Lockdown had many of us climbing the walls in frustration, and the limit of just one hour of exercise outside the home each day were much complained about. Let’s not even go into the penalties (both real and threatened) for those considered to have broken the rules. At least the weather stayed fine; when you could get out it was a pleasing experience.
Round these parts of the world, some of us took the opportunity to regularly explore Ebury Way, a 5.6km green way between Watford and Rickmansworth along the route of a disused railway line. In the fine spring weather during from March onwards we could watch the countryside come back to life. There were never many people out and about so there was space and time for contemplation and reflection – and it got me thinking: why Ebury?
The simple answer is that Ebury Way takes its name from Lord Ebury who established the company that built the original railway line, but why did he take the title Baron Ebury in the first place? As you might expect, the answer is to be found in the arcane history of the British aristocracy.
Lord Ebury was Robert Grosvenor (1801-1892) and the third son of the Marquess of Westminster (1767-1845) – who was also called Robert Grosvenor. The father was a career politician who started as a Tory/conservative but later changed sides to join the Whig/liberal wing of Parliament and a grandson of the older Robert (ie Robert junior’s nephew) was to become the Duke of Westminster. Patronage within the traditional Parliamentary system in the 18th century was described when I wrote about Thomas Gilbert here so I’ll leave it at that.
The country home of the Grosvenor family has been Eaton Hall in Cheshire since the 15th century, and the family also had further estates in Dorset, Hampshire, and west London. The London part of the estate included an ancient medieval manor called Eybury and over time this became Avery, or Ebury, and this is where the Ebury title comes from. Eybury is listed in the Domesday Book in 1086 and covered about 500 acres north of the River Thames, including Hyde Park, the land where Buckingham Palace was built, and the areas which are now Mayfair, Belgravia and Pimlico. If you know London you might be aware of Ebury Street near Eaton Square in Belgravia, or Avery Row near South Moulton Street in Mayfair where you might do some posh shopping.
The land changed hands many times over the centuries but the presence of streets and places in London with names derived from the Grosvenor family and their estate in Cheshire indicates their continuing presence in the area: Grosvenor Square; Eaton Square; Belgravia (after Belgrave in Cheshire where Eaton Hall stands); the Grosvenor Canal in Pimlico. The London house of the family in the 18th and 19th centuries was Grosvenor House on Park Lane, Mayfair, where the Grosvenor House Hotel now stands.
As you can imagine, they were a weaalthy family then and remain a wealthy family today: the current Duke of Westminster is one of richest people in Britain.
As for Robert junior (pictured above), he too was a career politician like his father and also on the Whig/liberal wing of Parliament – although towards the end of his life he wasn’t a great fan of Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone. He was appointed to the House of Lords in 1857 on the recommendation of Palmerston, and took the title Baron Ebury. Prior to this, he was first elected to the House of Commons in 1821 as MP for Shaftesbury in Dorset, and then from 1826 as MP for Chester – where his grandfather, his father, and his elder brother had previously been the MP. In 1846 he became MP for Middlesex, before his appointment as Baron Ebury in 1857.
Seeking a country home of his own he bought the Moor Park estate in southwest Hertfordshire in 1828 and, after he married in 1831, he also established a London house in Mayfair. Moor Park remains an impressive building to this day although Junior’s descendants sold it to the Leverhulme family in 1922. The estate has an impressive history, dating back to the 12th century and was acquired by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in 1515; I’ll write about it on a future occasion. It’s significance in this story however is that it’s relatively close to the route of the ill-fated Watford to Rickmansworth railway line that Lord Ebury built.
The line opened in 1862 but was never a popular route, possibly because it was incomplete. The railway lines running west from London Paddington station had a spur that turned north to Uxbridge, and the intention was to link this spur with another from Watford to Uxbridge via Rickmansworth to join the line out of London Euston to the west midlands and north-west. Not to complete the section between Uxbridge and Rickmansworth rather defeats the purpose of the whole enterprise.
It’s interesting that the idea anticipates the route of the M25 just over a century later, but then – as now – the busiest rail lines were those that went straight into London. In 1887 the Metropolitan Railway opened a line from Rickmansworth to London and passenger numbers became even smaller. Even before this happened the Watford and Rickmansworth Railway had been facing bankruptcy and had been taken over by a bigger company, the London & Northwestern Railway (a rail ticket from 1916 is at the top of this piece). However, Robert Grosvenor seemed satisfied that the completed section ran close to his estate at Moor Park and provided him with a local service should he need it. The line never made a profit and finally closed to passengers in 1952, although freight routes and parts of the line nearer to Watford were used until 1996.
The charm of Ebury Way is that even today, from various vantage points between the trees and undergrowth, the main views are of empty pastoral landscapes. You just can’t imagine where the prospective passengers might have come from.
There are bridges to take you over the River Colne, the River Chess, and the Grand Union Canal.
A couple of industrial estates have developed on the outskirts of Watford and the green way threads between them, but during the lockdown these areas were deserted and silent too. There are old gravel pits nearby which are now flooded and havens for wild birds and angling clubs. There’s an line of electricity pylons at one point, a couple of bridges across the track, and the houseboats on the Grand Union Canal are the only signs of human activity.
I’m not sure that any photos can do it justice but when it’s deserted it has a magical quality. It may only be there because of the old railway line, but you don’t get a sense of any lingering railway presence. It’s almost a pre-industrial pathway in places, more like a pilgrim’s way or a pre-historic trackway. Apart from the tunnels and bridges it would be hard to guess it might have been a railway.
Now that the lockdown has ended there are are more people using the amenity. There’s kids with stabilisers on the their bikes, parents pushing baby buggies, old codgers taking a stroll, joggers, runners and powerwalkers, dog walkers, and the rest. But it’s never busy, it’s never crowded, social distancing is never a problem. Lord Ebury might have been just a rich boy with very expensive train-set, but he’s left us an amenity to cherish.