Visiting the 31 stations mentioned in the song “Slow Train” by Flanders and Swann.
In 1960 the British railway network comprised of around 18,000 miles of track and 4,000 stations. By 1975 it had been cut to less than 12,000 miles of track with about 2,500 stations.
The 1963 song “Slow Train” by Flanders & Swann was written just as the biggest programme of station closures was beginning. The lyrics included a list of 31 stations, all with wonderfully evocative names, which were used to symbolize the loss of the railway from hundreds of hamlets, villages, and towns all over the country.
With the 60th anniversary fast approaching, I decided to plan to go to all the stations mentioned in the song to see what was left of them and to visit the places they once served.
The Beeching Axe
The man who normally gets the blame for cutting the British railway network is Dr Richard Beeching.
In 1961 Beeching was a director at ICI which was then one of Britain’s most successful private companies. He was headhunted by the Conservative government and offered a pay cut to chair the (nationalised) British Railways Board. At the time the railway was suffering from increasing competition from rising car ownership and improving roads. It was losing passengers, freight, and vast amounts of money. Beeching’s remit was to try to stop the losses.
In 1963 he produced the first of two reports on “reshaping” British Railways. It was controversial and it called for the mass culling of lines, closures of stations and dramatic reductions in manpower. Despite protests from the unions and the public, the cuts began almost immediately. Beeching himself did not stay around for too long afterwards though; he returned to ICI in 1965.
Although his name has become synonymous with lost lines and closed stations ever since, Beeching was never entirely to blame. Stations had already been closing at quite a rate since the 1950s and the Labour government (1964-1970) continued with the reductions long after he had departed.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Dr Beeching did accelerate the closure process and so it is not surprising that most people seem to see him as a kind of villain. Many people question whether a lot of the cuts were necessary, and they express doubts as to whether the whole plan really did much to stem the losses.
Beeching’s defenders, who include some railway enthusiasts, usually point to his role in creating a “new” modernised railway running fast, frequent “Inter-City” trains between major cities and sleek new containerised freightliner trains linking the ports.
There is no doubt that he oversaw the beginning of a highly successful corporate identity scheme that used the new title “British Rail” and introduced the “double arrow” logo that is still used to identify the railway today.
Michael Flanders (1922-1975) and Donald Swann (1923-1994) were a comedy duo; Flanders was the lyricist and singer; Swann was the composer and pianist; and they teamed up to write and perform many comic songs. Their heyday was probably around from the late 1950s to the late 1960s when they regularly appeared in several popular revue shows in London and around the world. Many of the songs they wrote satirised important politicians, figures, or events of the day.
“Slow Train” was written just after the Beeching Plan was published in 1963. Apparently, it was created using a list of scheduled-to-close stations that had appeared in the Guardian newspaper. It is brilliantly put together and along with all the wonderful station names it is filled with images of things like porters and sleeping cats that combine with the mournful and haunting tune to symbolise the loss of a way of life that had been based around the railway.
I first came across the song several years ago when it was featured on a BBC documentary produced to commemorate the Beeching cuts. Since the advent of YouTube, it has become more accessible, and I have found myself listening to it more often. There is a particularly wonderful version uploaded by barleyarrish that includes old photographs of almost all the old stations themselves.
Listening to the song usually makes me feel quite sad. I am not ashamed to admit that when I have had one red wine too many, I have shed a tear for the loss of train services to Mumby Road and Mortehoe.
I am ashamed to admit that despite listening to the thing many times over the years, I had no idea where a lot of the places mentioned were. Of course, I recognised St Ives, Selby, and Goole, but where the hell was Tumby Woodside or Cheslyn Hay? Was there a real windmill at Windmill End?
During the 2020 COVID pandemic I found myself with a bit of spare time on my hands and so I decided to find out. I got out the old rail atlas and started investigating. My curiosity grew and I begin to wonder what the places were all like today, so I hatched a plan to go and visit all of them.
I decided to visit 29 of the 31 stations mentioned in the song. I left out St Erth and St Ives on the grounds that I had seen them a few times before and had several photographs of both.
My initial research showed that the station sites were pretty much scattered all around England, with just one in Wales (close to the English border). As soon as the first COVID lockdown ended, I decided to visit them all over a period of several months. Some of the visits would be little diversions whilst on the way to somewhere else, but others would be special bespoke visits.
I decided that on each visit I would locate the station site and photograph whatever was there. In many cases I did not expect to find much. I had already used the excellent website disused-stations.org.uk which had photographs of many of the stations at various stages of deterioration from when they first closed to the present day. I knew that after 50 or 60 years I would have to be content with a shot of a bypass, a bungalow, or a bush.
I also decided there would be no point in trying to record too much of the history of each station. There is already a wealth of information on the website disused-stations.org.uk and elsewhere on the internet. I decided I would content myself with visiting the station site and researching just a little about its history and, often by using the excellent website Timetable World, the kind of train service it enjoyed just before the Beeching Plan was published.
What I really wanted to do was to look around the surrounding area, the hamlet, village, or town, and see if I could find something that was interesting; something perhaps that it would have been worth taking the train to go and see.
Finally, with the latest government policy of studying the possibility of reversing some of the Beeching cuts, I decided I would check to see if any of the closed stations in the song had any chance of reopening at any time in the future.
The map gives a rough idea of the location of each station within the historic (pre-1974) counties of England and Wales. The numbers refer to the order they are mentioned in the song.
Listed in the order they appear in the song.
Click on the links below to view the details of each visit. Each station is also linked to the next one, so the whole trip from Millers Dale to Windmill End can be followed in sequence.
My Journeys to the Stations
I made most of the visits in the spring, summer and autumn of 2020 and finally completed the project after the third lockdown in May 2021. My wife accompanied me on all the trips.
The visits provided us with a wonderful catalyst to see parts of the country that we had never seen before and would probably have never gone to otherwise.
There was much to see along the way. There were trips along cycle paths, busways and even a walk through a canal tunnel. There were churches, a couple of old castles and a lighthouse as well as stories of shipwrecks, smugglers, and old wartime bomber bases.
We got the chance to pay homage to a great railway hero, to see the grave of the man who hired Dr Beeching and to discover connections with George Washington and Henry VIII. There was also fish and chips on the beach, delicious gingerbread to enjoy and the chance of a pint at the only pub that ever had a railway station built especially for it.
There were plenty of trains, old and new, too !
Photographs above are images that I have taken over the years at the various preserved railways around England and Wales. They are included as a tribute to all the enthusiasts who have restored more than 500 miles of lost track. Shown are: Bluebell Railway, Kent & East Sussex Railway, Severn Valley Railway, Llangollen Railway and North Yorkshire Moors Railway. All of them worth visiting !