Up in smoke: How Britain's rail network reached the end of the line

Fifty years after 5,000 miles of Britain’s rail network were axed as part of the Beeching cuts, we ask: how has the country moved on?

"No one departs, no one arrives…"

The railways entered the soul of England long ago, so when, 50 years ago in March, Dr Richard Beeching took his famous axe to them, cutting 6,000 miles of track and more than 2,000 stations, the damage was emotional as much as practical.

Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, writers and performers of classic comic gems such as "I'm a Gnu" and "The Gasman Cometh", rose to the occasion with "The Slow Train", a song that abandons their usual terrain of absurdity and gentle satire for a more melancholy register. Because, while the hippopotamus, the cannibal and the mindless patriot might be fit matter for laughter, the end of so many branch lines touched a more painful chord, one they stoked for all it was worth:

"…No whitewashed pebbles, no Up and no Down,

From Formby Four Crosses to Dunstable Town

I won't be going again

On the slow train…"

Strangely, despite the passing of five decades, the song still speaks to us, and not only those who were at school when the final British steam engines were commissioned. Flanders and Swann conjured a picture of a quiet, moss-grown, misty country of meandering branch lines that could never co-exist with the coming age of motorways.

Our main lines, such as today's High Speed 1 and 2, carve the straightest of lines between the country's biggest cities. They are statements of the bleeding obvious. The branch lines are different.

Dreamt up by slightly crazy speculators during the Railway Mania years of the Victorian age, they wander between towns and villages which often had no urgent need to be joined up, linked for reasons that in some cases had evaporated before the tracks were laid. Their managers groped for ways to justify their existence; British Railways, post-nationalisation, treated them with vague disdain or merely cut them adrift; Beeching and the man who appointed him, Tory Transport Minister Ernest Marples, yanked out the life support.

Yet, 50 years on, the picture is by no means uniformly bleak. Some of the stations mentioned in the song have indeed vanished without trace. Yet parts of many track beds have been converted into cycling paths. Some stations and lines went extinct – but then, when the real scale of the menace of mass car ownership became clear, they were resuscitated as commuter lines. And one or two sailed on regardless, rescued by politicians less ideologically hidebound than Marples, and flourish still.

"No more will I go to Blandford Forum…"

Long gone, the railway adornment of this handsome Georgian town in Dorset. Yet there are many who still mourn its passing. Lovingly preserved videos now accessible on YouTube capture the chuffing of steam in and out of the platforms, while the video "Blandford Forum Railway Station 1960's Part Two" immortalises the day of trauma when half the town mustered to see the old railway arches blown up.

"On the slow train,

Cockermouth for Buttermere…"

Stations out of fantasy, so long gone they have vanished from memory, so deeply dead that in the case of Buttermere, even Wikipedia comes up blank, while disused-stations.org.uk, treasure trove of data for the hardcore enthusiast, has nothing to say about either.

Yet Cockermouth existed once upon a time, one end of the Cockermouth, Keswick and Penrith Railway, winding through some of the most beautiful landscapes in England, and whose stations might have provided Flanders and Swann with one or two more verses: Threlkeld, Troutbeck, Penruddock…

"No churns, no porter, no cat on a seat

At Chorlton-cum-Hardy or Chester-le-Street…"

Sometimes history has proved Flanders and Swann farcically wrong. Chorlton-cum-Hardy, just south of Manchester city centre, died but was recently reborn simply as Chorlton, a stop on the city's Metrolink commuter tram line.

And Chester-le-Street on the East Coast Main Line between Newcastle and Durham, is now in the hands of a company called Chester-le-Track, which is sparing no effort to reinvent the railway station as a modern, even futuristic business: "Welcome to Chester-le-Street, the town where the Bible was first translated into English," burbles the station's website. "Chester-le-Track is a real railway station on the track (not the street) at Chester-le-Street… GNER trains whizz through, but we are served by Virgin, First Trains and Northern Rail, for whom we act as agents at this independent station.

"As well as being a real operational railway station, we run an internet business, with a range of railway, travel and leisure web domains… You can… rent names from us… diversions to your own website can often be arranged within minutes."

The website features a videogame-like map of the lines that link with the station, with colour-coded trains buzzing along them and flashing importantly when they stop at Chester-le-Street.

"The Sleepers sleep at Audlem and Ambergate…

…Pye Hill and Somercotes…"

I want to see what remains of some of these lost stations with my own eyes, and as reaching them by rail is obviously not going to work, I rent a car at Heathrow and set off for the Peak District.

I haven't been up the M1 for years. The growth of the motorways was the other great factor, besides the railway system's disastrous losses, behind Beeching's swingeing cuts.

The first section of the M1, England's first motorway, opened in 1958, five years before the railway axe descended. There was never much romance about the motorways; Leeds, where I went to university, styled itself "Motorway City of the Seventies", but Britain's controlled-access highways failed to replicate the lure of the American freeway, the magic of Route 66, even Dylan's vision of the surreal horror of Highway 61: "Abe said 'Where d'you want this killing done?'/ God said 'Out on Highway 61…'"

Instead of a sense of freedom, in Britain from the outset there was merely the terror of taking the wrong exit or getting pulled over for speeding or involved in a smash. A schoolfriend and I were trying to hitchhike on the M1 in 1968 when a police car picked us up and threatened to take us to the local morgue to show us what happened to idiots like us.

Today, all those negatives are overshadowed by another: congestion. For the whole length of the road up to Derby, I never get to see more than 100 yards ahead. At least in the old days there were some gaps. A serious crash has closed Junctions 25 and 26 on both sides. For what feels like hours we are grinding forward at five miles per hour. What will this road be like in another 10 years, never mind another 50? It's rapidly approaching a dead end.

I finally make it to Somercotes, a sprawling village between Derby and Nottingham just west of the motorway. But there is no station. Not only that, no one I speak to has even heard of Somercotes having a station. Blokes drinking in the Devonshire Arms scratch their heads. It existed until 1963, of that there is no doubt, but even men born a decade before that have no memory of it. As elsewhere, they must have taken down the station building, ripped up the track, demolished the signal box, blown up the bridge, sold off the track bed, et voilà: an epoch of the town's life erased.

Driving west from Somercotes, grateful to find some human-scale roads, the great bulk of the Derbyshire Dales rises before me. And the sun comes out. The banal suddenly becomes dramatic, stone cottages dwarfed by the scale of the hills, the black-stone railway embankment winding along the contours of the Derwent valley above the road.

Flanders and Swann were wrong: the sleepers do not sleep at Ambergate. But they have plenty of time between trains to nap. The complex history of Ambergate station is the sort of thing to fill rail historians with joy – three or four private companies staking a claim to it during the middle of the 19th century, resulting in the construction of a rare triangular station to cope with the different companies' trains slicing in and out in different directions. All in the middle of the delicious Nowhere of the Dales. k

None of this is easy to imagine today, when Ambergate is no more than an unmanned halt on East Midland Trains Local, the platform shelter barely larger than the bicycle rack behind it. Yet something of the old fizz of the place lingers: people still care about it. A poster boasts: "Derwent Valley Line Celebrates Five Community Rail Awards". Another notice explains how they are trying to kick-start a "Derwent Valley Line Community Rail Partnership". "The Partnership's vision," it explains, is "the operation of a frequent and reliable seven-day-a-week railway service that will attract a growing market, meet the needs of residents and visitors and support the economy of the Derwent Valley." In other words, become a real railway again. Could the time be ripe?

"No one departs, no one arrives

From Selby to Goole, from St Erth to St Ives…"

Another egregious error in prophecy, and the happiest of the lot: St Erth to St Ives was reprieved in 1966, two weeks from closure, by Labour's dynamic and remarkable Transport Minister, Barbara Castle. The so-called "Red Queen" signed off on the closure of more than 2,000 miles of rail, following Dr Beeching's prescription and betraying Labour's election promise – but those were the days when Labour wasn't afraid to do things differently from the Tories, and she balked at shutting this little line; her honeymoon in Cornwall may have had something to do with it. The Looe Valley Line has since become celebrated as perhaps the most beautiful in the country.

In The Kingdom by the Sea, the global railway aficionado Paul Theroux wrote, "There were few pleasures in England that could beat the small three-coach branch line like this one from St Erth to St Ives." Another railway expert, Michael Williams, formerly of The Independent, wrote in his book On the Slow Train, "The building of the line was a grand gesture by a consortium of the Great Western, Bristol and Exeter and West Cornwall railways, who saw in the failed mines and uncertain fisheries of St Ives little prospect of success but were persuaded in the vague hope the town might become a tourist resort."

That must have seemed an inspired hunch back in the 1870s, when Cornwall was quite as gritty an industrial zone as anything in the north of the country. Even a century later, when Mrs Castle granted a reprieve, there must have been more hope than certainty in the decision. Yet both she and the Victorian railway grandees before her were blessed with the gift of foresight: St Ives has indeed become a celebrated resort, and the Looe Valley Line has done something, if not nearly enough, to prevent West Cornwall being overrun by cars.

Castle also dragged British motoring into the modern world, introducing the breathalyser, the 70mph speed limit and compulsory seatbelt-wearing; she saved what remained of the branch lines with her Transport Act of 1968 – and she made Flanders and Swann eat their sad words.

"On the slow train from Midsomer Norton…"

Another foray, this on a day of driving, bone-chilling rain, brings me up into Somerset's Mendip Hills, to a station with a beautiful name whose history, with all its twists and turns, epitomises the complex, unpredictable, often disastrous but unfinished story of England's slow trains.

The railway has gone from here, but one should not make the mistake of thinking it has gone for ever. Its history is part of the warp and the weft of modern Midsomer; the modern world is prone to flips and flops, sudden leaps forward and backward that would have dazzled and baffled the slow- plodding world of our ancestors.

The ancient Romans carved one of the southernmost parts of the Fosse Way close to where this town now stands. The place is first found mentioned in English annals in 1304. The name may relate to the Somer river, which flows from one end of the town to the other, or to the midsummer festival of St John. Downside, the Catholic boarding school, was established nearby in 1606. The grandfather of Evelyn Waugh settled in the town, long before anybody dreamt of running a railway through it.

The railway was founded, like many others, because this was a coal-mining area. The last pit closed in 1966, the same year as the Somerset and Dorset Railway (S&D) that went through the town. From part of the old track bed that is now a cycling route you can see the spoil heap, like a squat grey volcano, to the north-east.

For most of its century of life, coal was the bedrock of the S&D's business, but the men who built it found other sources of revenue, too. One idea that didn't work was to bring the inhabitants of South Wales down to the south coast and from there by ferry over to France: not enough of them wanted to go. A more successful wheeze was luring trippers from the Midlands and as far north as Manchester down to the seaside at Bournemouth. Once embarked on the "Slow and Doubtful" (or "Slow and Dirty"), they could enjoy one of England's most varied railway journeys, with long, steep climbs where two engines were required, tunnels, viaducts, extensive earthworks, and finally the sea. But the variety of scenery made these trains expensive to run, and with the exhaustion of the local coalfields, the line's commercial viability withered. Its eventual closure surprised few but broke the hearts of many.

Today, however, Midsomer Norton station is back in business, after a fashion. If you arrive as I do on a Sunday afternoon, the plain old stone station is open. A man in a station-master's cap is there to greet you; at the ticket office window they will sell you a ticket for £2.80, though it only entitles one to a walking tour of the site, which contains a well-organised museum, a Second World War pillbox on the hill above, decked out with wartime memorabilia, and a First Class coach converted into a café providing home-made cake.

If it weren't raining so hard I could walk up the line, where a work team is laying track in the direction of Bath, though so far they have covered only a quarter of a mile. In the sidings there is a rebuilt "Sentinel" steam engine, in full working order. Ask politely and they will show you the fully functioning signal box, rebuilt from scratch after it had been demolished. The passion of the volunteers who have hauled the S&D back from the brink is amazing.

But however much time and energy they pour into restoring the line, it will never be more than a magnet for the railway fanatics and a jolly day out for families on holiday in the area. And that's a pity.

"Lots of people commute from here to work in Bath, like me," says Steve Page, an engineer with the First Great Western in Bath, who is devoting his day off to rewiring the signal box. "We take the bus. If you leave early enough it takes half-an-hour, but during the rush hour it can take an hour. This could be a perfect commuting line."

But that's very unlikely to happen. It's not just that, post-Beeching, they tore down the signal boxes and stations, sold off the permanent way and the rolling stock and demolished the bridges. With the will and the money, all that could be brought back to life. No, it's that they also chopped up the track bed and sold it off in small sections. The route itself – the handiwork of all those Victorian engineers – has been sold down the Flanders and Swanee.

For a recording of 'The Slow Train' with accompanying visuals, see bit.ly/XeeRTI. For more information about events taking place at the National Railway Museum to mark 50 years since the Beeching cuts, visit nrm.org.uk/beeching

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