Highams Park Forum
A group of local people all interested in the betterment of life in their area.

The Story of Highams Park Signal Box




 


 


 

 

March 2017

The Story of Highams Park Signal Box

Introduction

The Signal Box at the level crossing is an iconic feature of Highams Park and is much loved by locals.  It was scheduled for demolition in 2002 but was saved by the efforts of local people.  There then followed 15 years of trials and tribulations, successes and setbacks, trying to find a practical solution as to what to do with the box.  During this frustrating time the box was left empty.  However, the story now has a happy ending: in February 2017 the box opened to the public as "La Boite" (a smart creperie) and the outcome has been warmly received.  This web page tells "The Story of the Signal Box".


The box in Feb 2017 (internals largely complete - external works await a "line closure")
 

Why is Highams Park signal box important?

The paragraphs between the asterisks below come from a document produced by the Highams Park Forum in 2002 to support the argument for saving the signal box from demolition.

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"It has been most truly said that these old buildings do not belong to us only; that they have belonged to our forefathers, and they will belong to our descendants unless we play them false. They are not in any sense our property, to do as we like with. We are only trustees for those that come after us." William Morris 1889

The station, level crossing and signal box form the centre of Highams Park 'village', which grew up as a suburb of London around the arrival of the railway towards the end of the 19th century. The history of Highams Park and the railway are completely intertwined: the village grew up in this location because of the railway station, and the village gets its name from the station, not the other way round.

When the railway came in 1873, the station was sited a short distance outside the small hamlet of Hale End. The station was initially called Hale End and houses started to grow up around it. In 1891 the lake and grounds of the Highams house were given to the public, and to encourage inner city dwellers to make the journey to visit the lake the station was renamed Highams Park in 1894. New residents moving into freshly built housing started to call the place where they lived Highams Park in line with the name of the station. In due course the Post Office recognised this and Highams Park became the official name for the area. The railway is just as important today with large numbers of local people using it daily - many chose to live here because of the station. The level crossing and its signal box are an unusual sight in London and their presence helps to 'define' Highams Park.

The current signal box was built in 1925. It bears large signs declaring 'Highams Park' and stands as a tall, dominant, symbol, visible from all approach roads. It is not tucked away apologetically in a corner of the town; it is right in the centre, with daily life going on around it. The two-tone audible warning when the level crossing barriers descend can be heard throughout the village and, far from being annoying, is like the heartbeat of the village.

The signal box would not attract architectural awards, but is a working building which has been important to the lives of Highams Park and its residents for over 75 years. We believe it to be the only one of its kind left in the London postal area - the juxtaposition of the signal box, crossing, shops and station in a busy commercial centre is the essence of Highams Park. This was recognised by Waltham Forest Council in erecting the Millennium Clock nearby - the signal box is located on the Greenwich meridian. It is also included on the Council's Local List of Buildings of Architectural/Historic Interest.

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The box in 2002
 

History up to 2002

The signal box was built in 1925 to replace a smaller box which had been situated at the southern end of the London bound platform.  The new box enabled the duties of the signalman and the gateman to be combined.  The principle equipment it contained was a 16 lever frame and a large crank wheel (about the size of the helmsman's wheel on a large sailing ship).  The levers operated the points for the sidings that were situated behind the Chingford bound platform and the crank was used to open and close the level crossing gates.

The "gates" at that time were similar in design to the gates of a farmer's field (unlike the up/down barriers that are used today).  There were four of them, two on each side of the crossing, and they were positioned so that when they were open for road traffic they closed off the railway line, and vica versa.

One resident remembers:

"As a young lad in the late 1950s I remember watching with fascination as the man in the signal box cranked the wheel.  It was clearly visible from the pavement.  The wheel had a handle on the side which he used to turn and it required many revolutions to open and close the gates.  It looked like a lot of effort. "

The sidings closed in 1965 and in due course the lever frames were removed and taken away to be used as spare parts in other signal boxes.

When the gates were replaced by the current up/down barriers, the crank wheel was removed and replaced with a box containing just two buttons, one for up and one for down.

So, as we come to the events of 2002, we find a very empty signal box, devoid of any equipment of significant interest.


The inside of the box in 2002
 

The events of early 2002

At the Forum meeting of 21st January 2002 Roger Torode (then Chairman) reported on a meeting he and others had with Railtrack on 7th January 2002.  He explained the railway's plans to introduce remote control of the level crossing from a signalling centre at Liverpool Street.  They planned to demolish the Highams Park signal box and replace it with a pole to carry CCTV cameras for the operators at Liverpool Street.

Attendees at the Forum meeting were concerned about two things:

a)     Safety - Would the operation of the crossing be as safe?

b)    Heritage - Loss of an iconic landmark of Highams Park

Multiple actions were agreed at that meeting to address both issues.  Letters were written to various parties (MPs, newspapers, Railway inspectorate, etc.).  A petition was started to show local support.

The petition read as follows:

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HIGHAMS PARK COMMUNITY FORUM - Petition to Save the Signal Box

We, the undersigned, are concerned about the proposal to demolish the Highams Park Signal Box and wish to see it retained.  The Signal Box has been a central feature of Highams Park for around 75 years, and it is a highly recognisable and well liked local landmark.

We call upon Railtrack:

·         to respect Highams Park Signal Box as a local landmark and to ensure its preservation,

·         to justify that any change in control of the crossing is safe, and

·         to ensure that the time for which the gates are closed will not be materially different from the existing times, so that the current flow of traffic around Highams Park is not adversely affected, and there will not be a detrimental effect on local businesses.

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The signal box was scheduled for demolition on Sunday 3rd March 2002.  The activities of the Forum and others (including the Council and the Civic Society) led to a meeting with senior members of Railtrack on the morning of Tuesday 26th February 2002, just 5 days before the scheduled demolition.  It took place in the offices of the local Guardian newspaper which were then situated in Larkshall Road, close to the level crossing.  Local MP Iain Duncan Smith attended that meeting and was instrumental in the outcome.  The minutes of the next meeting of the Forum (4th March) document the outcome as follows:

Roger Torode thanked all the people who participated in the activities which resulted in the saving of the Signal Box; it was a splendid team effort.  The meeting responded by thanking Roger specifically for the huge amount of effort he personally committed.

Railtrack are currently in the process of looking for a new location for the CCTV cameras in order to remove the need to demolish the signal box.

In addition to a £15,000 grant from Railtrack, the building may attract a "Historic Building Grant" from Council funds.

The plan (assuming CCTV is practical) is that Railtrack will organize the renovation and then lease it to an agreed local body for a peppercorn charge.

The Forum continued to look at the safety concerns associated with remote operation but after considerable research and visits to similar operations, became satisfied that safety would not be compromised.


Waltham Forest Guardian reports the saving of the box
 

"Signal Box Saved" - But that was just the beginning

Without waiting to catch breath, the Forum moved on, at the same 4th March 2002 meeting, to explore how to secure the signal box's future.  The council had stated that it would not be willing to take on the lease, so the Forum agreed to set up a separate body to take on the lease.  This body was named "The Highams Park Signal Box Association" and 9 attendees volunteered to participate.

The Association was duly created and began discussions with Railtrack regarding the lease.  It also worked with Railtrack to agree the "renovation works" mentioned at the 26th February meeting.  These works were just to the outside of the building, making it presentable and secure, but leaving the inside untouched.  The external staircase was considered unsafe and was removed, and the fencing facing the pavement was taken away so the base of the box would become part of the run of shops in Hale End Road.  A new door opening (previously a window) was created by the pavement and block paving was laid to complete the integration.  The works used up all of the £15,000 grant.

At the same time the Signal Box Association explored many potential uses for the box and lots of potential occupiers.  One of the most popular suggestions was for a café of some sort. The Association reasoned that this would be a good solution since it would generate the necessary revenue for the ongoing maintenance and security of the box whilst at the same time making it open to the public for the price of a cup of coffee.

One member of the Association reminisces:

"I remember accompanying one potential occupant to view the box.  Having obtained the key we opened the makeshift door and climbed down a step onto the earth floor.  The ground floor of the box is a very small area (smaller than the upper floor) and my visitor (a lady of mature years) looked around at years of dust and bits of discarded equipment lying around (not interesting, trust me).  In front of us were large vertical oak beams which had at one time held the lever frame.  What was very evident was the absence of any staircase; just a trap door, way above our head at the top of the oak beams.  I was surprised to find that my visitor was not put off by the prospect of climbing the oak beams to reach the trapdoor.  We did so and emerged into the light of the upper floor of the box.  The potential was immediately visible with appealing views in all directions, but the state of the interior was very sad.  An old signalman's chair, a rusty heater, a piece of worn carpet and a dirty stainless steel sink in a crumbling wooden unit.  There were no interesting pieces of railway heritage other than a box with two buttons to make the barriers go up and down.  The scale of the works to make the building usable was very apparent.  My visitor did not contact me again."


Adventurous visitors inspecting the box in 2002
The trapdoor is folded open bottom right
 

Some of the ideas the Association considered for the box can be seen here: Ideas
 

The limbo period

There then commenced a long and frustrating period of what might have appeared to an outsider as "inactivity "; a limbo period.

The Association was waiting for a draft lease from the legal team at Railtrack (which later became Network Rail).  Despite regular chasing, a lease did not appear.  It was apparent that "our little signal box" was not at the top of the priority list for the staff there.  This is probably not that surprising given they were likely to be focused on many major, high profile, rail projects.

The Association for its part was not too bothered by the lack of progress since its main objective was to preserve the building as a landmark for Highams Park.  This it had done and while the building was in a good condition following the renovation works, the need to make use of the interior was less of a concern.  However, The Association was well aware that over time the external structure would deteriorate unless a proper solution was found for its use.

The draft lease was finally delivered to The Association in September 2007 and when the members read it, the reality of the situation became very apparent.  The clauses of the lease were very onerous and, with no potential occupant in sight, the Association felt it could not sign the lease.  In addition, the Association would need to raise significant funds just to make the box usable for the unspecified user of the box.

The Association realised that "sitting in the middle" between Network Rail and any sub-lessee did not add much value and it would be better if it could broker a deal direct between Network Rail and a potential occupant.  And so it set out to do so, but no candidates were found and the limbo period continued.

The Signal Box had been granted Local Listing status to reflect its significance and it was given a Blue Plaque.  It reads: "Highams Park Signal Box. Locally Listed building. Erected in 1925 by the London and North Eastern Railway Company and one of the few that survive on the Chingford line today. Saved from demolition in 2002 it is now leased to the Highams Park Signal Box Association".  As explained above, this is not quite true since a lease was never signed by The Association.

During this long limbo period the Association was concerned that the box might be plagued by vandalism but was pleasantly surprised that this did not occur.  On one occasion, a small graffiti "tag" was painted onto the door of the signal box.  Members scrubbed it off and, with more hope than expectation, pinned up a note that said:

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Please respect this old building

We are trying to restore it so it can be used by the people of Highams Park

The Highams Park Signal Box Association

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And in all the years that followed no further graffiti took place on the outside of the building.

"It's nice when people surprise you."


The box at night in 2009
 

Light at the end of the tunnel

In March 2008 a chance conversation between a local resident and a local businessman started a chain of events which brought the project to life again.  The resident was Ken Lees and he was in the offices of local firm Beechhall Joinery, talking to its owner on another matter, when the conversation turned to the future of the Signal Box.  The owner expressed an interest in helping in some way so Ken, being a member of the Forum, directed him to The Signal Box Association and the Association started an informal dialogue.  Having understood the project better, Beechhall's owner mentioned it to another local firm, Dendale Construction, and they contacted the Association with a view to getting involved with refurbishing the box.

The Association was at the time receiving numerous suggestions for using the signal box (prompted by articles in the local newspaper and the Forum's website); they varied considerably in terms of practicality.

Informal discussions between the Association and Dendale took place over the following months and in November 2008 the Association contacted Dendale with a view to taking things further.  Dendale are an experienced company that undertake all types of building repair & refurbishment, but with a particular focus on period properties.  As a result their involvement with the project seemed ideal.  Dennis Swain from Dendale took the lead from their side.

Discussions continued and on 7th April 2009 The Association received a letter from Dennis Swain with a formal proposal.  The proposal was for Dendale to complete the entire refurbishment and fit out at its own expense in return for being able to lease the building at a peppercorn rent.  The initial thought was that the building would be used as an office for Dendale but with occasional public access.  Dennis also stated informally that he was open to other uses which could be discussed when the works had progressed and the suitability of the resulting conversion could be viewed and considered.

The Association enthusiastically supported the proposal and contacted Network Rail to commence the process of brokering a direct deal between them and Dendale.  The Association noted that "the firm are very community minded and sympathetic to the iconic nature of the box and will work with the Forum and Association to arrange open days for the public".

There then commenced yet another limbo period (of four years) where negotiations between the two parties were slowed by other commitments.  The Association stepped in at various stages to assist the process.

Finally, on 21st June 2013, a lease was signed between Network Rail and Dendale.

Dennis Swain emailed the Forum and the Association with the good news and stated that Dendale hoped to begin work in the following months to "create a great new facility that will remain a legacy & iconic landmark for Highams Park."  He continued: "... the improvement & repairs that will be carried out to this building will demonstrate how we can turn a difficult & expensive refurbishment project on a derelict & neglected building into a modern, iconic premise. The works will be a sympathetic & high quality refurbishment, intended to retain the original features & statement that this Railway Signal Box represents for Highams Park and I am proud to be involved."

Works commenced.  All the junk was cleared out and proper floors were installed on the lower and upper levels.  Various structural repairs were completed and new windows and frames were installed.  The rear outside area was tidied & prepared as a small courtyard garden.

The most significant transformation however was the installation of an internal staircase.  This allowed the box to open to the public for the first time at the London Open House Weekend on 20th and 21st September 2014.  Visitors no longer had to climb the oak beams and enter through a trapdoor.  Attendees had their first chance to see the interesting views from the box and children loved it when they waved at passing trains and the train drivers waved back.

Yet more problems slowed the project once again; getting a postal address, getting change of use approval, getting permission to work on the outside of the box next to the railway, insurance of non-standard building, etc.  It looked to external observers that the project might stall again, but success was just around the corner.


The box in Feb 2017 (internals largely complete - external works await a "line closure")
 

A wonderful outcome

In May 2015 The Association heard from Dendale that a family member wanted to run the box as a café.  The Association fully supported this idea and the final fit out of the box could now proceed with this use in mind.

In December 2016 some trial openings took place of "La Boite" creperie (La Boite is French for "The Box") and in mid-February 2017 the business fully opened to customers.

The small downstairs area has been cleverly converted into a small smart kitchen and the upstairs area has be made into an elegant seating area comprising 4 tables of 4 and two counters of 4, totalling 24 seats.  The counters make ingenious use of the unusual space created by the staircase, which appears in the middle of the upper floor because the upper floor is larger than the lower floor.

Works on the outside of the building are continuing and will be completed when a scheduled "line closure" takes place, to allow working close to the railway line and high voltage cables.

And so, after 15 long years since the signal box was saved from demolition, the story has a happy ending and Highams Park has an iconic building to be proud of.

And it is functioning as a café; exactly as The Association had hoped for, 15 years ago.

The Forum's congratulations go to all the people whose hard work made this happen.

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