Stop the train, I want to get off: The magic of Britain's railway request stations

There are around 150 little-known railway request stations in Britain, which simply require you to ask the driver to pull in

It was in stepping off the train at Duncraig that I first experienced the magical draw of the railway request stop. I had travelled to the minuscule station near the west coast of Scotland to write a feature about the eponymous castle it serves and, having never come across the concept of the request stop, had been surprised to learn that, if I wanted to get off there, I would have to make my intentions known to the guard.

Great was the rubbernecking among my fellow travellers when the train slowed to a halt and I alone arose to leave it. “Who’s he?” I felt their enquiring eyes ask. “Is he someone important?” I wasn’t, sadly, but at that moment I felt pretty special. When I left the next day and put my hand out to make the train stop, the sense that this was my own private railway station had been cemented.

Duncraig, I was to discover, was far from unique. There are 150 or so railway request stops in Britain, which equates to about 6 per cent of all the nation’s stations. Yet, unless you happen to live near one, there’s every chance you’ll never have heard of any of them. That’s a pity, because many of these half-abandoned stops afford a glimpse into a Britain of the  not-so-distant past that has all but disappeared from view.

Some of these stations were built to serve once-thrusting industries such as china clay extraction (Bugle, Cornwall, where the first waggons were pulled by horses ) and iron smelting (St Andrews Road, near Bristol). Others were established for the sole convenience of stately home owners (Dunrobin Castle, Sutherland) and still others were created for day-tripping attractions (The Lakes, Warwickshire) – indeed, the reasons for building them are almost as numerous as the stations themselves.

Often a pen’s stroke away from closure,  many of these stations cling on to life for reasons that have little to do with logic: political expediency, labyrinthine bureaucracy and sheer whimsy are often involved or, in the case of Duncraig, an outright rebellion in which local train drivers simply refused to accept that the station had been closed (after 11 years it was grudgingly re-opened). Campbell’s Platform on the Ffestiniog Railway (Dixe Wills) Campbell’s Platform on the Ffestiniog Railway (Dixe Wills)

My travels in search of Britain’s most interesting railway request stops took me from the far west of Cornwall to the far north of Scotland. I drank at the Berney Arms, a pub in the wilds of Norfolk that is only accessible via its eponymous station or by boat; visited Talsarnau, a station that fell victim to a tsunami in 1927 (yes, you read that right – a Welsh tsunami); and witnessed the place where Robert Stephenson blew a massive hole through Conwy’s extraordinary medieval town wall in order to plop two tracks and a station inside what is now a treasured World Heritage Site.

As with the best of trips, one or two misadventures came my way. At Tonfanau in Gwynedd, I brilliantly left the first 10,000 words of notes for my book in the loo of the train. It took a hitch-hike, the perseverance of a policeman called Gareth Edwards (not the rugby player) and the kindness of a train cleaner to reunite me with it some hours later. It was apposite that it was at Tonfanau that I encountered such lashings of helpfulness, because it was here in 1972 that local people rallied round to turn the disused anti-aircraft training camp that was the station’s raison d’être into somewhere habitable for 1,300 refugees who had been summarily thrown out of Uganda by Idi Amin.

A week or so later, I ended up saving an elderly man’s life, largely by being in the right place (Bootle in Cumbria) at the right time, when he collapsed in the street and split his head open. My return to the station afterwards was less of a triumph. A teenage girl, sitting cross-legged on the platform, stared at me in horror. It was only when I looked down that I noticed that both my hands were dripping with blood (I had held the gentleman’s head together for some time). “I’m not a serial killer!” I wanted to shout to the girl, but since this is a sentence that is rarely likely to reassure an audience, I held my peace.

The story of Bootle is one of great heroism. It was here in 1945 that train driver Harold Goodall lost his life attempting to put out a fire in a wagon loaded with depth charges. Had he and his fireman, Herbert Stubbs, not first bravely uncoupled the wagon from the rest of the train, many more lives would undoubtedly have been lost. It’s a shame that there’s still no plaque at the station to commemorate the men’s selfless feat.

The more that I travelled, the greater the number of oddities that sprang up. For instance, although Greater Manchester’s Reddish South and Denton stations are neighbours, I had to visit them seven days apart because they are served by a single train a week: the so-called Denton Flyer that leaves Stockport station every Friday at 10.13am. Meanwhile, in order to alight at Lympstone Commando in Devon, I had to seek permission in advance from an officer at the eponymous camp.

But for me, the greatest fascination came from what railway request stops said about Britain. Time after time, they highlighted the things that were once important to us but that we have now firmly left in the past (you’ll search for the cavalry camp at Burnley Barracks in vain, for instance), or to serve rural communities that have withered away as their populations have been driven towards towns and cities.

Their continued existence in the shadowy world between the fully functional and the completely closed also stands as testament to the British talent for fudging the issue. However, these quirks of our railway network are to be cherished, for a visit to a railway request stop is, more often than not, a visit to a calmer, more serene and gentler place – a place out of time.

‘Tiny Stations’ by Dixe Wills is published by AA publishing (£16.99)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - Franchised Main Dealer

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

    Recruitment Genius: Group Sales Manager - Field Based

    £21000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Guru Careers: Email Marketing Specialist

    £26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Email Marketing Specialist is needed to join...

    Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

    Day In a Page

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links