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Vice Presidents: Richard Hardy; Sir William McAlpine Bt, FRSE, FCIT, FRSA




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5 April 2011
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Camden's Railway Heritage

Peter Darley

14 February 2011

Seventeen members and guests were present when Peter Darley, Founder of Camden Heritage Trust, spoke about the historical background to Camden's railway heritage and the role of the Trust.

The area of interest is defined by Chalk Farm station, Primrose Hill tunnel and approaches, and Camden Bank, including the Camden Goods yard area. Many of the interesting buildings are now underground, although having originally been built at ground level.

Detailed planning, construction and building of the London to Birmingham Railway commenced once the line was authorised in 1833, under Robert Stephenson as engineer. The company was forced to tunnel under the land north of Primrose Hill because of objections from Eton College which owned the land and wanted to be able to develop this unhindered by any railway cutting. The Regent's Canal Company, which was concerned about the freight competition, ensured that goods were taken no further than Camden Goods depot, and that the railway crossed the canal leaving a 10ft clearance for barges. This involved raising the ground level by 15 ft to allow for the line approaches, and required a steep gradient into Euston, thus demanding the use of winding engines to assist the trains up the bank.

Robert Stephenson was personally responsible for the supervision of the Primrose Hill contract. He lived on west side of Haverstock Hill from 1836 to his wife's death in 1842. Using some early water-colour prints of the railway, Peter described the location and early operation of the railway. Carriages from Euston were manually pushed out of the train shed just round the corner to connect to the rope at the bottom of the bank. Every 8ft there was a pulley block for the rope sheaves. The winding-house chimneys were at either side of the line at the top of the bank with the boiler house at the original ground level, well below the railway. Surprisingly, the company never used balanced working, “up” trains, which were, of course, going down-hill at this point, used brakes-men to control the descent. Between the top of the bank and Primrose Hill tunnel, a bridge, which was prominent in one of the water-colours, took Chalk Farm Lane (now Regent's Park Road) over the line.

Winding operations on the bank had a very short period of use. By 1843 Mail Trains had started to be worked by locomotives and the following year larger locomotives could manage all trains on the gradient with the help of the banking engine. This made the winding operations redundant and the stationery engines were auctioned in 1847.

Locomotive stabling had been located on the north side of the line from its opening. This was convenient for servicing the goods yard, but meant there were conflicting movements as locos came on and off trains on the main line. It became worse as the line got busier and the need to do something was reinforced by an accident involving a goods and passenger train in the locality. A passenger engine house was built on the southern side and a round-house (now the Roundhouse Theatre) on the northern side of the line. To illustrate how wide-spread the interest is in this area, Peter noted that the inclusion of a picture of the passenger engine shed on the new Trust web site, drew an e-mail from a contact in Australia, who has copies of the drawings of the turntable and who is willing to loan them to the Trust.

Goods traffic developed and so did the need for interchange between road, rail and canal. A goods interchange warehouse was built by Pickfords in 1843 between the canal and railway. In the basement were stables, while at rail level, the warehouse was close to the Camden ticket-checking platforms. The LNWR built their own interchange facilities in 1848, evidence for the entry to which is still present in the form of an oblique arch by the side of the railway. The area expanded around the goods sheds and included Gilbey's Gin distillery and stores, an ice store and wharf, Collard & Collard piano factory, as well as stables and a Horse Hospital.

Peter then moved on to look at the site today and what remains of the original structures. This includes Regent's Canal and Hampstead Road Lock, Primrose Hill Tunnel East Portal, the stationary Winding Engine Vaults and the Roundhouse, all of which are now listed as Grade 2* structures by English Heritage. One of the ice stores , or wells, still exists but is sealed – not too surprising as it is about 100ft deep. Two of the canal basins, where transshipments took place, still exist although only one is currently still in use as a boat turning area. The locks are still present with the lock-keeper's cottage as is the “Roving Bridge”, which allowed tow-horses to cross the canal without unhitching. It still shows wear on the stones from the tow ropes. The Trust was established when developers were threatening to demolish the horse tunnel which gives access to the basin here from the stables to the north. To illustrate how the site is being put to new uses, Peter noted that Jim Henson's puppet studios (of Muppet fame) are based nearby.

Turning to Primrose Hill, Peter pointed out that the portal had boundary walls very close to the line because Eton College wanted to make as much use of the land as possible for development. By 2005 the portal area was overgrown and graffiti covered. After some persuasion, Network Rail have now cleaned up some of this and English Heritage agreed to grade it 2* in recognition of its early status and special architecture.

Underneath much of the goods site are vaults which handled coal traffic and housed the boiler room for the winding engines. Access to the vaults is via a series of tunnels, which connect with the horse tunnels. The winding mechanism operated using a tarred hemp rope over a 20ft driving wheel, passing over three times, onto a tensioning pulley housed in the vaults, with a counter-weight in a 82ft deep well to provide some load balance, to a return wheel then back down the bank to a fixed pulley 250 yards from the buffers at Euston. The vaults which housed this equipment have to undergo a regular structural check to ensure they are still safe for the trains to run above – the trains to/from Euston still thunder overhead. The check requires pumping out water from the vaults, as it is normally submerged to a depth of some 8ft – well above the level of the canal. The location of all the equipment is still visible in the near-cathedral-scale vaults. Underneath the old goods yard there are three more sets of vaults – one from 1837, now mainly destroyed, the “Camden Catacombs” from 1847 which are partly filled in, and the 1855 vaults built when the goods yard was extended down to the canal. Both the 1847 and 1855 vaults consist of cross passages of high and low (less than 6ft) passageways. The vaults were listed by English Heritage because they are the largest and most complete complex of stables and storage facilities in London.

The Roundhouse dates back to 1847 with the track level 15ft above ground level – this is still evident if you attend a concert and have to climb the stairs! It has been a performing arts centre for some 40 years and had a major restoration in 2006. While this required replacement of some of the structural members at the higher level, much of the original fabric is still present.

The horse hospital dates from 1883/1897 and was possibly designed originally as carriage sheds although there is no evidence that it was ever used as such. It is now “Proud Camden” for youth use, housing a café and bar. The latter uses the stable stalls as seating areas and includes original features such as fodder troughs - although refreshments are now served from more normal tables! The horse “creep”, which allowed horses to be led down to the lower level of the block, is still present. The eastern horse tunnel, of 1856, leads out to the canal but there is no public access because it is in multiple ownership. The western horse tunnel has now been converted into a restaurant. Finally, the hydraulic accumulator house of circa 1860 is still present though out of use; it supplied power for capstans and machine tools in the goods yard.

Peter closed his talk by describing the work of the Camden Heritage Trust. This was set up to promote the preservation and restoration of the railway and associated heritage, encourage public access to the sites and provide public education of the history. They work to encourage developers and English Heritage to take action on the remaining historic buildings. As a indication of their success, the latter has upgraded several buildings - but there is more still to do. They also aimed to get a heritage railway trail established but the local council had difficulty deciding which department should take action; so they published their own trail guide, copies of which were made available to those present at the talk. More information on the Trust and the history of the site is available from the Trust's website at www.crht1837.org