Ending Up East (For a Change!)

The diligent amongst my readers – well those with a keen geographical sense of the London area – will have noted that many of my railway posts are about visits to locations located in an arc around the northwest to southwest of the capital. Even in my youthful enthusiasm the eastern suburbs were a neglected area with the notable exception of Stratford. I went to Barking only once, which given that it is on one of London’s key freight routes seems a bit odd. Romford and Goodmayes were visited on other occasions (although that was mainly to photograph buses). I guess the why’s of this are complicated – the East End was always viewed as being rough when I was growing up and even today I joke about locking the car doors if driving down the Balls Pond Road. But I’ve been gradually pushing out eastwards in recent months in my quest to photograph freight in London – and also to cover more squares for the Geograph Project.

There is a part of me that is eternally optimistic – The weather forecast may say that it’s going to rain but I will often choose to go where I’ve planned to go on the understanding that some miracle of microclimate may result in OK weather where I’m going. On Wednesday last week my son and I enjoyed a walk around the Willesden Junction area in bright, if hazy, sunshine and I hoped that it heralded a start to Spring. On Friday I decided that, despite a forecast for wet weather, I would head out east to pastures new. The target, located a little further east down the line from Barking, was Dagenham Dock. I had chosen that station because a number of freight trains in the working timetable originate from there and hopefully I might get to photograph something.

Barking - Gospel Oak service at Harringay Green Lanes
Barking – Gospel Oak service at Harringay Green Lanes
Getting to Dagenham Dock is relatively simple from East Finchley – a short tube ride down the Northern Line to Archway and then a brisk walk to Upper Holloway station from where I pick up the Gospel Oak to Barking line. Now a part of London Overground, in its BR days this was a much maligned route with a poor service. Elderly multiple units dating to the late 1950’s and in shabby condition were hardly calculated to encourage passengers during the 1970’s and the route was very lightly used. I certainly never used it – my trip out to Barking back then was on the District Line! In the latter days of BR and since privatisation improvements were made with newer units and a more regular service. However, since it was taken under the wing of Transport for London, the line has gone from strength to strength and now boasts a train every 15 minutes throughout the day.

A c2c service for Shoeburyness arriving at Barking
A c2c service for Shoeburyness arriving at Barking
A description of the line itself will, I think, be worthy of a post on another day. Suffice it to say that the journey was a comfortable one and arrival at Barking was on time. Barking station is on the old London, Tilbury & Southend Railway route from Fenchurch Street and is served by c2c and the London Underground in addition to the Overground service I had arrived on. Here again is a route that has seen significant improvements in a post privatisation world, at least on the mainline to Shoeburyness. c2c’s modern Class 357 electric units are maintained in a very clean state (though the air-freshener is a bit too pungent for my taste!) and are achieving a high level of reliability. As a result customer satisfaction in the service is at a high level.

I made my way to platform 7 to pick up the Grays branch and during my wait was treated to the sight of a train of empty car-carrying wagons passing through – the 6L35 Didcot to Dagenham Dock service hauled as usual by a DB Schenker Class 66, 66110. Then it was the 3 mile journey on a c2c 357 to Dagenham Dock. The line passes the old Ripple Lane depot on the way – once a busy yard and shed supplying parts from across Europe to Ford’s Dagenham car plant, it is now a transfer point for intermodal traffic (that’s shipping containers to you and I) requiring just 4 through sidings and a tarmac’d area in between for the trucks. There were a pair of diesel locomotives and a single electric on site awaiting their next duties.

c2c 357216 arrives at Dagenham Dock station with a service to Grays
c2c 357216 arrives at Dagenham Dock station with a service to Grays
Dagenham Dock station is a bit of an anomally – although the line opened in 1854, there wasn’t a station here until 1908. It’s actually difficult to find a basis for building a station here at that date. There were dock facilities to the south on the River Thames from 1865 when a jetty was built across Dagenham Breach – an area of marshland formed in 1707 when the sea wall was breached. But the main area of Dagenham Docks was constructed from 1887 onwards. Perhaps by 1908 there was a need for a station to carry dock workers; it certainly wasn’t built for Ford workers – the car plant didn’t open until 1920. Certainly, it must have been busy in 1911 when the largest Warship ever built on the Thames, HMS Thunderer, was fitted out here. The Dock was a major coaling port for London and still imports coal along with other fuel types – the major operator currently being Norbert Dentressangle. When Ford’s arrived in 1920 it also became the port for their car plant and remains a part of their operation at Dagenham.

Stepping out at Dagenham Dock station today is to step into a land lacking in belief. There are glimpses of a future here that has yet to arrive and a past that has gone irrevocably – thousands of cars used to be turned out here in the 1970’s. Now there are none, though cars still pass through the site – imported from Ford’s European plants they arrive at the dock and are moved by rail to other parts of the UK. There is a new bus station – I use the term very loosely – part of an attempt to regenerate the area… I wonder how that will work when Ford’s have announced the closure of the Stamping Plant (right next to the station) with the loss of around 1000 more jobs. Ford’s presence is proudly proclaimed on a couple of tanks suspended high above the passing tracks – tracks that now include the high speed link to Europe. But with that presence in doubt you have to wonder what sort of future awaits the area and its people. Somehow it felt right when the heavens opened to cry tears for the death of industry and employment in the area… A soaking for me – merely a visitor and proof that optimism is not always a good thing…

Dagenham Dock in the rain - fords tanks in the distance, bus station and the A13 to the right
Dagenham Dock in the rain – Ford’s tanks in the distance, bus station and the A13 to the right

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10 Comments

  1. Your grasp of history and your narration are amazing. You should be chief archivist of London (and environs) Transport — and if there isn’t such a post, they should create one!

    1. I suspect that there are many people far better qualified for such a post than me. I just like to give a feel of the enjoyment and interest I get from these little trips – preferably without boring my readers 🙂

  2. Interesting. I didn’t like history at school because we would have to remember dates and the like, but reading it here so easily, you have me engaged. Can’t imagine the dock with no station!

    1. My father learnt history by dates but by the time I went to school it was more important to learn about economic, agricultural and industrial changes over time with the dates only there to provide a timeline for context. I’m surprised that learning dates is still practised but I guess every country has different preferred educational methods. You have my sympathy – I would hate to learn history that way. It’s much nicer outside of school when you can pick areas of history that interest you and learn at your own pace. Debra does some interesting historic explorations on her blog from the Los Angeles area – worth a look if you haven’t met her already 🙂

  3. My goodness, Martin. You surprised me when I read the comments. Thank you so much for the nice mention! I really feel the sadness of your observations, and feel the same sense that Los Angeles is also caught between the past with growth and high industry, and the not-yet future. I was reading today about the loss of industry in the last twenty years, particularly the aerospace industry as well as the closing of naval bases. Those losses alone have changed economic health. I think this is why I feel such conflict over the debate about drilling for more oil. As someone who loves the beauty in our state and doesn’t want the potentially hazardous drilling to impact ecological health, I still feel a great burden for those who are struggling to feed their families and would benefit from the abundance of jobs. It’s really hard to know what’s right sometimes, and the fact that I have no power in the decision making process is a bit of comfort to me, I think! Nice day with your son, Martin. I’m sure you’re giving him a wonderful education with your field trips!

    1. Hi Debra, that mention is fully justified. I really enjoy your investigations into the prehistoric history of your area and especially the tales of the Chumash people and the remaining evidence of their world. Most of my writings are about the recent and so draw on recollections of the living and imagery that cannot be available when you’re looking back a thousand years!

      I sympathise with your predicament regards the oil issue and the unemployment in the area. The UK’s industrial plight was brought sharply to mind with the death of Baroness Thatcher. She split the country when she was in power and again when she died. I could never have agreed with her policies and voted elsewhere. The only thing I ever supported her on was the decision to go and reclaim the Falklands – if you don’t protect your citizens there then how long before the Isle of Wight becomes a French colony 😉 But back to the oil issue – Fracking does cause instability of the ground geology and brings increased risks of subsidence and ‘earthquakes’. I don’t think it will trigger the major earthquake that Los Angeles is expecting from normanl plate tectonic activity but I do think the proximity to that zone needs to be taken into account. Hope you get the right result for your people.. Best wishes, Martin 🙂

      ps – Alasdair waxes hot and cold on our walks… typical 11yo 😉

  4. A sweet / sad post Martin and a fine commentary on the ever changing landscape of social industrialisation and so sad to hear about the lack of belief out at Dagenham. . . .

    I particularly like your second shot with the peppermint green and white housing against that cloudy sky.

    1. Thanks Patti – that’s definitely a ‘The Lord Giveth’ shot with the clouds to accentuate the building.

      I just felt an overbearing sense of gloom looking back at the history of the area – I don’t know if the locals have a lack of belief. It just feels like the future is more maybe than substance there.

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