IF YOU live on the British mainland, getting away from the
persistent thrum of human activity can be a challenge, even in
So, last summer, I was particularly excited to stumble on a
whole raft of tranquil havens, from the west of Cornwall to the far
north of Caithness. They were relatively easy to get to, almost
always offered solitude - and very often a cracking view, and they
all lent themselves to quiet contemplation.
These were not wayside chapels, or mountain tops, or isolated
beaches, or even retreat houses. They were railway request
"Railway what stops?" was the usual response when I told people
I had undertaken a tour of these oases of serenity. I could hardly
blame them: despite there being around 150 such stations in the UK,
I had only ever visited one before last year - and I am an avid
AS THEIR name suggests, they work in a similar way to request
stops for buses: if you want a train to stop, you simply put your
arm out; or, if you are on the train, you let the guard know that
you want to alight.
Often a pen-stroke away from closure, and kept alive by
political expediency, labyrinthine bureaucracy, or sheer whimsy,
these half-abandoned stops rarely suffer the patronage of the
travelling public, and provide calm sanctuaries, even in the middle
The more isolated offerings also offer the bonus of being
outside the range of any mobile reception, thus taking away any
temptation to fill your mind with the noise of everyday life.
Take Sugar Loaf, for example. This tiny halt on the Heart of
Wales line between Llanelli and Shrewsbury was built to serve four
cottages used by railway maintenance workers. The cottages are long
gone, leaving nothing much but a road, the nearby hilltop - after
which the station is named - and a farmhouse or two.
The train I was on spent an hour-and-a-half hauling itself up
from Swansea, which was ample time to let the hills and rivers and
trees outside my carriage window begin the process of calming my
soul. So rare an event is a stop at Sugar Loaf that I hopped off to
a delighted smile and a wave from both the guard and the driver -
how often do you get that?
The next train north was due in five hours' time; so I took off
my watch, breathed out slowly, and let the peace wash over me. It
was like lowering myself gently into a hot bath, knowing that no
one was going to bang on the door for an absolute age.
A FEW of the stations I visited were not even served by a road:
Berney Arms presented me with an intoxicating dose of isolation in
the midst of Norfolk marshes; while the blissful hours I spent on
the platform at Duncraig, watching the subtle changes of light on a
sheltered sea loch, made me feel as if I had been looking over the
shoulder ofan Old Master as he painted. The latter station even has
a tiny wooden hexagonal waiting-room, as fetching as any chapel you
could wish for.
Then there is Penhelig. Overlooking the sands of the Dyfi
Estuary, in west Wales, it is squeezed into a gap barely 300 yards
long between two substantial tunnels. This makes it ideal for
reflecting on the brevity of life, and for remembering that we
could probably cherish it a little more than perhaps we do.
Sone stations, admittedly, take a little planning to get to. The
Greater Manchester stops of Reddish South and Denton, for instance,
are served by just one train a week, and in only one direction
(other stops are within walking distance, in case you do not feel
up to spending a full seven days there).
I felt a particular draw to Reddish South. It welcomes fewer
than 60 visitors a year, but still has some beautiful murals that
contain inspiring messages on which to ponder. For the record, my
favourite mused on the importance of second chances in life.
THE mightily industrial St Andrews Road has the unmistakable feel
of a cathedral about it. Its solitary platform is adrift on a no
man's sea of gantries, antennae, oil containers, warehouses, and a
brace of immense coal silos whose peaks spear the sky like spires.
Everything here is on a grand scale, including the unfeasibly long
freight trains plying distant tracks, whose thunderous groans mimic
the sonorous bass notes of a church organ.
But for the sheer heart-stopping beauty of its view across to
some of Cumbria's southernmost fells, there is little to beat
Kirkby-in-Furness. Lovers of pews will be excited to learn that one
of its platforms once possessed the longest station bench in the
world. Now, you will have to make do with a three-seater.
Nevertheless, you will find it just as good a place from which to
lift up your eyes unto the hills.
Dixe Wills is an author and travel writer. His next
book, Tiny Stations, is to be published on 1 April by AA
RAILWAY request stops are easily identifiable on
timetables by the "x" in the time each train is scheduled to pass
through there (e.g. "13×04" instead of "13:04"). They often come in
clusters: rich pickings can be found on branch lines in Cornwall
and Devon; the backwaters of Norfolk; the Cumbrian Coast Line; the
Heart of Wales and Cambrian Coast Lines; and the remoter parts of
Scotland. Or you can start with one of my top-ten request stops for
seekers of spiritual refreshment: Lelant (Cornwall); Newton St
Cyres (Devon); St Andrews Road (near Bristol); Reddish South (near
Stockport); Kirkby-in-Furness (Cumbria); Penhelig (Gwynedd); Roman
Bridge (Conwy); Beasdale, Duncraig, and Altnabreac (all