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.
Author - Felix