Pulling the stops out
Charming and reminiscent of the genteel travel of yesteryear, these little-known stations aren’t running out of steam, says Matthew Dennison
Reminiscent of yesteryear, our little-known train stations aren’t running out of steam, reveals Matthew Dennison
The country is flat around the tiny railway station of Altnabreac. Stands of conifers pierce the watery washes of Caithness sky. The nearest road is more than 10 miles away: Forestry Commission roads—unsurfaced, pitted with stones and dusty in summer—point the way. The former station cottage stands alongside the platform and is now a private house; a stone water tank is just outside the station. A platform notice offers advice and precautions for walkers. Only a small wooden shelter serves passengers.
At Altnabreac, the passenger shelter has no need to be any larger. This is one of Britain’s remotest and least-used railway stations, with annual passenger numbers seldom exceeding 200. There is nothing here: a small local school closed 30 years ago, the large Victorian sporting hotel nearby shut up shop the previous decade. Sportsmen no longer visit; only walkers and cyclists alight at the short stretch of platform. As a result, the station operates as a request stop, one of more than 150 similar stations across Britain at which trains stop only when passengers make a specific request to the train guard or would-be passengers on the platform flag down the driver.
Like Altnabreac, request-stop stations are frequently in remote rural areas, such as the stations at Berney Arms in Norfolk, Plas halt in Snowdonia and Rogart in the highlands. Some were constructed to serve communities that no longer exist; others, like Dunrobin Castle in Sutherland, initially served a single house. St Keyne Wishing Well halt in Cornwall once provided a valuable transport link to villagers before the advent of cars. By contrast, the request stop station at Bugle, also in Cornwall, first constructed in the mid 19th century, itself gave an impetus to the development of this Victorian china-clay industrial village.
Many, but not all, of today’s littleused request-stop stations date from the second half of the 19th century. The Great Western Railway opened
the Yeo valley station of Thornford, close to Sherborne, as Thornford Bridge Halt as late as March 23, 1936. Campbell’s Platform, a halt in Gwynedd, on the narrow-gauge Ffestiniog Railway, was opened in 1965 to serve one of the oldest inhabited houses in Wales, Plas y Dduallt. The station takes its name from the house’s owner, Col Andrew Campbell. Until Plas y Dduallt was served by road access, Col Campbell kept his own locomotive in a siding by the platform.
In some instances, historians are uncertain of the rationale behind the construction of railway stations in out-of-the-way, under-populated locations. Britain’s least-used railway station, Shippea Hill, on the Breckland Line in east Cambridgeshire, offers a single daily weekday service to Norwich and a Saturday train to Cambridge.
It was opened in 1845 under the name Mildenhall Road and, from 1885 to 1904, was known as Burnt Fen. It has only ever served the hamlets of Shippea Hill and Prickwillow in an area of rich agricultural land historically at risk of flooding from the Lark, Great Ouse and Little Ouse rivers. Today, the station at Shippea Hill—which, despite its name, stands below sea level amid typically flat Cambridgeshire fens— offers long views over surrounding country.
Its mostly unruffled quiet appears to deny the possibility of the station’s worst accident, in the middle of a December afternoon in 1976. As light faded, and in thick fog, a lorry ‘loaded with crates of washed carrots’, according to Chief Inspecting Officer for Railways for the Department of Transport, Lt Col I. K. A. Mcnaughton, hit the Norwich-to-birmingham diesel engine on the level crossing outside the station. The train’s driver was killed instantly.
Happily, the bulk of request-stop stations have less distressing claims to fame. The station at Duncraig in Ross-shire was constructed for Sir Alexander Matheson in 1897 to serve
Duncraig Castle, a shoreside baronial pile built in 1866 with the proceeds of Matheson’s opium trading with China. Its diminutive platform is home to one of the prettiest station waiting rooms in Britain, once exclusively reserved for the use of Matheson’s houseguests.
A tiny, but pristine, hexagon with a passing resemblance to Victorian garden buildings, Duncraig’s waiting room was originally decorated in the same style as rooms in the castle (although without the opium-poppy motif that recurs in plasterwork in the big house).
With their limited usage, requeststop stations are inevitably vulnerable to questions of long-term feasibility, however, the future, isn’t necessarily bleak. Midway between Beccles and Halesworth, Brampton Station is a request stop on the East Suffolk Line. The line has experienced a 99% increase in usage in recent years and, in August 2015, £350,000 was spent refurbishing the platform, which was sinking due to subsidence.
Working with the East Suffolk Line Community Rail Partnership, the railway company has successfully promoted a scheme for ‘adopting’ stations —both by individuals and community groups, who are given considerable leeway in their custodianship. Pennsylvania-born Aaron Taffera of the Partnership, himself the adopter of nearby Melton Station, tells me: ‘These stations are not under threat: people here are proud of their local stations.’
Although request stop stations such as Brampton are unmanned, the local authority, county council and the partnership cooperate to fund ongoing programmes of historic infrastructure conservation. Rising passenger figures indicate the extent of their success.
Mr Taffera describes Brampton station as ‘exceptionally rural’. A similar tag could be applied to Buckenham station in Norfolk, close to the RSPB nature reserves at Strumpshaw Fen and Buckenham Marshes, and to Shottle station, close to the village of Turnditch in Derbyshire. Opened in 1867, Shottle’s name was changed from Cower’s Lane at the request of the owners of nearby Shottle Hall. Regular passenger services ended in 1947; in 1964, a reduced service of special passenger services also ceased.
The station building was sold and is currently used as offices, although the company in question has inter-
vened minimally in the fabric of the building, which has been sensitively restored and repainted externally in its original colours.
In 2014, Shottle station reopened under private ownership. The overgrown platform had been restored and repaired and the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway timetabled a requeststop service of trains calling at Shottle en route from Wirksworth to Duffield. Volunteers, who range in age from 15 to over 80, almost exclusively staff Shottle station.
Although locals and station volunteers agree that ‘there’s not a lot around the station for people to do, except walk’, the route has proved so popular that, within a year, the request-stop service was replaced with a regular, non-request service. In 2016, thanks to an enthusiastic team of volunteer helpers and enlightened private enterprise, the future of Shottle station appears secure—a phoenix arisen from the ashes and, hopefully, an inspiration to request-stop rail-users across the country.
Ticket to ride: there are more than 150 remote and reassuringly untouched request-stop railway stations in Britain—the past is just a train ride away
Dunrobin Castle had its own private station ( above) and Campbell’s Platform ( right) was opened in 1965 to serve one of Wales’s oldest inhabited houses, Plas y Dduallt, which, at that time, had no road access