Rewilding one of London’s lost railways

IT’S more than half a century since a train last ran through Crouch End railway station in north London.

But there are probably more people wandering along its platforms today than at the height of the steam railway era.

That’s partly because this line never really enjoyed a true “heyday” and partly because the route has been a parkland walk for more than 35 years.

It may be only a few miles from the modern transport hub of Finsbury Park, but the line through here to Highgate and the branch from there to Alexandra Palace never really took off in the way the developers had hoped.

It was built by the Edgware, Highgate and London Railway and opened on 22 August 1867, running from Finsbury Park to Edgware via Highgate.

Branches would follow to Alexandra Palace and High Barnet. Swallowed up by the Great Northern Railway and later the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), part of the route would become the High Barnet branch of the Northern Line, but ambitious Tube expansion plans in the 1930s were thwarted by the Second World War.

In some ways Alexandra Palace was doomed from the start. The branch was constructed by the Muswell Hill Railway Company and opened on 24 May 1873 along with the palace. However, when the palace burned down only two weeks after opening, the service was considerably reduced and then closed for almost two years while the palace was rebuilt.

There were other periods of temporary closure too due to insufficient demand, though in 1935 it looked as if it would get a new lease of life when London Underground revealed plans to electrify the branch.

Works to modernise the track were well advanced when they were halted by the war, services reduced to rush hours only as a result of wartime economy measures.

After the war, dwindling passenger numbers and a shortage of funds led to the cancellation of the unfinished works in 1950 and British Railways withdrew passenger services to Alexandra Palace on 3 July 1954 along with the rest of the route from Finsbury Park.

After the track was lifted, most of the platforms and station buildings were demolished but two sections from Finsbury Park to Alexandra Palace, excluding the tunnels and station at Highgate, were converted into the Parkland Walk, which was officially opened in 1984.

Stroud Green station consisted of two wooden side platforms which were gutted by fire in 1967 and demolished shortly afterwards, but Crouch End was more substantial and both platforms survive.

The line continued to be used for goods into the 1960s and by London Underground for train stock movements until 1970 when it was completely closed. The track was lifted a couple of years later, by which time it was already being used as an unofficial walkway.

A hundred years ago the steam train took just six minutes to get here from Finsbury Park, and another 10 or 11 to chug all the way round to Alexandra Palace.

Today the journey takes a little longer but the 3.9-mile route is designated a local nature reserve, part of the 78-mile Capital Ring Walk round Inner London, and reveals a glimpse of north London life that motorists never see.

From here a glance back at the city skyline reminds you just how far this feels from the hubbub of central London – a green corridor of trees and birdsong providing 21st-century Londoners with a welcome respite from the concrete jungle and rumble of city traffic.

Vlogger Henry picks up the pace

HENRY Allum doesn’t need much encouragement to go for a walk.

Show him a footpath, ancient abbey or closed railway line and he’s off, map, phone and microphone at the ready, all set to plan another video upload for his Youtube channel.

So it seems only natural to suggest we meet in Black Park for a chat and ramble, given that Henry has been back home with his parents in Chalfont St Peter since the lockdown began in March – and using that time to visit as many interesting places on his old home patch as he can.

HOME TURF: Henry has featured more local destinations in his videos during lockdown

It was around 2016 that the 31-year-old first thought about uploading short videos about his visits to heritage railways, but now Henry’s Adventures have become a regular feature on Youtube, Facebook and Instagram, with hundreds of subscribers checking in to see what he’s been up to.

In the past couple of years his uploads have begun to attract a lot more attention – not only from railway enthusiasts but a more general audience intrigued by a range of different subjects, from outdoors rambles to historical sites.

REGULAR UPLOADS: Henry’s subject matter ranges from steam railways to rural rambles

“I do some to do with railways, but also castles, canals, anything I’m interested in,” he says, perhaps with a slight flicker of frustration at being as being typecast too easily as a railway buff when there are so many other things that fascinate him.

Although dozens of the short videos do chronicle railway visits – some dating back to the 90s – others include visits to sites of historical or natural interest at home and abroad, taking him as far afield as Belgium, Portugal and Romania.

OUT AND ABOUT: Henry visits the ruins of Godstow Abbey on the Thames

Many focus on steam train trips or visits to rail centres, reflecting not only his own passion for steam transport but his professional role organising railway journeys for groups at home and abroad.

Based at Leek in Staffordshire before the lockdown, some of his videos look at abandoned lines in that area, while others capture steam trains in action around the country – and miniature railways too.

SMALL SCALE: Henry calls in at the Vanstone Woodland Railway in Hertfordshire

Henry worked for the National Trust and at Bekonscot Model Village before taking on his current role, but was furloughed when the coronavirus crisis instantly impacted on the travel and leisure sector.

That allowed more time to concentrate on his Youtube venture, but initially prevented him from straying far from Chalfont St Peter.

“The furlough scheme has given me the chance to make more videos and upload some archive stuff,” he says – including some railway clips from family videos his father had shot.

MINIATURE WORLD: Henry at Bekonscot model village, where he used to work

Prior to lockdown, it was only after setting himself the challenge of visiting all of the country’s miniature railways that he realised the sheer scale of the task – there are around 340 of them, not including those privately owned.

Undeterred, he’s made a good start by uploading the first 20 or so, while making plans for more visits when the opportunity arises.

BACK TO NATURE: exploring National Trust properties in West Berkshire

A prolific vlogger with more than 200 uploads to his credit, passing the 1,000 subscriber mark means his channel can carry advertisements and potentially generate Youtube income – though this is a labour of love and he is under no illusions about making any real money through his videos.

Most of the uploads are short and straightforward, with minimal editing, and mainly filmed on his own, with occasional help from his Hungarian girlfriend Barbara.

PROLIFIC: Henry’s Youtube channel features more than 200 videos

He has a relaxed, easygoing style when addressing the camera and realises in many cases the central attraction is the locomotive, castle or station in question, rather than him hogging the limelight.

He has also been making the most of the furlough period to go back through old family films and upload archive footage from the 90s, searching for appropriate railway clips that his subscribers might appreciate.

WATCH THIS SPACE: Henry has plenty more adventures in the pipeline

The regularity of his posting has seen visitor numbers grow, and while some short clips may only receive 150 visits, some have attracted much bigger audiences, with several hundred tuning in to two series of short films shot around the village of Chalfont St Peter and following the route of the River Misbourne, with many adding comments and expressing their interest in the footage.

Surprise hits might attract more than 1,000 views – from closed lines to Cheshires steepest railway to a ramble round the Romanian city of Oradea – and his Facebook page now boasts more than 7,000 followers.

Always restless for another outing, its sometimes hard to know what to tackle next. What about the 78-mile Capital Ring walk round London, perhaps – or local long-distance walks like the Chiltern Way? And of course there are still those miniature railways beckoning.

It looks as if Henrys in-tray is overflowing, which means his Youtube subscribers wont have to wait too long for his next adventure…

[Sure enough, heres Henry back on the trail a few days after we spoke…]