Monday, 22 August 2016

The Heart of Wales Line

When planning a day out while on holiday, I find it really helps to think of a theme, and stick with it. At least for a few hours, anyway! I was in Shropshire, and looking westward on the road atlas. It would be pleasant to explore the central uplands of Wales. But which route to take? And then I saw that there was a straightforward solution: just follow the Heart of Wales Line from station to station. Some of those stations were pretty remote, almost lost in the hills. It would involve mapwork and country lanes. Just right. I couldn't do the entire length of the Line; it was too long; but if I made Llandrindod Wells my south-westward goal, and then turn back, that would keep the day out manageable.

So this post is about what I saw at each station. One of the 'incidents' has been described already (see last week's post The Dog Test). But there is more to relate.

The Line is strongly promoted as a tourist attraction in its own right, mainly for walkers who want to see wonderful scenery. It also forms a vital link between a string of towns and lesser communities (some of them barely a cottage or two) between the city of Swansea and Craven Arms.

There are thirty-one stations on the route between the starting and finishing points. Seventeen of these are such minor stations that trains stop only on request - apparently you have to give a clear hand signal to the driver as the train approaches. And of course this means that the train has to trundle along at a speed slow enough to stop in time! It actually takes three hours and forty minutes to ride from Swansea to Craven Arms, or vice versa.

Not only is it slow, the train service is sparse. Anyone thinking of using the Line would need to work out their timings very carefully. There are trains from early morning to mid-evening, but they run only every four or five hours. It would be highly inconvenient - possibly a disaster - to miss one of these trains, especially at one of the remoter stations! That said, every station that I saw was well-maintained, had a shelter, and electronic devices to inform the passenger, and to let him or her summon emergency assistance if required. And many stations within Wales were also bedecked with flowers, and looked very attractive. I dare say one could get very bored, waiting around for the next train; but one wouldn't die of visual stimulus. There would be the surrounding scenery, for one thing.

Craven Arms is a community that grew up around its station, which at one time was an important country junction on the main line from Cardiff and Newport to Shrewsbury and beyond. And it still is a junction. From the beginning, the station attracted the kind of services important to farmers. But the population in the vicinity is growing. There is new housing, and most of the facilities you associate with a small town. I didn't look in on the station this time, because I'd visited it as recently as 2014. It's become rather basic, but as befits a semi-urban setting there are taxis and regular buses to hand.

117,000 people (2,250 per week) used this station in 2014/15. Healthy numbers for the Welsh Borders; but nothing compared to the passenger numbers Sussex sees. Haywards Heath, for example, was used by 4,471,000 people (85,980 per week) in 2014/15.

If you click on the bottom picture, you will get an enlarged view, and you'll be able to make out the Heart of Wales line diverging off south-westwards towards the next station, Broome. This 1994 view shows that more clearly. (How the trees have grown in eighteen years!)

This is still in Shropshire, and therefore in England. Welsh Border country. Fortified homes were required in medieval times, and just down the road is Stokesay Castle, a moated country house that could be defended against marauding gangs of Welshmen from Powys. When I went there in 2014, all was at peace, with no pillaging going on at all:

The Heart of Wales Line ran past, not too far off. You got a fine view of it from the ramparts of the Castle. The train looked small and insignificant in the landscape:

The first station after Craven Arms was Broome. I skipped it too, having seen it already in 2014. This is how it was, two years back:

Originally there would have been two platforms, with double-track between them. But rationalisation had produced something much more basic. There was a little village close by, but the station itself felt detached from it, not much used, and very much 'out-of-town'. 1,990 people used the station in 2013/14 - that's only 38 a week. I marvelled at the neat, unvandalised appearance of this out-of-the-way place.

Here's me, testing out the shelter. There was not a soul to watch me.

The next station was Hopton Heath. As with Broome, I passed by and didn't stop. Here the former station buildings still stand, converted into a private home. Here are some 2014 views. All was whisper-quiet, despite some nearby houses and a holiday park. Hopton Heath was better-used in 2013/14 than Broome: 2,990 people waited for a train here, but that's till only 57 a week, and I was again surprised how well-kept it looked.

You reached the platform via some steps.

Next, Bucknell. The last station properly in England. (Knighton's station is also - technically - in England, but only by a few yards) I did actually stop at this one, and had a good look at it. It was next to an ungated level crossing, and a winking red signal light warned the train driver to take care. He'd need to, as this was a fairly busy locality, with a car or the odd villager on foot crossing the track every few minutes - the village store lay beyond the level crossing. I even took a phone call here - I was on the station platform, busy with my camera, when a friend phoned from Shoreham Beach, inviting me to a barbecue when I got home again. So even here my relentless social life had caught up with me.

A pretty stone station building, of some merit, now someone's private house. Despite the single line, the other platform was undemolished and maintained in good order, why I could not guess. Perhaps there was a long-term plan to expand the village, and one day the Line would be busier and both platforms used again. As it was, Bucknell still felt like one of the more important stations on the Line. 5,806 people used it in 2013/14 - which is 111 per week. So you might well have company when waiting for a train - though not when I was there!

Next, Knighton. The town itself is just inside Wales, and you immediately notice its Welshness. It's a proper town, too, one of the larger places on the Line, although really still on the small side. I parked Fiona in a vast car park near the leisure centre, and looked at the station first. I'd last been here in 1994, just passing through, but I'd stopped to take this shot:

It was a much brighter and warmer day when I returned in 2016. Not much had changed. The main station building, stone-built with high gables, was now occupied by a veterinary practice. It all looked spick and span.

Knighton was a place where trains crossed, so there were two platforms with double-track between them. 21,930 people used the station in 2013/14 - that's 421 per week. Say ten persons for each of the 44-odd trains that call during the week, counting both directions of travel.

I was not alone at the station. Waiting in the shelter on the platform for Swansea-bound trains was a young woman, and we got chatting. She'd recently moved with her partner from Machynlleth (near the coast, away to the north-west). His job had moved to Knighton, and she'd been successful in finding work too, at the chief hotel in town. In fact she had had three job offers, which surprised me, because I'd thought jobs in this area might be hard to find. They both loved Knighton. Why did she like it? Oh, the friendly atmosphere, and because it was so peaceful. Clearly Knighton was a special place to her. Where were her family? Back at Machynlleth. To see them, she had to take the train to Shrewsbury, and then another westwards through Newtown and then to Machynlleth.

She was presently on maternity leave. The baby was due in a month's time. She was meeting a friend off the next train, which was due shortly. Here she is, walking forward to greet her friend as the train pulled in:

I wished her good luck with the birth, and happiness to follow.

I hung around to see the train depart, this time chatting with the guard. But there was clearly a problem abut it going further. The driver was speaking to a group of maintenance workers, and it seemed that there was an issue with the points beyond the road bridge, where the section of double track ended and merged into a single line again. I gave it five more minutes, then walked away, taking these shots before I left:

Knighton did have a pleasant atmosphere, and certainly some character. In the town centre was a square, with an ornate Victorian clock tower. From this, a steepish road went uphill, becoming pedestrians-only as it narrowed. All the shops had Welsh names on them. I passed several locals, each of whom gave me a nice smile. I saw what the girl at the station was talking about, when she said it was a friendly place to live!

A team in Powys County Council high-vis overalls - mostly middle-aged men, it seemed to me - were emptying the public waste bins. I saw one casually lift up what looked like a heavy cast-iron bin, tip out the contents, then put it back in place without seeming bothered at all by the weight he had just coped with. How could a middle-aged man, who didn't look especially strong, do that?

The bin hadn't clanged as I thought it would. I looked closer - it was actually made of black-and-gold plastic, moulded to look exactly like an iron bin. I caught his eye. I said, 'Well, you live and learn. I didn't know those bins were made of plastic. I thought they were made of iron.'  'Oh no, love, but they do look exactly like the real thing, don't they now?' he replied. 'They do indeed. They fooled me. I've always thought they must be really heavy, and when I saw you lift that one up as if it were a feather, I thought to myself: What a man!' He laughed heartily at that. We both did. It's a good sign, when strangers can be nice to each other, when they don't have to be.

I liked Knighton.

Three miles further on was Knucklas, the next station. The village of that name was nothing special. It had infilled with new housing, and the station, once detached, was now crowded in by a modern housing estate. A man was tending his garden near where I parked Fiona. He didn't give me the slightest attention. The station was up a short path.

Nothing special here, except the display of flowers in tubs and hanging baskets, and the general neatness and tidiness of the place. Knucklas was used by 4,928 people in 2014/15, or 94 per week. Clearly people who respected their station.

Llangunllo station, the next, had the distinction of being the highest on the Line - and one of the most remote. I had high hopes for it. I wanted it to be in a scenic position, with a wonderful view; and to be much more primitive than the other stations - certainly less modernised and well-equipped. It was situated just off a very minor road in high hills. This was prime walking-country - a long-distance footpath called Glyndŵr's Way passed nearby - but surely, of all stations on the Line, this would be the least-used and the most romantic?

Well, getting there from Llangunllo village (nearly two miles away) was a real test of driving skill! The roads were very narrow indeed. I wondered what would happen if I met a tractor with a trailer. It would be a total nightmare to back up. I reached the spot where the station ought to be, but saw only some houses, presumably holiday lets. I drove on, then returned to the houses. Thankfully, there was somewhere to park. Where was the station? And then I heard a rain coming. I was just in time to see it pass close by - very close to those houses, almost in the front garden of one of them.

It forged onwards without slacking pace. So nobody had been waiting on the platform, wherever that was, to give it a signal to stop.

The station had to be very close by. But there was no sign to it at all. One of the houses looked much older, more formal, than the other - as if it might once have been a station-master's house! Aha.

The way to the station had to be between those houses, even though it looked as if I would be trespassing if I tried to go that way. Hey-ho, they can't kill me. I opened the gate, crossed the tarmac, and headed for the garden beyond. A chappie was doing something in the house to the right. I saw him through the window. He looked at me, but didn't protest. Hmm, that was encouraging. And yet I was still faced with what looked exactly like a private garden! And still not the slightest indication that a station lay somewhere in front of me. Just that path...

Well, I stuck out my chin, twanged my bra straps, and stepped forward. And emerged onto this:

Uuuuh? I'd been expecting a real hole-in-the-wall, untended, overgrown, mossy, brambly, scruff-bag of a station. A station so out of the way that nobody ever used it, nor cared about it. A forgotten and forlorn wreck of a station.

This neat super-maintained place with its immaculate shelter, smart painted railings, electronic train indicator and leafy backdrop was a shock! It was surreal. It wouldn't look out of place somewhere in the Surrey commuter belt, as a little station on the line to Virginia Water and Sunningdale perhaps. In fact, I recalled that long ago in the 1980s, when living in London, I had taken a walk on Chobham Common and had found just such a lonely station. It was called Longcross. It was right out in the middle of nowhere; but superbly maintained, because it was used by the hundreds of staff at the adjacent MOD research establishment. Quiet men in suits. Bland technicians. The odd army man. All arriving on trains that the ordinary public used - but alighting onto platforms that the ordinary pubic were discouraged from visiting, unless on proper MOD business, and in possession of a pass. Armed security guards. Dogs. Menacing warning notices.

This wayside station at Llangunllo had that same ambience. A secluded, hard-to-find, almost secret little station that looked suburban, fake and artificial, and quite out of place in the Welsh hills. It was marked on the map, but it didn't feel in any way like a genuine station intended for public use. Was it something else? Perhaps a dropping off point for Security Service operatives, with safe houses nearby staffed by MI5 men? Or a discreet and isolated reception point for spies and diplomats coming in from the cold, arriving there via Platform 3 at Shrewsbury station, to be 'processed' and in due course dealt with. (If you have ever been to Shrewsbury station, as I have, you will know that Platform 3 is the only one that you can sneak onto from the street without going through some kind of barrier. You don't even have to go through the ticket hall. You just climb the stairs, or take the lift, and hang around unnoticed for a Heart of Wales Line train)

Was there a Government Bunker not far off? A place from which the direction of of The War could be carried on, if the EU, or Russia, or China, or North Korea, or Argentina, ever invaded?

Gosh, had video cameras been watching me, as soon as I stepped between the houses and walked into that back garden? Had that man in the house pressed a red button? Was my face even now being scanned, and a database frantically being searched, in case I was already on file as a foreign agent or terrorist? What would they be making of my camera? Oops...

Would they quickly conclude that I was an innocent but determined member of the public, who had blundered like a silly moth into MI5's Secret Welsh HQ, and could be safely allowed to blunder out? Or would they play for safety, and arrest me? As I  stood on the platform, were alarm bells ringing, and armed men scrambling to action stations?

What could I actually say to explain my presence? How could I prove I was not a spy with a camera? I'd have no papers to show. I'd be detained at gunpoint, taken away, interrogated. Thus are people snatched from Surrey railway platforms. It must happen on remote Powys platforms too. Believe me, despite appearances, I was eager to get away fast when taking this picture:

I fled. I found out later that in 2014/15 Llangunllo had been used by 810 people, or 15 per week. Only 15! Most trains must whizz by a completely empty platform. I'm amazed that this station - if genuine - is not only kept open, but maintained in such astonishingly good condition. It might encourage patronage, of course, if there were a sign, however small, that said 'Passengers! The station you are looking for is through the garden!' Those 15 users each week must feel very special, having what is essentially a private station all to themselves.

Llangunllo hadn't delivered my vision of bucolic Welshness. But the next on the Line, Llanbister, did. The nearby hills were lower, but really it was just as remote. There was no suggestion at all of the Home Counties. In 2014/15 1,242 people used this station - that's only 23 per week.

It was serene, despite tractor noises from the hill. The flowers were nice, simple but colourful. Surely local people must be making the effort to plant them, and to keep the station looking pretty? Or perhaps the Powys Tourist Board had a squad who did it?

The going was easier now, the roads less narrow, and the signposts more helpful.

Next, Dolau. Gosh, it was Flower City. I had never seen a station more decorated with plants of all kinds. It was rather overwhelming. As if I'd stumbled on the Chelsea Flower Show at a wayside station in Mid-Wales.

Along the platform, a memorial (Royal Patronage!) and even a painting on display.

The shelter was a kind of shrine to past glories at Dolau station. It was actually a cabin, with doors that shut tight against inclement weather. Inside, a very comfortable seat. The walls were filled with 'Best Kept Station' awards, old photographs, maps, leaflets, and there was a fine selection of railway magazines to browse through. Waiting for one's train would be very pleasant.

There was a Visitors Book too. I wrote something complimentary in it.

A local society was responsible here for the amazing floral and shrubbery displays, and the contents of the shelter - or should I say 'waiting room'? And yet their efforts were enjoyed by only 1,396 people who used the station in 2014/15: just 26 a week. Unless you include those who drove out here in their cars, like myself. I dare say there might be quite a number of those.

By this time I'd almost had enough of wayside stations. Pretty they might be; and their rural settings admirable; but I was getting tired, in need of refreshment, and the thought of a nice cuppa or an ice cream at Llandrindod Wells was on my mind somewhat.

The penultimate station on my list was Penybont. The lady I encountered there is described in The Dog Test. She thought Penybont was a most attractive station, but I thought it was only so-so.

Huh. Flowerwise, it was a big comedown after Dolau! Of course, I didn't say that to her. In 2014/15 1,706 people used Penybont station - 32 per week. I wondered who they could be. Somehow this station seemed the least inviting of them all. And it was close to a main road, and buses. I dislike buses, but they would certainly be a better bet than using this station. I wouldn't want to be stranded here on a winter's afternoon, with the light failing.

Just Llandrindod Wells now. The town was the largest on the Line. Its station was also the most used: 43,706 people in 2014/15, or 840 per week. That's a big number for a one-coach diesel service to handle. The station had proper (you could say elegant) buildings on two platforms, with double track in between, as, like at Knighton, trains passed each other here. The town Museum (which I visited) described how as many as 80,000 holidaymakers would come here annually in the station's heyday.

I had a quick walk around the town centre, but didn't discover a café I fancied, nor an ice-cream parlour. What I wanted must have been there, somewhere, but by now I was feeling jaded and unenthusiastic, and I abandoned the search. I contented myself with what was left of my packed lunch, with water to wash it down with, then headed back to Shropshire.

Llandrindod Wells had been a spa town, and tucked away must have been pleasant parks, and hotels offering old-fashioned comfortable hospitality, including soothing afternoon tea. The map showed a lake that I missed. I bet it was pretty.

I hadn't come here in the right frame of mind. I'd attempted too much, was tired, and disinclined to walk around and explore. I'll revisit the place again sometime, and give it a second chance.

Still, I had seen every station I'd planned to. Mission accomplished.

1 comment:

  1. It was a sad day when we lost rural train service, even worse when the trackways were allowed to be broken up and ability to get into the country away from roads was lost forever. How great to have the freedom to explore.


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