A Mystery Solved?
The "missing" level crossing.
As the railway builders approached Laindon from the direction of East (later west) Horndon they had to build a number of bridges. The first of these was designed to take the track high over the Lower Dunton Road and the late Mrs Wright of Bowers Gifford who had been born at Doesgate Farm to the south, recalls, as a child, walking, with her sisters along the road to watch the work in progress. She spoke of the use of horses and carts that were used to move the spoil utilised to build up the embankment as it proceeded eastward. Much of this spoil must have come from the cutting dug into the high ground next to what was then Sumpner’s Farm. Thus was completed the construction of what has ever since been called the “Dunton Bank”.
From Sumpner’s onwards, as it approached Laindon, the line ran through the cutting and a further three more bridges had then to be provided. As opposed to the road bridge at the Lower Dunton Road these bridges were, in railway parlance, all “occupation” bridges constructed especially to allow farm vehicles to cross from one side of the cutting to the other well above the level of the railway tracks. After any train running between London (Fenchurch Street) and Southend-on-Sea has breasted the Dunton Bank and then run through the cutting and passed under two of the three occupation bridges provided, it is commencing on a down hill run all the way to Pitsea and once under the third bridge the railway track eastwards is running on ground more or less level with the adjacent terrain.
From this point onwards the track has reached the lands of what were once the fields of the Laindon farm of Little Gubbins. In the field just to the south of the old farmhouse and its yard was the site that had been chosen to build a station to be known as “Laindon” serving the parish of Laindon to its north and the village of Langdon Hills a mile to its south.
The new station’s design was an almost exact duplication of that built at East Horndon, with its “down” or Southend bound platform accommodating the station buildings; a booking office and hall with an attached house for the stationmaster. On the “up” or London bound platform was to be a simple shelter for waiting passengers; the two platforms to be connected by a timber footbridge to be built for the benefit of the safety of intending passengers only.
However, just before the tracks reached this planned new station, the railway builders were compelled to reach a decision about what to do about taking the tracks across the turnpike road that ran north to south between Billericay and Stanford-le-Hope via Laindon and Langdon Hills. Should they build a road bridge as they appeared to have done across St. Mary’s Lane at East (West) Horndon, or should they be satisfied with just a “level crossing” such as those that already existed at Benfleet and Leigh further to the east? In the absence of any documentary evidence it is not clear what decision was reached at the time and local historians have been forced to speculate ever since mainly on the basis of the oft expressed vocal evidence of there being “a crossing at Laindon station”.
What is known from the examination of both photographs and maps is that a bridge taking the road over the railway was built but at what stage in relation to the construction of the station is not clear since neither map nor available photos are very clear in their dates. The station was completed and opened in 1888 but the earliest date for a map so far found clearly indicating the presence of the bridge is 1898 and even this date may not be entirely reliable because in many areas often some alterations were only made on earlier editions of a map without any indication of that fact being provided.
A recent re-reading of some earlier historical material, however, now offers a clue as to why a rumour should have grown up regarding the possibility of there once having been a railway level crossing at Laindon Station instead of the present High Road bridge. The “Laindon Advertiser” of April 1931 contains a report of a meeting of the Little Burstead Parish Council held on the 10th of March at the Carlton Club Hall which was then the name of the still existent Winston Club on the corner of Northumberland Avenue. At this meeting, the chairman a Mr. M Land, who was also the representative for the parish on the Billericay Rural District Council, giving an account of the work of the Parish Council in the preceding three years consequent on the council just having been re-elected, referred particularly to ”the kerbing of the High Road, the improvement of the paths, and surfacing the railway bridge; also the diversion of the footpath from Berry Lane and closing of the dangerous level crossing”. (My italics) It was this linking in the same breath, as it were, of “Berry Lane” and “level crossing” that gave the clue as it what it was that was the genesis of the rumour.
A re-examination of the early map was most revealing on the subject. To understand, however, the historical changes wrought by time, it is necessary to return to a period before the arrival of the railway. Like the parish of Laindon, the parish of Langdon Hills was, despite the claim in early directories that “the village” lay a mile south of Laindon station, virtually without any centre. It was composed mainly of isolated farms interlinked by a few roads of which, apart from the turnpike road from Billericay to Stanford-le-Hope via the Crown Hotel, only what we now know as Old Church Hill to Dunton and Bulphan, Dry Street, “Oxford Street”, (now called Lee Chapel Lane), and Berry Lane were all that were indicated on maps. Clearly, in an area so large other paths would have existed for the convenience of the local population but as the development of cartography or map-making was not thought absolutely essential until the 19th century, such finer details like paths and buildings, particularly in rural areas, was an even later refinement.
The thoroughfare that became known as “Berry Lane” was probably the most eccentric of any such in Essex. This can only be explained against the background of the area in which it is set and the detail of the developments that have, subsequently, wrought extensive change to that area. Initially, Berry Lane, it seems, provided some sort of a link between a number of farms, some large others small, except that, when the course that it followed is considered, it is as if it was designed to accommodate the ramblings of persons well taken in alcoholic beverages! For that reason, the form Berry Lane took is probably best described is from its southern end, that being closest to one of the very few public houses or inns in the district, namely the “Crown”.
Berry Lane diverged westwards off High Road, Langdon Hills some 2/3rds of the way from the “Crown” travelling towards Laindon station. This was the point ever after known as “Bebington’s Corner” because Estate, Land Agent and Auctioneer H E Bebington erected one of his distinctive offices at the apex of the triangle that that divergence makes. For years, picture postcards showing this office looking northwards towards the heights on which stands Billericay was the iconic view of Langdon Hills and Laindon that were despatched all over the world and still it appears in historical accounts of the district even though it, and the specific view, have long since disappeared. Both the office and Harry Bebington’s bungalow named “Primrose Lodge” next to it were demolished at the time of a re-routing of the High Road, the space they and other properties occupied are now occupied by what was the local community hall (recently acquired by the local branch of the British Legion as a new HQ) and the small “Triangle” shopping complex.
Assuming that High Road, Langdon Hills has always proceeded northward from “Bebington’s Corner” in a toughly straight line, from that point of divergence Berry Lane proceeded in an East of North East direction, slowly distancing itself from the High Road. Connecting the two roads at right angles from the High Road three local roads, St, Davids Road, Samuel Road and Vowler Road all of which still exist became progressively longer and longer as the gap between the High Road and Berry Lane increased, Vowler being the longest. Some two hundred or so hundred yards after passing its junction with Vowler Road, Berry Lane took a complete change of direction by turning through a full ninety degree angle to the left, a change of direction that has now been totally obscured and lost by redevelopment. As this is important to the story of the railway level crossing mystery it shall be referred to as the “east corner” because, as it will be revealed there was yet another complete change of direction made by Berry Lane that has yet to be described.
At the “east corner”, any person travelling along Berry Lane would find that from proceeding in an East North East direction, having turned the corner, they would now be travelling in something of a South of South Westerly direction, such were the vagaries of this road. It is quite probable that there was a local name given for this distinctive corner but if there was, it is lost from the records. Although, on the ground, this was a change of direction for Berry Lane, in reality it was a meeting of four pathway, for it was possible to continue on in a straight line in the ENE direction along an un-made up road given the name of Bridge Road and in a short distance reach the third of the “occupation” bridge across the railway described in the second paragraph of this discourse. At right angles to this road, turning of to the East was another short, unmade up road given the name of Beatrice Road. Adjacent to this crossroads and fronting on to the North side of Berry Lane was one of those small corner shops (Lungley’s) with which the area proliferated before the re-development of the Basildon New Town destroyed the majority of them. In front of this shop was one of the few postal pillar-boxes of the district.
After making the complete change of direction at the crossroads just described, Berry Lane continued on up hill in a more or less straight SSW direction towards Dunton, passing the entrance to the driveway to Great Berry Farm which, obviously, gave the lane its name. After passing this point, still retaining its identity as “Berry Lane”, there was another complete change of direction, once again through a ninety-degree angle, (“The West Corner”) as the result of which the road was restored to the original ENE direction, from which point the road ran forward to the second of the bridges described in the second paragraph of this missive. It was this second bridge provided for Sumpner’s Farm, which, when transposed to become the Dunton Caravan Park, that Deanna Walker describes in her book “Basildon Plotlands” (Phillimore & Co. Chichester, 2001) as the way her family used to reach their holiday home at “Halliford”, High Bank Drive, Dunton. They were compelled to use this particular bridge because the first of the three “occupational” bridges had long been demolished.
The re-development undertaken in respect of the establishing of Basildon have altered much that is described in the last three paragraphs. As already described, the shopping complex now known as “The Triangle” destroyed and rearranged “Bebington’s Corner”. At the “East Corner” as detailed above, the shop, pillar box, cross roads, Bridge and Beatrice roads are all no more, having been over-built by the construction of the new road, known as Mandeville Way, paralleling the railway line from Lee Chapel South through to Dunton, and new Estate roads known as Pittfields, The Gallops and Berry Close. A glance at the modern street map shows that Berry Lane, per se, is now ended at Pittfields. The remainder of the original Berry Lane, that part running from “East Corner” to “West Corner” still exists but now starts at a point just a few yards to the west in Pittfields. It is now known as Great Berry Lane (some earlier street guides had show this section as “Berry Drive”, a name that never received official recognition) and is no longer a through road, having been cut off at a point where it would otherwise give vehicular access to the new estate of Great Berry, the last few yards being known only as Little Berry Lane linking into the newly created road known as Nightingales. The remainder of the original Berry Lane, the “West Corner” detailed earlier and that stretch running ENE to the second railway bridge, exists only as a foot and cycle path running behind the houses in Kenton Way, Chorley Close, Amersham Avenue, Map Tree Lane and Mahonia Drive to the east and Nottingham Way, Reading Close and Appleby Drive to the west
It was the original layout at the “East Corner” that is of interest in the consideration of what was being referred to at the April 1931 Little Burstead Parish Council meeting concerning the “dangerous level crossing”. A look at the Ordnance Survey map of 1895 a drawn to a scale of 6 inches to the mile reveals that, in all probability, people walking from Berry Lane, particularly from the direction of both Little and Great Berry, to Little Gubbins would have chosen to follow a footpath from the “East Corner” of Berry Lane across the upon field at the corner and, after following the line of the adjacent hedge, strike across to what was to become the High Road and the drive leading to Little Gubbins. Such rural paths were frequently to be found in the area as the larger scale maps reveal, constant usage as short cuts being clearly visible on the ground. It would be apparent to the railway builders that such a path existed and where such a longstanding right of way existed, a board walk between the rails of the track would have been provided for the convenience of pedestrians. Without a doubt, notices, usually cast in metal, would have been posted each side of the track enjoining persons using the track to “Beware of Trains”.
It becomes obvious from a further study of the map that, with the arrival of the railway, the most convenient route for pedestrian to be take to the station itself if they were coming from Berry Lane, was to follow the footpath from the East Corner, cross the line at the boardwalk crossing and then turn right to walk alongside the terrace of railway cottages that had been built at the west end of Laindon station. At the east end of these cottages, a flight of steps enabled the pedestrian to reach the level of High Road at the point where it was carried over the railway, a point immediately adjacent to the Station Approach on the other side of the road.
Not surprisingly, the building plots being offered for sale adjacent to Berry Lane, particularly after that road was provided with a hard surface, proved to be popular and the population of that area, composed of permanent homes and “weekend” retreats, began to expand quite rapidly. Many of the occupiers of plots in the Dunton area found it useful to walk via the road called “Forest Glade” to the West Corner of Berry Lane, thence via the Lane itself to the station . This would mean that the boardwalk crossing to the west of Laindon station would be well used and, although no actual record has been found to support the presumption, it is not unreasonable to assume that compromises of the safety of pedestrians came under notice. These were likely to have been a combination of a series of “near misses” in which users of the boardwalk crossing were insufficiently diligent taking heed of approaching trains and, even more likely, those who, having been able to gain access to the railway track at the crossing, took it upon themselves to avoid the long trek to the London bound platform by the approved route, choosing instead to walk by the trackside and under the road bridge directly to the platform.
The popularity of Laindon station as a destination for rural pursuits is well known and, indeed it was its, and Southend’s similar popularity as a leisure resort, at weekends and holidays that helped to make the LT&SR service so profitable. In 1912 the London Midland Railway bought the LT&SR and, with “grouping” it became part of the LMSR in 1923. This last change coincided with an increase in commuter traffic in South Essex and the ex-LTS part of the LMS was said to be the most valuable to the LMS as a whole. Accordingly, improvements were planned and introduced to the line. These improvements which included the building of new stations at Southend East and Chalkwell as well as the closure of old Leigh-on-Sea and replacing it with an expanded station to the west meant a considerable alteration at Laindon.
Firstly, at Laindon the road bridge at High Road was widened and the approach ramp on the South side was considerably lengthened, necessitating a new approach to Salisbury Avenue and a small re-alignment of the High Road. The wider bridge enabled the permanent way to be increased to three tracks thus proving a “passing loop” within the confines of the station, an island platform being constructed to accommodate for this. Waiting rooms and toilets were provided on the upside (London bound) platform for the first time. These buildings were designed in a distinctive Art-Deco style by the architect of the LMSR of the day, and were similar to that provided in the same period (1933/34) at the new stations at both Chalkwell and Leigh-on-Sea. This revamp at Laindon has now been all swept away, a further example of just how little Laindon’s past is held in regard. The 1930s improvement to the layout of the station was designed to allow trains from London to be terminated at Laindon and restarted on a return journey without risk of delay to through train in either direction.
But it was alterations that took place on the station’s periphery that are of greatest interest as far as the level crossing mystery are concerned. The most obvious of these changes was that made to the timber-constructed footbridge at the London end of the station platforms. Its use, originally intended for passengers only, was extended by the installation of a ramp giving pedestrian access to the pathway over the road bridge and, at the same time giving access at the other end to the roadway of the station approach, thus making the bridge available to ticket holders and non holders alike. At the same time, an additional flight of steps was created on the west side of the road bridge opposite, These additional steps led down to a new footpath (known to all and sundry as the “cinder path”) that was created immediately adjacent to the railway’s perimeter fence and running parallel to the track as far as the existing path between Berry Lane and the railway foot crossing. This new pathway and steps provided a viable alternative means of crossing the railway and the “dangerous” boardwalk crossing was closed off forever, Thus the inhabitants of the small estate (Beatrice, Raglan and Florence Roads and Bristow Crescent) that had grown up in the field that had once separated the East corner of Berry Lane from the railway crossing, were now able to reach Laindon High Road with comparative safety as was being acknowledged at the Parish Council meeting of April 1931.
The construction of Mandeville Way as the principal link, via Laindon, between Dunton and the town centre of Basildon already referred to above has obliterated not only the link that was Berry Lane turning into Berry Lane and Great Berry Lane, but it has also obliterated the cinder path that led to the station. The sole remaining legacy of the changes made that erased the “dangerous” level crossing from the community’s memory is the flight of steps from Mandeville Way to the High Road as it crosses the road bridge adjacent to Laindon station.