Watford Met isn’t what it was

Intent on recharging my car battery after the dual assault of non-use and cold weather, I found myself heading due north. Oh what fun it would be, I thought, to carry on to Watford and refresh my memory of Watford Metropolitan Line station, a place I spend nearly five years of my life.

Proud of recalling the route via Hagden Lane after unintentionally taking a rather unusual route out of Rickmansworth, I found myself at a traffic-lighted crossroads at the Rickmansworth Road, with Metropolitan Line Station approach directly opposite, now a tree and shrub-lined approach to a large housing estate, built on the site of the former goods yard (I note a 2-bedroom flat was nearly £400,000, so someone has done quite well out of this). Clearly the road has been adopted by the local authority and now has lights that one can see by. It has changed somewhat, I concluded.

In my day the road was narrower and barely made up (I think it was probably tarmac over cobbles). At the junction with Rickmansworth Road there was an embedded property boundary plate marked Watford Joint Railway, in brass. There had been three of these at Watford, another at the other end of the approach road mounted in a short concrete column, and one in the forecourt at its junction with Cassiobury Park Avenue. These last two disappeared one night around 1983. The theft cannot have been undertaken in silence in a quiet residential road, but go they did. It must be a particularly selfish type of ‘collector’ to do such a thing this way as the items are very recognizable so cannot be ‘shown off’ very easily. If I see them turn up I will be asking questions as such a person has probably stolen other stuff too. I used to go and check the surviving one every week when I was there (it was discreetly located), but needless to say the official vandals have now put paid to it so there aren’t any left. I’m glad I photographed it!

When I arrived at Watford in 1979 the goods yard was unoccupied and was much as it had been left in 1966 when it closed for business, though obviously with track removed. The enormous goods shed was still there with two parts of the 3-part sign still in place, I think saying Metro Railway Goods … As I had the keys, and not very much to keep me occupied, there was a thorough investigation of the land but I never found the third part of the sign. Actually there wasn’t much of interest left, apart from buddleia, and quite a lot of blackberries at the appropriate time. During my tenure tenants moved in (building contractors storing plant of a different kind) and the shed came down, the surviving 1925 signage being scrapped. It has all gone now. The approach road was one of several on the Met that was not a right of way and was closed one day a year, usually Christmas Day, in order to preserve the railway’s privileges. Somewhere I have a Met Railway paper poster indicating that such a road would be closed for a day. I don’t know when this practice stopped, but would like to. There used to be a met Railway notice at the road end indicating this was a private road but it had gone prior to my arrival, though I have a photograph (the sign on the fence is the private property sign, an LT-style enamel plate in metal frame headed Metropolitan & LNE Railways).

The station frontage is largely as I remember it, though the K6 phonebox has been replaced by something draughtier. The station house has its entrance from the front. When I got there a former stationmaster, Jack Hall, and his wife lived there. He was an ex joint line man and despite his advancing years was still a force to be reckoned with. While dealing with incidents I would occasionally see him regarding the platform scene from an upstairs window; I could guess the kind of thing he was thinking – youngsters, what do they know! He wasn’t one for chatting, but his wife dropped in for a chat occasionally (there really wasn’t much else to do) and made it known she thought him a miserable so-and-so! It is a curious thing but when I later trained as a manager I came across John Hall, an area manager on the Central, who turned out to be Jack’s son. In a later guise at Broadway, I unexpectedly inherited some staff, and some dubious schemes they were committed to, and this included Carolyn Hall, John’s daughter. She well remembered her grand-dad. A remarkably small world. Jack moved out of the station house after a couple of years and we got the keys to look after. Obviously this signalled an area of opportunity and the house was thoroughly inspected. It was enormous. There was a kitchen, living room and small garden on the ground floor and the largest bedroom I’ve seen outside a stately home on the first floor covering the two rooms below and the adjacent shop. There was a gallery crossing the ticket hall, with windows from which one could watch what was going on, and that led to a three bedroomed area on the other side of the station. I assume Croxley was similar. I have no idea if either house is occupied now, one hardly has milk bottles as a give away. Jack Hall was involved in an incident that LT magazine covered, but I now cannot remember which one. I think it was when a herd of cattle got out of one of the goods yards and he had to round them up. I’m not sure what kind of training one got for this, but clearly the mission was accomplished (I think it was one of those then rare occasions the service had to be stopped). The other incident it might have been was when the southbound ‘Master Cutler’ turned up without warning – a pacific plus at least ten coaches and maybe more. Watford has very long platforms and then had run round loops, but to attempt that would have put the engine tender first. In the end the luckless stationmaster on duty decided the only feasible solution was to run the whole affair back wrong line to the ‘north junction’ near Rickmansworth and have another go, this time offering the driver the right route. It is a little surprising its driver hadn’t noticed he had been going into quite unfamiliar territory sooner, and fuels a suspicion that BR drivers never really understood the LT system anyway.

The booking hall is rather different, now encumbered with automatic gates and standard ‘UTS’ type ticket machines. In my day it was a large clear area with ticket collector’s box at top of stairs (this was at first a Metropolitan Railway box but was soon replaced by an LT-style one made at Parsons Green and having a light and heater in it. I suppose the old box was scrapped). Opposite the box had been one of three clockwork clocks that required winding each Sunday, also now gone. The one on the platform was occasionally used as a handy, dry location for construction of a birds nest and we had to be careful when winding not to disturb the occupants. Two of the clocks required us to use the station ladders, I imagine such things are now banned and it would be a criminal offence to use them. I wonder who the last station staff was to use one and when? We wound the clocks as part of a frenzy of activity that took place of testing and checking stuff, and included the lavatory slot locks, which took twopenny pieces. I didn’t specifically check whether they had been replaced by something more sophisticated; I’d be interested to know. In the Ladies’ facility there was a splendid fireplace with fender bearing what I thought might have been either a Met or LNER monogram. I bet that has gone. It was nice to see the huge lettering Station Master and Foreman still painted on the office doors.

Even the thought of Watford having ticket gates amuses; it was once the Underground’s sixth least used station, until closure of Blake Hall probably elevated it to fifth. In the deathly silence that pervaded the place, especially at night, one could hear passengers approaching from outside, or from the platform, and had plenty of time to put away the tea, find one’s hat, meander to the barrier and greet the passenger, undertake any formalities that possession of a ticket might suggest, offer some prognosis to an arriving passenger about the possibility of a train, or a departing passenger about how to tackle the thorny issue of seeking Watford itself, and so on. Regulars were all known by name and knew the form. Some would stop for a chat each evening. Weekends were quiet and after about 19.00 on a Saturday night we often saw no-one at all until last hour of traffic.

I perceive from LU’s data that of stations owned it now ranks 23 from bottom, which is quite a promotion. I’m not sure I believe that Watford is busier than North Harrow, Northwood Hills and Ruislip Gardens, and am almost moved to do my own check on this. Nevertheless it is obviously proportionately busier. I suppose that this can partly be explained by the local housing development, including all the homes on the old goods yard, partly by an improved train service, and partly by the substantial reduction of the so-called out-county fare structure that made travel north of Northwood extremely expensive (it cost as much to get to Watford from Northwood as it did to reach Northwood from Baker Street). After the 1982 fares fair hike, traffic dropped hugely as people fled to buses or British Rail, or just didn’t travel. It is interesting that with the station now busier than ever it is about to close. For those who have just moved into the new development the replacement will be a long walk; I wonder if they were told that when they bought their flats.

The station now has train indicators (more than Rayners Lane has managed to achieve with apparently twice the flow). We used to have one that just said Next Train, and was operated by station staff using a switch on the platform; we did our best with it, but only in morning rush hour. After the grammer school kids had deluged through we usually had to turn it all off again, they couldn’t resist fiddling with the switches. It also has PA and CCTV, which we happily managed without. Most information was gleaned from looking out of the window (something we did a lot of) and messages were passed to passengers personally. We had an electronic megaphone which was rarely used unless we were moved to make some kind of speech to an entire train (they didn’t have PA either). Sometimes we had to. It was great fun for the controller to eke out the few trains he had during a time when cancellations were rife to send Amersham Line trains via Watford. This could be confusing for the staff as well as the passengers, especially if they ‘passed’ at Watford. If we had enough warning we could prime the passengers if it saved the round-the-corner change at Moor Park for those heading north. Sometimes they wouldn’t actually believe the journey was possible as it wasn’t on the Underground map.

The platforms have changed comparatively little, the most obvious thing being the unnecessary and intrusive barriers at the south end. Just beyond this spot there had once been a water tank on a column. This had just gone before I arrived, but the drain was still there, and presumably so was the water supply that must also have fed the goods yard. The water tower went to Buckinghamshire Railway Centre and a note about it can be found HERE. The old cast lighting columns have all disappeared, which is a shame and must have gone before the station was listed. Now there are units with some kind of characterless fluorescent fitting. The seating has been replaced, also an unnecessary expense given there is usually a train in. The waiting room was still there. In my experienced it was rarely used for waiting, but certain couples found it handy on a regular basis, as they did the deliciously dark and unmonitored car park. No longer, I suspect. Signage has all changed, without actually adding a lot either.

The station had a luggage lift, just to the left of the steps, off the ticket hall. This was a large cage with wooden floor and bostwick gates at both landings, fitted with electric locks. The lift car was parked just above the top landing and secured by a rope to prevent its use. The machine room was on the platform, next to the lift, and as far as I could see was fully connected up and ready to go. After a year or so its removal suddenly became a London Transport priority and I only just had time to remove the brass motor plates and collect some other mementos such as the switch panel. The old openings were plated over. At top level the lift opened opposite the old parcels office, and I gather, from those who remembered, this used to be very busy. I could see where the lift should be at Croxley (on the northbound platform) but don’t know if one was ever fitted. Similarly at Wembley Park and Willesden Green (where one was fitted), but I don’t know about other stations. I think Kilburn and Finchley Road would have had goods lifts. Most other stations had ground level entrances and barrow crossing for access to other tracks. I nice little area of research for someone perhaps.

The parcels office was really an annexe to the vast ticket office, which once had three windows and the largest table I’d ever seen, which must surely have been build inside the office because it could not go through any of the doors. Boredom meant that I got friendly with equally bored ticket clerks who attempted to teach me the intricacies of ticket issuing and ticket office accountancy. On one occasion, a Sunday, the clerk announced he wanted to put a shelf up and set about driving off home to collect a some tools. His departure was indicated by his shouting his intentions across the ticket hall followed by a ‘I’ve left the door open – if anyone comes you know what to do’. I had visions of someone turning up wanting an odd-period season to some awful place that required the fare to be calculated and forms to be filled in. To my horror someone did turn up in the half hour the clerk was away, and looked as though he was interested in a ticket. Fortunately he only wanted Baker Street and I was able to oblige, though not without slightly crumpling the ticket in the date press (to issue a card ticket using a date press quickly and cleanly without a crumple is an acquired art). I returned to my cup of tea and the clerk was surprised to hear there had been a passenger before embarking on an orgy of sawing and hammering. Neither of us thought it odd the door should have been left open with cash in the office.

The vast cupboards in the ticket office got a thorough inspection one evening (it took an entire shift to get everything out). There were pads of forms for just about every purpose, many labelled LTE and quite a few either Metropolitan & LNER or Met & GC. Forms for leaving luggage, forms for claiming luggage, forms for bicycle storage, forms for requisitioning things, receipt pads, an old accident book going back to the 1930s and also covering the goods yard, lots of old station log books, the stationmaster’s old correspondence box files going back to 1950s (and at Watford he was a proper stationmaster with considerable local authority). All of this made a fascinating read.

The approach road passes by the side of the station on a steep-ish hill, and I was annoyed to discover it was now one-way, the other way to my approach. I wouldn’t have thought the quantity of traffic warranted this, but perhaps the new housing creates more traffic desperate to get into Cassiobury Park Avenue, a road not really going anywhere. I recall this steep bit of approach road icing up one winter. A car proceeding south lost control on the ice and careered into the goods yard fence, followed shortly afterwards by another car that crashed into the back of the first one. I have no idea who called an ambulance, but that then crashed into the pair of them. There wasn’t actually much damage and the three vehicle in due course limped off nursing scratched paintwork and the odd dent. This wasn’t on my shift but when I turned up the staff were in fits of laughter as they explained what happened, and the accident report made a thoroughly good read. On an occasion when I was there a lorry demolished part of the wall by the old parcels office steps, hard to see how this had been possible. Repairs were carried out quite quickly, but some bricks had to be replaced by modern (metric) ones, requiring an interesting amount of mortar to be used to maintain the symmetry. You can tell the new ones if you look hard.

The store room was interesting. At some time someone had been keen on ordering first aid equipment, possibly with good cause judging by the accident book. There was bottle upon bottle of noxious liquid, some in poison bottles (the ones with sharp ridges along the back). I reckon all of this lot pre-dated the Second World War and one could occasionally find a pre-war date somewhere. The whole lot should have been in a medical museum, or removed by someone wearing chemical protection suits. There were also some flare type things that we were supposed to put in a bucket at the platform ends in heavy fog; I did try them once during a pleasantly thick fog  but cannot now recall with what result (I believe they were almost impossible to light). There was also a surprisingly large number of flags, as though semaphore competitions were once held.

Another interesting room was the lamp room, oddly enough it was full of lamps and supplies of paraffin, miles of wick of all kinds and so on. Since the station wasn’t blessed with two supplies of lighting current, any failure of local supply would plunge us into darkness at night. We got quite adept at dealing with this. If we were blessed with a train we’d hold it to benefit from its lighting while we strung out about a dozen hurricane lamps. Three or so would do for the ticket hall and another three on the steps, the rest along the canopied area of the platform. Nobody ever went down the far end except the train crews, and they had their own lighting. If we had a stabled train I’d turn the lights on on that, which helped out a bit. We never closed for anything as trifling as a power cut. To be honest, the sight of Watford illuminated only by oil lamps somehow didn’t look at all odd. If anything it added to the passenger experience and I recall the ghostly sight of the ancient booking clerk, illuminated from within his office by an oil lamp thrusting his features into deep relief, creating a Dickensian scene only ruined when he announced the outrageous price in modern money.

We also had spare oil lamps for trains, in case a stabling light failed (occasionally they did). I marked all these up with the name Watford in case a train escaped while still wearing one. I noticed one on Ebay recently, with Watford in my writing. Amazingly we seemed to have all the old buffer stop lamps, carefully stored after electrics went in. They were all made by Adlake and were enormous. We had large stocks of electric lamps for the various fitting (not a fluorescent in sight). This included the signal lamps for fixed red lights (we always changed these ourselves, a matter appreciated by the Rickmansworth linemen who were expected to return the favour). Occasionally we did the same for failed train tail lamps through a similar arrangement with the Moor Park car examiner.

There were rumours that the station had been built with provision for extension north, and that ‘tunnels’ had been built at the time. Careful investigation on endlessly long Sundays satisfies me beyond doubt that this is not so.

The old telephone equipment has all gone. We had an annunciator unit on the platform with direct lines to controller, signalmen and Croxley, and we could plug the phone through to the station-to-station phone on the starting signal. I tested this each Sunday with my opposite number at Croxley. I never knew why we had such a phone because the rules couldn’t handle station-to-station working at terminal stations, but it was there so we tested it, and it was occasionally useful for other reasons. There was an old shunter’s phone on the track near the old goods yard connections; it was clearly something provided when the station opened and had an ancient Ericsson type handset. It can’t have been used for years. Naturally I insisted on testing it and got a very cautious ‘yeeees’ from the signalmen on turning the generator handle. I don’t suppose he’d ever answered that phone before; I was a bit surprised it still worked. For some reason he wasn’t surprised to discover it was me. All this has gone, of course.

Packing my memories away (of thirty years ago) I returned to the car and drove south, passing the site of Croxley Green station (which I used once as it wasn’t far from Watford Met). The old entrance was heavily overgrown, but it was a surprise to see the Network Southeast type station sign still in situ and clearly announcing the presence of a station. It looked as though the noticeboard at the bottom of the steps was still there too. I suppose this all had to be left while the fiction endured there was still a train service, though for some time it was either a bus or a taxi; presumably when it was officially closed the signs had long been forgotten. There has been a lot of development in this area since I departed, mainly on the east side of Rickmansworth Road. Further along I passed Croxley, which appears to have altered even less than Watford, and still has the old Met Railway railings all along the top of the old goods yard, looking desperate for paint, though. I returned home via Rickmansworth, another relatively unspoilt station and parked with batteries fully charged, both my own and that in the car. Clearly I should get out more!

About machorne

I have always lived in London and taken a great interest in its history and ongoing development. This extended into the history of its transport services, about which I have written a number of books - I have spent most of my working life working in the industry and observing changes from within, mostly to the good, but not always so. I continue to write, and have a website with half finished stuff in it so that it is at least available, if not complete. Several new books are in hand. I have many 'works in progress' and some of these can be found on my website; the we address is http://www.metadyne.co.uk
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1 Response to Watford Met isn’t what it was

  1. Andy Carpenter says:

    Just come here via a link on 'London Reconnections'; interesting reading. In repsonse to one of the things you mentioned, it may interest you to know that, at least until a couple of years ago (probably 2006), the accomodation above Croxley station was still occupied, as some friends of mine lived there, and so I visited occasionally. It did always make me wonder what foot traffic in the ticket hall must have thought was going on upstairs whenever my friends were having one of their parties…


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