I stumbled, bleary-eyed, into the Tyneside dawn. The streets of Newcastle were quiet; Geordieland was, by and large, still soundly asleep. The pavements were wet from overnight drizzle, and clouds hung ominously in the sky, threatening further rain. Luckily, I didn’t have far to go. I had deliberately booked into The Royal Station Hotel which, as the name suggests, is right next door to the station.
I had set no fewer than four alarms on my phone: the first at 5am, then at five-minute intervals thereafter. This may seem a bit over the top, but I needed to ensure I was up and at Newcastle Central station by 5.55am at the very latest, in order to catch a rare train to Chathill.
When I walked into the station at quarter to six, I found few passengers, but there was a Super Sprinter ticking over in platform 1.
The Chathill service is an odd little outpost of the Northern Rail network. It’s a remnant of a train which used to run in BR days; a stopping service on the East Coast Main Line between Newcastle, Berwick and Edinburgh. The service was progressively run down from the 1970s onwards, and now just two Northern Rail trains a day venture north of Morpeth, providing a link for a handful of commuters to and from the small village stations.
The train was unlocked with barely two minutes to spare before departure. Just two fellow passengers joined me on board. I guessed that the train wasn’t going to get any more crowded, and so spread myself out across a table seat.
I am not a morning person at the best of times, and my mood wasn’t particularly bright at this point. The weather was looking unpromising, and my breakfast had consisted of just a very strong cup of coffee – the hotel didn’t start serving breakfast until 6.30am, and nowhere in the vicinity of the station was open at that ungodly hour.
Beyond Newcastle, the scenery gets increasingly rural. I settled back and gazed at the Northumberland scenery (what I could make out through the mist) flashing by. For one brief, glorious moment, the East Coast Main Line actually skirts the east coast and I was treated to a view of the River Aln as it flows into the North Sea at Alnmouth. That village is fortunate enough to still have a station with regular services, including direct links to London. No such look for the other villages on this part of the line.
My fellow passengers had disembarked by the time we left Alnmouth, and I had the train completely to myself. I remembered the complimentary KitKats the hotel had generously provided in my room. I had grabbed them as I left that morning and thought that now was as good a time as any to unwrap and eat them. Unfortunately, the 40 minutes or so that they’d been in my pocket was more than sufficient to turn them into a sticky mess. I picked the foil off the liquefied chocolate so I could put the soggy biscuit in my mouth. I had just finished licking my fingers clean when the guard announced Chathill – “our next and final stop”.
I hopped off and watched the train amble into the distance.
It recesses in a passing loop off the main line for twenty minutes to allow other – far more important – trains to pass, before returning at 7.10am to form the morning service to Newcastle. I was sure this would give me more than enough time to look around.
This is the northernmost point on the Northern Rail network. The next station on the line is Berwick-upon-Tweed, but there is no direct train service from here, despite the battered sign at the station entrance still optimistically advertising trains to “the North”.
Chathill itself is a hamlet with just a few houses clustered around the station. A long time ago, a branch line to Seahouses commenced here, but there is no trace of that today. A building across the road from the station announced that it was the “Chathill Post Office”, opened in 1900. Of course, it is no longer a post office and has been converted into a house. There was a “For Sale” sign outside – no doubt the estate agent is touting the proximity to the train station, hoping that prospective owners won’t check the timetable.
The level crossing warbled into life frequently. Even at this time in the morning, the East Coast Main Line was busy with trains. This is one of the reasons that the service here is so scant – there’s simply no room to fit in a regular stopping train between the East Coast and CrossCountry expresses that hurtle through the station every few minutes.
There is no footbridge here, so I made a mental note to be on the southbound platform in plenty of time. The last thing I wanted was to be trapped on the wrong side of the barriers as my train approached.
I am used to “limited service” stations being somewhat perfunctory. Not Chathill; this was a delight. The station building – a fine, granite affair – is now in private hands, but the owner has turned it into a railway shrine. The windows are decorated with posters and pictures of HSTs; 1950s era signs are fixed to the walls. Planters filled with shrubs line the platform.
On the opposite platform, the waiting room is equally well cared for. There is a noticeboard advertising heritage railways, a rack of information leaflets, and even a shelf with some books – presumably in case you miss the morning train and need something to pass the twelve hours before the evening departure.
The feather in the cap: a small plastic wallet hanging from the waiting room wall, containing postcards for sale. A note advised that the postcards were 20p each. “If I’m not around,” it said, “put the money in the envelope provided and drop it through the booking office letterbox.”
I grabbed a postcard and scurried back across the level crossing. Not seeing any sign of activity (and not wanting to disturb the owner) I popped my 20p through the slot and headed back to the southbound platform. I have, sadly, not been able to find any information about the owner of the station building. I wanted to write him a note but didn’t have a pen with me. If anyone does know anything, please leave a comment, because I would very much like to metaphorically shake the hand of the man responsible.
At 7.09am the train returned and I climbed aboard to head to my next destination. I was feeling a lot more chipper – Chathill had cheered me up immeasurably, not least because I had a proper, tangible souvenir of my visit beyond the obligatory selfie.