Geocaching The Loop

It’s long been my intention to do a piece on combining two interests. Railways and Geocaching. What is Geocaching? – I hear you cry. Well to save me the long explanation I’ve lifted this straight from the official Geochaching website (http://www.geocaching.com):

Geocaching is a real-world, outdoor treasure hunting game using GPS-enabled devices. Participants navigate to a specific set of GPS coordinates and then attempt to find the geocache (container) hidden at that location.

When you find the cache, sign the logbook and return it to the cache. You can take an item from the cache if you like – just make sure to leave something of equal or greater value in its place. When you are finished, put the cache back exactly as you found it, even if you think you see a better spot for it. Finally, visit the cache page to log your find and share your experience with others.

Now you’re all up to speed, I can get onto the interesting stuff. How do you combine Geocaching and Railways? 

Geocaches come in all shapes and sizes, but all feature a log book and app listing.

Geocaching guides you to places you don’t often go, to streets you wouldn’t normally need to traverse and to areas of an otherwise familiar city you never knew existed. Whilst I’m a massive advocate of exploring and investigating railway infrastructure and architecture, it can be said a little guidance in choosing which stations and lines to see is always helpful. That’s where the Geocaching site The Side Tracked Series comes in (not to be confused with the former sub-blog on this site!). 

People all over the world have combined Geocaching with their love of railways and hidden caches at, or nearby to, stations.* Each cache listing also contains a potted history of the location (in this instance the station or line itself) so you’ll learn something too.

*The rules of Geocaching state that all caches should be hidden in safe and publicly accessibly locations and strictly prohibits trespassing on private or unsafe locations. Meaning no caches will be hidden on actual railway land. For more details on how to hide and search for caches safely see Geocaching.com or Side Tracked Series guides.

Loop

The Geocaching adventure I have chosen will take me on a journey of the northern portion of “The Hainault Loop” on London Underground’s Central Line. Although the line is only a few miles from my flat it’s but one I rarely have to use, and is a perfect example of using Geocaching as an excuse to visit the unusual or unfamiliar. The line contains 3 of the last used stations on the entire London Underground network, but rather conveniently all host caches nearby. Whilst it’s considered unsporting to show or describe the actual final location of the hidden cache I can still talk about the experience on a whole and it’s the perfect opportunity to exhibit this unusual part of the Underground network.

Hainault

The journey starts at Hainault. Although a through station, most services terminate here from the city. Only a handful an hour continue round to rejoin the Epping branch at Woodford.

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The station, which opened in 1903 with the line from Woodford – Ilford, now features an odd hotchpotch of architectural styles. The original platform 1 canopy seen above survives largely unaltered from it’s Great Eastern Railway days.

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Post-war developments, and the electrification of the line as part of London Transport’s New Works Scheme, saw the original Platform 2 demolished to make way for the above island platform which sports an of-era Art Deco style waiting room. A quick check of the clocks may be a clue as to why that train that’s only advertised as a minute away seems to take much longer than 60 seconds…

The island platform also features some striking brutalist concrete lamp posts and roundel supports.

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Outside at street level the station is a more modest affair having been rebuilt in the 1940’s to accommodate the third platform and the newly built rolling stock depot.

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The cache (SideTracked – Hainault) is hidden not far from where I’m standing in the above shot, and was a relatively easy and inconspicuous find. We move on one stop in a geographically westerly direction towards Woodford.

Grange Hill

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Despite physically heading west, and depending on the time of day, it is possible to travel on an “eastbound” train (one that will continue towards central London) in either direction from stations between Hainault and Roding Valley. This is evident from the platform route maps bellow which omit the usual compass-point directional information. To avoid operational confusion, train operators and controllers will refer to journeys from Leytonstone -> Woodford via Hainault as “the inner rail” and journeys from Woodford -> Leytonstone via Hainault as “the outer rail.” Any services between Woodford and Leytonstone via Snaresbrook are considered as east or westbound in the normal manner.

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For passengers however, the signs are somewhat misleading as they imply that all trains ultimately continue to Central London regardless of platform. In reality most trains on platform 1 will terminate at Woodford and only a handful will continue to the city in peak-hours. It could therefore be quicker to travel via Hainault if this train arrives first… As this and the following 2 stations are some of the least used on the network I highly suspect the locals have figured out the most efficient routes and pay no attentions to the signage anyway.

Grange Hill is located not much more than half a mile from Hainault, and the western ends of the traction depot there can be seen to the top right of the picture bellow.

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Up at street level and Grange Hill is similar to Hainault in it’s unimposing post-war image. The original station here, which closer resembled Chigwell (seen later), was damaged by a Doodlebug during the Second World War. Even in 1949 when this façade was constructed, the architectural style was still drawing on Art Deco design principals laid out by Charles Holden some 20 years previous.

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The cache here (SideTracked – Grange Hill) is well hidden, or at least it was well hidden. It’s not uncommon for caches to go missing through human error – a previous geocacher may not have replaced the cache properly, or someone not in the know could have dismissed it as rubbish and taken it away. More often than not natural damage, be it high winds or heavy rain, will render a cache irretrievable. Sadly this was the case at Grange Hill, and whilst it’s normally bad form to show a cache’s location, the bellow is an example of what can occasionally happen. Nevertheless it’s an illustration of the cunning way geocachers disguise their physical caches!

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Quite evident the log-book was once attached to this fake leaf but it’s sadly no longer anywhere to be seen. If this happens, use the app to request maintenance from the owner.

Grange Hill itself is on the very fringes of rural Essex. The houses here have that very familiar London-suburban feel yet are set neatly around this village Green. A parade of faux-tudor shops line Manor Road behind us. It’s almost easy to forget this place has anything to do with London at all were it not for the block of flats being built next to the station…

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Chigwell

After leaving Grange Hill we plunge into Essex proper as the line makes it’s way towards Chigwell.

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The station here, as with Grange Hill and Hainault, dates back to the lines opening in 1903. Minor alterations have occurred throughout the years, such as the reduction in platform canopy width, but it still retains most of it’s former GER charm.

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It’s difficult to say these stations feel as rural as their setting – Chigwell certainly stands alone as a village in Essex rather than being part of the suburban sprawl. Yet the design of the station definitely looks more suburban than rural, and the shots above and bellow in particular show how much capacity it could support. The whole loop was built with London’s expansion in mind and anticipated traffic that simply didn’t exist at the time. This was a common practice for the railways in the early part of the 20th century, constructing lines that would encourage development and fulfil it’s own existence – Look at Metroland where The Metropolitan Railway not only built the line but the houses and estates that it served. The 1903 Hainault Loop took on a similar approach of constructing stations in open countryside in the hope that developments would follow. For the most part, and certainly between Ilford and Barkingside these estates did come. However, on the northern portion of the loop, the speed of housing construction was lacklustre. In fact Hainault itself was closed for most of the 1910’s due to non-existent patronage. With the need for large scale affordable housing after the Second World War, the estates did eventually get built but not on the scale that the GER had once hoped. As a result it’s easy to see just how over-provided-for Chigwell is now…

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The line is served by the 8-car 92 stock units of the Central Line. Despite the fact I could count the number of people exiting the station on one hand there is an abandoned stretch of platform at the eastern end which could have, but never did, accommodate even longer trains!

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Back on the cache trail we leave the station. Chigwell is the last remaining example of this type of GER design after both identical Grange Hill and Newbury Park were replaced after the war.

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Chigwell really is a world away from the hustle and bustle of London. The cache is located a short walk away from the main building and the route takes us past the former 6 railway cottages which would have housed the station’s general staff.

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I’m particularly fond of the mini canopies above each door.

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The cache (SideTracked – Chigwell) takes us back over the railway and allows for a good view of the whole station including the abandoned eastern ends.

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The cache is easy to find but requires stealth as not to arouse suspicion on the busy road. Many caches are hidden almost in plain site so it’s easy to look a bit odd when rummaging around for them. Remember,  caches should always be hidden in publicly accessible areas though and although it’s fun to treat Geocaching as a secretive Mission-Impossible activity, should anyone ask would you’re up to it’s OK to tell them!

With the log-book signed, it’s back to the station.

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We had been thus far trying to time our cache hunts between the infrequent Woodford services. The extra time required to find the Chigwell cache meant we were out of sync…

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Time at least to admire the flowers…

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…and discover that Big Brother is still watching…

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Roding Valley

Roding Valley is the odd one out in the group of stations I’ve visited in this post as it was funded and built by a local housing developer in 1936 long after the line had already been constructed. This explains the rather different design and the far more conservative provision of facilities – the platforms are narrower and the rebuilt 1949 station buildings and canopies more minimal.

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The connection with the Epping branch that takes trains towards Woodford can just be seen on the horizon of the above photo. In fact the station’s small catchment area owing to it’s close proximity to Woodford, coupled with it’s irregular service, makes Roding Valley the least used station on the entire Underground network. It musters at it’s peak just 500 return journeys every day.** Although we managed to catch it at a particularly busy time…

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The 1949 buildings are simple affairs but still have managed to retain some lamp fittings of the time. This is one of the few stations on the network not to have ticket-gate lines.

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It could be surprising to think this section of line was the first on the Underground to have Automatic Train Operation in the 1960’s. It’s light usage proved ideal to test the automation system that would go on to be used on the Victoria Line.

The cache is located just outside of the London Borough of Redbridge by one street. Despite technically being in Essex the surrounding area looks decidedly more suburban than the previous two stations.

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This cache (SideTracked – Roding Valley) is a tiny one, so search well. Your clue is E0008…

And there ends our geocaching adventure that has brought us this least used yet rather stunning part of the Underground network.

Special thanks goes to my Geocaching partner in crime VForbes
Additional research from “Branch Line To Ongar” – J.E.Connor (Middleton Press)
**Figures from TfL 2014 Annual Entries & Exits Report

– Andy Carter

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