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

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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

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