Last time I visited the North Highlands in the depths of winter, I was described as “crazy”. One of the reasons I like visiting these least used stations is the remoteness and aloneness that one experiences, especially for the many Highland request stops that are scattered around. The Far North Line is one of my favourite lines in the UK (and the world), but I haven't visited it since September 2018. I wanted to visit again. Altnabreac station is one of the most remote stations in the country. Most least used stations are located in small settlements or near a settlement. Altnabreac is so small that I didn't notice it existed when I was there.
As I was used to, I had a very early start to catch the first train of the day from the Central Belt to Inverness. I got to Stirling in time for the 07:35 north. A refurbished HST turned up, which I was excited about. I have used this train a lot over the past year, and this is my first experience of it with a refurbished unit, and I enjoyed it.
Anyway, 3 hours later, I was at Inverness and I had another train to catch. It looked train flavoured (I didn't actually lick it, so I don't know).
Once the conductor had come around and I'd requested Altnabreac, I settled down for the 3+ hour journey. The Far North line is not the most scenic line in the world, but I find it a good combination of super-rural, scenic, and quick-ish. As we scampered up towards Caithness and Altnabreac, we stayed on time and didn't stop at any of the request stops. Until mine...
Altanbreac came, and I got off, waving to the conductor as I did so. The train departed, and I looked around the station.
It has a wooden shelter, some signs, some bike racks, a departure board, a bench, a help point, and a bin which had blown over. I helped the situation by putting some rubbish in the bin so it was stable. I am helpful.
The remoteness of the station is not truly appreciated at the station. This may sounds weird, but, Altnabreac station is located in what I later found out was Altnabreac. That sentence may sound silly, but there was one house by the station with a generator on. A second house (the ex-school) was nearby. I had assumed that this was just the tiny collection of houses that spring up around a station when it is built, and that Altnabreac proper was somewhere else. As far as I understand, this is not the case. The station and the two houses nearby is about as close as one can get to Central Altnabreac. So it is really only once one leaves the station area that one can properly appreciate just how remote this station is.
There are no roads for miles. By miles, I mean 6 miles straight line, but this doubles to 12 miles for actually getting there on foot. Instead, there are mud and gravel 'Forestry Commission' tracks. The closest proper settlement is 15 miles away. I left the station, turned right, and went down to a signpost. One way pointed to 'Altnabreac', the other pointed to 'Loch Dhu'. I had already been to Altnabreac, so I went to Loch Dhu.
The first thing I came across was an abandoned house. I'm only assuming it was abandoned because it was partially boarded up, some of the windows were broken, and the interior was seriously unmaintained (I didn't enter the building).
I continued along the forest track, passing a couple of small, iced up ponds. I entertained myself by skimming pebbles across the ice and enjoying the sound they made.
Further on, I came to a break in the forest, and then the Loch Dhu. This is a fairly nondescript body of water with a socking great hunting lodge on its edge. It is called Lochdhu Lodge, named by the same person who named David Davis.
I decided to continue through the forest. About 5 minutes after leaving the loch behind, I approached a large fence and the edge of the forest. The endless sprawl of bleak, harsh, but wonderful Highland terrain spread out in front of me. This is what I meant when I said that “the remoteness of the station is not truly appreciated at the station”. Despite being possibly the most remote station in the country, it is nestled in the forest with 5 houses within a 10 minute walk from the station. Once one leaves the forest, the world just stretches out. The freedom one feels from being the only person around is immense. I catalogued this on my Urination Freedom Scale. Essentially, the more free I feel, the happier I am to have a pee. In this case, I could do so on the side of the track into the grass without being worried that a car or other human would see. In fact, it will remain a secret, barring someone telling the rest of the world via a railway blog.
The one disadvantage of going to the Highlands in winter is how short the day is. Sunset for the area was quarter to four when I went, which means it is totally dark by quarter past. That limited the time I wanted to be out in a place I didn't know very well, so I retreated to the safe confines of the station for the final hour before the train. Both lights worked for a bit, but then one stopped working. As the train approached, I flagged it down. The driver poked his head out, greeted me, and commented about the lack of lighting. I boarded, and settled down for the journey home.
I slept on trains and listened to podcasts. It was totally dark, so the scenery was invisible. This is a technique which has helped the matrix save 28% of its power since 1995 as part of its zero net emissions target by the year 2039.
As far as I can tell, the station probably spawned the area. It was most likely built for operational convenience. It is almost exactly mid-way between Forsinard and Scotscalder (the first stations south and north respectively), and serves basically nothing. The Lochdu Lodge, and the school (IE: the two main things nearby) were built after the station. It's a slightly weird state of affairs, especially when one considers that Altnabreac wasn't closed by Beeching, but stations like Evanton, Beauly (which actually serve towns and villages) were.
Altnabreac is a station I want to revisit because of the location. The true seclusion of it is difficult to describe and capture in pictures, but something I thoroughly enjoy. I'd want to go in summer when the day is longer.
This time last year I visited a station that was closed, but still served by a rail replacement bus. This time, I decided to return to the area to tick off two more stations that are only served by buses. Wedgwood and Barlaston both had their train service withdrawn in 2004 for upgrades and wasn't reinstated. They do not appear in the statistics for station patronage either.
I had quite a leisurely start for an 11:20 from London Euston. This took me all the way to Stoke-on-Trent. There, I had a wait for the roughly hourly bus that acts as the rail replacement service. This bus was about quarter of an hour late. It took a fairly direct route down from Stoke, arriving at the bus stop near Wedgwood about 20 minutes later. After I got off, I took the 5 minute walk over the canal to the railway where Wedgwood station is.
Wedgwood station is rotting. Network Rail have fenced off the platforms for safety reasons. Some signs still remain, including information posters about the bus timetables. Some temporary boards have been placed over the most disintegrated parts of the platform. Lights exist, but I'm not sure if they work.
Barlaston is only 1 mile south. I had quite a nice walk down the canal before arriving in the village.
The station is located right in the middle of the village, so the area is quite busy. The station is much more substantial than Wedgwood. It is made of bricks, concrete and tarmac; there are station buildings; and it isn't in a noticeably bad state. Apart from the boarded up station buildings, the facilities are much the same as Wedgwood.
The bus stop for Barlaston station (and the rest of Barlaston) is only a few minutes walk from the station. I spent 15 minutes before the bus was due hanging around the green by the bus stop.
The journey to Stone only takes 10 minutes. Stone was also served by replacement bus services from 2004 for the same reasons as Wedgwood, Barlaston and Norton Bridge (visited last year). But, in 2008, the station re-opened. Apart from a fairly impressive ex-station building, Stone is fairly boring. I wanted to catch a train to Stoke-on-Trent from Stone, but it was cancelled. Instead, I caught a train to Stafford, and another one to London, arriving 30 minutes later than I was supposed to. I hope LNWR gives me my money back.
There are plans to serve one of the two, but close the other. This hasn't happened yet. Instead, both remain open, but not served by any trains. Having visited both, my vote would go for Barlaston, given that it is more immediately surrounded by people.
The Selby Line runs from Leeds to Hull via Selby. Although it links a number of fairly large settlements, there are a number of smaller stations on the line which have low patronages. 2 of these are Broomfleet and Wressle. Broomfleet's patronage tends to hover around 1500. Wressle's has diminished significantly from 1500 to 370 in the most recent set of statistics. That makes Wressle the least used station in the area. Broomfleet has a limited service, but gets roughly 1 train every 2 hours in each direction (Hull to Doncaster). Wressle gets 7 trains per day: 3 between 6 and 9:30am, 3 between 5:30 and 8:30 pm, and another one at lunchtime. I had also wanted to visit Eastrington and Saltmarshe stations which are also in the area, but the sporadic timetable that all these stations receive meant that such a plan was impossible to do, certainly in one day from Edinburgh.
A semi-early train from Edinburgh took me to Doncaster. At Newcastle, some bloke got on bellowing into his phone about “meeting you later mate”. 5 minutes later, he was on the phone to somebody else on speaker. Tinny versions of the other end of the conversation aurally stank up the carriage. Bear in mind that this was the quiet coach. At one point, he was asked to move or end the phone call, and responded “you do you and I'll do me”. In much the same way as a toddler being sick on somebody else's bag is just the toddler “being the toddler”. Essentially, he was going to keep bleating down his mobile in earshot of everyone else. Absolute tit.
At Doncaster, I changed trains. I moved over to platform 0 to board my train to Broomfleet. The train departed slightly late, and lost 20 minutes on the journey to Goole. I got off at Broomfleet, and settled down to enjoy the 2 hours in the grey, wet station.
Broomfleet station is a fairly standard 2 platform station directly adjacent to a level crossing. There is an old signal box at the level crossing. Paths lead from the road that crosses the railway to the platforms. Each platform has a shelter, a bench, a bin, and various signs.
Trains pass through the station quite regularly. There are about 5 trains per hour each way, plus some infrequent extra services. The level crossing went up and down quite often and stayed down for extended periods of time.
Because I had a couple of hours, I decided to take a walk down to the Humber estuary nearby. It was very grey and very wet, so the pictures were fairly awful.
Back at the station, I sat in the shelter and ate some pasta before my train arrived.
Messing Around to Wressle
I had about 3 hours between my train from Broomfleet and my train from Selby to Wressle. That meant I had a bit of time to mess around. I took the train from Broomfleet to Goole. There, I swapped platforms and took another very late train back to Hull. Because of the delay, it ran non-stop. I sat in a coffee shop by the station enjoying a hot drink and sandwich. Eventually, I decided I should go to the platform to catch my train to Selby. It arrived quite late, and then another train arrived at the same platform. We had to wait for 10 minutes for the first train to leave before we could. Once that happened, the train charged to Selby. I got off, switched platforms, and waited for the service that would take me one stop back to Wressle.
Wressle is another standard 2 platform station. It is made of bricks, gravel and concrete rather than the skeletal timber affair that is Broomfleet. The old station house sits on the Selby-bound platform. All platforms have a shelter and the usual array of signs and bins.
Again, I had 2 hours between trains. I decided not to go for a walk because it was still wet and had got dark. Instead, I sat around in the shelter listening to music and podcasts.
Slightly late, at 19:30, my train to York arrived. I changed at York and Newcastle to get me back to Edinburgh.
Broomfleet station is a fair distance outside Broomfleet village. The village is fairly small, and so it wouldn't get a particularly high patronage anyway. The fact that the station is a walk from the village reduces it and the very limited service reduces it still further. Wressle is much the same, although the station is in the village. It has almost the same population as Broomfleet (~300) and has 4 fewer services per day. Why the patronage is so low must purely be down to the lower level of service. Given that the population is almost the same, and that Wressle station is actually in the village, it would follow that the patronage would be about the same, if not slightly higher for Wressle. I'm always supportive of small stations serving small settlements that wouldn't otherwise have public transport.
Although I neglected Wales for the first 18 months of this blog, I feel that the past year as more than made up for it. Multiple journeys have been made to various parts of the country, and December felt like the perfect time to make another visit to some of the multiple least used stations that scatter the Heart of Wales Line. I chose the northern end of the line because that's the only end I can do as a day trip from Edinburgh. My plan was to catch a bus to Broome, catch a train south to Llangynllo from there, and then return a couple of hours later.
I had a choice between an early start with a long wait at Ludlow for my bus, or a later start but a very tight connection at Ludlow for the bus. I decided to go for option one, and double-back via Hereford to reduce the amount of time I would be standing around a bus stop in the town. My train to Crewe was fairly normal; it was slightly late but not catastrophically so. I made the change onto my train to Hereford and settled down.
At Leominster, the train closed its doors but did not move. After a few minutes, the conductor made an announcement that the driver couldn't get power. With a 20 minute connection at Hereford, I decided to bail at Leominster and wait for the train there instead. The half hour was spent walking to a local shop to buy water.
I still had about quarter of an hour at Leominster before my train back to Ludlow arrived. I decided to look up my bus. The departure from Ludlow to Broome was the only one of the day, and so I wanted to make sure that it existed. At that point, I discovered that I had made a catastrophic error in reading the timetable. The timetable I thought read “Monday to Friday” actually read “Monday and Friday”. I was travelling on a Tuesday. No other buses serve Broome, so I was stuffed from a public transport point of view. I next decided to look up the walks from other stations. Broome is one stop away from Craven Arms, a station that is the junction where the Heart of Wales line branches off from the Welsh Marches main line that runs from Manchester to Cardiff. It turned out that the walk from Craven Arms to Broome was only about 3 miles, and I had more than enough time to walk that distance.
I boarded my train at Leominster, but continued past Ludlow to Craven Arms. Now armed with fish and chips, I started off to find the footpath that would take me to Broome. After a short detour when I misread the map and ended up in the wrong part of the housing estate, I found the muddy track under the railway that was my path. The path got progressively more muddy as I walked on. Crossing a road, I continued along a farm track until I could find an obvious path onwards no longer. I skirted around a field, through a gate, and then realised I was on the wrong side of a hedge. Luckily, a large gap with a broken gate was provided. I used this.
The path was fantastically muddy, except for the bits that were frozen solid. I was glad of my waterproof walking shoes. Eventually, the village of Broome came into view. It was very satisfying to be able to walk along stable ground that didn't sink by a few centimetres every time one put any pressure on the surface. I skirted past a group of old men and a dog at the village green, walked under the railway, and found the entrance to Broome station. My shoes and the lower half of my trousers were well caked in mud at this point.
The closest bus stops to the station are called 'Broome, Industrial Estate'. This is broadly correct. The station is located on an embankment, at warehouse-roof level. Some people were using one of the warehouses as I walked around the station taking the obligatory pictures.
The station facilities are fairly basic. There is a collection of signs at the bottom of a ramp which takes one up to the platform. An old wooden shelter sits about a third of the way up the platform, and a 'Harrington Hump' (raised ramp stuck onto a platform to give less of a step up to the train) another third along. There is a salt bin, some form of utilities cabinet, and an electronic display along the platform too. A payphone used to exist inside the shelter, but it doesn't anymore.
There were two visitors to the station while I was there. The first was a black cat who retreated when it saw me. The second was a woman who lived locally but didn't get the chance to use the train often. She expressed surprise at the existence of another human being at the station.
10 minutes later, the train arrived.
The journey to Llangynllo takes about 30 minutes. I bought a single from Broome to Llangynllo from the guard. This must be a ticket that is rarely bought given that it is between 2 stations with low annual patronages on the same line. Most people travelling from either will most likely be going to one of the bigger stations on the line (Llandrindod, Swansea, Shrewsbury etc.) rather than another tiny request stop.
After those musings, my train was at Llangynllo. The conductor made an announcement as we approached. I alighted, waved to the guard, watched the train depart, and had a look around.
Llangynllo is actually a really sweet little station. If the houses right by the station weren't there, it would be one of my favourite in the country. It has one of the old wood & brick shelters that can be found on most of the Welsh stations on the Heart of Wales line. It also has the normal array of signs, a salt bin, an electronic display, more utilities cabinets, and a portable set of steps to help people get on and off trains. Llangynllo is also the location of the first snow of the season that I have been able to touch. I have seen snow already this season dusting the tops of various parts of the Highlands, but this is the first time I have been able to physically prod it.
Given that I had over 2 hours to enjoy the station, I decided to go for a walk. The lane lead to a crossroads, which included a path up the hill. I followed this path for about 15 minutes, before it came to a field which I imagine would have had a lovely view were it not for the weather. And low! There were sheep grazing in the field. They scrammed when I walked into view. One didn't until I mooed at it.
Now freshly covered in mud and now sheep excrement, I decided I would rather freeze at Llangynllo station rather than atop a hill with no view. As I walked back to the station, a 4x4 passed me. This is a location where owning a 4x4 makes sense. Given that I have lived all my life in a city, most of the time I see 4x4s, the ownership of it makes no sense. You need a 4x4 if you live in a rural area or regularly have to travel to somewhere which has poor roads. You do not need one if your idea of rural life is your holiday home in the Cotswolds that is located at the end of a narrow road with a pothole the size of a credit card located part way down it.
The train turned up a little late, but I was glad to be on something warm. When I got back to Crewe, I attempted to clean myself up a bit by scraping the mud off my shoes and trousers with the lid of a Biro I found by the bike racks on platform 11. Truly the height of glamour and sophistication.
My train to Lancaster was 15 minutes late, and I was worried that this would mean I would not be able to make the 15 minute connection to my Edinburgh train there. I need not have worried, because that Edinburgh train was also late.
Now onboard the final train of the day, I settled down for the 2 hour journey to the Scottish capital. As we left Lancaster, the conductor made an announcement telling people that the train was late and the estimated times of arrival for Oxenholme, Penrith, and Carlisle. She then made the ominous statement: “passengers for stations north of Carlisle: we are working on several plans of action and I will let you know what will happen as soon as I know”. It turned out that the driver who was supposed to drive the train to Edinburgh had 'gone missing', so the train ended up being diverted to Glasgow. The driver at the front of the train must not have had the route knowledge to drive the train to Edinburgh. Taxis were ordered to “where your car is parked or where you're staying for the night” given that there wouldn't be any trains or buses once people arrived in Edinburgh.
Several pre-booked taxis descended on Glasgow Central station once we arrived, and there was a little confusion as the conductor dashed around trying to work out which taxi was for which person. The taxi for me shouted my name and address, and I got in, glad that I could now be the victim of widespread identity fraud.
The taxi made its way to the Glasgow – Edinburgh motorway (via the garage to pick up fuel). I noticed part-way down the motorway that the car was rattling. As we approached the turning onto the bypass, the car started to slow down and there was a terrible crunching of gears. We stalled on the roundabout, and the driver just managed to get the vehicle off the roundabout as smoke started to come off the bonnet. We both got out of the car, and he went off to a nearby KFC drive-through to get some water to calm the engine down. After this, the car still didn't start.
Somehow, an empty taxi from the same Glasgow based firm was also going around this roundabout in Edinburgh, so it came and parked. After the drivers discussed what was going on, I was put in the second taxi to take me to my flat. His Sat-Nav wasn't working, so I had to give directions. I didn't do this very well, and he got more and more annoyed, until he took a wrong turn and I decided that this was where I lived, thanked him, and got out of the cab. I took the 5 minute walk back to my flat and collapsed in my bed, having taken my muddy clothing.
Although it sounds like my day was constantly in crisis thanks to broken down trains, missing staff, my own inability to read timetables, broken down taxis, mud, freezing temperatures, and sheep dung, I actually had a really good day.
I feel as if I have neglected my favourite part of the UK railway network this year. The only downside to spending a lot of my summer trundling between Edinburgh and Aviemore to volunteer on the Strathspey Railway was that I didn't really feel like doing a 3rd or 4th weekly trip up the Highland Main Line to get to the North Highland Lines. The Kyle Line runs east-west from Inverness (west) to Kyle of Lochalsh (east). Although the settlements it links are fairly important (certainly in that part of the world), there is a lot of 'nothingness' in between. This 'nothingness' is essentially brilliant scenery and a few small settlements. That means there are a number of very small stations along the route which see few passengers. One of these is Achnashellach, a request stop between Achnasheen and Strathcarron which sees between 800 and 1000 people per year.
I didn't have to get up as stupidly early as I normally have to for these trips. A train at the reasonable time of half past 9 took me up to Perth. I had been monitoring this for quite a while, as there had been problems on that line during the morning because of a broken down train. Luckily, the expected 15 minute delay did not happen, and the train arrived at Perth 3 minutes early.
Of course, while I had been on the train, a signalling fault had developed on the Highland Main Line at Carrbridge. Journey Check stated that the estimated fix time was midday. My train was due to pass through the area almost an hour after that, so I decided that my train was in the clear. Of course, I was wrong. That signalling fault meant that all the trains on the line were running out of course. Because the Highland Main Line is mostly single track, we had to wait at Stanley for 20 minutes for another train to pass us. We could have passed at Dunkeld & Birnam, but a rail had broken there.
3 faults and a near 30 minute delay meant by 11 minute change at Inverness was not going to happen. I spoke to the conductor, and he said that he would communicate with his control so that they could decide what would happen. 3 other people also wanted to change onto the 13:35 Kyle service at Inverness. As the train progressed, time was made up and then lost again.
Control decided that “a decision on whether to hold the Kyle service would be made at Moy [a passing loop 15 minutes south of Inverness]. If the train wasn't held, ScotRail would provide a taxi to Achnasheen [one of the stations on the Kyle Line] and we would be able to board the train there (the road being faster than the train).”
The train wasn't held, and the 4 of us got into the large taxi for the sprint to Achnasheen. Just over an hour later, we all arrived at the station, and were 12 minutes ahead of the train. The train was also slightly late. Achnasheen, although being one of the bigger and busier stations on the Kyle Line, has some impressive views.
The train arrived, and 3 of us got on. The 4th was only going as far as Achnasheen anyway. I made sure I requested Achnashellach from the conductor as she came through. 19 minutes later, the train pulled up at the request stop. The automatic announcement system gleefully announced “We are now approaching Achnashellach. This is a request stop.” I've always had a problem with this last sentence, mainly because it is the first time that the system specifically states that the station in question is a request stop. Any passenger would have no time to alert a member of staff that they wished to get off. Guards on the route make up for the shortcomings of the computer by asking people where they are getting off.
Back to the journey, and my train had arrived at the station. I got off, thanking the conductor. The train departed, and I was left to look around.
Yes, despite all the infrastructure failures attempting to prevent me from reaching my destination, I was at Achnashellach only 5 minutes late.
The station itself is nestled in a wood, with only a few farm buildings for company. It is a simple station, although it has quite a long platform. There are a large number of signs clustered at one end of the platform (by the level crossing) and a simple shelter in the middle. That's about it.
I had almost 3 hours before my train back to Inverness. I decided to have a walk down to a nearby Loch (Loch Dughaill) and observe it. On previous trips I have had a lot of enjoyment looking at Lochs. I was forced to spend 15 minutes walking along a country road to get there, but this walk was worth it. The pictures don't quite do it justice, but here they are anyway.
I spent an hour looking at the Loch, eating the last bits of my lunch, and talking to myself. It was lovely to be in proper solitude outside for the first time in a ages. I made sure to let off plenty of steam.
Of course, being November in Scotland, the sun had set before I had realised. The walk back along the road felt a lot shorter (because I knew where I was going), but I was kept on my toes because of the speed of the traffic and the light levels. I made it to the turning up to the station without any difficulties, and spend the remaining hour failing to take pictures of the station because of the darkness.
The Journey Home
The return train approached on time. I flagged it down, getting a toot in response. I boarded, and watched some stuff on my phone for the nearly 2 hour return journey to Inverness. I would love to have looked out of the window, but it was pitch black outside at this point.
I had ordered a pizza on the train, so when I got to Inverness I would only have to take a 5 minute walk to the shop, pick up the pizza, and then go back to the station. I always feel very pleased with myself when I'm able to do this. The Inverness to Glasgow train I boarded was lightly loaded (as normal), so I didn't annoy too many people by eating said pizza.
We lost a bit of time down the line waiting for late running trains coming the other way to pass us. The 15 minute delay leaving Perth was a problem, because I had a 6 minute change at Stirling for my train back to Edinburgh. Luckily, the guard made sure that the last train of the day back to the capital was held for us. I arrived back at Edinburgh at 20 past midnight. I was tired, but it had been worth it to actually visit Achnashellach.
For the record, the Strathspey Railway is brilliant. Visit it.
I was actually surprised that I managed to get to Achnashellach. The quantity of problems that were encountered (failed train at North Queensferry, broken rail at Dunkeld & Birnam, signalling failure at Carrbridge) en-route meant it was actually amazing that I got there. Serious credit to all the staff who kept stuff moving.
I don't really have anything to say about Achnashellach that I haven't already said before in other posts. Although it isn't used by many people, it is a very useful station for those that live in the area, and probably provides a lifeline for the rural communities nearby. One of the sad things about the huge cuts in the railways in the 1960s was the number of small places who lost their public transport altogether. I'm glad this isn't the case for the parts of the Highlands served by rail.
Author - Felix