The distinctive blue-and-white livery of a late-period nationalised British Rail train can do funny things to a person. Memories of ripped seats, curled sandwiches and incessant delays are one reaction, of course. But for me, whose visions of that far-off era of entirely state-owned trains in this country have been gleaned from archive television, I prefer to think of John Cleese leaving his written speech on one by accident, setting chaos underway in the underrated 1986 movie Clockwise. Or of The Young Ones scurrying to catch an InterCity 125 in order to appear on University Challenge on behalf of Scumbag College.
Best of all, I love the first episode of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, in which James Bolam and the late Rodney Bewes, as estranged friends Bob and Terry, meet, after a five-year absence, in a six-seater BR compartment, plunged into darkness by the ubiquitous power failures of the early 1970s.
“Would you believe it? The jet age! High speed gas! InterCity makes the going great,” intones Bob with what to my ears is reassuring sarcasm.
Maybe Bob was right. Perhaps there never really was a golden age of public transport anywhere in the UK. That was certainly what I’d concluded until I began hearing the memories of Roger Wright and the journey on board what was once his daily commute.
“The very presence of a train felt incongruous amongst the farmland, rural location and almost complete absence of any houses,” says Roger, the managing director and owner of the Epping Ongar Railway.
“The wildlife outside the train outnumbered passengers by about a hundred to one. Pheasants were commonplace on the track and I heard stories of drivers knocking them down and then collecting them for their supper on the way back.”
Roger is not casting his mind back to the 1950s. This commute was part of his life until 1994. What’s even more astonishing is that Roger’s journey was made on a Central Line Tube train; one that travelled through London’s West End and continued on, and on, and on some more, until reaching the branch line section of North Weald and Ongar; the Tube station equivalents of Svalbard or Samoa.
“Many people stopped using the line long before it actually shut, as the service was just cut back and back until it was impossible for people to bear,” reflects Wright.
“Lots of people ended up driving to Epping from the surrounding area, rather than wait for the Tube. People were angry at the constant cutbacks and lack of investment in the line. Local councillors and politicians were up in arms, but alas, there was no momentum to save it at higher levels. Costs had to be controlled and the line had become an expensive exercise, per passenger, compared to inner London.”
Even today, if you should travel to the far north-eastern end of the Central Line, the hanging baskets on the platform at Epping and the quietude of the rural surroundings feels incongruous enough. It’s very difficult to imagine that the Tube once went even further than this.
As if the existence of North Weald and Ongar weren’t odd enough, until October 1981 there was a stop in-between these two outposts called Blake Hall, which held the record for the lowest number of daily users of any Tube station on the network; a grand total of six. Such was the isolation that the late Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman once enquired about the possibility of living in the station master’s house.
But perhaps even the doyen of “Metroland” found Blake Hall a little too remote. What’s more certain is that, 30 years on from the last Tube train leaving Ongar and North Weald stations, it’s now possible to travel on this arcane bit of line again, albeit on a vintage British Rail train rather than in a Tube carriage.
A Tube journey like no other
My recent trip began at Epping Tube station, where an early 1960s double-decker bus painted bright green took me and a three-dozen-strong crowd of families and couples (and a distinct lack of thermos-wielding anoraks) to the revived Ongar station.
The station building, all stout brick and polished tiles, looks like a place that Dr Beeching simply found too hard to reach in order to close it down, rather than somewhere that was on the London Tube network until the mid-1990s.
There’s a small display with photographs of the last Tube train departing on the night of Sep 30, 1994, with a slew of press and public amassed on the platform. The last night of Ongar may have been the busiest since the station joined up with the Underground network in 1949.
The journey to North Weald, past Blake Hall (Betjeman’s desired station building is now a private home and not part of the revived heritage line) isn’t suburbia; it is unabashed Essex countryside. As the blue and white train departs, we pass ironing-board flat, ploughed farmers’ fields. We pass forgotten foot crossings, low bridges, and sidings festooned with grass that rustles like banknotes. What’s most miraculous is that this was ever considered to be a part of London, however tenuously, in the first place.
“I rode on the branch during the last night in 1994 with my daughter Helen, then aged 13,” explains Roger.
“As the very last train pulled out of Ongar, I explained to her that trains had departed from here every day for almost 130 years and that was the last ever one. When she became upset, I consoled her by saying: ‘Oh, I expect someone will turn it into a heritage railway one day’, never thinking for a minute that this person would be me.”
A railway line brought back to life
Roger now owns this former slice of London Underground track. After retiring in 2007 from what he calls his “modest bus operation” in north-east London (actually the substantial Blue Triangle firm), he became a minority shareholder in a company that put the case for running trains on the now abandoned line.
Millions of pounds and tens of thousands of free volunteer working hours later - along with rebuilt and restored infrastructure; lower track beds; and heritage locomotives, signalling, and rolling stock having been bought - the Epping Ongar Railway opened to the public in May 2012.
On board, I’m starting to warm to the striped orange and brown seat patterns, designed by someone who I can only assume was going for a “tanning lotion and Bovril” colour scheme. Less retina-scratching colours are available outside as we chug past the drooping branches of beech trees and silver birches. I can’t spot any pheasants but I do spot a tractor in a distant corner of a field just outside North Weald station.
We alight here to take the vintage green bus back to Epping to rejoin the modern-day Tube network. We’ve only travelled around six miles but I’m surprised by how pained I feel that this wonderfully otiose branch line was ever allowed to be lopped off the Tube map.
Although Roger contends that it’s unlikely the Epping-to-Ongar line will ever see a regular Tube service again (“anything is possible; but without a mega building project in the surrounding area, it would be difficult to justify”), I’m in full acquiescence that, in an age of balance sheets, HS2 truncations and endless strikes, the revival of Ongar and North Weald shows there’s still room in public transport for lines as odd and unnecessary as they are beautiful and beloved.
“If you want to make a million from running a railway, start with tens of millions,” Roger laughs.
“This is British eccentricity at its best. We love the things we love and hate the things we hate in equal vigour. We also hark back to a past which has marched on indiscriminately through our very cherished memories.”
Just 20 minutes by road from Ongar, the Lion Inn is a buzzy restaurant with rooms, with the oldest parts of the building dating back to the 15th century. Dishes are traditional and superbly executed (try the fish pie with smoked haddock, salmon, king prawns, crayfish tails and cheesy mash) while some of the 23 rooms have balconies looking out over the spruce gardens.
Book tickets for the Epping Ongar Railway at eorailway.co.uk. Adult tickets from £7:50.