Epping Ongar Railway is the longest heritage railway in Essex. It runs from Ongar to North Weald and into Epping Forest. Originally part of the London Underground Central Line, Epping Ongar is the closest heritage railway to the city and a highly sought-after London Transport experience.
There is a certain charm about travelling along a heritage railway track in steam and diesel-drawn trains. Tube trains and other electric trains can never match this. The unique historical atmosphere of the Epping Ongar Railway and the vintage buses make the passenger journey unique every time. It is an excellent way to spend a day out in Essex.
Keeping Tradition Alive
Epping Ongar Railway runs a fleet of steam and diesel hauled trains with carefully restored period coaches. The Ongar Station, along the way, was also restored to its former glory and is one of the most prized period stations in Essex.
To keep with the tradition of historic towns, the Chipping Ongar Railway operates heritage bus services that run through the charming Epping High Street, straight to the main station building of Epping’s Underground Station.
The buses are timed to connect with the trains and link with several fascinating destinations, perfect for a day out for the whole family. With a great value ticket, passengers can avail themselves of all heritage transport experiences available in Essex.
Activities and Sights to See
Whether you’re looking for fun family outings for bank holidays or happen to be near the Epping section of the line in Essex, there are many sights to see and activities to enjoy on the Epping Ongar Railway. Here are some of them:
This ancient woodland stretches over 12 miles long and is around 2.5 miles wide in places. It contains woodlands, heath, grasslands, and rich and diverse wildlife. The forest also has over 100 ponds and streams and is an excellent area for hikes and picnics. It is easily accessible from Epping underground station.
It is a pleasant little town in the Essex countryside with several beautiful and historically significant buildings along the high street. The Millenium History Society has detailed a short walk around the town that features interesting buildings and the remaining castle earthworks.
Ongar is home to two noteworthy churches. Located on the high street, the Ongar United Reformed Church has an interesting exhibition space displaying local artefacts. The Greensted Log Church dates back to the 11th century and is known as the world’s oldest wooden church. It is a beautiful church with historical significance.
It’s relatively straightforward to get to Budworth Hall, where the historical walk starts, by walking up the station approach road and turning right along the high street. The heritage bus also has a library stop which is nearby.
North Weald Airfield
Established in 1916, the airfield was in service during the Battle of Britain. It is now used for leisure activities and aviation and hosts the largest open-air market in the UK every Saturday. With long tarmac runways, the airfield services aircraft old and new.
The Airfield Museum
The Airfield Museum tells the story of how the airfield helped protect London throughout two world wars. The displays include artefacts, personal memories and an interesting array of photographs. The heritage bus to Epping station directly passes the Airfield Museum.
Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker
Located near Chipping Ongar, this is the largest and deepest cold war bunker open to the public in this part of the UK. It is designed to house around 600 military personnel and civilians tasked with helping the British population survive a nuclear war.
Rope Runners Adventure Course
There is also a high-wire adventure course on the same site that offers activities like water zorbing, air rifle shooting, archery, and paintballing.
The vintage bus to Shenfield station passes nearby the bunker, making it a convenient stop for sightseers.
Passengers can enjoy three heritage transport experiences with Epping Ongar Railway. You can enjoy the steam train to Ongar station, take a diesel train into Epping Forest, or hop on one of the heritage buses for a unique and atmospheric ride. It’s an excellent way to experience travelling the way they did in a bygone era, but with some modern comforts!
Snacks and Drinks
When travelling on the Epping Ongar Railway lines, you will not be left without refreshment options! There is a delightful cafe at the North Weald station approach serving a small collection of refreshments as well as hot and cold drinks. There are also tables and seating available where you can enjoy your light meal in comfort before getting back on the train or bus.
If you feel peckish at Ongar, there’s a shop selling snacks and drinks. Ongar offers a viewing and picnic area for a break in the fresh air. Both stations also have restaurants and pubs where you can get a hot meal and drinks.
Parking can be tricky at some stations as most don’t have an extensive car park. It is best to arrive at the Epping underground station and take a heritage bus connection from there. The fare is generally included, and taking one of the vintage buses is an excellent start to a day out on a heritage train. Passengers who prefer driving could try to find space at the car park at Epping station, or one of the town centre car parks.
Can Fido Come?
For those with furry friends, if you have a well-behaved dog, or if your dog is a guide or assistance dog, they are welcome on the Epping Ongar Railway free of charge. They can even take a ride on a heritage bus with their best buddy! The exception is dining trains, where only service dogs are allowed.
Epping Ongar Railway History
The Great Eastern Railway opened the railway line in 1865 as the final section of the Great Eastern Railway from Loughton via Epping and eventually to Ongar Station. It passed by North Weald and Blake Hall stations.
Originally a single-track, the eastern end of the loop was severed in 1888. As the New Works Scheme extended the Central Line to Epping and began using electric lines, steam trains prevailed in the Ongar line. Seeing electric units besides steam trains became a common sight during this time, as did improved siding facilities and other improvements.
In the 1950s, the line was finally electrified. But even though the branch could support eight trains to North Weald, only four cars could run to Ongar. In the early 1980s, the Blake Hall station was shut and converted into a private residence.
The Epping Ongar Railway Line closed in 1994 and was listed for sale. After the Ongar Railway Preservation Society unsuccessfully tried to buy the line, it was sold to Pilot Developments in 1998. Pilot Developments later became known as Epping Ongar Railway Ltd.
2000s and Beyond
The line was reopened as a preserved railway by the Epping Ongar Railway Volunteer Society in October 2004. Initially, the railway line offered hourly services between the Ongar railway station and North Weald. Eventually, it was extended to Coopersale.
After an ownership change and extensive restoration, the line reopened yet again. This time it was classified as a heritage steam railway in May 2012 with an increase in service frequency between Ongar, North Weald and Coopersale.
With the changes made to the Epping Ongar Railway Line, the Ongar railway station and the North Weald railway were also renovated. Both play an essential role in the British Railways history and have interesting historical stories. Let’s explore this.
Ongar Railway Station
The station’s goods yard area became derelict in the 1960s but was then purchased by David Wilson Homes. The station’s main building and cattle dock still stand. The station building was repainted in Great Eastern Railway (GER) colours, making it the only operational GER station using the colours.
Plans to restore the milk dock into a bay platform became part of long-term future goals that include milk platforms. The restoration team also lowered the track height to accommodate mainline rolling stock and installed a new signal box.
They cleverly incorporated the new signal box into the original signal frame to preserve history. Thankfully, the structure survived after the original box was broken down.
North Weald Railway Station
The station was repainted in Brunswick green and cream. The renovation efforts included lowering the track to accommodate UK standard stock and relaying it through the passing loop into the bay platform. This created three operating platforms.
A new signalling system made bi-directional working possible and improved singing facilities, making shunting safer. North Weald was the last section of the London Underground signalled with mechanical semaphore signals.
Vintage Train Ride, Anyone?
Passenger services are a treat with Epping Ongar Railway! Diesel locomotives haul the period coaches from Ongar to North Weald stations along the picturesque countryside. From there, passengers can hop on the heritage rail shuttle to experience a delightful journey through Epping Forest, where they can spot a wandering deer or other wildlife.
The Epping Ongar Railway is an excellent choice for outings with many exciting activities and much historical significance. It’s a prime destination for anyone who wants to experience steam or diesel hauled trains with the added charm of period stations and heritage busses. The Epping Ongar Railway makes for an excellent day out in Essex, especially if you don’t want to venture too far from the London Underground.
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