The Heart of Wales Line is a 90 mile railway line which runs through rural Wales. It starts on the South West coast at Llanelli and re-joins the main line at Craven Arms in Shropshire, just south of Shrewsbury. It links a few larger villages and towns to the rest of the network (such as Llandovery and Llandrindod), but like so many of these rural railway lines, it passes through several tiny settlements which get their own halt. The majority of the stations are request stops in at least one direction. (Some stations are request in one direction only as trains in the other direction have to stop at the station anyway in order to use adjacent level crossings.) Hopton Heath and Pen-y-Bont are both on the Northern section of the line and are both request stops in both directions.
Because the Heart of Wales Line only has 4 trains per day in each direction, there is a heavy constraint on what stations one can visit, especially taking into account the journey time from Edinburgh. The early morning services don't get into Crewe and Shrewsbury in time for the 2nd full run of the day, but taking the 3rd means that one can only visit one station. This is not very cost efficient. Thus, I decided to use a bus to get me from a station with a better service to one on the Heart of Wales line.
I boarded an early morning service at Haymarket ready to go south to Crewe, where I would change onto another service. Not much happened on this train, save for a person at Preston who boarded and ate McDonald's noisily opposite me. I moved seats later when another man boarded and sat at the table.
Slightly late, the train pulled into Crewe. Despite being one of the “homes of the UK railways” (phrases such as that being the bane of my life), I have never got out at Crewe before. I spent some time enjoying the architecture as I waited for my train to Ludlow. Trains were being delayed because of a bridge strike near Stafford, but my train from Manchester was unscathed. It arrived, and the whole platform attempted to squeeze onto the two coaches that had been provided. Despite booking an advance ticket, the system had reserved me a seat in Coach 0, Seat 000. Unable to find a coach 0 (they were numbered A and B), nor a seat 000, I plonked myself down in an unreserved seat for the half hour journey to Shrewsbury, where I moved again for the remaining half hour to Ludlow.
At Ludlow, I spent about half an hour walking around the centre of the rather sweet market town before I ventured outside to buy myself some chips. I returned to the railway station to eat them. In that period of time, a train had caught fire at Pontrilas (south of Hereford), meaning that all trains were suspended between Cardiff and Hereford, with significant disruption on the nearby bits of network. Ludlow is the second stop north of Hereford (after Leominster), so I had been about 20 minutes on the right side of the disruption. Research and instinct told me that this would be one of those things which messed the network up for the day.
I then walked up to the bus stop where I waited for one of three buses a day from Ludlow to Hoptonheath, where I would board a train at Hopton Heath station. (No, that isn't a typo. The station is called Hopton Heath, but the village itself is known as Hoptonheath, or at least that's what my maps tell me.) The little single-decker bus arrived, almost full. I bought my ticket and sat down next to a man who I couldn't understand due to the thickness of his accent. The pensioners around me were engaged in conversation with each other. Every time one of them got off, practically the entire bus said goodbye. There was quite a commotion at one point, where the bus went over an invisible pothole at speed and made a very unhealthy bus noise. The route of the 740, as with so many of these rural bus routes, is fairly mad. At one point, I got quite concerned that I hadn't read the timetable properly, because we appeared to make turning that took us in entirely the wrong direction. In fact, it was only a 2 mile detour to another village. By the time we had reached Hoptonheath, the bus was fairly empty. I pinged the bell and moved towards the front, watching as we bombed past the green and station entrance to the bus stop, which was inconveniently sited another few hundred metres down the road. I thanked the bus driver as I got off, walking back up the road to Hopton Heath station.
The station entrance is located at the top of the road bridge over the railway, with a steep set of steps down to the platform. There is a technically step-free route which involves using a path from the opposite end of the platform along the railway to the caravan park, before coming up that lane back onto the main road. However, this is quite a detour to make (~10 minute walk) and involves a section along a B road that doesn't have a pavement.
Once one gets onto the platform, there are is a shelter, some station signs, a salt bin, some information displays and the mount for a BT payphone (but no actual phone) and a digital departure board. There is also no normal bin, which was annoying as I had just finished my chips. The former station building is now a private residence. Some of the information notices advised passengers to use the phone in order to make contact with the outside world. This was not possible as the phone no longer exists. There is also no help point.
The station was quite peaceful, with only the occasional car and lorry using the nearby roads breaking said peace. The sunshine was also welcome, although not from a photography point of view, as you can tell from the varying quality of the pictures above.
A Quick Hop to Pen-y-Bont
After about an hour, I prepared myself for the train south to Pen-y-Bont. It swung into view, I flagged it down and boarded, informing the conductor as I got on that I wanted to get off at Pen-y-Bont.
I enjoyed the scenery for the 45 minute journey, although the single coach train was quite crowded, possibly full of people who would have otherwise been travelling via Hereford and Cardiff but couldn't because of the fire. Most of the request stops were served en-route, even some of the very small ones which I will be visiting later on in the series. The couple opposite me were noting down each station that was served in a notebook.
On the approach to Pen-y-Bont, I collected my things and made my way to the rear doors. Two passengers had managed to get into an argument “she was looking at me!” exclaimed one, and were being mediated by a probably exasperated catering person. “No madam, I couldn't give less of an expletive about you, I just happened to be looking out of the window and you put your body in the way” I thought to myself as I asked to be let past. One minute later, the train arrived at Pen-y-Bont. I was one of four people to get off there. Another one was she-was-looking-at-me woman. I made sure not to look at her, instead focusing on taking a reasonable picture of the train, without the still bright sun making it look as if a bomb had gone off in the nearby village.
Despite the name, the station is actually located just west of Crossgates, with the village of Penybont (again, spelt one way by the railways and another by the locals) the 4th closest settlement to the station. Fron and Cefnllys are the other two villages that are closer to Pen-y-Bont station than Penybont is.
The station is slightly weird, because one has to cross a level crossing in order to get to the platform. The former 2nd platform is visible but overgrown and out of use. There is a basic shelter, noticeboards for the Friends of Penybont station, various station signs (both old and new), a bin (bonus), a digital departure board, but a lack of station information signs, phone and help point. There is a car park, which leads up to an A road. The bridge over the station at the eastern end is inaccessible to the public (as far as I could tell).
Although I had nearly 1 and ¾ hours at Pen-y-Bont, I didn't do much exploring of the local area, partly because I hadn't planned to, but also because the maps that I had didn't show any decent footpaths nearby. I attempted to gain access to the bridge over the station, but it was privately owned by a nearby farm, as were the other tracks marked (as far as I could tell). Thus, I stayed mostly on the station groups for the duration of the visit.
The Return Journey
A few minutes late, the train which would take me back to Craven Arms on the start of my journey back to Edinburgh appeared. I held my hand out for about 3 seconds when I judged that the train was close enough. I then took a couple of pictures of the train on the approach, both of which were awful. The driver slowed to about 5mph and waved at me, making gestures which I decoded (somehow) as, “do you want me to stop?” I nodded, and the train stopped instantly. I was unsure why he hadn't seen my original flag down (I'm usually very clear on the matter), but decided that I had probably done it when he was too far out. I boarded the train and settled down in a seat.
Do you remember the train fire? Well, just before I boarded my train at Pen-y-Bont I checked online, and discovered that my train onwards from Craven Arms to Crewe had been both cancelled and delayed by 5 minutes.
Unsure as to what that actually meant, I went with the safe option and asked the guard if I could remain on the train from Pen-y-Bont all the way to Crewe.
My train from Pen-y-Bont went all the way through to Crewe, but I had chosen to change at Craven Arms in order to get cheaper advance tickets. Having spoken to the guard, he gave me verbal permission to continue all the way as my original train from Craven Arms to Crewe had been cancelled. When the guards changed over at Swansea, I explained the situation to the second guard, who was fine with the situation.
I had got rather hungry by this point, so I ordered a takeaway from a Chinese restaurant in Crewe online. That meant, when I got to Crewe, I simply had to walk the short distance to the shop, pick up my food, and return to the station. I was immensely pleased with myself.
The rest of the journey was uneventful. Both my remaining trains were late, and I arrived home 20 minutes later than I had wanted to. I popped the takeaway into the microwave and consumed it whilst trying not to fall asleep. It had been a long day.
So, why was the 18:25 train from Craven Arms to Manchester both cancelled and 5 minutes late? I did some research and worked out why this was the case. Because of the fire, the trains couldn't run between Newport and Hereford, so they were cancelled at Cardiff or Hereford, depending on which way they were coming from. My train from Craven Arms originated from Carmarthen (South West Wales), so it was cancelled at Cardiff. But, because trains in both directions were being cancelled, trains could be turned back at Cardiff and Hereford. Thus, the system put in VSTP (very short term plan) workings to cover the trains that were starting at Hereford or Cardiff. My train from Carmarthen to Manchester existed twice, once from Carmarthen to Cardiff (where it was cancelled) and once from Hereford to Manchester (where it was 5 minutes late). The system can't have the same train existing twice, so a new VTSP train had to be created from where it re-started. This wasn't recognised as being the same train by the system (because it wasn't), so the train appeared in duplicate for the rest of the journey. Complicated? Yes. But it sort of makes sense.
The Poacher Line, so called because it was the site of the UK's first great elephant poaching (that's a lie), runs from Grantham to Skegness. It links Skegness, Boston and Sleaford to the wider UK railway network. In doing so, it also passes through a number of small Lincolnshire villages whose stations have somehow survived the Beeching cuts. Thorpe Culvert serves the village of Thorpe St Peter, although it is ¾ of a mile away, a caravan park and various collections of houses which don't have a name. It gets only 2 trains per day each way, with no services at all on a Sunday. Last year, it dipped below nearby (ish) Havenhouse to claim the status as the least used station on the line, and in Lincolnshire. It was only used by 148 people that year.
The way the trains are spaced makes arriving and departing by train very attractive. The afternoon ones depart within 1h20m of each other. The problem is that they run in reverse direction (IE: I would have to double back via Skegness). This means I couldn't get back to Edinburgh before services stopped for the night. Wainfleet is located about 3 miles south east of Thorpe Culvert, so I decided that I would walk from there and catch the first afternoon service so I could get home.
I arrived at Haymarket ready for my short hop to Waverley. There were no confused people trying to get to Runcorn in sight, so I went to the ticket office and tried to sort out my tickets. I had bought an off-peak day return from Grantham to Thorpe Culvert, but had forgotten that Wainfleet was further down the line which meant my ticket would not be valid. In this situation, the ticket office can issue an excess ticket where the customer pays the difference between the two tickets. In this situation, the difference between an off peak day return from Grantham to Thorpe Culvert and one to Wainfleet was £0.00. “I'm sorry, the system doesn't allow me to issue a zero excess” explained the otherwise very helpful and friendly ticket man. He advised me to speak to the guard on the train. “If you get a good guard, he'll allow it.”
I completed the quick hop to Waverley without incident, and crossed over to platform 8 to board my train which would take me all the way to York. On departure, the train went into emergency brake and I watched as various members of platform staff gestured to each other. 30 seconds later, the train started again. The “train manager” informed us that someone had tried to open the door whilst the train was departing. This is the technical term for being an absolute moron.
No other incidents happened on the journey down to York, although the train did loose 4 minutes, which gave me an 8 minute change at York. This change was cross-platform, so I completed it in about 5 seconds. LNER's new electronic reservation system had messed up again, so there were no reservations on my train down to Grantham, or “free for all” as the conductor described it over the announcement system. I enjoyed a cheese sandwich as my train moved at a significantly reduced speed south to Grantham. It was explained that trains had to observe a temporary speed restriction due to high winds. This meant we lost 14 minutes by the time the train pulled into Grantham, and I just missed my connection to Wainfleet.
With nothing to do for an hour, I tried again at Grantham's ticket office to get a more concrete form of endorsement for my ticket so that I could actually travel to Wainfleet. The phrase “but the guy at the ticket office said I could” holds sod all credibility with guards, and rightly so. Having explained the situation to the lady, she tried to issue me the excess, but came up against the same problem. She then tried to sell me a single from Thorpe Culvert to Wainfleet, which came out at £1.80 . With my railway head screwed tightly on, I asked if that would actually be valid. The train didn't stop at Thorpe Culvert, so what was technically a ticket split at Thorpe Culvert wouldn't be valid (because the train I was getting didn't stop at Thorpe Culvert). Having asked if that would be valid, she stopped the transaction, and told me to speak to the guard. What fun.
I spent the next hour sheltering from the wind in an overcrowded waiting room. Such phrases as “Is that the train to Nottingham?” filtered from many people, apparently confused by a train to Nottingham turning up on the platform it was supposed to 2 minutes before it was due to depart to Nottingham.
The next service to Wainfleet arrived, and I spoke to the guard before I boarded. He was happy to let me travel onwards to Wainfleet. I spent the next 90 minutes on the train looking at the Lincolnshire countryside and finishing my cheese sandwich.
I got off at Wainfleet, watched the train depart towards Skegness, and began the hour walk to Thorpe Culvert. This took quite a lot longer than an hour, partly because I had to stop several times to consult my map, but also because it was very windy. The storm had meant that my hood no longer adequately covered my head without getting blown off every few seconds, so I had upgrade to head covering level 4: the hat. (For a full list of head coverings in order, please see the notes section at the bottom of this post.)
The walk itself was reasonable, save for the wind. Although the straight line distance between Wainfleet and Thorpe Culvert is under 2 miles, the walk itself is 3 miles because the roads and paths are set up in grids, meaning that instead of popping diagonally across the space like the railway does, one has to constantly walk around the grids. Pythagoras in action.
Another skill I developed during the walk was the ability to urinate discreetly in areas of high wind, without getting most of it on my clothing.
Thorpe Culvert Station
Thorpe Culvert station is located by a level crossing. On the other side is a signal box which controls said crossing as well as some others. The station has a small building on one end which is currently used partly as a waiting room, and partly as a disused building. The other platform has a standard perspex/metal/plastic hut thing. One gains access to the platforms via walkways which come out on either side of the level crossing. There is no other means to cross between the two platforms. Both platforms contain the usual assortment of signs and information posters, although the way out signs are positioned in locations where the way out is obvious (right at the end of the paths from the platform to the road). On the Grantham-bound side, there are some shipping-container-like structures which house signalling equipment and a toilet for staff.
There is also a help point, but this is rather unhelpfully located the wrong side of a “do not cross the line” sign, meaning that in order to use the help point one has to walk past this sign. Good planning.
On the Skegness-bound side of the station, there is a yard which contains horses and chickens. One of these birds was a rather impressive looking cockerel, which seemed to like crowing frequently.
I spent quite a bit of time admiring the farmer's impressive looking cock, before realising that the chickens were prevented from gaining access to the platform by wire netting spread across the railings. Chickens on station platforms is something that happens quite a lot with small rural stations, as you may remember from my visit to the Esk Valley Line. “The chickens roam free in Battersby”, which is also the code that the secret services use to describe when the government front bench visits a marginal constituency in the run-up to a general election.
I managed to see 3 services pass through Thorpe Culvert whilst I was there, and I even managed to take some passable pictures of them.
The 4th time a train came into view, it was the 16:25 service to Nottingham, one of only 4 services which stop at Thorpe Culvert in a day. The station is not a request stop, so it had to stop anyway. However, I like to make sure for these very small, rural stations that the driver is indeed stopping. I gave a small wave as the train slowed to a halt.
The doors were unlocked, and I acknowledge the guard's existence with another wave before boarding and settling down for the journey back to Grantham and eventually Haymarket.
There is nothing worthy of note on my journey back, instead to remark the mixture of Irish people, Scottish people and alcohol is a very loud one, as I experienced on my final train to Haymarket.
There has to be a way to officially issue a zero-fare excess. I've spoken to people who know far more about the ticketing system than I do, and they have said that methods for zero-excess fares exist, but they are very time consuming in terms of administration. Some train operating companies specifically have a policy not to issue them in the first place. The further problem for me is that my journey from Haymarket to Wainfleet was delayed by an hour because of that missed connection at Grantham. Although I was allowed to travel, I technically don't have valid tickets for that full journey, which means claiming for compensation that I am entitled to is going to be difficult (it is not an insubstantial amount in this case).
Thorpe Culvert was not the best small station I have been to. There weren't that many quirks, and although Lincolnshire is beautiful, my visits to the Highlands have somewhat eclipsed the view of some fields and the occasional river. However, the continued existence of the station is good, although I wish it had a more frequent service. The limited service limits passenger numbers, and there is a good chance that the residents of Thorpe St Peter and the other nearby villages are discouraged from using the station, and instead head to Wainfleet to catch the train instead. Then again, if that is the case, any increase in patronage at Thorpe Culvert would be at the expense of Wainfleet (extractive rather than bringing in new passengers). What is clear is that the station won't be able to grow with its current service.
List of Head Coverings (by warmth)*
Author - Felix