Exams. They suck, don’t they? You study like crazy for weeks beforehand, spending long evenings cramming as much knowledge into your brain as possible. Then you get to the exam hall and find, on opening the paper, that the one subject area you’re not too confident on is responsible for about 10% of the total mark. Gahhh.
That happened to me last week, but the horrible experience is behind me now. What better way to reward myself for all my “hard” “work” over the past few months, than a trip to a far-flung part of the UK for a Station Master trip? Well, it was either that or run naked through Liverpool city centre, screaming primally at the top of my voice. On reflection, I think I made the right decision.
So it came to pass that, on the morning of Wednesday 5th June, I found myself setting off on a long journey via London to Portsmouth, to reach the Isle of Wight and its eight-and-a-half mile railway: the Island Line.
The Isle of Wight had a comprehensive network of railway lines until the mid-1960s, as seen in the map above. The Beeching cuts hit the island hard, however, and by the end of that decade only a single line survived down the east coast, linking the seaside towns of Ryde and Shanklin.
Although physically isolated from the rest of the National Rail network, the WightLink ferry from Portsmouth to Ryde has full through ticketing. The ferry terminal at each end is attached to the railway station, so getting the ferry is no more complicated than changing trains. The catamaran journey is fast (about 22 minutes) although on the outward journey we were delayed slightly as we had to wait for a Navy warship to clear Portsmouth Harbour.
Once we were out of the dock, however, progress was swift, and in what seemed like no time at all we were disembarking at Ryde pier. I emerged from the ferry terminal into the attached station, and didn’t have to wait too long before the reason for my visit came into view:
What we have here is 1938 tube stock, as used on London Underground until 1988. After fifty years in service in London, some of the trains were shipped to the Isle of Wight for further use.
Why are ancient Tube trains ferrying passengers between seaside resorts? Well, in 1966, British Rail decided to electrify the remaining line from Ryde to Shanklin. At the same time, a tunnel in Ryde was modified to prevent it from flooding. The modification left the tunnel too small for standard sized railway rolling stock, so the only available option was second-hand London Underground stock.
These trains are in fact the second generation of tube stock to work on the island; the original stock was of 1923 vintage and remained in use until 1992. The “new” trains are now themselves 75 years old, but there are no immediate plans to replace them. The only suitable stock would be another class of tube train. Every time London Underground phases out a class of rolling stock (most recently on the Victoria Line), rumours abound that some of the vehicles may be transferred for further use. Other plans, including conversion of the whole line to light rail operation, have failed to come to fruition.
The line was a division of Network SouthEast until privatisation. For a time, it was a tiny self-contained franchise, but now has been subsumed into the vast South West Trains operation. Stagecoach’s corporate branding is nowhere to be seen, however: the trains are now painted in a version of their original London Transport red colours, while the stations have received “heritage” green colour scheme, as used on British Rail’s Southern Region in the 1960s.
I’m always a bit unsure about this fad for “retro” styling at certain stations (see also my trip down the Looe Valley Line last year). It’s one thing to lovingly preserve relics from the railway of the past (the giant Lancashire & Yorkshire map at Manchester Victoria, for example) but deliberately stripping out Rail Alphabet signs to replace them with recreations of 1960s style name boards? It seems a bit “artificial” to me – almost as if the Island Line is a giant railway theme park, rather than a public transport system. Anyway, since the line uses old Underground trains, wouldn’t LU roundels (or at least, a non-copyright infringing pastiche) be more appropriate?
Having said that, there is something rather wonderful about sitting in a train, three quarters of a century old, still being used in frontline service. I sank down into a seat to savour the atmosphere.
I had more time than expected to gather my thoughts, as the guard popped his head in to inform us that services had been disrupted due to a trespasser on the line. In order to restore the normal timetable, we were going to wait until the next booked departure time – nearly 35 minutes away. I wasn’t bothered, particularly as I was being annoyed by a mother and her bratty child who had boarded the train shortly after me. They had got on my bad side by blocking the aisle with their bikes (grrrr), then after being informed of the delay, the kid said, “does that mean I can run around like a monster?”
With tacit approval from his indifferent mother, he started running up and down the carriage, onto the platform, back onto the train again, and generally being a nuisance. I made good my escape, remembering what the late Humphrey Lyttleton once said on I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue: “Come back Herod, all is forgiven.”
The extended wait did allow me to go back outside the station and redo my record photo, which I had done in a rush as I was concerned about missing my connection. The “station building” at Ryde Pier Head is, in fact, the ferry terminal, so we have the WightLink logo rather than the double arrow. It’ll do, though.
The station is at the end of the pier, the trains clattering over the sea for half a mile to reach the terminus. I did find it rather disconcerting to look through the gaps in the track bed to see seawater just a few feet below. On the other hand, how many other stations on the National Rail network have a “No Fishing” sign?
In the distance was the town of Ryde itself. I would have a chance to enjoy its delights when I came back on Thursday afternoon. However, my base of operations for my stay was the line’s southern terminus at Shanklin, so for now, that was where I headed.
I climbed back aboard the train. By now a second ferry had arrived and disgorged its passengers, and the little 2-car train became quite cosy. Finally departure time arrived and the doors closed – no hustle alarm, just the whirring and clunking of 1930s technology. The familiar whine of electric traction motors signalled our departure.
As we left Ryde and approached the maximum line speed of 45 mph, we bounced and swayed dramatically in our seats. The track is still mostly jointed and this, combined with the lively suspension on the old trains, made for an interesting ride. It would almost be as bad as a Pacer, were it not for the saving grace of the 1938 stock – decent padding on the seats which absorb the worst of the shocks. This meant the ride wasn’t uncomfortable and instead was rather… dare I say it? Fun.
Just over 20 minutes later, we were rolling into Shanklin station.
Shanklin is now the southern terminus of the line. Until 1966 the line continued onwards to Ventnor, however this section did not survive the Beeching axe and a buffer stop definitively marks the end of the line. Beyond the station, the former alignment of the railway line is now occupied by a caravan park. Anyone wanting to travel to Ventnor now must use the bus link which departs from the station forecourt.
(the next four pictures were taken when I returned to the station the following morning, which explains why the shadows are in a completely different place)
Shanklin appears to be well looked after, with a small ticket office and a tiny waiting room still in use. A welcome splash of colour came from a small garden tended by a local community group.
From my point of view, the station building proved rather problematic. The BR logo is positioned high up on the tallest part of the building. Directly outside the station is a busy road with constant traffic passing by. This made it impossible to get a decent angle for the sign photo. You’ll have to take my word for it that this is Shanklin station, as the text is too small to be legible on the pic. I did try my best, honest.
That was it for my railway shenanigans for the day. I headed off to find my hotel and maybe explore Shanklin a little bit. After checking in, I stayed in my hotel room for slightly longer than planned – frankly, I was blown away by the revelation that former CBBC presenter Simon Parkin is now doing the ITV Meridian weather. I guess it’s a natural progression for him, having been mentioned in the song “John Kettley is a Weatherman” (he’s “always larkin'”).
It was close to 7pm when I ventured out, in search of something to eat.
Shanklin town centre is pleasant enough, with small local shops and cafés rubbing shoulders with the likes of the Co-op and the Poundland-that-used-to-be-Woolworths. I was fascinated by one shop which offered sports equipment, scouting gear and model railway accessories all under one roof.
Less happily, “Mr T’s Pizza” had a sign in the window declaring that the takeaway was closed until further notice due to an arson attack. Blimey.
I headed down towards the beach. It was early evening, so the holidaymaker crowds had left, leaving behind them a collection of sandcastles waiting for the incoming tide to reclaim them. The beaches were almost deserted; peaceful and quiet in the evening sun.
The beaches at Shanklin are located at the foot of some steep cliffs. A lift is provided to connect the Esplanade to the town above, which seems a little unnecessary – there are plenty of footpaths down to the shore, which aren’t that steep. You also have to pay to use the lift. I decided this was one mode of transport I could safely miss out on.
The other transport available to tourists is the circular bus tour operated by Southern Vectis. It’s called “The Shanklin Steamer” which, frankly, sounds like an unpleasant sex practice, but maybe that’s just my dirty mind.
So what did I have to eat? Well, I was at the seaside, and I think it’s a generally accepted rule that fish and chips is the meal to have at the beach. There was a takeaway on the seafront still open and doing a good trade thanks to a large gang of bikers who appeared to be holding a meeting in the car park. I decided not to sit with them (old men in leather… er, no) and instead headed for a bench on the Esplanade itself, where I gratefully stuffed the greasy treat into my mouth.
I’d only been on the Isle of Wight for a few hours, but already the place had completely won me over. From the charming antiquity of its railway rolling stock, to the beauty of Shanklin’s seafront, I was entranced.
Best of all, I had already ticked off two of the eleven stations on my agenda. Collecting the remaining nine tomorrow would be an absolute doddle… wouldn’t it?