Sunday, 26 November 2017

Sugar Loaf

There were once such things as 'sugar loaves'. It was how refined white sugar was sold to the public. You'd get one from your grocer, a big cone-shaped object of hard, compacted sugar crystals, and snip sugar off it as required, much as you might attack a lump of ice for smaller, more manageable bits to pop in your drink. Here's the Wikipedia article: As you can see, whatever the size or quality of the loaf, it had a distinctive conical shape. And the name 'Sugar Loaf' would get attached to any landscape feature that had just such a shape, usually a rock formation or a hill.

South Wales has its famous Sugar Loaf mountain in Monmouthshire, north-west of Abergavenny. That's the best-known. But in Central Wales there is another Sugar Loaf mountain. It's really just a conical hill set in uplands, rather than a proper mountain, but it does stand out in the local landscape. Here's a view of it I took from the side of the A483, between Llandovery and Llanwrtyd Wells on 27th October. I was approaching it from the south-west.

Here's a clearer, zoomed-in view from the same spot.

As you can see, it's not the highest place in the area, but it offers an all-round view, and apparently it's popular with walkers and mountain bikers. As no doubt the whole area is - this is beautiful countryside.

It is however sparsely-populated, with very few out-of-town facilities. I think you would need to be a pretty dedicated, self-reliant walker or cyclist to venture into this area. Here's a map of the countryside thereabouts. Its mostly hills and forestry land, with the A483 winding through it.

And something else: a railway line. A section of the Heart of Wales Line, that runs from Llanelli in the south-west, down near Swansea, to Craven Arms in Shropshire, a bit south of Shrewsbury. A very long, mostly single-track line (although it was originally double-track). I explored the Craven Arms to Llandrindod Wells section last year, station by station - see The Heart of Wales Line on 22nd August 2016. On the day I went Sugar Loaf, I was station-hopping on the Llandovery to Builth Road section, the hilly, middle third of this very long line. Just a little way outside Sugar Loaf station on the map was the summit of the Line, its very highest point. 

I'd already visited and photographed Llandovery and Cynghordy stations. I was looking forward to seeing Sugar Loaf station. Then I would go on to Llanwrtyd Wells, Llangammarch Wells, Garth, Cilmery and finally Builth Road (that is, the former Builth Road High Level). I won't cover those other seven stations here: that's for another post. For me, Sugar Loaf station was the intriguing one, the must-see one. For not only was it the most remote station on the Heart of Wales Line, it was the least-used. It was in fact the least-used station in Wales. It wasn't presently in the UK Top Ten Little-Used Stations list, but I think it once had been, and might be again. That need not rule out a well-kept appearance, with the kind of high-tech facilities you often see installed even at off-the-beaten-track stations, such as a Help Point with digital real-time train information and updates, a telephone, good lighting, decent seating inside a swish new shelter. Considering its position high up in the mountains, I thought there was every expectation of at least a weatherproof shelter, so that a tired-out walker might sit out the long wait in between trains comfortably shielded from the wind, rain, and sleet. 

Driving on, the A483 skirted the base of the Sugar Loaf hill. There was a lay-by at one point, offering a fabulous view down-valley. I was tempted to stop, but didn't, something I regretted afterwards. The road straightened out. Now where was the Sugar loaf station? What, there? Was that it? I parked Fiona and took pictures looking up and down the road. This was looking back from whence I'd come. Nothing up there, except an isolated haulage depot.

This was looking forward to where I'd go. Nothing in sight.

There wasn't even much traffic on the road. The map showed a few farms hereabouts, but really anybody getting off the train and hoping for a close-by pub - or anything like a village - would be disappointed. You'd have to be completely self-sufficient. And prepared for a long ride or walk to the nearest amenities.

It was a good thing there was a station sign, otherwise you wouldn't realise there was a station there at all! Let's see what a closer approach reveals...

The station was originally opened in 1868, to serve some railway workers' cottages - in those days, routine track maintenance was handled by local men who lived on the spot. Railways were labour-intensive: men with shovels. Presumably the cottages (with their vegetable gardens) had stood by the roadside. Now long gone, of course. The station was closed in 1965, in the middle of the Beeching Era. I dare say it had been genuinely possible - and not just the result of contrived accountancy - to make out a justifiable case for closure on economic grounds. This station must, on paper, have made a thumping loss, being so little used. Here's a map published in 1967. No station. And nothing much else, either. 

But it was reopened nineteen years later, in 1984, with the increasing popularity of outdoor activities. It must have been thought that more and more people would want to use the train to reach this spot, or travel from it, much as they do on the Settle to Carlisle Line. It was a commendable decision, to scrape the moss off one of the old platforms - only one was needed by then - and install new access and at least basic facilities for the anticipated passengers. But they haven't materialised in the numbers hoped for. Here's a close-up of the modern map, covering the same area, more or less, as the 1967 map. Apart from more forest to the north of the A483, almost nothing has changed in fifty years. It's not hard to believe that nothing much will change in the next fifty. 

I was still hopeful of finding a well-equipped station. Leaving Fiona behind, I walked up to the station entrance. There was track of sorts, and then a gate that could do with some repair and repainting. No lighting for after dark, you notice. This wasn't what I had expected. Other stations on the Heart of Wales Line had received obvious TLC. This seemed to be a Cinderella station!

What was beyond the gate? Hmm. Steep steps down. The station was in a cutting, and had no view. Again, not what I expected. I'd imagined extensive views from an exposed position.

Another thought: this wasn't a place to get off the train if you were disabled. You'd be seriously stuck. Well, let's see what lay below.

Gosh, that 'seat' didn't look very comfortable! Surely they could have provided something that, if necessary, might serve as a bed to kip on while awaiting a train? And the shelter was pathetic, much worse than the standard bus-shelter designs found nearly everywhere else in the countryside. This one offered very little protection from the elements, and your feet would get frozen. I found out later, but didn't realise at the time, that the plastic bin with the weatherproof lid was the receptacle for a Visitors' Book. Well, had I known that, I would have left a pertinent comment! 

Really, the place was cheerless and disheartening. If I had tramped ten miles to get here, I'd have wanted more. Maybe word had got around. You know, on social media. Or TripAdvisor. That this was no five-star hotel. And that was partly why only perverse or insane folk boarded or got off trains here.

Apparently there were just 132 of them in 2015/16: not quite three a week. To put this in perspective, in 2015/16 Cardiff Central station handled 14.5 million passengers, of whom 1.8 million were changing to another train there. In 2015/16 London Waterloo station handled 105.2 million passengers, of whom 6.1 million were changing trains there. So 132 people at Sugar Loaf was a very, very small number. You'd definitely be one of a very select band. It was possible, if not probable, that only fanatical train enthusiasts actually used the station. Fanatical in the ornithological birding sense, I mean. The totally enthusiastic, who might try to book a train between Pilning and Golf Street...

What other facilities were on offer? There was a 'pimple strip' near the platform edge, presumably to tell you it was close, and you should step back. There was a sign a little distance up the line to mark the Summit. There were heathers and alpine plants in a kind of untidy garden. There were in fact two lamps on the platform, so that the driver of an approaching train might see people on the platform making a hand signal for the train to stop and pick them up. Surprisingly, there was an electronic display giving the time, and details of the next trains to arrive. But if you wanted to study the timetable, you'd have to climb back up to the gate. 

It was, I suppose, remarkably sunny for a station down in a deep cutting. I took a couple more souvenir photos, more than the place deserved; but I didn't think I would be coming back in my lifetime.

I considered the merits of hanging around for the next train. Not to board it, just to photograph the event. Back at Llandovery, I'd photographed the timetable.

The top left section for the weekday services (it was a Friday), when enlarged, told me that the next train was the 4.11pm to Crewe. After that, the 4.29pm to Swansea. And it was still only 3.17pm. All too far ahead. 

I'd already maxed out on Sugar Loaf station. I couldn't wait patiently the best part of an hour, just to see a rare train arrive and depart. So it was farewell.

As a matter of fact, I did catch up with the next two trains further up the line, at Garth and at Builth Road, so I didn't need to go without a train-sighting in the end. It would have been more than nice to have got a picture from the road bridge just south-west of Sugar Loaf station, but life is just too short; and I'm not a dedicated train buff, just a casual photographer. 

Back home, I was curious to know how the Summer 1962 (pre-Beeching) weekday train service compared to the 2017 offering of four trains a day. Well, I had the 1962 timetable.

The old-style timetable was confusing, but it looked like five trains a day, had Sugar Loaf station then been open. The Heart of Wales Line served - still serves - three spa towns, and must once have had a much better service, to cater for those coming to Llandrindod Wells and the other watering-places for a health cure. That sort of thing went out of fashion long ago. The spa hotels remain, but the era of packed trains up from Swansea, or down from Shrewsbury, is just a memory, and a few intrepid backpackers and muddy mountain-bikers can't fill the gap.

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