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‘I went to where the London Underground starts and it was the least London thing ever’ – Callum Marius

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As a transport correspondent, I think it’s fair to say that I find the extent of our city’s ginormous transport network fascinating.

You can take the word ‘extent’ literally, as back in August I ventured deep into the Buckinghamshire countryside to find the exact point where the London Underground ends.

Therefore, it’s only right that I made a pilgrimage to the exact point the London Underground starts. Just like the end point, it’s also no longer served by Tube trains.

READ MORE: ‘I visited London’s least busy train station and even the locals think it’s pointless’

Called the ‘zero point’, a signpost at the former start of the Central Line, 25 miles from Central London is the point where all distances on the London Underground are measured from.

Being the once most northerly and easterly point on the Tube, it avoided the chance of there being two zero points by mistake.

The current terminus of the Central line, the rather charming Epping station

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The Tube was cut back to Epping from Ongar in 1994, with most of the disused track now operated as a heritage railway by a group of volunteers and railway enthusiasts. They run old trains up and down the line but do not connect with the Central line at Epping as that station is fully required by the intensive Tube service. It means that the bus (either a special service run by the heritage railway volunteers or an Essex bus route numbered 420) now provides the main public transport link between Ongar and the Tube network.

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The journey to the end of the Central line is a straightforward but ridiculously bumpy one. Most of the line between Leyton and Epping is either dead straight or a very gentle curve, being initially built for 1860s mainline steam trains, not for what we now know as one of the busiest underground railway lines in Europe. It means that there’s a good bit of bounce as dinky semi-automated electric Tube trains from 1992 go at their fastest possible speeds along the line originally meant for ‘big boy trains’.

The carriages swerve from side to side, amplified by the sharp braking provided by the automatic train operation (ATO) system which drives the trains and the fact that although the train moves forwards, as you are sat facing its side, you feel thrust back and forth in a rather unsettling way. Stratford to Buckhurst Hill is certainly TfL’s answer to the mechanical bull.

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You’ll spot more sheep than people between Debden and Epping

Beyond Buckhurst Hill, it quickly becomes apparent that we are in Essex, farm animals start to replace pedestrians in the view as the train races to Epping, the stations all have pretty flowerbeds and you can no longer see classic red London buses gracing the roads parallel to the tracks.

Still within Zone 6, the Tube train pulls into two-platform Epping station a good 40 minutes after leaving Liverpool Street, 30 from Stratford. The layout of Epping station shows it wasn’t really intended to be the ultimate terminus of the Central line. Two platforms with no conventional buffers and bays, but a through line with a footbridge greet the driver’s front cab as the train reaches the limit of electrification, meaning it could not go any further if it wanted too.

Epping station is reminiscent of many regional National Rail stations found in the Home Counties, a huge car park, most people making onward journeys to surrounding towns and villages and a bus service trying its best to provide an integrated public transport network but not a patch on what TfL would do.

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‘All change please!’ The line to Ongar is no longer electrified, so Epping is an abrupt end

Epping station doesn’t feel like a Tube station despite the iconic Tube roundel signs. It scores highly on Tube trivia for being an odd one out – over 500 car parking spaces, being outside the M25 although within Zone 6, having no TfL buses serve it, being on the Essex Way walking trail and being the start point of the longest Tube journey you can make without changing trains (to West Ruislip, which at 34 miles is even further than Aldgate to Chesham).

I left the station and opted for the 420 bus for my onward journey to take me to Ongar. Many of the faces from the small crowd of us who crossed the footbridge upon leaving the train either waited at the bus stop with me or hopped in their cars and drove off suggesting that few actually had Epping as their ultimate destination.

It reflects the requests from peripheral towns such as Harlow to further extend the line to help decongest the station, its car park and bring the benefits of a good quality TfL service to the Home Counties. The reality is that chances of that happening are near zero as TfL’s finances are abysmal and the last proposed extension of the Tube into the Home Counties (the Metropolitan line which would have been just three miles) was shelved by Mayor Sadiq Khan.

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A return ticket between Epping and Ongar on the 420 bus is £5.10, that’s £1.50 cheaper than the fare between Epping and Central London

The 420 runs parallel to the former Central line, now heritage railway. It provides a perfect illustration of why this part of the line was axed – it’s not London, it doesn’t need an intensive Tube service and it is very rural. Thick forest provides a natural barrier between Epping and North Weald, the next major settlement.

The roughly 25 minute bus ride travels along the single carriageway A414 road, originally planned to be part of the North Orbital Road. The view from the window suggested I was anywhere apart from London, trees and fields as far as the eye could see. It’s astonishing to believe the Tube ever got here let alone the dinky Central line deep tube trains from beneath Oxford Street.

The bus stop almost directly in front of the zero point is called Ongar Station. Although the heritage railway there still uses the original station building, you can’t travel to anywhere from this station by train other than up the disused line and back.

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After hopping off the 420, I knew the end (or start!) was in sight

I was met by the stationmaster who initially told me: “I’m sorry Sir, there’s no London Underground from here any more. You have to go to Epping.” I admit I chuckled slightly as it occurred to me I wasn’t even born when the last Tube train departed in September 1994, so yes for my entire life I would go to Epping. “I mean the zero point, I can see it over there!” I pointed to the signpost I spotted through the railings.

“Oh yes, please go through!” The stationmaster in an authentic railwayman uniform from well before my time granted me passage through time. Stepping from the preserved ticket office onto the platform which has been restored to its 1930s style was like going through a time warp.

Knowing that the small wooden post which marked the zero point was still in tact felt like ‘coming home’ for some reason, as if I was going to visit the grandfather of the London Underground in his retirement cottage in the countryside. Grandpa Zero was just a wooden plaque which said “0” but to me whose job it is to keep telling the story of London Underground, I would describe the feeling as the closest to a religious experience a transport correspondent for a London news organisation could possibly come to.

Staring into the rusty pole, all the memories I’ve had travelling on the Tube came back to me. If there is a Saint Ongar, put the shrine here.

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Grandpa Zero

Every distance on the Tube is measured in kilometres from this point. For example, Harrow-on-the-Hill station is at the 61km point because from Ongar to Mile End is 33km, where the Central meets the District and the measurements transfer and then continue to Barons Court where the District meets the Piccadilly at 48km, the measurements transfer again and continue to Rayners Lane where the Piccadilly meets the Metropolitan at 64km and the measurements transfer again. As Harrow-on-the-Hill is closer to Ongar than Rayners Lane, the measurements decrease in this direction (not increase).

It’s not exactly the purest method of calculating distances but it seems to have worked for decades.

Next to the pure “0” sign, a noticeboard told the story of how in February 1934, a goods train from Temple Mills (now home to the Eurostar depot) with faulty brakes smashed into the embankment here. As this was before the line became part of the London Underground, it did not ‘take out’ Grandpa Zero.

The view from Ongar station into the countryside is beautiful, but it’s not London and a Tube train no longer belongs here. Unlike Chesham and Amersham which are still relatively built up and have important commuter flows into the city, Ongar is surrounded by field after field of nothing until reaching the next town several miles away.

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The view from Ongar

The Sainsbury’s shuts at 9pm, there’s a Tesco Express and there are no other major chain stores. The library is only open three and a half days per week and most people in the one road ‘town centre’ are having lunch in the afternoon of my visit. The closest ‘sister’ location I could think of on the existing Tube network was Chalfont & Latimer, where a Tesco Express and a parade of shops also make up most of the amenities, although Chalfont & Latimer is on the way to Amersham and Chesham rather than an outright destination for the Tube.

I took a walk around the town. There are some impressive clear views out towards the surrounding village of High Ongar, the Essex Weald down towards Brentwood and the only thing industrial looking were the planes in the sky.

Ongar is a quirk of Tube trivia, the fact there is a zero point here even though it’s not on the Tube, the fact that the Tube measures itself in such a bizarre way, the fact that people like me come and pay homage to a metal “0” on a wooden post is quite frankly absurd and yet I felt a great sense of achievement being there.

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Ongar’s High Street isn’t the most London affair, it’s charming in its own right

Perhaps its because when the Tube has no funding, can make the headlines for the wrong reasons and our city is crying out for green, affordable public transport, there’s something very cathartic about going to where it all starts. Outside of the city, away from everything busy, just a wooden post, surrounded by 1930s decor and demure countryside and nerdy, curious train geeks like me.

To see the Ongar zero point, head to the east end of the platform at Ongar station on the Epping Ongar heritage railway, on weekends and school holidays when it is open.

Have you ever seen the official London Underground starting point? Tell us in the comments below!

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https://www.mylondon.news/lifestyle/travel/i-went-london-underground-starts-22036583