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Portobello Disjunction

June 2017

When Crossrail finally emerges from its tunnelling we will have a revolutionary new transport system. But at the moment, as Roger Thompson discovered on a visit a while ago, there are unexpected bonuses to learn about.

It was a glorious Sunday afternoon in late summer when we emerged from Westbourne Park tube station looking around for this mysterious site. We were early and we knew we were in for something special when a high-visibility clad young Ethiopian greeted us just beside the bus garage.  Today he was guiding visitors down the ramp to the site itself.  But only a few years previously he had made a perilous journey ‘without a plane’ by land and sea to become an asylum seeker in Britain.  He was proud of his work for Costain, helping to build the new elevated bus deck which will eventually straddle the Crossrail tracks.

Our site turned out to have only a few trophies from the dig: one or two battered tools used to rake out the embers from the engines and a GWR embossed oil and gas cover.   There had been earlier versions of Paddington Station of which there is very little trace beyond names like The Lawn. When the existing station and Brunel’s GWR proved such a success, there was need for expansion.  In 1853 the Locomotive Department opened.  The archaeology team had been digging since April and had exposed the footprints of some fascinating structures: a huge locomotive shed for Brunel’s 7 foot broad gauge locomotives.  This had a200 metres long inspection pit all lined with beautiful hard engineering bricks. Oxford Archeology was working with 3D laser scanning to create complete computer simulations of the structures because within a week of our visit a massive ’35 tonner’ would rip out everything that they had found.  This seemed draconian until it was explained that leaving fragments of built structures underground could lead to disastrous settling of the surfaces that would become the foundations for the new tracks and the associated buildings.  Standing so close to the mainline tracks hearing the train hooters blare it was impossible not to hear also the steam, the shouts and commotion and the mechanical clankings of Brunel’s day when hundreds worked on this site.

One of the most romantic structures was the turntable.   There had been three at Westbourne Park and unlike the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm these were all outdoors.  The dug out structure had only a day or two previously been jet-hosed down to reveal the intricate brick foundations.  This is not the archaeology of toothbrushes and light touches, but of gigantic mechanical diggers and vast water hoses.  The levels of the walls and the circular floors indicated that there had been two different turntables on the same site one inside the other.  None of the mechanical equipment had survived when the site was demolished in 1906.   But so complex had been the gearing that large standard gauge locomotives could be turned around by hand and taken into the nearby standard locomotive workshops that accommodated six tracks.   Again the inspection pits with drains were clearly visible along with some small brick structures whose function was unclear.  If there were time more digging there might give an answer.

But the archaeologists were working against the clock.  They still had a sand house and a lifting shop to explore.  They think that instead of inspection pits this building had means of lifting locomotives above the heads of workmen for investigation and repair.  The deal is that only in exceptional circumstances can the archaeology team hold up the Crossrail project, which is on schedule.   Thus once the 3D lasering has been completed everything will be destroyed. Just as it had been, though fortunately not completely, when in 1906 the Chief Mechanical Engineer moved the whole operation to Old Oak Common which still houses many workshops and sheds for Eurostar and other locomotives.  The Portobello Junction site then became part of the extensive goods yards which continued to work until they in turn became buried under Paddington Central’s office blocks and hotels.

By the time you are reading this, no single physical trace of the former traces will exist.  But there will be a virtual record thanks to all the lasering and a comprehensive book of photographs and plans which will eventually document all the findings of one of the most comprehensive archaeological investigations ever undertaken in the UK. None of that will perhaps have quite the thrill and the romance that 400 visitors shared on that Sunday, seeing actual fragments of the past with their own eyes and conjuring up the ghosts of the hundreds who had originally worked in that heyday of the railways.