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Go off the rails next holiday

by
24 January 2014

If you are in need of a bit of space, or some peace and quiet, railway request stops in the UK are the perfect answer, discovers Dixe Wills

Dixe Wills

Leisurely pace: a train approaches Buckenham station, just visible through the trees, one of the UK's request railway stops

Leisurely pace: a train approaches Buckenham station, just visible through the trees, one of the UK's request railway stops

IF YOU live on the British mainland, getting away from the persistent thrum of human activity can be a challenge, even in remote areas.

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 stops.

"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 railway traveller.


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 of cities.

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 Publishing.

 

TRAVEL details
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 Highlands).

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