Monday, 10 September 2012

The Sleepers Sleep

A recent trawl of You Tube brought up an ancient film called 'The Ghost Train' (1941).  Based on a play by Arnold Ridley (better known as Dad's Army's Private Godfrey, he of the sister Dolly) the film stars Arthur Askey in a particularly irritating turn as a music hall comedian en route to the summer season in  Newquay. After Askey's character pulls the communication cord in order to retrieve a lost hat; a handful of passengers miss a connection at a lonely Cornish junction.  They face an overnight wait for the next train that will enable them to complete their journeys .  The sinister looking Stationmaster (who seems vaguely familiar, I think from one of Will Hay's films) tells them that there is nowhere to stay for the night.  The nearest village is apparently four miles away and the only option is to walk.

Anyone familiar with the modern UK rail system might find this a little far-fetched - a station four miles from where anyone lives?  This is virtually unknown today, perhaps with a couple of exceptions on the West Highland or Settle and Carlisle line.  But, in the pre-Beeching era, stations like this did exist more regularly. Quite often, they would take the name of the nearest settlement and follow it up with 'Road', to signify that a further journey would be needed to get there.

To find the reason why these lonely stations existed, you could do worse than refer to a small volume called 'John Betjeman on Trains'.  Edited and commentated by architectural critic, rail enthusiast and posh boy totty Jonathan Glancey, the book contains a small selection of letters written by Betjeman about trains.

It can be gleaned from this little treasure trove of information that there were two reasons why a railway station might exist in such a neglected spot.  The third letter published was written in 1962 and concerns the Somerset and Dorset railway, perhaps one the most delightful lines that I have never seen.  How I long to change trains at Evercreech Junction.  I have such a soft spot for the S&D - not only did Betjeman love it, it joins two most glorious counties.  Somerset, land of my forebears.  And then Dorset, the county with the most delightfully silly village names in Britain - the entertainment value of which are only surpassed by the beauty of the landscape.  I've passed many a happy time poring over OS maps of the county and having a good laugh.  Anyway, Betjeman's letter makes clear that the S&D was built 'speculatively, hoping to build up passenger and freight traffic that never materialised.'  The letter states:

'And no doubt the S&D directors thought, when they built their stations alone on Sedgemoor - Shapwick, Bason Bridge and the like - that there would grow up around them thriving communities.'  (p28)

But the communities never came.  The S&D was a calculated risk, that just didn't come off.  So when railway mania hit Britain, many lines and stations were built that never made any money.  Most went either under Dr Beeching, or even before he weilded his scythe.

The other reason for these underused stations is simply landowner opposition.  In a Victorian Version of Farmer Palmer, many snobbish and insular local gentry called out "Get orf my laand" when the surveyors came calling.  They didn't want anything so common as a steam engine spoiling the view, rattling the china and curdling the milk.  So the railway engineers had no choice but to divert around the boundaries of the gentry's estates. (Contrast this with all those poor people's dwellings which were swept away in the cities without a second thought.)  To support this, the final letter in 'John Betjeman on Trains' concerns Bodmin Road, which has mercifully survived as Bodmin Parkway (we still have out of town stations called Parkways, but these now generally connect with some other form of transport such as airports).  In his letter, Betjeman dreams about an alternative life at the station.  Glancey provides us with more information in his commentary.  He tells us that:

'Such was the snobbery concerning  railways coming to town - coupled to a real fear of the smoking, snorting train - that local land owners refused to allow tracks into Bodmin itself.' (pp109-110)

These are the quirks that make the history of our railways so appealing, but also I'm afraid sent us down the Beeching route.  Unfortunately, he pruned the branches far harder then he should have done, and I think that only in recent years have the blooms showed any signs of coming back.  Closed routes are starting to open again.  I'd like to add my voice here to the call for the Woodhead route to be re-opened across the Pennines, if only for freight. There's recently been a very interesting series on the campaign for Woodhead in recent issues of the Great Central Railway Society's journal.

'The Ghost Train' is an apt title for a film about an underused station, because so many of them are now only visited by the ghosts of people's memories and imaginations.  Lets' replace some of these with real trains again.

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