The East Coast Main Line (ECML) is one of the busiest and most congested lines in the UK. It links major settlements (London, York, Newcastle, Edinburgh) and provides a lot of suburban traffic also. It is mostly double or quadruple track, has serious capacity problems and is one of the most famous and well-used lines in the UK. Therefore, it is not the location one would expect for a disused station or one with a limited service. Oh, but it is. Once one gets north of Newcastle, the line between there and Edinburgh passes through the rural wonders of Northumberland and the Scottish borders. Chathill railway station sits on the ECML. It is not one of the intercity stations (only local services stop there). Chathill itself is very small (only a dozen or so houses) but it is also designed to serve Seahouses and is the closest station to Lindesfarne (Berwick is about the same distance but north).
The map gives something away that it is slightly odd. It looks rather as if Chathill is on a branch line away from the ECML as it is the terminus of Northern's services on the line and no other service stops there. However, Chathill does reside on the main line. And it only gets trains southbound as the map suggests. Which is odd as the line continues north to Berwick and Edinburgh. This means if one wants to actually get there from the north (as I had to do), one has to double back at Alnmouth.
Apart from this, there seems nothing odd from the map. Even the National Rail page does not allude to the service level. There is no banner referring to the 2 trains a day that serve here. Historically, it was one of the better served “local” stations on this part of the East Coast Main Line. Trains would run semi-fast from Newcastle to Berwick, calling at the now closed stations of Belford and Beal (for Holy Island). Since 1965, this changed. Trains now terminated at Chathill and were gradually reduced from 4 a day down to the current level of 2.
Getting to Chathill
As said before, coming from north of Chathill requires doubling back at Alnmouth (or Morpeth or Newcastle depending on where the InterCity services stop). This makes the sign adjacent ironic and wrong. The trains are 1 in the morning and 1 in the evening. They arrive, move to a loop north of the station, wait, and then return. Trains depart at 07:08 and 19:10 and vary slightly on Saturdays. They run to Newcastle (some run onwards to Hexham). There is no Sunday service. The reversal time is about 30 minutes each time, which makes arriving and departing by train not only possible but desirable. In fact, there isn't really any other transportation option. Buses don't really exist and taxis are expensive. And they have to be booked.
I decided to do the Friday evening service to/from the station. Having spent an hour on an IC225 set to Alnmouth, I got off and tried to warm up in the waiting room. It was shut. Being glad of thermals, I sat in a shelter before my train to Chathill arrived. Late. Passengers flowed out of the semi-crowded Pacer at Alnmouth, leaving one solitary person inside. And me. We sat alone in silence for the duration of the 12 minute trundle to Chathill, only being interrupted once when I jumped at the sudden movement of the train due to an InterCity service passing and causing significant turbulence. Pacers are awful. Having got off, the other passenger left through a gate and went home (I assume).
The station smells of manure. Otherwise, it is fabulous. It has a wonderful and restored station building (which is a private property), a large number of flowers and a waiting room with all sorts of memorabilia. There is also evidence of the station's higher service level in the past. The current platforms can really only take 3 or 4 coaches, but beyond some fencing, the platforms continue.
In order to gain access to the platforms, one must go through gates, such as those which are between fields on country walks. The yellow line is very far up the platform, leaving very little space at points between that and the station buildings. As I waited for the train to return from its pause in the loop, a fast service passed. The line speed through the station is 110mph, and following the hit of wind after the train has passed and the associate turbulence, I can see why the line is so far back.
Soon after that service, my train returned and I boarded.
I could tell I was being a pain, because the doors remained unlocked for 5 seconds. The warning noise was sounding before I had fully got on. And I got a lovely cock-sucking gesture as I filmed the departure from Alnmouth. The amount that train shakes, I dread to think what the driver and conductor actually got up to in their respective cabs. I was the only person who used the service from Chathill. Quite a few got on at Alnmouth, where I got off. I had another 40 or so minutes to wait for my train back, and a slightly drunk woman to tell what train she had to get. “Does this train stop at Berwick?” Clearly not.
Chathill is actually pretty well used for its level of service: it gets around 2500 users per year. This is pretty good for a station that effectively only gets a token service (not full parliamentary which is one train per week in one direction only). And, the fact it is on a mainline, means one gets the atmosphere of a disused and spooky little place (especially in the dark) as well as having the excitement of trains passing through at considerable speed. These are my favourite parts of the railways.
It must be noted that Chathill is not the least used station on the Northern local services north of Newcastle. Acklington (between Morpeth and Alnmouth) gets fewer than 300 people a year. Pegswood gets just over 1000. But those stations will be covered at another point.
There is a campaign to re-open some of the stations between here and Berwick-upon-Tweed and provide a more frequent service to some of the stations between Newcastle and Berwick. This would include Chathill. However, these are still plans and there is nothing certain. Currently, Chathill looks to remain much as it is now: a wonderful but remote little place with some oddities that make it all the more interesting for railway enthusiasts. It is not the least used station, or even close, but it has all the characteristics of one and has some wonderful quirks which I have tried my best to outline. Maybe I should visit it when it isn't winter and my hands aren't so numb. I may even get some photos that I can publish without being embarrassed.
Author - Felix