At the start of this month Network Rail, the authority in charge of Britain’s railway infrastructure, took the helm of a new project that will hopefully rectify one of the great injustices of 20th-century British transport policy. Closures of railway lines during the 1950s and 1960s left the Scottish Borders, where I went to high school and where I have lived intermittently since, as the only region in Britain not to have a single railway station on its territory. The coastal line linking Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Edinburgh runs along its eastern edge but there are no stops where train passengers can get off on Borders soil – or where Borders travellers can get on board.
Now, however, plans are afoot to lay 35 miles of track and begin train services that will reconnect the biggest town in the region, Galashiels, with Edinburgh. Officially, the line will be open for business in 2015 and will cost £295 million, which works out at more than £8 million per railway mile. However, given Scotland’s recent dismal history involving transport projects – see the trams fiasco in Edinburgh – I have a horrible feeling that both the deadline and the price tag are instances of yet more Scottish wishful thinking.
The proposed new Galashiels-Edinburgh rail-link will constitute a partial reopening of the Waverley Line, which was the last railway to run through the Borders and connected not only Edinburgh and Galashiels, but also Hawick and Carlisle. It finally got the chop in January 1969 and its closure provoked such a furious reaction that even a local Church of Scotland minister, the Reverend Brydon Maben, got arrested during the protests. Although that happened 43 years ago, you still don’t have to walk far in the Borders before you encounter someone who’ll tell you angrily that the loss of the railways was the death-knell for the region’s economy.
For much of this we have to thank Dr Richard Beeching, the technocratic civil servant whose 1963 report The Reshaping of British Railways resulted in Britain’s rail system losing some 5000 miles of track. It also left millions of people living in rural areas with a stark choice about how to get around in future – to rely on often-patchy bus services or to invest in cars. Needless-to-say, in our more environmentally-conscious (if scarcely more environmentally-friendly) world of 2012, we can see how disastrous it was to dismantle so much of the rail network and force so many people onto the roads in CO2-spewing, lung-clogging and globally-warming automobiles.
A while back, I saw a repeat of a TV interview with Beeching, recorded in the early 1980s a few years before his death. Questioned about how his report had decimated the railways, he was unrepentant. He even expressed his regret that he hadn’t axed more. For instance, he said he wished he’d closed the east-coast line north of Newcastle, on the basis that it only served one small town, Berwick-upon-Tweed – which was more than a little disingenuous of him since, above Berwick, the line also serves a slightly bigger town, Edinburgh. (You know, the capital of Scotland.) But to be honest, Beeching wasn’t the only villain in this affair, even if he got most of the flak for it. His report was submitted to a 1960s British government that was in thrall to the roads lobby and was only too happy to get an excuse to crucify the country’s train services.
The railways are still plainly visible on the landscapes of the Borders even though they’ve been train-less for four decades. From my own town, Peebles, a line ran north to Edinburgh and the route of the line is marked along much of my Dad’s farm, while a railway hut still stands – just about – in one of his fields. Lines ran east and west out of Peebles too, along the scenic Tweed Valley. A half-mile from the town, the west-running line emerged from a hillside tunnel and crossed the River Tweed over a viaduct. The tunnel and viaduct both survive and are as much landmarks of that part of the valley as the nearby Neidpath Castle. (Like so many other old rail routes in the Borders, the disused line has become a footpath and it continues for a couple of miles to Lyne Station.)
For my money, however, the grandest landmark left by the Borders railways is the Shankend Viaduct south of Hawick, which once bore 199 yards of the Waverley Line and so had trains steaming along it in the directions of Carlisle and Edinburgh. Here’s a photograph of the viaduct that I took from the B6399 road a couple of years ago whilst cycling between Hawick and Newcastleton.
Riccarton Junction, located on the Waverley Line a few miles further south from the Shankend Viaduct, scarcely qualifies as an railway landmark because very little of it survives to make any mark on the land. It is, nonetheless, one of the eeriest places I’ve visited in the Borders.
It’s an example of the many abandoned villages whose remnants pock the British countryside, crumbling testimonies to communities that once thrived on their sites but that ultimately vanished. And many are the reasons why these villages were abandoned. Natural reasons include flooding, plague and coastal erosion. Manmade ones include commandeering by wartime governments, as happened to Tyneham in Dorset, cleared of its population and turned into a training ground for 1944’s D-Day operations; and industrial decline, which in the cases of Glenbuck, Burnbrae, Craighall and other villages in Ayrshire in western Scotland came with the running-down of the local coal mines.
Riccarton Junction, however, was a casualty of British transport policy. It was a railway village and when the railway went, it went too.
It stood where a branch line left the Waverley line for the pretty market town of Hexham in Northumberland. At its peak, the village contained 37 houses and accommodated 118 people, all of them railway workers and their families. It had its own school, post office and grocery shop, the latter run by the Hawick Cooperative Society. Situated in moorland a couple of miles from the nearest road, Riccarton Junction depended on the trains that ran in and out of it for access to the outside world. When a doctor was needed, he’d be shuttled in from Newcastleton or Hawick on a scheduled service. In emergencies the doctor would be brought on a freight train or pilot engine. Meanwhile, for the village’s religious needs, a church minister would walk along the line from a nearby parish and conduct services in the waiting room on Riccarton Junction’s platform.
Even by the time Dr Beeching penned his notorious report, Riccarton Junction was no longer a proper junction. The branch line to Hexham had closed for passenger trains in 1956 and subsequently for goods trains in 1958. When Beeching made his recommendations, the village’s fate was sealed. Its inhabitants had already been moved when the Waverley Line ceased operations in 1969 and all that remained to be done was the lifting of the train-tracks.
I went looking for Riccarton Junction during a cycling trip in the autumn of 2010 and it took me some time and effort to find it. After pedalling back and forth along the B6357 road north of Newcastleton, I finally discovered a single track-road called the Steele Road. From the Steele Road, I then had to push my bike up a forest track for a quarter-mile before emerging onto the route of the old Waverley line. It was another two miles from there to the site of the village. The area seemed to be entirely in the hands of the Forestry Commission and it had been saturation-planted with silka spruce trees. Thus, I spent a long time trudging through a landscape smothered in a dense, uniform and seemingly endless pattern of green-needled branches.
From the monochrome photographs I’d seen of Riccarton Junction in its heyday, those plantations hadn’t existed back then, which was probably just as well for the sanity of its hardy railwaymen inhabitants. I had a feeling that if I were to live in the place now, I would gradually go mad from the green, ordered monotony of the all-engulfing forestry.
When I finally walked into the clearing that’d been home to Riccarton Junction, my first reaction was of disappointment. I’d expected to see a few huddling ruins, at least suggesting the past existence of a village, but there wasn’t even that. In the old photographs, a row of houses had stood on the west side of the Waverley Line, but these were wholly gone. Well, not quite – after hunting about in the undergrowth, I discovered this lone chimney stack.
However, there were still clear traces of the village’s raison d’être, the railway line itself. One platform remained and near it squatted a small, square and somewhat graffiti-ed generator building. Past the platform-edge ran a short stretch of track that was laid down in 2004 by a voluntary group of rail enthusiasts called the Friends of Riccarton Junction. The platform’s paving slabs were heavily lichened and the track was overrun with tall reddish weeds, and only a blue-and-white sign saying Riccarton Junction – restored no doubt by the voluntary group – was in reasonable nick.
It took me a few minutes to spot the stationmaster’s house, which still stood on the slope east of the line. Supposedly at one time the most imposing building in the village, this was now a decrepit roofless shell. There seemed to be as much vegetation growing inside it as there was around it.
Once I’d adjusted to the place’s bleakness, I noticed that I wasn’t quite alone there. I could hear a faint birr of machinery from the hillside above and to the side of the stationmaster’s house, which I took first-of-all to be the sound of forestry workers. However, I realised that I was really hearing a dump-truck, which a gang of builders were using while they worked on two more houses, intact houses, which stood overlooking the village site. These, I learnt when I did some research later, were the former school building and school master’s house, which are now ‘in private ownership’. I read too on a Riccarton Junction-related website a request for visitors to respect the owner’s privacy, so from this I assume that, even today, Riccarton Junction isn’t entirely uninhabited. It has a population of at least one person, for at least part of the time – no doubt leading a pretty secluded and ascetic existence.
Two school buildings, the walls of a station master’s house, a little generator hut, a platform, a sign, a fragment of restored track and a chimney-stack – there isn’t much left of Riccarton Junction now, but in terms of the desolate and melancholy atmosphere that the place conjures up it’s more than the sum of its surviving parts. It would, by the way, make a bloody good setting for a ghost story.
And who knows? If the new line between Edinburgh and Galashiels doesn’t end up costing the earth, and if it’s a financial success once it starts operating, would it be too much to hope for that one day it might be extended south to Hawick? And ultimately, from Hawick down to Carlisle? It may not happen in my lifetime, but I like the idea that at some point in the future trains might be rumbling again across the terrain where the village of Riccarton Junction once flourished.
A website about the village, presumably put up by former members of the now-defunct Friends of Riccarton Junction:
Two recent newspaper articles about the partial return of the Waverley Line:
Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye magazine, shares some thoughts about Dr Richard Beeching:
A feature in the BBC news-website magazine about Britain’s abandoned villages:
It doesn’t include Riccarton Junction (not yet, at least), but here’s a website dedicated to abandoned British villages: