It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s… a Borders railway

 

 

This may look like an ordinary train at the side of an ordinary platform in Edinburgh’s Waverley Station one wintry Sunday morning.  But it’s a special train for me.  In fact, as I board it, I’m feeling excited — much more excited than I’d feel making a normal rail-journey from the station.

 

A glance at those electronic letters on the platform information screen explains why this train is special.  Its final three stops are Stow, Galashiels and Tweedbank, all of which are located in the Scottish Borders.  And prior to autumn last year, the Borders contained no railway stations at all.

 

 

For yes, this morning sees my first trip on the brand new Borders Railway, whose 35 miles of track began to be laid in 2012 and which finally opened for business on September 6th, 2015.  The price-tag came to £353 million, working out at more than £10 million per railway mile.  That sounds a lot, but it’s still only about a third of the cost of Edinburgh’s recently-installed, one-route-only and very controversial tram system.

 

It was one of the great injustices of 20th-century British transport policy that closures of railway lines during the 1950s and 1960s left the Borders as the only region in Britain not to have a single railway station on its territory.  The coastal line linking Edinburgh and Newcastle-upon-Tyne did run along its eastern edge but there were no stops where train passengers could get off on Borders soil – or where Borders travellers could get on board.  And actually, that coastal line was lucky it didn’t get the chop – Dr Richard Beeching, the technocratic civil servant whose 1963 report The Reshaping of British Railways resulted in Britain’s rail system losing 5000 miles of track, later expressed regret that he hadn’t axed it too, even if it meant cutting off Scotland’s capital city from the eastern side of England.

 

The Borders Railway constitutes 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 saw its final train 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 protests.  And although that happened 47 years ago, you don’t have to go far in the Borders before you encounter someone who’ll still tell you angrily that the loss of the railways sounded the death-knell for the region’s economy.

 

Anyway, at eleven minutes past nine, the train trundles out of Waverley Station and past the bottom of Edinburgh’s ornately-summited Calton Hill.  It heads east to Brunstane and then turns and winds its way between various stops in southern Edinburgh and eastern Midlothian.  And then, at last, it begins to penetrate the Borders.  It’s here that I stop feeling excited and start feeling euphoric.

 

 

Looking out of the carriage, it occurs to me that I’m seeing something that for most of my life I’d never expected to see.  Those gentle folds of hills with their belts of trees and half-hidden white farmsteads; those fields with their criss-crossing drystane dykes and flocks of scattered sheep; and those glinting coils of blue river-water (the Gala Water, which accompanies the latter part of the line to Galashiels)…  Wow, I’m seeing gorgeous Borders countryside from a train-window.

 

 

Then the train stops again and through the window I spy a black-and-white platform sign saying ‘Stow’.  And for the first time in my life I’m in a functioning Borders railway station.

 

 

Seven miles further south, the train arrives at its penultimate stop, Galashiels, the Borders’ biggest town and the place where I have to get off.  The platform is on the far side of Ladhope Vale, the road passing the back of Galashiels Bus Station.  And guess what?  They’ve closed down the old, decrepit bus-station building and fenced off the area of bus-yard around it.  Instead, a new building has been erected at the other end of the yard, just across the road from the railway platform.  It’s called, grandly, ‘The Interchange’ and it’s basically a big box with two sides consisting mostly of slatted glass (which gives it a resemblance to a giant, grilled electric radiator).  The Interchange caters for both rail and bus passengers – the buses now line up along it in the unfenced-off part of the yard.  Yes, it looks a bit garish and obtrusive, but inside it’s an awful lot better than how the old bus station used to be.

 

 

So anyway, I’m in love with the Borders Railway already.  And evidently, so are a lot of other people; for by late January, little more than four months after it’d opened, the service had already logged up half-a-million passenger journeys. 

 

One important question remains, though.  Will the new line contribute anything to the regeneration of Galashiels?  The middle of the town certainly needs some regeneration.  As soon as I leave the train station – sorry, The Interchange – and cross the bridge over the Gala Water, I find myself in the supposed retailing artery of Channel Street, which is as depressing as hell.   Along the street’s length, I count 14 derelict shop-premises and / or ‘For Rent’ signs.  Even the local Poundstretcher is in the process of closing down.

 

Strange places in the Scottish Borders 1: Riccarton Junction

 

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:

 

http://riccartonjunction.org/

 

Two recent newspaper articles about the partial return of the Waverley Line:

 

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/nov/05/scottish-borders-rail-route-beeching-reopening

 

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/scotland-blog/2012/nov/06/scotland-rail-borders-line

 

Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye magazine, shares some thoughts about Dr Richard Beeching:

 

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/7644630.stm

 

A feature in the BBC news-website magazine about Britain’s abandoned villages:

 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-11765712

 

It doesn’t include Riccarton Junction (not yet, at least), but here’s a website dedicated to abandoned British villages:

 

http://www.abandonedcommunities.co.uk/

 

Galashiels gets groovy

 

The Scottish Borders town of Galashiels, which is 18 miles and 45 minutes by bus along the road from my own town of Peebles, has been in the news recently.  The regional council has announced it will inscribe the lyrics of a popular 1980s song in the paving stones at Galashiels’ Market Square.  The lyrics make mention of some ‘cherry blossoms’ and these, supposedly, were inspired by the cherry trees that used to grow in that particular square, before the trees became diseased and had to be cut down.

 

I’ve always had a soft spot for Galashiels.  Among the towns of the Borders, it was never pretty enough to become a big tourist attraction (unlike, say, neighbouring Melrose), but it always seemed to me a solid, business-like town during the day and, afterwards, a fun place for a night out.

 

I hazily remember being there on the evening of December 31st, 1990.  After joining the throng that’d gathered at the town centre to hear the bells and drink to the beginning of 1991 — something that never happened in Peebles, where communal New Year festivities were non-existent — I found myself wandering into a variety of houses and wandering through a variety of raucous Hogmanay parties that were seemingly open to all-comers.

 

The final party I ended up at was hosted by an eccentric group of guys who would later launch a music magazine, edited in Galashiels but distributed nationally, called Sun Zoom Spark.  (I have fond memories of Sun Zoom Spark because I contributed a couple of music articles to it – those were the days when I saw no reason why I shouldn’t become the Borders’ answer to Lester Bangs or Nick Kent.  My stuff was fairly overheated but the editors kindly published it.)  Later, the same crew, still based in Galashiels, decided to stop writing about music and start making it, and formed a marvellously off-the-wall indie band called Dawn of the Replicants, who were championed by Britain’s most influential disc jockey, the late John Peel.

 

Unfortunately, recent years haven’t been kind to the town.  A lot of what gave Galashiels its individuality has disappeared.  The approach to the town centre from Peebles used to take you past several mills, but these have been torn down and replaced by ugly retailing blocks, so that now you run the gauntlet between the likes of B and Q, Curry’s, Comet and McDonald’s.  In the centre itself, the main shopping artery, Channel Street, has become a typical clone-town eyesore consisting of the usual suspects – Carphone Warehouse, Dorothy Perkins, Ladbroke’s, Boots, W.H. Smith, etc.  Meanwhile, the ultimate act of vandalism against Galashiels was commited in 2006 by Tesco, who demolished the historic textile college building in Green Street and stuck up one of their unlovely supermarkets in its place.

 

Yes, I know, the public gets what the public wants.  And if the public wants to shop till the public drops, every day, in two dozen soulless, identikit chain stores, supermarkets and fast-food outlets, so be it.  But the presence of so many retailing big shots has brutalised the look of the town, as well as making it well-nigh impossible for a local entrepreneur to open a private shop and compete.

 

With so much damage done in the past decade, I should welcome the decision to enshrine those song lyrics in Market Square.  This at least shows a little creativity by the town planners.  However, the lyrics in question come from a certain song that reached number two in the British charts in the summer of 1985.  Yes, it’s bloody Kayleigh.  By bloody Marillion.

 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-south-scotland-17608930

 

Marillion were – are – a band of English musicians, though back then they were fronted by a Scottish singer, the giant-sized Derek Dick, who was more commonly known as ‘Fish’.  They specialised in progressive rock and turned out grandiose concept albums with titles like Script for a Jester’s Tear.  Although by the 1980s, progressive rock was a genre that was generally considered as fashionable and socially acceptable as crucifying thieves and burning witches, Marillion did manage to win a loyal following.  Actually, it was commonly and cruelly believed that Marillion fans were to a man (‘man’ being the operative word) engineering students who had beards and didn’t have any friends, though I can testify from my 1980s experiences that this stereotype wasn’t accurate.  I knew an accountancy student at that time who had a Script for a Jester’s Tear poster on his bedroom wall, and he didn’t have a beard.  Though as far I could tell, he didn’t have any friends, so that part of it might be true.

 

By 1985, however, Marillion had obviously had enough of being considered a ‘niche’ band and they unleashed the unrepentantly mainstream and sentimental Kayleigh on the nation’s airwaves.  The song consisted of Fish apologising to an ex-girlfriend about messing up their relationship, whilst also reminiscing in maudlin drunkard-crying-into-his-beer fashion about past good times where they’d danced in the snow and watched cherry blossoms in a certain market square.  Yes, Fish got that bit from the cherry trees in the middle of Galashiels.

 

But to be fair, Kayleigh was by no means the worst thing in the British charts that year.  1985, after all, was when this was released: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fp4CR2HcHLQ.  The horror!  The horror!

 

I should mention that when I lived in Newcastle-upon-Tyne several years ago, I noticed how most of the girls in their late teens working at the supermarket checkouts there seemed to have ‘Kayleigh’ on their name-tags.  So I guess that was the song of choice for Geordie couples to make out to in the mid-1980s.

 

Marillion are still on the go, though they have long since parted company with Fish.  I read somewhere that these days they hire out Butlin’s holiday camps for whole weekends and give weekend-long concerts in them.  The Marillion fans book into the chalets, so that for two or three days and nights at a time they do nothing but eat, drink, sleep and watch their favourite band perform.  Now I don’t want to sound nasty.  All credit to the band for showing such consideration for their followers.  And I admire any music fan who doggedly sticks by a favourite band for decades, long after their popularity and street credibility — if they ever had such things in the first place — have waned.  (I’ve stuck by a couple of bands like that myself, for instance, Hawkwind and the Groundhogs.)  But spending a weekend in Butlin’s with Marillion and a crowd of middle-aged, bearded and possibly-still friendless engineers (with the odd middle-aged accountant thrown into the mix) seems uncannily like how I imagine hell to be.

 

Anyway, the news that Fish’s romantic doggerel is going to be immortalised at Market Square in Galashiels will no doubt be welcomed by any middle-aged engineers living in the town, and possibly too by a couple of checkout girls called Kayleigh working in the Tesco on Green Street.  However, I’m disappointed that the planners didn’t use some song-lyrics with a stronger local connection.  Why couldn’t they, for example, have chosen a song by Dawn of the Replicants, whom I mentioned earlier in this entry?  Unlike Marillion, they’ve actually lived in Galashiels.

 

Yes, in my opinion, a few lines from a Dawn of the Replicants masterpiece, like, say, Hogwash Farm (“I did use to be a priest… but all my good deeds are done…”) would be much more appropriate to engrave into some Galashiels paving stones.  What do you think?  Here’s Kayleigh by Marillion: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dphpDdfZUGw.  And here’s Hogwash Farm by Dawn of the Replicants: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8hVXjG4eJ9g.

 

Hold on.  Admit it.  You all prefer Kayleigh.  Don’t you?