Turns out Ian had never watched coal trains pass at Croxley Green while wrapped in an eiderdown.  It was all fiction.  Well, it was a mix of truth and fiction.  This is why you shouldn't meet your heroes, kids.

We found something exciting round the back of a Premier Inn: actual track.  We scrambled up the bank so we could each take a snap of the rusting rails.  A train hasn't passed over them for twenty years, but like the station signs, it's more bother to remove them.

One day this little spur might make a comeback.  There is a plan for it to link into the Metropolitan Line, giving it a link to the main-line at Watford Junction.  Watford station, on the Met, is in a quiet back street, nowhere near the town itself - it'll be closed, and this new line will come into play.

It's a plan that came into existence the second the line closed, with Hertfordshire County Council doing much of the driving.  Which is part of the problem, of course: we're not in TfL territory here, we're in the shires, so the plans had to satisfy two masters.

There's that expensive viaduct to build, you see.  It's their own fault.  Back in the 90s, when the line was in its death throes, a bypass was built right across the track.  Any hope of it ever being reopened was dashed there and then.

What ridiculous lampposts.

We were reaching the end of our trek.  Watford was left behind us and we entered the village of Croxley Green itself.  I got Ian to pose in front of the village sign to commemorate his arrival.  He refused to sing though.

It seemed we had arrived at a propitious moment.  Croxley Green was in the grip of an entertainment event like no other: Croxfest!.  The village had temporarily turned into Glastonbury, it seemed, if Glastonbury featured tribute acts knocking out their version of Light My Fire on a school field.  The streets were deserted as the locals flocked - FLOCKED - to the entertainments.  I tried to persuade Ian that he should attend, and perhaps give them an acapella performance of his ode to their home town; he rightly pointed out that there was no chance we'd get in.  Tickets to that sort of thing sell out months in advance, and we didn't want to be at the mercy of touts.

Disappointed, we pressed on to Croxley Green station itself.  You don't just get a station sign here: you get a notice board as well.  It was like Christmas.  It would have been even more exciting if there'd been some ancient adverts for a One-Day Travelcard or "We're Getting There".

Nature has taken over the station completely.  It's almost frightening, seeing how dominant the trees and bushes have become in such a short period of time.  It was a reminder that if you don't cut your grass, eventually it'll take over your house and then come for your soul.

I did consider scrambling over the fence to get a closer look at the station remains.  Unfortunately, I suffered an injury: a stinging nettle got my arm, so obviously I couldn't risk it in my compromised state.

Instead we took a triple up the nose shot.

After a pleasant lunch in a quiet pub (obviously Croxfest! had taken all their customers) it was back onto the Underground for the journey into London.

I couldn't hold it in any more.  I had to confess to Robert and Ian.  I don't particularly like the Metropolitan Line.  Yes, I know it's the ur-Tube line, the one that paved the way for metros across the world.  Yes, I know it's the line that effectively created suburbia.  Yes, I know that it's inspired odes from John Betjeman.

I just don't like it very much.  I don't like the rusty purple of its line colour.  I don't like its rattling old trains.  I don't like that it barely goes underground.  I want my Tube lines to be deep level, burrowing beneath the city streets, taking you from station to station in an almost mystical way.  The Metropolitan is too much like a railway to me.  It doesn't have that same magic.

Robert and Ian were, naturally, shocked.  And I don't blame them.  The London Underground is a thing of beauty - admitting you don't like one of the lines is like saying you don't like one of your children.  You should love all of them equally.  I sort of dislike myself for it.

I will say this for the Met: it was nice and quiet that afternoon.  We spread ourselves over the carriage to recover, all of us strangely tired.  Collecting stations can be hard work sometimes.  It's better when you have good company, though.


DanProject76 said...

Nice blog post. I go past that Croxley Green station sign regularly but never thought about exploring. The multiple Watford stations have always confused me so I hope one day they'll all be integrated into a Metropolitan Line that makes some kind of sense.

Andy Howe said...

Cool post and blog as always. I can remember when I was younger, there used to be a Depot at Croxley Green, I think the services were worked by class 501 electric units, these remained not underlined in my Ian Allan Combined book, except for a fleeting view of some of them on a School trip to London, was there any sign of the Depot?
The London Overground trains are great, I believe Merseyrail have put a tender out for new trains (though this is full of if, buts, maybe etc), there would make an ideal replacement, though I guess composite seating would be better, I imagine the units could be configured to requirement.
Ace blog, keep it up :-)

diamond geezer said...

I don't think Watford ever recovered from its record-breaking thrashing by Luton in It's A Knockout in the 1970s.

But ahh, how good to follow the old Croxley Green line again, and I hope my old home village didn't disappoint.