Thursday, 16 August 2018

How the mighty have fallen - Shippea Hill and Pilning

Delving into the dim Gothic recesses of Melford Hall, I have found some old train timetables from the 1960s, and made an astounding discovery concerning the rail services at Shippea Hill and Pilning over fifty years ago.

I realise, of course, that although the perusal of dry old historical documents can be fascinating, even a lot of fun, it isn't for everyone. So if train timetables are not your ruling passion in life then please - I entreat you - don't read further. Wait for the next post, on something quite different.

Still with me? Stout fellow! Brave lady!

Shippea Hill first, in 2018 the least-used railway station in the country, primarily because it has such a meagre train service. But it was not always so. An Eastern Region timetable, covering April 1966 to March 1967 - which I found on little-visited shelves in the Melford Hall Study - tells the truth. As ever, click on any of these pictures to see the detail.

That's a lovely colour, isn't it? Table 42 inside is the one showing the service at Shippea Hill.

Looking at just the weekday service, it was excellent for such an out-of-the-way station. Most trains shuttled between Ely and Norwich, but there were some surprising exceptions.

0049 (0102 on Mondays)   Cambridge to Norwich 
0703   London to Norwich 
0743   Norwich to Cambridge
0835   Cambridge to Norwich
0913   Yarmouth to Birmingham
0944   Norwich to Ely
1030   Ely to Norwich
1153   Norwich to Ely
1230   Ely to Norwich
1353   Norwich to Ely
1405   York to Yarmouth
1431   Ely to Norwich
1554   Norwich to Ely 
1630   Ely to Norwich
1742   Norwich to Ely
1745   Cambridge to Norwich
1810   Norwich to Peterborough
1835   Ely to Norwich
1840   Norwich to Cambridge
1913   Norwich to Ely
1931   Birmingham to Yarmouth
2035   Ely to Norwich
2141   Ely to Norwich
2204   Norwich to Cambridge
0015   Norwich to London

Compared to today:

0727   Cambridge to Norwich
1927   Norwich to Cambridge

What happened? What changed? The 1966/67 service was arguably over-generous, but it has been totally slaughtered. 

Pilning's case is similar, except that it never had trains to major distant cities. But like Shippea Hill, it once had a much better local service. I possess the evidence. 

The Library at Melford Hall is reputed to have once been been part of an old abbey. It's a gloomy place really. With no illumination, save that from a shaft of pale moonlight from a narrow window high up in the soaring east wall, I discovered this ancient tome - a copy of the Western Region timetable covering 18th June to 9th September 1962. It had been left inside an open tomb. Prising it from the skeleton fingers of a noble ancestor, and clearing away the cobwebs and bat-droppings, I took it away for study. 

There were two Pilning stations then - High Level (the present station) and Low Level (very close by). They both appear on the top edge of this 1931 Ordnance Survey map.

The Low Level station was on a short section of line that looped westwards then southwards, to connect to the line from Avonmouth at Severn Beach. The route is clear on this 1967 map, although by then the Low Level station was closed.

In present times the whole area has been criss-crossed with new roads, and has become much more built-up, obliterating much of that loop. And you'd look in vain for clear traces of the Low Level station at Pilning.

As for the train service back in 1962, I'll confine my review to the eastbound trains at Pilning High Level, since you can only travel eastwards nowadays. They were all Bristol-bound. The information was in tables 77 and 104...

...from which the service eastwards from Pilning High Level (i.e. towards Bristol) can be deduced:

2006 (2010 on Fridays)

This was a fairly reasonable service for a country station. 

But that wasn't all I found. In the fitful light of a sputtering candle, and with the help of chattering mice and a wise old raven, I ventured into the Melford Hall Catacombs. And there, in the spooky darkness - with only the mummified remains of old monks (and the odd abbot) for company - I stumbled upon this. Blowing away the dust, and shooing off spiders, I saw it was the long-lost Western Region timetable covering 6th March 1967 to 5th May 1968. This too I took away for examination in a better light.   

Welsh Dragon red, I believe. And within, table 3 revealed its awful secrets. The ones Network Rail wants you to forget...

Ha! A decentish daily eastbound service had survived as late as 1967! By then, British Rail (yes, BR: this was still long time before privatisation) had tidied it up, so that, in between the morning and evening peak periods, the trains departed regularly at 16 minutes past the hour, every two hours - and not just at odd moments. 

1816 (1823 during the summer of 1967)

Why had it been reduced to this?

1534 (Saturday only; eastbound only)

For a train to leave, it must first arrive. Could one presently do a round trip to Pilning on Saturdays? One could. 

This is how. You catch the Newport train from Bristol Temple Meads at 1421, fly past Pilning (no westbound platform now), experience the long Seven Tunnel, and then alight at Seven Tunnel Junction in Wales, arriving 1448. Now you twiddle your thumbs and contemplate the infinite cosmos. Stars are born and die while you wait. Eventually, at 1526, you catch a Bristol-bound train from Seven Tunnel Junction. Once more the Seven Tunnel, and then, very soon after you emerge on the English side, you finally reach Pilning and alight. Or you could stay on the train and continue back to Bristol (because the train is now that 1534 departure!), arriving there at 1554. 

It's a way of doing a rather pointless (but still intriguing) journey to Pilning and back from Bristol. 

Is it a conventional return journey, requiring a return fare? I'm not completely sure about that. There is certainly an 'easement' in force - a legal departure from normal rules - because the demolition of the westbound platform at Pilning means that to get to Pilning you have to go all the way to Seven Tunnel Junction, and then come back to the eastbound platform at Pilning. A massive palaver, most inconvenient, and only for the most determined. Recognising that they must ameliorate this, Network Rail regard Bristol/Seven Tunnel Junction/Pilning as one continuous journey, even though two trains are involved and you must change at Severn Tunnel Junction. 

And if you stay on the train? And go the few extra miles back to Bristol again? Does that turn it into a 'return journey'? Would the train company (First Great Western) want extra for the Pilning to Bristol section? Would they dare charge you, considering the incredible inconvenience they have already imposed on you? And if they tried, would you have a good case in court for not paying?

Do they in fact take the view that some litigious and tenacious person (who lives in the area, and champions worthy causes) would love this to get to court, so that Network Rail's disservice to the local community can be exposed to the nation? 

As a footnote - and strictly for timetable connoisseurs - do you feel, like me, that the timetable redesign for 1964/65 was inspired? It was all so much easier to read and understand. I once saw (at school) an original first copy of the redesign, but never since. 

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Shippea Hill

Shippea Hill railway station, only just inside the eastern border of Cambridgeshire, is a very special station indeed. It regularly takes the prize for being the Least Used Station in Great Britain. Occasionally - as happened quite recently - it loses that title to another station, mainly because people who like to do unusual things buy a ticket to travel to it, just to say they have been there, which temporarily swells the passenger-ticket total. Then interest slackens off, and it regains its normal forlorn distinction.

It is one of a number of stations which, for one special reason or another, are kept open. Some of these stations are 'mothballed' - kept open with a sparse service, in case a local housing or industrial scheme ever gets past the planning stage - in which case, the station will be needed. One such is Pilning in Gloucestershire, a little north of Bristol, in the countryside near the Severn Tunnel. I went to see it in March 2014. It was a well-maintained ghost station, which had trains thundering through several times an hour, but just one stopping train each way on Saturdays.

Click on the following maps and pictures, to see the detail.

Since 2014 there have been changes. The footbridge and westbound platform have gone, so that one can arrive and depart only on eastbound trains. Unfortunately the strict height-clearance needs of the London to South Wales Electrification meant demolishing the footbridge and the platform, so that a passenger from, say, Bristol must now travel under the River Severn to Severn Tunnel Junction (in Wales), then back again to Pilning - a ludicrously roundabout journey!

To discourage passenger usage still further, there is now only one train a week, eastbound, on Saturday afternoons, which will get you to Bristol Temple Meads station in twenty minutes. Mind you, that train might well be the fastest travel method into central Bristol! Cost? £4.20 single. Obviously, there is no return service on the same day. (Not for another week, actually)

Here are the Pilning passenger-ticket figures for the three most recent years available:

2014/15    68
2015/16    46
2016/17    230

The 2016/17 figure was a 'blip' - there was local agitation for the station to be made two-platform again, and with a proper train service. Clearly people had deliberately been patronising it, to bump up the usage figures. And I dare say rail enthusiasts from all over the South West went there (by train, naturally) to take a look. 

And yet, even with its truly dire train service, Pilning is not the least-used station in the country. That honour goes decisively to Shippea Hill, whose passenger-ticket figures make Pilning look positively seething with travellers:

2014/15    22
2015/16    12
2016/17    156

Shippea Hill's 2016/17 figure is also a 'blip', but this time because the station was briefly in the news and efforts were made to lure people to it by train, as a tourist stunt. No doubt its recorded passenger usage will slump to 12 again for 2017/18.

Gosh, only twelve people a year - one a month. Was it the same person all the time? If so, what was the purpose of his or her monthly tryst?

Because the A1101 is close by, I'm sure that many people drive there, to see what all the fuss is about. As I did. But of course, they leave no trace of their visit, apart from any photos they may publish afterwards. As I now have.

Strangely, the station has been there a long time. It was opened in 1845 as Mildenhall Road - Mildenhall being a small town miles away to the south-east - then the name was changed in 1885 to Burnt Fen, and finally, in 1904, to Shippea Hill. The old railway company must have struggled to come up with a meaningful name, and it's difficult even now to see what else you could call it.

This is featureless, big-field farmland, devoid of obvious physical features, with very little in the way of dwellings nearby - certainly no village. The line does cross the A1101 road here, midway between Littleport and Mildenhall, but it's not a major route, and the level crossing is of no significance.

There is indeed a 'Shippea Hill', off to the west, with a farm of that name plonked on it - but the 'hill' is only a very slight rise in the land, a mild unnoticeable bump in a vast area of flat fields bounded by sluggish drainage channels.

Actually, much of the farmland hereabouts is actually below sea level, and has been reclaimed from ancient wetland. If the river-dykes ever failed, the area for miles around Shippea Hill station would be submerged beneath a few feet of water. I suppose the platforms at the station itself might just about remain dry, but you'd be marooned. And even the top of Shippea Hill, off to the west, would barely be seen above the lapping water: a low-lying island once more.

It's really hard to understand why the station was ever built in the first place, and why it has lasted. It was never, for example, a railway junction. Perhaps it was for a long time a convenient place for the farmers to take delivery of their fertiliser and seed, and to dispatch whatever they grew. But more recently? How did it escape Dr Beeching's comprehensive line and station closures in the 1960s? After all, his axe fell very heavily on East Anglia. There was a wholesale dismantling of unprofitable lines, and extensive pruning of poorly-patronised stations. 

Well, this one survived the Beeching onslaught. My best guess is that until the level-crossing became remotely-controlled, a manned signal box was required. And stations tend to be built - and maintained - wherever manned signal boxes are. The station at Shippea Hill couldn't have been created to serve a population centre of any kind. Here's a set of maps, at increasingly larger scales, to show how little human habitation there is around this station.

The station isn't in a completely empty landscape, but everyone with a farm job or agriculture-related business in the vicinity will come and go by bike, car, van, truck, tractor or lorry, using the A1101. There is no bus service. There's an outside chance that a few serious walkers using the Hereward Way (a long-distance footpath, named after post-Conquest marshland hero Hereward the Wake) will pass by, but surely no ordinary member of the public will voluntarily foot it here and wait for a train. 

The train service is absolutely minimal, although better than Pilning's. Here is the current timetable. And this is what a footsore traveller will see, if hoping to catch a train.

You can click on that to enlarge the detail, but I'll summarise it for you. Mondays to Saturdays: a morning train from Cambridge to Norwich leaves at 0727; an evening train from Norwich to Cambridge at 1927; nothing on Sundays. All arrivals and departures are by request only - you must tell the train crew if aboard the train, or signal to them if on the platform. They will probably look at you with pity in their eyes.   

So why did I go there? Well, I'm no stranger to out-of-the-way stations and like to take a look at them. Readers may recall, for example, my post called The Heart of Wales Line on 22nd August 2016. Sugar Loaf station was one of the remoter stations on that line, and I made a point of going to see it last year, as recounted in Sugar Loaf on 26th November 2017. Lonely stations tucked away in open countryside draw me like a magnet, as much as ancient churches and stone circles do. And for similar reasons: the special atmosphere; and what I can make of them photographically.

And although people's individual motivations may differ, I am certainly not alone in seeking out the more unusual of Britain's 2,500-odd railway stations. Thus I occasionally encounter people who are not rail passengers on the platforms of these places. Like me, they are intensely curious, and eager to make a photographic record of their visit. 

I am not deliberately working my way through a long list of must-see stations, ticking them off one by one. My visits are haphazard, simply part of a day out. But some people do it with a Big Project in mind. Such as Geoff Marshall and Vicki Pipe, who were in the news last year for raising £38,500 to fund a visit to every station in Great Britain. It was a YouTube video in episodes, called All The Stations. I mentioned this project of theirs in my post Station Hopping on 27th June 2017. Since then, they have been visiting all the least-used stations in every county. Here they are, for instance, on 22nd April 2018, in a train on The Heart of Wales Line at Cynghordy, on the way to Broome station in Shropshire.

I'm afraid I beat them to it. I saw Broome in 2014 - see my Station Hopping post. 

I've mentioned this couple before, not just in Station Hopping, but in a much older post (now no longer published on my blog) on 5th January 2014, The ghost train of Newhaven Marine. It strikes me that sooner or later I shall turn up at some little-frequented station in a rarely-visited part of the countryside and find them both there, plus whatever friend they might have along as 'supporting film crew'. They won't know who I am, but I will certainly introduce myself as a fan of theirs. Who knows, I may end up with a cameo role in one of Geoff Marshall's railway videos, of which there are very many indeed on YouTube. 

Geoff has put some information on 'least used' stations up on the Internet. For instance, this map of the least-used stations for each county in England:

Over the years, I've been to a number of the stations shown on that map...

Acklington (2017)
Havenhouse (1998 and 2017)
Broome (2014)
Shippea Hill (2018)
Pilning (2014)
Finstock (2016)
St Andrew's Road (2014)
Bruton (2017)
Longcross (1979)
Thornford (1997 and 2017)
Beaulieu Road (1970 and 2017)
Doleham (1993 and 2004)
Sampford Courtenay (2014)
Coombe Junction (1983 and 2010)

...and quite a lot of others that if not the least-used in their county, most certainly qualify for a runner-up prize.

I've discovered that Geoff Marshall and Vicki Pipe visited Shippea Hill on 2nd June 2017, and shot this video for YouTube. It's interesting, because not only does it give a very good idea of what the station is like (including from the air - they must have used a drone), but it has a family connection: Vicki's great-grandfather was a signalman here. See  

They also went to Pilning - and caught that Saturday train. See

What does all this digression demonstrate? I suppose I'm saying that, while not by any means a 'railway nerd', I am nevertheless well-qualified to savour whatever the attractions of Shippea Hill might be. 

So here we go. This is what I found on arrival one afternoon in mid-June.

It was next door to a depot of some kind, but nothing noisy was happening there. It was fairly peaceful, and once out on the platforms and away from the road, I barely noticed the light passing traffic. But there was nothing of that feeling of remoteness and timelessness that you sometimes get with such out-of-the-way places. And you could hardly say that the station itself, or its surroundings, were attractively bucolic. I was rather disappointed.

And although it was devoid of passengers, trains raced through. In the short time I was there - hardly ten minutes - three trains made the level-crossing barriers come down, two from the west, one from the east. I wonder what the people aboard those trains thought if they noticed me. Did they shake their heads sadly, knowing that I had eight hours to wait for the next train to anywhere?

Look! Two trains passing each other in the distance at the least-used station in Great Britain! 

The show was over. I'd caught no less than three trains on camera in a short space of time, but otherwise the visit was lacking in thrills. 'Ah well,' you might say to me, 'At least you had the place to yourself.' True; but I would actually have liked to chat with someone else, someone who had come here in the same spirit of tourist curiosity, to see what they thought of this place - and whether it really deserved all the hype. Because to my mind, it doesn't.

Well, what about buying a ticket as a souvenir? That would be something. But there was no ticket machine. Sigh.

My friend Angie has drawn my attention to this ultra-comprehensive post about Shippea Hill - see Everything you might wish to know about its history is there. It makes my own post look flimsy and speculative! Apart from my photos, I suppose.