Cockfosters station – the full article

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Despite being the butt of many a joke, ‘Cock Fosters’ as it once was, is a real place and noted for being the northern terminus of the Piccadilly Line. The location itself prior to the opening of the tube was not even a major settlement of any sort, just a small school and a vicarage. The location itself was both in deepest Middlesex and Hertfordshire. The destination was not on the original plans, however the need for a large train depot pushed the line further north to where more land was available for this.

The eight stations on the new extension from Finsbury Park were opened in three stages during 1932 and 1933, with Cockfosters being right at the end and inf act the last bit of the Piccadilly Line in North London to open, This was on 31st July 1933.

Cockfosters station is colloquially known along with Uxbridge, as a ‘concrete cathedral.’ Charles Holden did not just design railway stations. As a noted architect he was much in demand and some of his earlier work such as Bristol Central Library certainly evoked the sense of being a cathedral. Yet Holden had never designed one. The nearest he got to any sense of a cathedral were the large chapels he was able to design.

The Piccadilly Line’s terminus station was in essence a prototype. Each Holden era was replaced by something more stupendous. From the early stations such as Piccadilly Circus, this morphed to substantial stations such as those down to Morden, then a couple more on the Piccadilly at Ealing and Hounslow. Then we had Sudbury Town. Voila! All pretense had been done away and here was a new brutal design, pure and simple.

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One of Holden’s quotes was: “Eliminate everything which does not fulfill a definite and necessary function.” Hence they had to be free from fads and conceits.

This was carried through to other stations such as Northfields, then those along the Cockfosters extension. Southgate was the first inkling the current early 1930s phase was in demise, and Oakwood the last gasp before Holden once again changed direction completely.

The concept of a brick box with concrete lids was virtually forsaken. The cantilevered styling and airy spaces may have been something Holden hoped would be used elsewhere. In the event the design was reused at Uxbridge, and as I have mentioned before, elements of the design were used at Oakwood (or the other way round perhaps.)

This begs the question, was Oakwood a prototype of sorts for Cockfosters? One can say Oakwood was the original design and then Holden or his associates split the Oakwood canopy style into two and put in this vacant space the now iconic train shed. On the other hand, the reverse could have occurred, being that Oakwood used elements of Cockfosters station. There’s nothing to show this was done either way, but compare pictures of both stations and you will find they have a commonality.

The big difference is at Cockfosters the exits from the platforms were well beyond the train operating areas, and this gave Holden the chance to create a huge train shed that was unbroken by stairwells or station entrances.

On another level, if one thinks about it, there are no Holden ‘boxes’ used anywhere as a tube terminus! Hounslow (similar to Ealing Common) used a hexagonal design which wouldn’t be used at Cockfosters. Again, yes it can be said Morden on the Northern Line is a Holden ‘box’ but its not in the strictest sense a terminus. The Northern Line doesn’t end here. Cockfosters, as a true terminus, would follow suit by once again not utilising a Holden box.

What could Holden build at Cockfosters than yet another tired version of his brick box/concrete lid design? His early plans for Cockfosters do show a new styling version of the box/lid concept. Even that was not good enough. In my view Cockfosters is possibly the ultimate Quaker building, something Holden had ironically never been asked to design. The station site embraced the counties of Hertfordshire and Middlesex, both of which were early pioneers of Quaker thought.

Holden was clearly knowledgeable in these counties’ history of the Quaker movement and without a doubt had visited many of the local friends centres, some of which had been designed by fellow RIBA architects who were also Quakers.

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The Cockfosters station site. Source: Skydive.

It is evident the station gave a nod to rural buildings, for example barns and mills. Perhaps more so the Friends Meeting House in Hertford. As the oldest Quaker building in the world it too has cross beams and trusses. And this concept is used at the country end of Cockfosters station.

From that end of the station one would enter the station’s cathedral like aspect. But I don’t think it was meant to be such. It was a place where people could meet. Where friends could gather together and stand in awe of this impressive structure before going on to do their own thing. Rambles in the countryside, going to the local church, playing cricket in the nearby field, whatever. In other words it was a friends meeting place 🙂

That is still true of the station these days. Countless people travel to Cockfosters and meet there in order to go on local rambles around the area, perhaps visit Trent Park or attend any one of the festivals held in the locality. And yes they still gather here for cricket in the sports field opposite the station.

The 1931 plans for Cockfosters station show it was intended to look very different. These plans show the original design of two large towers and substantial street entrances. Two much smaller towers were used and the station itself considerably expanded.

As these plans are from 1931 its clear Holden made the changes to Cockfosters at a very late stage. In some ways it was fortunate the extension from Enfield West to the new terminus would not be opening until 31st July 1933. The opening had been originally mooted for early 1933 as some tube maps show, but was then pushed back twice during 1933. This indecision must be attributed to the late design changes that were made to the station.

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There is one other thing that tells us Cockfosters was most definitely not going to be like any of the other new stations on the Piccadilly Line is the clock. Instead of a modernist style of clock, Holden went for a traditional clock suspended above the ticket barriers. This, along with the lengthy drop lights (modern chandeliers so to say) is further evidence of the desire for a totally different approach to tube station design. The brick box with concrete lid concept didn't get totally left out as its used for the signal box at the end of the platforms.

Cockfosters is a station with more considerable country feel than say, Epping or Amersham. Its probably helped by the terminus buildings being set in a cutting (whereas the others are not) thus retaining some element of rural sense to the site as well as the smaller entrance buildings that were ultimately employed. The station only just beats High Barnet as the most northernmost terminus tube station in Greater London.

Cockfosters station today

Here we look at the station itself as it is today, the possible reasons for the design that was finally implemented and the many different variations in style. Plus a look around the station area and exits.

Later we will look outside the station, the bus parade, and the many station entrances ( which are between six and nine altogether depending on how they are counted!)

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73 tube stock in the centre platform at Cockfosters station.

The first impression upon a traveller arriving at Cockfosters is of course seeing the large overall roof. It is in many ways evocative of country stations that had, or still have, these. One could be easily arriving at Ashburton, Banbury, Buxton or Thurso.

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Night shot of the train shed at Cockfosters during summer 2017

Its clear the station is very different from any other seen on the tube system, even that at Uxbridge, built in similar style.

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There are the seats, the station roundels, the lawn area (this is recent however it adds to the station's character) the ticket barriers clocks and the now defunct train indicators.

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The impressive architecture, which shares similarities with Uxbridge station.

The entrance hall with its pointed roof is like a ship's prow as some say. Here we see early examples of using the wood slats as a pattern maker for the concrete beams. Previously what would have happened is that these would have been smoothed out. That indeed was on some parts of the station however the beams and supports were left unsmoothed.

This bit is what makes Cockfosters different from Uxbridge. Similar design but employed in different ways. Here we have this unusual arrangement (like a prow as has been said.) At Uxbridge there was just a flat, plain, end above the ticket hall area. The now noted stained glass windows improved on that.

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The end of the train shed above the ticket hall, said to be shaped like a ship's prow.

Concrete formwork was employed at Holden’s other stations, but by the time work reached Oakwood, the brutalist straight lines and aright angles were being replaced by supports and canopies with a certain amount of angular work, which again, shows Holden’s desire to move away from the brick box/concrete lid style.

It was also used at Oakwood and Turnpike Lane, but not in such a way that detracted from the spectacular ticket halls. The concrete at both Wood Green and Southgate is totally smoothed, whilst the ticket hall at Bounds Green ticket hall had its exposed concrete simply tiled over!

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Brass station name on notice board that's partially obscured by a TfL Help Point.

Conversely, at Arnos Grove, formed concrete was employed to highlight the one vertical pillar holding the circular roof up. These vertical lines make it much more dramatic.

By the time the construction of Cockfosters station was actually begun, its likely they realised just how much work/cost would be involved in smoothing the huge structure out, and so mostly was left untreated.

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Driver about to resume work after a staff break at Cockfosters station.
One could say Cockfosters station was possibly the very first structure on London's tube to fully employ this kind of styling, yet it wasn't employed to any great extent at that other twin station, Uxbridge.

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Old telephone booths at the station, preserved for prosperity with exits either side.

The many kiosks, telephone kiosks, the different entrances (five lead off from here) that go to either the main bus station area, or the car parks, as well as the main station entrance on Cockfosters Road. This is a very unusual touch. Most tube stations have at the most only two or three exits. Those such as King's Cross have many however these are incremental.

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The amazing thing about these exits is from the ticket hall they all look more or less the same style (apart from the one leading underneath the road.) At their far ends where they finally emerge into the open, each one is almost totally different to how they started out!

Although Holden had dropped his original plans for a huge terminus building, he made up for it in other ways, and quite well within the constraints of the budget ultimately permitted for the construction of the station.

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Five exits can be seen here. Some of these split up into further exits.

One aspect of interest at Cockfosters compared to other stations is the judicious use of roundels. They are everywhere so to say. On flag posts, on the walls and between the pillars. Well presented in various forms within the station itself as if to say to both passengers and the simply curious,"Hey I'm the tube station come and see me and play with my trains!"

Incidentally the two roundels that are to be found on the huts came from a pair of plinths that once stood at this location. These roundels show no trace of distortion. The plinths were removed in order to build these kiosks. Originally there were sixteen of these roundels on eight plinths (four to each platform) but there are now only twelve on six plinths.

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I have mentioned both Oakwood and Cockfosters are unique in using black station name boards at the main entrances and above the stair entrances. I don't know why that is. Cockfosters certainly had these when it first opened so it may have been some mistake by glaziers that has been accepted as part of both stations' make up ever since. Yet some other tube stations have black way out indicators in the same exact style, even Arnos Grove has these.

On the other hand I notice too the new Cannon Street station also had white on black background to begin with although that has now reverted to the usual white on blue background. Definitely an identity crisis! Perhaps the recent second edition of TfL's Station Idiom Design Guide will go some way to ensuring there is less confusion on the use of signs.

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Main station entrance/bus waiting area. Two flights of stairs lead from here down to the ticket hall

Now we take a look at the latter station's main environs including the mini bus station, entrances, roundels, and briefly the depot and its sidings. First of all we can ask how did Cockfosters get a bus station?

The origin of this seems to be a desire by Holden to build upon both sides of Cockfosters Road thus making the new terminus a stupendous one which could not be missed. The original plans show no provision of any sort for bus facilities of any kind other than simple stops right outside the station entrances.

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The substantial subway from the tube station to bus station

Cockfosters Road actually runs through the centre of the terminus complex. Or rather, the station was built around the road itself. To the west side of the road a widened section was provided and next to this a substantial glazed shelter with seats was built. Holden therefore was able to build something that was essentially a small country bus station. It meets the needs of the local area adequately.

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Twin staircases lead from the subway up to the bus station. Notice the homage to country barns etc

At other places on the tube or sub-surface lines such as Morden or Hounslow West, and even at Arnos Grove/Oakwood, the space immediately in front of the station is a dedicated area for buses to pull up and collect passengers. At Cockfosters that space is on both sides of the road. On the opposite side of the road its an extra special designated area with its own building. This is in my view creates something a little more than just a simple bus exchange.

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All weather access from tube to local buses! Cockfosters bus station seen during a downpour.

Clearly the bus station is a delight. Its a fairly standard Holden design increased to much larger proportions, with substantial enhancements. The stairwell has cross plinths and members. These are obviously concrete but in my view they are there to evoke the image of perhaps a country farm or a mill, either of which would have used cross timbers in their lofty roofs. I mentioned that Cockfosters may have given a nod to Friends Meeting House in Hertford, especially the bus station no less.

When the station opened this was countryside. People looking out from the main station building could see the bus station which would aesthetically fit into the countryside beyond because it was designed to be like a building that was from the countryside! Sadly the construction of Metro Point has deflated the visual impact Holden desired.

In terms of the overall London underground system this arrangement is quite unusual, there isn't anywhere else like it. Holden clearly performed a great number of architectural tricks which I am sure many don't even notice.

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The waiting area inside the bus shelter

We might think Holden had a special preference for buses and looking after the bus passenger somewhat more so than the tube passenger. Well he did in a way it was part of his remit to make the passenger environment on the tube as comfortable and enjoyable as possible and this extended to the bus and tram services that fed the tube. Without this level of bus passenger comfort and convenience the tube would be seen as impervious to the needs of those who arrived at these stations. And that would be a big loss.

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Night time shot of the southern end of the main bus station building - even comes with a number!

We have seen how Cockfosters main station building was given great architectural styling. Holden extended that styling to the bus station building itself as these pictures show.

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The bus shelter's plinths, clearly intended to revoke memories of a country barn

Again the country is is reflected in this barn-type atmosphere. The building's supports and struts really do look like timbers considering they have 'joints' but they are in fact concrete.

For the motorist, whom I suspected Holden deemed at the time would be the new king of the road (how things have changed since with people wanting less cars and more public transport) things went a step further.

Stations car parks have been provided at his other stations. Here the concept was given extra special treatment. Holden built these unique individual entrances/exists. The one on the north side is like a miniature tube station, no bigger than a small hut. And comes with roundels too!

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Three of Cockfosters' prominent tube roundels. There are four of these, the other is at the bus station

There is nowhere else on London's underground system where such instances exist.

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The smallest roundel building in London perhaps?

The original plans for the station included additional entrances with roundels mounted on poles placed on top of these entrances. It seems to me the idea of separate entrances for the car parks seem to have be delineated from the original plans but instead made as miniature versions of the original.

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The southern car park's station entrance/exit

One major difference to Cockfosters station's setting these days is there are now three large office blocks, the western one is Metro Point and the southern are Holbrook and Churchwood Houses. These were built in the 1960s as typical open plan offices. These later additions do serve to give the station and the locality considerably more importance, however they have intruded somewhat on the station's delicate connections with the countryside.

Cockfosters church once could be seen across the fields directly ahead of the main station entrance. Now Metro Point stands in the way and one has to stand by the northern car park entrance to be able to see the church.

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Now you see it! Cockfosters parish church from the side of the station as opposed to the front

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Information for the London Loop - Cockfosters is a popular destination for country rambles

Beyond the platforms is the signal box. Its very much standard fayre like most others found on the tube system. It does have one special thing for me however. My uncle used to work here on night shift a couple of times a month maintaining the box and its equipment, making sure it was all in good working order. As I have explained elsewhere, for many years he was one of LT's signal engineers. Often he would get one of the last trains to wherever he was allocated and an early one back home to Kings Cross the next morning.

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Cockfosters signal box with Holbrook House behind

Cockfosters depot: I have discussed this in part under Oakwood, however it is sufficient to mention access for trains to the depot from the station is limited due to track rationalisation. Most trains enter service at Oakwood instead.

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1930s concrete cable trunking bridge - usually these are steel

When one approaches Cockfosters by train it will be pretty obvious there has been much track rationalisation in the area. In fact the station area, the nearby depot and stabling sidings were once spread over a much larger area.

A number of stabling sidings have been left to nature between the main depot buildings and the rear of gardens on Westpole Avenue, whilst those that existed on the east side of the running tracks have also been abandoned to nature.

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Presumably defunct sign. Just there for prosperity!

There is still a number of signals that are on these now defunct lengths of track, for example the eastern siding still comes complete with indicators and shunt signals. When were these last used? On Europe's railways every bit of track is used, accessed, maintained and ready to be used.

In the UK we just let things become overgrown, abandoned etc. Its so hugely interesting how we treat our railways compared to Europe. Clearly they don't want to import the ideas we have here!

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Defunct gap indicators, ground signals and trip cocks - the excitement of disused rail sidings!

If one looks at some of the tracks that lead into Cockfosters depot it seems some of the original insulators and even conductor rails from the 1930s are still in use! The disused siding on the east side is the most visible example that can be seen from passing trains. I believe there are still sections of this old conductor rail used at Ealing Depot, certainly the old Wood Lane depot had examples along with some from Central London Days too!

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Original 1930s conductor rails with unusual pots. Notice also the twin hole fishplates. Rarities!

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1930s sand drag with merged headboard/buffers

At least this sort of abandonment leaves us curios and oddities related to the past and inadvertently retains a link to the history of railway construction or change. On that very same section of siding there's an unusual length of conductor rail with extra place holders (or whatever they call these.)

It seems this may have been designed to hold wooden rail protectors to prevent workers or staff inadvertently getting electrocuted (some sections of the Southern rail network still have these.) Its not common to see these on the tube - there are examples too at Northfields and Morden depots however its most definitely not employed in the newer tube depots such as Northumberland Park or Stratford Market.

Escalators at Cockfosters?

A Daily Mail report for Saturday 2 December 1989 details a series of mishaps and delays, with trains taken out of service. The fire brigade was called out four times to Cockfosters Station during that day too. The paper reports that passengers had become exasperated and were almost mutinous. The paper's final sentence in the article only sought to add disbelief and incredulity to the whole article: "The last straw: no escalators were working at Cockfosters."

Escalators? Clearly I've failed to cover every single architectural aspect of the station!

The roundels at Cockfosters - an illusion

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One of the typical station roundels set in a concrete relief plinth. Note the apparent illusion.

Like a lot of people there is no doubt when one looks at a tube roundel (at any station for that matter) they seem to take on a 3D appearance, and this can be seen to good effect especially on the Jubilee Line's later stations, but also at Cockfosters itself. Is it because of the style, or the concrete plinth or what? And are the roundels really straight as a ruler or not?

One may well ask, were some of these roundels meant to have a protruded appearance? Certainly whichever way one looks at them, either daytime or night time, they seem to convey an illusion of sorts and this is what is meant by the 3D effect it seems they are pushing outwards somehow...

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A roundel at Cockfosters. This picture is taken at dusk and the effect is still apparent.

Close investigation of the roundels show they are indeed straight, flat as a ruler. I'm aware that a photo of any tube roundel up quite close does produce a distorted effect, those at Cockfosters strangely produce the effect even if one takes a picture some distance away, such as that shown in the picture above.

Those roundels that were originally on concrete plinths or pillars but are now relocated on the rear of the cleaners' kiosks in the station show absolutely no sign of this illusion. The patterned lines (or grooves) on the walls of the kiosks must cancel the illusion in part although it can still be seen somewhat. In that respect it seems the nameplate (the flat straight bit across the roundel) is responsible in some way for causing the circular part of the symbol to have this effect and its probably to do with how the straight part and the curved parts work in opposition to each other.

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Roundel seen on the rear of kiosks belonging to the train cleaners. These were originally on plinths.

Its like having two photographs of the same exact scene side by side, each looks different because the various lines of perspective are creating a effect the human eye/brain cannot process properly and so assumes they are different. So can it be that our brains are in fact creating the bulge that can be seen in these roundels I wonder?

Going back to those on the plinths, its clear there is a much stronger illusion no matter which way one looks at them. I am not aware of this happening at any other tube stations (except Holden's other stations where the same styling has been adopted) besides those examples on the Jubilee Line between Westminster and London Bridge where the effect is much less obvious.

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The illusion doesn't appear to be observed on these roundels....

There is another interesting aspect to this. Looking at the several roundels sited on poles about the station, none of these seem to have the illusion we are discussing thus its clear the effect only comes when the roundel is presented in a certain way, and usually that is when the background has some depth to it. Even if it is a flat wall I have noticed that the effect can still be seen so it might be station lighting that does it.

It seems the plinths' square shape somehow enhance the illusion. In other words they seem to give depth behind the roundels when there is none. Its rather like the optical effect that can be seen when one looks at straight lines across curves, one sees these lines curve. Such as this.

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The effect is clearly nothing to do with day light coming from the train shed windows as it can also be observed at night when the station is artificially lit.

The twin station at Uxbridge also has roundels that convey this illusion. These are not so apparent however. The reason for that seems to be those at Cockfosters are on plinths that have painted edges thus increasing the level of illusion.

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They are indeed absolutely straight as a ruler!

This post was originally in three parts and published during December 2017 as the final part of the series covering eighty five years of the new Piccadilly Line extension from Finsbury Park northwards to Cockfosters.

More stuff was planned including features on the line's gradients, mileposts, air shafts, plus the later westward extensions to Hounslow and Rayners Lane. In fact drafts were done along with photographs and historical stuff but it was just all too much for me... most of these posts got dropped - although I still have the drafts for the line's gradients, air shafts, Sudbury Town and South Harrow stations etc. Two that made the grade however were those on Arnos Park Viaduct and the original Piccadilly Line terminus at Hounslow West.

The Piccadilly Line and its history/extensions has been well covered in a number of other posts on this blog, including several on Leicester Square and Covent Garden, the extensions to Heathrow and the the old Hounslow West/Airbus to the Airport.

The full Cockfosters series is as shown:

85 years of the tube beyond Finsbury Park #1
The Cockfosters Extension 1: Manor House
The Cockfosters Extension 2: Turnpike Lane
The Cockfosters Extension 3: Wood Green 
The Cockfosters Extension 4: Bounds Green
The Cockfosters Extension 5: Arnos Grove
The Arnos Park Viaduct Mystery 
85 years of the tube beyond Finsbury Park #2
The Cockfosters Extension 6: Southgate
The Cockfosters Extension 6: Southgate #2
The Cockfosters Extension 7: Oakwood
The Cockfosters Extension 7: Oakwood #2
The Piccadilly Line Extension: Cockfosters
The Piccadilly Line Extension: Cockfosters #2
The Piccadilly Line Extension: Cockfosters 3 
Another Piccadilly Line Viaduct Mystery!  

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