Somewhat buried amongst a number of railway-related announcements from the DfT this month was final confirmation of something that Waltham Forest council have been pushing for some time – the reopening of Lea Bridge Station.
The station (as “Lea Bridge Road”) was one of the original stations on the Northern & Eastern Railway, which opened in 1840. At the time, Walthamstow was a relatively popular retreat for London’s businessmen and the station was in part intended for their use. In truth, however, the station never attracted significant footfall during its operating life, especially as newer, better, connections within Walthamstow itself began to emerge.
A Sporting Peak
Lea Bridge experienced something of a revival in the 1920s, largely thanks to its proximity to the now-demolished Lea Bridge Stadium. “The Bridge,” as it was then known, was the home of a sport that was enormously popular in London at the time, but whose role in the city’s social history is now often overlooked – Speedway.
The Bridge hosted speedway between 1929 and 1939, and was home to the Clapton Saints Speedway team, who competed in the National League from 1932 onwards. Speedway wasn’t the only sport that brought people (and thus passengers) to the area, however, for between 1930 and 1937 The Bridge was also home to Clapton Orient FC. Orient regularly pulled in gates of 7000 at the stadium, with the stadium’s record attendance being set in the 1936/37 season when Orient v Millwall attracted a crowd of over 20,000.
By 1937, however, Clapton Orient had become unhappy with their shared sporting home, and a move was engineered to Leyton where the club would soon adopt the name by which they are better known today – Leyton Orient.
Without the additional income football provided, the fortunes of the stadium – and its speedway team – declined, and it closed soon after. The station, however, limped on, although it would see no major investment for the rest of its operating life.
Decline and Fall
In 1970, British Rail decided to remove freight services from Lea Bridge, and the station’s fate was finally decided in 1984 when BR announced that direct services between Stratford and Tottenham Hale would cease in October that year. Following objections from the public, this change was deferred until July 1985 but Lea Bridge Station’s closure was now inevitable.
By the time it closed in 1985 it was a shadow of its former self. The small, but architecturally interesting, ticket office with which the station had first opened had long since disappeared. It was demolished by British Rail in 1976 and replaced by a simple, featureless shelter to allow staffless operation.
Years of under-investment had also seen the station fall into disrepair at platform level, with most of its shelters and furniture long since removed.
The Station Today
Since its closure, the station has continued to detoriate. A “blink and you’ll miss it” feature on bus journeys up the Lea Bridge Road from Clapton to Walthamstow at the point where the road crosses the line to Stratford.
The station building, which for a time was hidden behind advertising hoardings and used by the homeless for shelter, ultimately succumbed to fire. Meanwhile at platform level track was ripped up and the platforms became increasingly overgrown.
The reopening of the section of Line on which Lea Bridge sits to allow services between Stratford and Stansted in 2005 has resulted in the greenery being somewhat better pruned, but as the photos below show, the station still remains desperately dilapidated and overgrown.
The remodelling that created Argall Way, and its adjacent open space, means that its now possible to get much closer to the old station and see its state at ground level, although the area is still relatively overgrown.
The platforms seem relatively intact, structurally speaking, but do show the amount of debris and damage that one might expect for a station that has been abandoned and overgrown for so long.
A Station Reborn
With the resumption of services along the line on which the station sits in 2005, Waltham Forest sniffed an opportunity to push the case for the station’s reopening. At first glance, the station may seem a poor candidate for regeneration, appearing to sit on the edge of a surprisingly large expanse of open space between Hackney and Waltham Forest. In truth, though, the case for reopening has only increased over time. The station sits on a busy road well connected to Walthamstow, Hackney and Leyton via local buses. Nearby Bakers Arms, an area of increasing population density, is also shorter on solid rail connections than one might think – the Central Line, Victoria Line, Overground and National Rail connections to Liverpool Street are all temptingly close but just out of reach. A reopened station at Lea Bridge would be only a five minute journey from Stratford, a location and station reinvigorated by the arrival of Westfield and the Olympics.
None of the above has been lost on Waltham Forest council (or indeed on both Network Rail and TfL). The council pushed heavily for the station to be rebuilt and reopened before the Olympics, and though their campaign was ultimately unsuccessful it did push the door to redevelopment ajar, with Network Rail indicating that they were open to suggestions in the future.
In March 2012, the Council began another push to see the station reopened, commissioning a feasibility study into options and costs, with the tacit backing of Network Rail and TfL (whose own interests in the future of the Lea Valley Line were by this point well known).
Finally, in January 2013, Waltham Forest Council confidently announced that they now had Network Rail’s support and were working together to secure the required funds.
Although it was a major step forward, there were still some issues to overcome. This month, however, the DfT finally confirmed that the station would be one of four to be given the green light for development. Lea Bridge station’s rebirth is now all but guaranteed.
Looking into the Future
So just what will this new station look like?
Although specific plans are yet to be made public, the amount given for the station cost (£6.5m) is pretty telling. This matches exactly the cost of the Council’s preferred option (Option E) in their 2012 feasibility study. This was also the option they indicated then that Network Rail felt was the most practical. From this, therefore, we can probably conclude with a considerable degree of confidence that the final station will be almost identical to the plan proposed in that study.
The layout for this can be seen above. Essentially the platforms will be brought back into service, but station access will be moved from the previous location at the top of the bridge to an unmanned station building at ground level, with a new footbridge added to provide access to the Tottenham Hale platform.
Moving access to the station to ground level may seem, at first glance, to be an odd decision, given that it means incurring the costs of building a new footbridge. Visiting the site in person, however, shows just how limited access from the current bridge is.
The open space now to be found by the Stratford platform by Argall Way is also too good a station development opportunity to miss. By using just a small section of that land it is possible to provide both bike and vehicle parking, as well as an unmanned ticket facility that can easily be upgraded to a manned station building if required in future.
Using the existing stairs as the primary means of accessing the platforms would also have meant trying to find an alternative way of making the platforms accessible to those with mobility problems. Under the current plan, lifts can be included in the new footbridge design, and the existing stairs potentially brought back into service at a later date if demand supports it.
Whatever the final design, the fact that the station is returning at all is ultimately good news both for Waltham Forest Council and the area in general. With construction due to start shortly, and an opening date before the end of 2014 being mooted, the sight of the old station sitting forgotten and unloved on the bridge is now finally drawing to an end.
Somewhere, in the graveyards of the East End, the ghosts of the Clapton Saints are looking affectionately once more towards Lea Bridge with a smile.
Many thanks to Bob – a police officer who, having watched your LR Editor repeatedly reboard buses over the bridge to take photos of the railway and station, and then crawl deep into bushes next to railway land to do the same, was happy to accept that there was a reasonable excuse for this behaviour – and then even helped hold back the worst of the shrubbery.