The Isle of Wight actually has two railways: the Island Line with its quaint 1930s electric trains, and the Isle of Wight Steam Railway, with quaint 1900s steam trains. Check out the map to the right, which looks like something from the Island of Sodor, but does in fact come from the South West Trains web site.
My aim was to visit every station on the line, steam and electric. Taking into account that Ryde Pier Head and Shanklin were ticked off the previous day, that left me nine stations to “do”. I thought that this would be easily achievable in one day. The Island Line is less than 30 minutes end to end, and for most of the day has two trains per hour (albeit at slightly awkward 20/40 minute intervals). The steam trains run less frequently, but with only four stations on this section to capture, I didn’t consider that a major obstacle. Even so, I decided to get to the steam section first, to get it out of the way.
On Thursday morning, I strolled to Shanklin station in glorious sunshine. The cloudless sky and warm temperatures would persist all day (I later discovered that the Isle of Wight had been the warmest place in the whole UK that day, with temperatures peaking just shy of 25 C). I don’t fully appreciate bright sunshine, thanks to my fair-skinned complexion. I don’t go nicely tanned like most people, instead simply skipping straight to the overcooked lobster phase. I ventured out in shorts and T-shirt, but also applied some factor 200 (I think) sunscreen. Well, it was either that or a beekeeper’s outfit.
A joint “Island Liner” day ranger ticket is available for the princely sum of £15, allowing unlimited travel on both companies’ lines. I turned up at Shanklin station on Thursday morning to purchase it. Immediately in front of me in the queue was an elderly gent, who engaged the booking office clerk in some genial conversation:
“All right, mate, how are you this morning?”
“Fine, thank you. And yourself?”
“I didn’t sleep too well, I heard some strange noises during the night.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“Strange banging sounds coming from the station.”
“Oh, that’s odd. I just need to serve this customer.” (he gestures to me)
“Yes, they were strange noises, you might want to check that out.”
“OK, I’ll check the CCTV. But I need to serve this gentleman.”
“Oh?” (turns around, notices me) “OHH! Well, I’ll let you get on then.”
The clerk gave me a weary look. I suspect he speaks to this man quite a lot.
Ticket safely in hand, I was soon speeding up the line to my first stop of the day – Smallbrook Junction, where Island Line and Steam Railway meet.
Smallbrook Junction is no longer a junction in the true sense of the term, as the two railways here are not physically connected. Until 1966, however, it was the spot where the line to Newport branched off from the Ryde to Ventnor line. There was no station here until 1991, when a platform was provided to serve as an interchange between Island Line and a newly extended steam railway. Indeed, that is the station’s sole function, for there is no road or footpath access to the station. The only way to arrive or depart is by train.
It’s slightly disconcerting to be at a station which has no exit, but I didn’t really have much time to consider the situation. When I arrived at Smallbrook, the steam train was already simmering away in the adjacant platform. A small crowd of people alighted from the Island Line train and crossed over to the steam side to board it.
I became flustered. There were lots of people around – railway staff and passengers alike – and I felt a little self-conscious. I stood near a station name board for a moment, clutching my camera, but felt faintly ridiculous taking a selfie with all these people staring at me. Instead, I meekly climbed aboard one of the carriages and took a seat.
Oh well, I thought, I can get the picture on the way back.
The Isle of Wight Steam Railway wins points for authenticity. Most preserved railways in the UK seek to recreate the atmosphere of pre-Beeching steam railways, but most of them fail the realism test to a certain extent, by using massive main line express steam locomotives hauling long rakes of coaches; none of which would ever have been seen on those small country branch lines in real life. Here, however, we have some attention to detail: a tank engine, hauling Southern Railway coaches, as would have been actually used on the island’s railways before they were ripped up or electrified.
The whistle blew and with a hiss of escaping steam, we set off, with the familiar “chuff chuff” sound intensifying as the locomotive worked hard to get its train moving. I will admit that I am not a huge steam fan. I grew up with the silent modernity of the electrified Merseyrail network, so if I want to wallow in railway history, I much prefer the low growl and diesel fumes of a Class 37 diesel locomotive. However, the Isle of Wight Steam Railway made an excellent first impression on me. The interior of my third class carriage had been lovingly restored to its former glory, with an information panel inside telling me about the vehicle’s history (it had been dumped at Newport station after that line closed and was rescued by IoWSR volunteers). I sat back on my padded seat and imagined I was a well to do City banker visiting the area to get some sea air.
The line is quite short, so less than 30 minutes after departure from Smallbrook Junction, we had arrived at the line’s far terminus, Wootton. I was at the rear of the train, so had a long walk up the platform to the exit where, I reasoned, there would be a station sign to get a photo in front of.
There wasn’t. There was a small generic “ISLE OF WIGHT STEAM RAILWAY” sign, but nothing bearing the station’s name. I walked as far as the main road to confirm there was no sign, then returned to the platform, realising I’d have to settle for a station nameboard photo.
Unfortunately, this didn’t happen either. My dawdling had caused me a problem. The turnaround time at the terminus is very short (just eight minutes), so by the time I had walked up to the entrance and back again, the train was ready to leave, and I hadn’t got my record photo.
I seriously considered waiting for the next departure in just over an hour’s time, but then a helpful member of platform staff spotted me.
“Are you intending to travel sir?” he asked.
No, I thought. “Yes,” I said.
Then I remembered my goal. “I-I-I… need to get off at Ashey,” I spluttered.
“You’ll need to speak to the guard,” he advised.
In the guard’s van there were two people working – an elderly gent and a chap who looked younger than me – so young, in fact, I was half tempted to ask him why he wasn’t in school. I assumed that the former was the guard, and asked for a stop at Ashey, only for him to redirect me to the younger man. He looked a little bemused that anyone would want Ashey, but nevertheless promised to inform the driver. With that, I dashed down the platform to find a seat for the return journey. I couldn’t find an empty compartment, so settled for one which at least had OAPs rather than hyperactive toddlers in it.
As the train headed back down the line, I studied the timetable and kicked myself for my idiocy. For the second time that day, I had panicked. In not wanting to appear like a plonker in front of other people, I had allowed my carefully laid plans for the day to unravel even further. I would have to return to Wootton at some point to get a photo. The service is roughly hourly for most of the day, but there is a gap in service of nearly two hours at around 1pm, when presumably everyone goes off and has lunch. In my original plans I would have missed that, now I would be stuck in the middle of it, and this would therefore delay the rest of the itinerary even more.
I consoled myself with the hope that at least getting to Ashey would enable me to get back on track, so to speak. Ashey is a “secret” station – it doesn’t appear in the timetable or even on some route maps. It is a request stop halfway between Smallbrook and Havenstreet; deep in the countryside, accessible only by a footpath a long way from the nearest road. My plan was to hop off at Ashey, get the photo, then rejoin the train a few minutes later on its return trip from Smallbrook.
I gazed out of the window, watching the gently rolling hills and farmer’s fields go by. It’s not hard to see why these lines were closed, really – there is not much out here to act as a source of traffic. The train began to climb the gradient from Havenstreet (the line’s “central” station) towards Smallbrook, and I got ready to alight. I prepared myself to climb over the unsuspecting elderly couple as we rolled into Ashey…
…and went straight through without stopping.
Instead of Ashey, I found myself, once more, at Smallbrook Junction, where I climbed out of the train, slightly bewildered. How could things go this wrong this quickly?
At the very least, I could get the Smallbrook Junction station name board. I wandered up to the end of the platform, away from the crowds, and put on a brave face for the picture.
As I was standing there, arm outstretched, the guard approached and apologised for the mix-up. He explained that there had been a change of drivers at Havenstreet, and he had forgotten to tell the new driver of my request. “Look,” he said, “I even wrote it on my hand to remind me.”
He held up his fist which had ASHEY scrawled on it in Biro. Well, he tried.
He offered to stop at Ashey on the return journey for me, but I declined. It would throw out my already delayed schedule far too much. I resigned myself to missing out Ashey station, and dejectedly climbed back aboard. To add insult to injury, my next stop would be Wootton (again) to get the station photo I missed last time. As the kids like to say: EPIC FAIL.
So I started on a second complete trip down the line. The now familiar scenery flicked past the window, but it failed to cheer me up. The only small crumb of comfort was that the delay was not entirely down to my own stupidity. I could now blame someone else! Hurrah!
I took no chances at Wootton. My carriage came to a halt with a station sign almost directly opposite. I got off, took the photo, got the selfie pic, then took a couple of quick photos of the station itself, then jumped back aboard.
A member of platform staff popped his head in through the still-open door of my compartment.
“Is that everyone aboard?” he asked.
“Oh, er… yes,” I rpelied.
“Right, then.” He slammed the door with a pointed look at me. I was in such a hurry I forgot to shut the door behind me. RAIL ENTHUSIAST FAIL.
Havenstreet was the next stop, and would be my final station on the steam railway… or was it? The lack of Ashey was starting to gnaw at me. Could I really face returning home with one station omitted? It wasn’t as if I could easily come back next week and visit it. There would be a gaping hole in my blog. People would ask me, “why didn’t you visit Ashey?” and then scoff at my explanation.
I pulled out my increasingly crumpled and tear-stained Isle of Wight Steam Railway timetable and perused it. In my other hand, I scrolled through Google Maps on my phone. I realised that the 2-hour gap in service could actually help me. My train was due to arrive at Havenstreet at 12.52. The train after that would depart at 14.51 – more than enough time for me to walk to Ashey and pick it up there.
Feeling pleased with myself, I got off at Havenstreet. Or is it Haven Street? The railway’s publicity leaflets spell it as one word, but the station name board said something different. And what’s with that full stop? Am I being too pedantic here?
I made a beeline for the station tea room, where I joined a queue of excitable pensioners looking for a Nice Cup Of Tea And A Sit Down. I picked up a Chicken Tikka sandwich (I was on the Isle of Wight, but this was the closest I got to a Tikka to Ryde, HAHA!) and a Fentiman’s Ginger Beer, and plonked myself down in a quiet corner. I was surrounded by a host of commemorative plaques on the walls, marking all the awards the railway has won, going back to the late 1970s. Incidentally, I’m not getting paid by Fentiman’s, but their drinks are bloody lovely – why are they not more widely available?
Havenstreet is the line’s headquarters, so there is plenty to see here. Locomotives and rolling stock litter the area. In addition to the tea room, there is a small museum, and a gift shop selling the obligatory range of model trains and T-shirts. I could have happily spent a lot of time and money there, but then I remembered that I had barely been able to close my suitcase after packing and fitting anything else in would have been a step too far (in retrospect, I’m not sure why this trip required three pairs of shoes). I limited myself to a postcard, as my sister had asked me to send her one (apparently she lives in the 1950s).
Suitably refreshed, I headed out of the station, where outside – oh frabjous joy – was a proper sign, the first one today. And I got the photo on my first attempt, too. Finally something was going right!
Now I had the small matter of navigating my way to Ashey station. The first problem presented itself immediately on leaving the station. These are country roads – single carriageway, with no pavement, and vehicles passing at terrifying speed. Remembering the Highway Code for Young Road Users (sponsored by General Accident) that I had been given at school when I was ten, I kept to the right-hand side of the road to face oncoming traffic. That did not make the blind bends I encountered en route any less terrifying.
I was hampered here by my lacking a decent map. Last year, when I went to Cornwall, I had wisely purchased an Ordnance Survey map of the area. This turned out to be a good move as my mobile signal disappeared at several key points. Here in the Isle of Wight, however, I had taken no such precaution. Google Maps is usually excellent, but the public footpaths away from the roads were not marked at all, and in any case the 3G signal was intermittent so I couldn’t rely on it.
I saw a signpost for a public footpath that looked like it pointed in the right direction. I followed it down a road which ended at a farmhouse. A pack of dogs angrily barked and snarled at me through the garden gate as I pondered my next move. A small arrow pointed over a stile and into a field, but there was absolutely no further indication of where to go beyond that.
I did not like the idea of getting lost in the countryside. I had a vision of being the top story on ITV News Meridian that night, with Fred Dinenage solemnly detailing the search and rescue operation. I did not want that, not least because lazy regional news journalists would probably have used a terribly pixellated photo of me from my Facebook profile, and that would never do. I made a decision to stick to the roads instead, even though that would be a longer route.
I seriously considered turning back to Havenstreet station, but I couldn’t bear the thought of missing out Ashey station, so I pressed on. Ashey or bust, I thought – and the second option was a very real possibility.
I soon left Havenstreet behind me and was out in the open country, surrounded on all sides by farmland. The sun was at its hottest now. It felt like the sunscreen was starting to wear off and I could feel myself starting to lightly bake. I started to feel thirsty, and as tasty as that ginger beer had been, I wondered if maybe a bottle of water might not have been a more sensible purchase.
My feet started to ache and I felt what I knew were the beginnings of blisters on my soles. It didn’t help that the final half mile or so towards Ashey station is over a very rough uneven footpath. It seemed to go on for ever, until finally… yes! A level crossing hove into view.
And so this was Ashey, the almost-mythical station which had caused me so much trouble. A grass-covered platform with a small shelter. I was very grateful for some trees to give me some shade from the fierce sun.
This is not the original platform: that was on the other side of the line, until subsidence in the 1950s forced British Rail to construct a new structure. This didn’t last long – Ashey closed along with the rest of the line in 1966, finally reopening 25 years later. The remains of the old platform can still be seen in the undergrowth The original station building, quite a grand structure for such an isolated and remote location, is now a private house.
A distant whistle heralded the approach of my train. I did my best impression of Jenny Agutter in The Railway Children to flag it down. The guard was the same one from earlier. “Made it at last!” I called to him as I ran up the side of the train in search of a seat. Not wanting to hold the train up too much, I wilfully ignored the RESERVED FOR COACH PARTY sticker in the window of one of the coaches and hopped aboard anyway.
I gratefully fell out of the train at Smallbrook. I took a moment to appreciate the historic British Rail poster displayed on the platform, proudly boasting of the new electric train service (and downplaying the fact that they were using knackered tube trains). I then dragged myself back over to the Island Line platform, where – for completeness – I got a photo of myself next to the name board on this side of the station.
I felt like I should have been pleased with myself. I was certainly happy that I had gone back for Ashey and had crossed off all the steam railway stations. On the other hand, it had taken me over four hours to do so, far longer than I had planned. It was now past 3 o’clock in the afternoon, I was behind schedule, tired and more than a bit fed up.
I still had five stations to get, but I wasn’t sure if the will was there any more. A southbound Island Line train arrived, and I slumped into a seat to consider my next move.