Passing almost unnoticed behind locked gates at Willesden Junction, this cobbled road is a relic of the past. The road originally led down to cattle pens where cows and other livestock could arrive or depart by train. It was constructed circa 1880 when, apart from Harlesden, much of the surrounding area was farmland. Today its 140 year old cobbles are used by Network Rail to gain access to the lineside. Who’s to say it won’t still be there unchanged in another 140 years – or until the cows come home?
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.
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 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.
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…