By Michael Williams
“Yes I remember Adlestrop…” Could there be a poem more evocative of the delights of early summer in the English countryside? It was just 100 years ago, on a hot June day in 1914, that poet Edward Thomas’s train stopped unexpectedly at a sleepy platform in the heart of the Cotswolds and he wrote the lines that have since become part of the treasure house of Britain’s favourite verse:
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop – only the name
(PICTURE SHOWS ST ERTH TO ST IVES – OUR PRETTIEST BRANCH LINE)
At that moment a blackbird sang amid the “willow-herb and meadowsweet and haycocks dry” – and in a moment of sublime tranquillity the poet hears “all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire”. Paradise indeed.
But soon this idyll would abruptly be at an end. Thomas would be dead, killed like millions of other young men in the carnage of World War 1. Adlestrop was axed in the Beeching cull of the 1960s and the weeds would grow high on the remains of thousands of other sleepy country stations like it
It was the end of an era. Or was it? Astonishingly, in our modern world where the proposed HS2 is threatening to tear up our countryside, there are still many delightful Adlestrops around the national network – tiny picturesque stations that have slumbered quietly on through decades of cuts and closures.
Some have only one service a day, and a few just a single train a week. Several have fewer than 100 passengers a year – and there are more than 150 stations where the train will not stop – unless you put your hand out to flag it down or tap the shoulder of the guard to give advance warning.
Among these request stops is tiny Dunrobin Castle in the Scottish Highlands, the private station of the Dukes of Sutherland, where you can step off the train directly through the gates into one of stateliest homes in Scotland. The trainspotter third Duke, who built it in 1870, even had his own personal locomotive and train. Buckenham station, deep in the Norfolk Broads, is kept open strictly for the birds – the feathered population at the bird sanctuary is on its doorstep vastly outnumber the annual passenger total of just 79. Whatever happens, don’t miss the train at Denton, east of Manchester – there won’t be another along for a week.
This is a world, somewhere between the living and the dead – of achingly long intervals between services, where it always seems to be Sunday afternoon and the only sounds are the buzzing of insects and the hum of signal wires. In some ways it is idyllic – in the words of travel writer Paul Theroux these rail byways are characterised by “dusty coaches rolling through the low woods, the sun gilding the green leaves and striking the carriage windows, the breeze ticking the hot flowers…”
But be warned. You will need to arrive early to position yourself on the platform so the driver can see you. And at your destination you may look in vain for a toilet, taxi – and sometimes some shelter from the rain. Still, unexpected joys await the intrepid traveller.
At Berney Arms, Britain’s smallest station, you alight at a platform just one carriage long, built in the middle of a marsh so squelchy that brushwood had to be laid beneath the tracks when it was built. There are no houses in sight and the nearest road is three miles away. The skimpy platform shelter has all the space of an upright coffin with a hole in the back to stop it being blown away. But all around is an earthly paradise of boundless horizons, reedy dykes and soaring birds. And silence. Miraculously a short walk away there’s a pub when I get a hero’s welcome and some delicious chicken in the basket from the landlord whose trade depends almost entirely on the arrival of the branch line train.
Remoter still is Altnabreach, officially Britain’s most isolated station, just a few miles from Thurso, the most northerly stop on the national network. Forget London or even Edinburgh – it takes four hours to get here just from Inverness. Lonely amid the mists that roll over the surrounding bogland, this is not place to arrive without a sandwich and a flask, preferably of something strong. Yet 70 years ago it was one of the busiest stations in Britain as vast trains rolled by carrying service personnel to Scapa Flow, headquarters of the Britain’s World War 2 fleet
Sometimes the impossible happens. Who would imagine that travelling along the scenic railway from Exeter to Barnstaple, dubbed the “Tarka Line” by the tourist office after Henry Williamson’s book, that you might actually spot that rarest of creatures, the otter. Yet no sooner had my train clattered off from Umberleigh in the lush Taw Valley than, in the silence, I snuck up on a whole family of them nesting not far from the railway bridge.
Arriving at a request stop halt to catch a train can be both an exhilarating and unnerving experience. Such power to be able to flag down a 70-ton Super Sprinter just for yourself! The rules say you must “raise your arm so the driver can see you”. But what happens if the train fails to turn up? A moment of panic as you check whether that faded timetable flaking off the noticeboard is still current. Perhaps you have hiked for miles and yearn for a return to civilisation, a hot meal and a pint. It happened to me at a windswept halt on the remote Cumbrian Coast line near Sellafield as rain lashed in off the Irish Sea.
It was surreal to have to ring through to baking Bangalore to reach the National Rail Inquiries call centre – where they predictably hadn’t a clue. Luckily, the signalman in his crumbling Victorian wooden signal box allowed me to toast my toes on his fire over a steaming enamel mug of tea until the train arrived.
There are other unexpected pleasures in getting off the train in the backwoods of the rail network. My arrival the other day at Sugar Loaf, one of 34 tiny unstaffed halts on the remote Heart of Wales line, added significantly to the average of fewer than three passengers who use it each week. It’s quite a surreal place. Next to the station is the brooding Sugar Loaf mountain, said to be an extinct volcano. In the nearby town of Llanwrtyd, which claims to be the smallest in Britain, you can join the National Bog-Snorkling Championships, as well as the annual “Man versus Horse” race. (And watch your Welsh – alighting in error at Llangammarch, Llandrindod, Llangynllo, Llangadog or any of the other “Llans” on the three-hour journey from Shrewsbury to Llanelli means you will face a very long wait till the next train.)
Not as long a wait, though, as at Reddish South in Greater Manchester, where the solitary weekly train departs at 10.20am on Fridays only for the 16-minute journey to Stalybridge. This is one of Britain’s “parliamentary services” – “ghost trains” on lines in a railway netherworld, retaining the minimum service under law, because the authorities can’t quite get round to closing them. Reddish has probably the most primitive facilities of any station in Britain, with just a bare asphalt platform, no seat, nor even any lighting. Yet you might find the “Stalybridge Flyer”, as it is known, busy, since it is a favourite with “gricers” – enthusiasts who travel round the country to “cop” a rare train. You can make up for the privations by tucking into some black pudding at the Stalybridge buffet, regarded by many as the best platform refreshment room in the land.
For me, it was more romantic to head to Cornwall and take the little branch from Liskeard to the picturesque fishing village at Looe, stopping the train at the magically named St Keyne Wishing Well Halt – one of only two stations on the network with the word “halt” still in its name. The well is a few minutes up the hill from the platform and gets its name from St Keyne, a fifth century holy woman who imparted magical powers to the waters, whereby “whichever of a married couple should drink of them first, he or she would have mastery of their wedded life”. In Victorian times, couples would leap suicidally from the train in a desperate race to gain household supremacy.
Canny travellers, though, will beware of being seduced by quaint names. Stopping the train at Pleasington, on the line from Blackpool to Colne on the edge of the Pennines, I find out too late that it is anything but “pleasing” – a landscape in the heart of industrial Lancashire with dumped supermarket trolleys and other detritus littering the lineside. But while it may sometimes seem as though the unstaffed request stop is a symptom of a clapped out railway on its last legs, it very often represents the opposite.
Some railways would never have been built without them. In Edwardian times, Colonel Holman Stephens, Britain’s most eccentric railway proprietor, presided over a national network of tiny railways from a terraced house in Tonbridge in Kent. Without the Colonel’s rickety tracks, ramshackle carriages, Heath Robinson engines and request stops on lines with quaint names such as the Snailbeach Railway and the Hundred of Manhood Tramway, many country villages would have remained unconnected to the modern world.
These days, thanks to a coalition of volunteers from the Association of Community Rail Partnerships, once-threatened stations are cherished again, and tiny halts thrive, with brilliant splashes of colour enlivening lovingly tended platform flowerbeds. On the Tarka line, the number of passengers has doubled since Beeching days and request stops at smaller stations are crucial to keeping up the speed of the hourly service – as well as saving fuel for the trains. At the same time, elderly ladies can board at will from tiny Yeoford to change their library books and farmers get to market from Morchard Road.
How grateful we must be that they and others like them never closed. As poet laureate Sir John Betjeman, the patron saint of threatened branch lines, wrote in one of his most famous railway poems, Dilton Marsh Halt:
Was it worth keeping the Halt open,
We thought as we looked at the sky
Red through the spread of the cedar-tree,
With the evening train gone by?
Yes, we said, for in summer the anglers use it,
Two and sometimes three
Will bring their catches of rods and poles and perches
To Westbury, home for tea.
This tiny halt, between Salisbury and Westbury, is still open today if you feel like casting a line in the well-stocked local lakes – though Betjeman’s prediction in the poem that steam trains would one day return proved wide of the mark.
So, let’s say hurrah for delightful Dilton Marsh and all the request stops and remote platforms, with all their evocative names and eccentricities. As the spring sun warms up our green and pleasant land, think of what charms await – at Corkickle and King’s Nympton, at Sandplace and Saundersfoot, at Wrenbury and Wood End – all for the modest effort of flagging down a train.
Michael Williams is author of ‘On the Slow Train’ and ‘On the Slow Train Again’, published by Arrow Books. His newest book ‘The Trains We Love’ will be published by Random House in Spring 2015. Link to original Mail article is here: