Just A Minute on Architecture

(This is probably more something for Twitter. But I don’t have a Twitter account. But it still amused me. So you’ll have to see it here.)

I’ve dug out an ancient episode of Just A Minute this evening (one of those where the host and the panellists are all dead and won’t be participating in tomorrow’s recording, which is a risk with 53-year-old shows) and found Clement Freud MP expounding on “The World’s Most Beautiful Building”:

It’s awfully difficult to talk about the world’s most beautiful building, unless you have been all over the world and seen every single building. But I think what I can say is that Number 28 High Street Ewell is not the world’s most beautiful building. I passed it the other day and it was quite singularly ugly. The two-storey building with an old turret…

At this point Clement was interrupted by Derek Nimmo on the basis that “He’s not talking about the world’s most beautiful building, he’s talking about a building that he finds particularly ugly.” This challenge was upheld (“You had established that you were talking about the world’s least beautiful building in your mind”), Clement made some muttered comments about decision-making and Derek began expounding on the Taj Mahal.

While I am vaguely familiar with the Taj Mahal (though I have never seen it in the marble), I have not spent much time in Ewell so have not seen Number 28, High Street.

Happily we have the Internet.

It is apparently a not exactly attractive (though hardly especially ugly) white-painted block shared with a denim store, and now occupied by an estate agent. The fact that it is occupied by an estate agent is a bit distracting because it means the search engine pulls up every house in Ewell being marketed by said estate agent, though with especial reference to those on the High Street.

The estate agent does not, for some reason, advertise themselves as the occupants of a building once slated on an internationally-followed radio show.

However they are, at time of writing, engaged in selling a house on the other side of the crossroads that No. 28 faces onto. Should you wish to have more time to consider Sir Clement’s tastes in architecture, have £475k to spare and not really care for garden space then No. 15 may be of interest.

(But you would have Chris Grayling for your MP. Might be worth knocking another £25k off for that.)

Thinking through rail expansion

There’s a lot of muttering at the moment about various uses for former railway trackbeds and how to provide a more effective transport network post-Covid. On one level is the argument, subscribed to by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that the New Normal is permanent and nobody will be allowed to use public transport again – thus more roads are necessary. On another level is the argument that we need a safer, cleaner and greener way of living our lives – thus more public transport is necessary. A further level submits that we need to live local and shop local to be best for the environment, so new long-distance transport links are not necessary and we should convert the railways (usually dead, but sometimes alive) into cyclepaths.

And even if we do go for public transport, there are lots of forms of public transport so lots of ways to do it.

Let’s take an example.

The Cirencester Branch

The line to Cirencester was built as part of the Cheltenham & Great Western Union Railway in the 1840s, diverging from the mainline from Swindon at Kemble. In fact Cirencester was Cheltenham’s railhead for London for some years, owing to the C&GWUR not having the funds to build the mainline over the hills and down the Stroud Valley to get to Gloucester and Cheltenham.

Once the mainline was completed Cirencester became very much the branch destination, with a change at Kemble usually being necessary to get further afield. Longer-distance travel was also served (if one can call three trains per day a service) by the Midland & South Western Junction line between Andoversford and Andover, which passed through Cirencester on its way southwards to Swindon, Marlborough and Andover for connections to Southampton.

A Map, in order to slightly clarify things. The GWR line from Cirencester runs to Kemble while the M&SWJR runs through Cricklade and then does some tight curves in Swindon. Most stations and several communities omitted to aid clarity.

The Midland & South Western Junction was shut while still working as a traditional rustic cross-country railway. (Thinning out half the stations, upping the linespeed to as close to 90mph as possible and laying on an hourly service with air-conditioned diesel multiple units would probably have made it relevant, if not profitable. Sadly this wasn’t an option in 1960.)

The branch from Kemble to Cirencester was being closely watched from the early 1950s, but the initial decision was to convert the passenger service to four-wheeled diesel railbuses instead of closing it. Three railbuses were bought for the Kemble area – one for the Cirencester line, one for the Kemble to Tetbury branch (vanishing off from Kemble in the opposite direction) and one to be under maintenance. They could not run in passenger service from Kemble down the mainline to Swindon, a mere 13 miles away, because they were too lightweight to operate the electric track circuits that controlled the signalling equipment.

There was also some suggestion that one railbus was too small for the Cirencester line. Unfortunately the railbuses could not operate in pairs while introducing a larger diesel multiple unit would ruin the economics of the two adjacent branches using matching vehicles. Both lines were closed instead.

There has been little subsequent development. The formation of the 7-mile Tetbury line is untouched, except for the intermediate station at Culkerton having entered private hands. The bay platform at Cirencester now acts as a siding in which things are occasionally dumped; most of the 4-mile formation is intact to the outskirts of Cirencester, but there has been some redevelopment in the town centre.

The Cirencester bay platform at Kemble, looking towards the bufferstop in a tantalising manner.

Possibilities

Well, they are almost endless.

Cycling

Obviously both lines make excellent candidates for cycle paths, although there is no real case for spending money on buying up the Cirencester branch formation, clearing vegetation, rebuilding bridges and surfacing it given that there are some perfectly good Cotswold back lanes with scenery and hedgerows and no traffic, and that the awkward bit to cycle is the bit through the Cirencester outskirts where the railway formation has gone. At 7 miles the Tetbury line is a bit less fun as a commuter route on a bike, although the first section out of Tetbury has been developed for that purpose already.

Trams/ Light Rail

The railway is fairly short so is an obvious candidate for the modern version of the old railbuses – a self-powered light-rail vehicle of low capacity connecting into the existing mainline service. This would be cheaper to provide than a full railway.

Buses

Converting old railways into guided busways became a bit of a thing ten or so years ago (St Ives in Huntingdonshire, Luton to Dunstable, Gosport in Hampshire) but in this case is not really worth the candle. The lines were both single track, so a twin-track busway is awkward; through running from Tetbury to Cirencester is inconvenienced by the fact that the branches come into Kemble station on opposite sides of the Swindon to Gloucester mainline; and in any case there is a perfectly good 50-60mph road between Tetbury and Cirencester, much of which was built courtesy of the Roman taxpayer as part of the Fosse Way intercity road. A reasonable bus service could be laid on between the two places, and possibly Kemble, and the nearby towns of Malmesbury, Stroud and Swindon, without any inconvenience to the slumber of the railways. In fact there already is a bus service between Kemble and Tetbury/ Cirencester, so all that is needed is someone to pay to upgrade it to be more useful. This would be even cheaper to organise than the trams, and potentially cheaper than the cyclepath.

The bus at Kemble station. The Cirencester bay platform lies beyond it on the other side of the fence. Note thriving car park, which does need some kind of solution but also represents a lot of potentially longer car journeys already using Kemble station as a park-and-ride hub.

Pause a moment…

… what exactly are we seeking to achieve here?

Wanting to do something with the railway formation is an ambition, but it does not get us very far. Similarly wanting to have a railway into Cirencester again is cute and laudable, but not necessarily actually important. The existing bus can get from Cirencester Forum to Kemble station in 12 minutes. What needs improving here?

First up, an hourly service connecting with the trains at Kemble would be jolly nice – much aided by the fact that the weekday train service now involves the trains crossing at Kemble, so one arrival and one departure can connect with both trains.

Through ticketing would be handy.

Cirencester’s bus stop is advertised on National Rail Enquiries. At the moment the bus times are not, but this is easily remedied when public transport timetabling stabilises. A customer could then book a ticket from Paddington to Cirencester in a journey taking maybe 95 minutes, which is competitive with the car (Bing reckons the car trip is 115 minutes). To an extent what is needed is promoting what already exists.

But trains!

A perfectly true header. Rail services penetrate markets that buses do not.

So, what markets have we got to play with around a railway from Cirencester to Kemble?

Cirencester to Kemble traffic

Kemble is a small Cotswold village which by an accident of history now has an hourly intercity service to London, and is consequently the railhead for a whole host of other places that are too small or inconvenient to have rail services. This convenient high-speed service to an accessible station has made it a good place for people who want to live in the Cotswolds while working in London to buy houses. The journey time is similar to that from Chipping Norton’s nearer-to-London local station, and the area is not full of high-powered celebrities.

This is a long way of saying that there is no fundamental reason for someone in Cirencester to go to Kemble except to catch a train.

Although people do keep building more houses in the area and easy rail access to Cirencester would lower the growing community’s carbon footprint…

Kemble to Cirencester traffic

Better, but Kemble is still a small village. Also the range of shops and nightlife is better in Swindon or Stroud than in Cirencester so a significant proportion of people who live in Kemble and don’t happily drive to Cirencester probably take the train to one of those places.

Cirencester to Swindon traffic

Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. Swindon is a half-hour drive from Cirencester, though getting into the town centre is an alarming experience and not necessarily worth it when you get there. Still, this is a flow to appeal to.

Note that some time ago Swindon Borough Council tried offering these people a park-and-ride facility on the north side of the town to save them driving right into Swindon. It is probably fair to say that anyone interested in this from Cirencester was already using Kemble for the purpose, and therefore any attempt to attract the remaining drivers to Swindon out of their cars needs to be as seamless as possible. If they are willing to change at Kemble, they are either driving there already or they are using the bus link.

Cirencester to London traffic

This is most likely not a very large flow; Kemble makes it look like a large flow, but Kemble also covers Malmesbury and Chalford and Tetbury and Poole Keynes and Fairford and Bibury and probably some of the outskirts of Gloucester and Cheltenham where it is quicker to drive to Kemble than to drive into the city centre and catch the train out again. Also post-Covid home-working.

Cirencester to Gloucester and Cheltenham

Unhelpfully some Roman Emperor built Ermine Street to link Cirencester with Gloucester (links it to Swindon too – good bit of transport design, that one) which doesn’t go five miles out of the way via Kemble and Stroud. Through trains are a challenge because the junction points in the wrong direction and the station is on the wrong side of the junction. (Through trains from Tetbury are no problem – straight into the Gloucester-bound platform at Kemble and reverse.)

Tourists to Cirencester

There are quite a few of these – apart from anything else Cirencester is a good place to just go to on a miscellaneous sort of Saturday for a mooch and a spot of admiring the church, though it lacks a second-hand bookshop – so there is some market here. But discretionary travel tends to follow the road (or railway) of least resistance, so the service has to be pretty seamless. The sort of seamless where you turn up at a station and buy a ticket to Cirencester and board a train direct to Cirencester.

While local traffic will get used to the foibles of any transport link, it is important here to imagine the leisure tripper who is not well-versed on public transport but views it as a means of getting to Cirencester for a Saturday afternoon mooching the shops, pondering chic interior design, looking in the church and taking in a coffee parlour. The public transport option can be in with a good chance of winning on stress and price if it does not involve parking in Cirencester. But it needs to avoid having to run around Kemble station (not a totally intuitive place), buy multiple tickets or worry about tight connections. Think parent and two children while other parent is at football. Think young couple who want a relaxing day together. Think older couple who want a relaxing day together. Think elderly relations who want to sit down and settle back into a light and slightly deaf doze. Think person who has accidentally bought a nice vase in Cirencester and would like to put it down somewhere safe until they get home. Think the Chinese tourists from Bath for whom changing at Swindon is already a language test.

(Actually, for a true story, think of the three generations of a Japanese family with only one English speaker who want to intersperse their Olympic holiday with a trip to Cirencester, discover that Kemble is the railhead for Cirencester, assume that as Kemble is an intercity station it must be in some major place with a taxi rank and obvious onward transport, and get to the end of the station access road to find themselves overlooking the water meadows of the upper Thames Valley in a state of some slight bemusement. Also imagine the one person out for a stroll who appears over a gate and has to explain to them how to cover the remaining four miles to Cirencester.)

Cirencester town centre. Note existing vehicles owned by some possible future rail users getting in the way of gardens, benches, more market stalls, etc.

Cirencester residents without a car

This market is a hidden one because getting around from Cirencester without a car is a messy activity restricted to various bus services. People in this category are therefore more likely to be relatively economically inactive, especially if they are not fond of buses. A train service would help them get further afield more easily, simply and quickly, if it were easy, simple and quick. Some of them will be people whose partners have cars; some will be children and teenagers who do not yet have access to a car and need giving a reason to not buy one; some will be older people who are no longer comfortable driving. There will be a small number of households who are car-free by choice, but the lack of fixed frequent public transport connections means that Cirencester is not necessarily a place that one moves to with an aim of living without a car.

Students

Cirencester is home to the Royal Agricultural College. Live-in students are a traffic rather inclined to awkward peak flows at irregular if easily-identified times, but a train might make it easier to commute in on a daily basis. It may also discourage live-in students from wanting to keep cars (some still will, but some will say “oh look, railway” and not bother).

The College/ University, looking needlessly impressive.

So what does this mean for rail services?

It means that:

  • we shouldn’t expect demand to immediately soar to levels over those shown in the 1960s, as the market would happily leave the status quo where it is – there is not evidence of pent-up demand, and the railway would need to establish its own market;
  • if trains do resume they need to run to/ from Swindon in order to maximise convenience and avoid changes of vehicle – people who want to keep breaking off and changing vehicle then more of them would drive to Kemble or use the bus link.

Note that a railway is unlikely to achieve 100% market penetration in any sector of society, so it needs to target as many sectors as reasonably possible without becoming unattractive to all of them. Obvious point, but easily missed – we are not talking about all people in Swindon who want to go to Cirencester always going by train (but half of them making half their trips by train could still be a good chunk of people and a marked cut in pollution) and we are not merely targeting the small group of people who will go by train no matter how much faff it is, and call it part of the fun, and we are not merely after the existing bus passengers.

What is certain is that a railway going to Swindon will attract more people that other options, for the following reasons:

  • pretty good in all weathers with a largely dry journey (unlike cycling or making a connection at Kemble);
  • smooth consistent run (unlike the car);
  • perception of quality (unlike the bus);
  • perception of permanence that can be depended upon (unlike the bus);
  • once a journey has begun there are no connections/ breaks of journey to worry about (unlike connections at Kemble);
  • car-free (unlike driving).

In fact the through train is in a small way a better bet than driving to Kemble on the penultimate point, because there is no risk of the drive being caught out at the last moment by getting stuck behind a tractor.

A side bonus of running to/ from Swindon is that this allows the service level to be set at a level which meets existing demand and generates more, rather than running to connect in and out of an hourly service at Kemble that is timed to at least some degree based on pathing into Paddington.

It is worth noting that the following costs are similar for an hourly shuttle-car connecting Kemble with Cirencester and an hourly train linking Swindon with Cirencester:

  • Land purchase;
  • Bridges;
  • Maintaining legacy infrastructure (embankments, old bridges, etc. built for heavy rail);
  • Driver;
  • Procuring a unit (one-off new shuttle car against spare 2-car Sprinter).
One of the few structures on the line – a handsome overbridge crossing a small back lane and a canal. Requires repointing, clearing of vegetation and provision of parapet walls whatever you want to run over it. (Also the drain underneath it needs unblocking, or possibly providing – the road floods badly most winters due to the artificial dip to pass under the railway.)

The following can be done more cheaply or conveniently as part of a large operation:

  • Managing maintenance spares (for track and train);
  • Managing traincrew and relief turns;
  • Managing safety cases;
  • Managing ticketing, planning, advertising and back-office functions (although obviously a local support group willing to stick up their own posters and run a ticket office on the cheap will work out considerably cheaper than making a big corporation with unionised staff do this).

All-in-all, persuading the local train operator to run a diesel unit from Bristol or Westbury to Swindon each morning and shuttle it up and down between Swindon and Cirencester all day will probably be better overall value than connecting in and out of the London trains at Kemble. It will also be rather more resilient – a train from London has to cover some 77 miles before it gets to Swindon, during which time many and varied things can go wrong to upset a journey from Swindon to Cirencester. (This thought is why people don’t like changing trains, never mind changing to a separate transport operator who may or may not wait around with a vehicle full of grumpy passengers to see if anyone’s coming up 20 minutes late from Swindon.)

Doubling-up business cases

Of course a train running from Swindon to Cirencester calling at Kemble every hour costs about the same amount of traincrew and rolling stock as a train running from Swindon to Cirencester that also offers a Swindon suburban service.

Roughly inserting three intermediate stops on the run out of Swindon, for Rodbourne, Mouldon Hill and Purton, would serve local housing estates and villages to:

  • provide a rapid means of transport into the town centre;
  • open up more scope for commuting by train to Gloucester, London and Bristol, albeit with a change of train at Swindon or Kemble;
  • ease access to the rail network generally.

On the scope to commute to London and Bristol – changing into these routes at Swindon is a little different to doing so at Kemble as the service level is better, and therefore longer-distance commuting can be done more reliably. Missing a London train at Kemble (one train per hour) is a problem. Missing a London train at Swindon (five trains per hour) is a small piece of grit in the millstone of life.

The three intermediate stops would boost usage of the unit(s) employed between Cirencester and Swindon, and as suburban stops go some way to justifying running a half-hourly service between Cirencester and Swindon instead of an hourly one. It is easier to work one’s life around a half-hourly service than an hourly one, particularly for journeys of less than 3 miles where it is quicker to walk than wait for the next train – therefore making a success of such suburban stops needs a half-hourly service, which in turn makes getting to Cirencester much easier. This also benefits Kemble’s status as a park-and-ride for its wider market, by giving in three trains per hour to Swindon instead of the current one and therefore making driving there from Tetbury/ Malmesbury/ South Gloucester more attractive than driving all the way to a destination.

They do of course need to justify themselves for:

  • expense of construction;
  • expense of stopping;
  • loss of revenue through extended journey times from Cirencester cause by the extra stops.

Given the fact that the railway has to build its own market in Cirencester, not all of which will be discretionary usage (i.e. some users don’t currently have a means of making the journey so will accept what they are offered), the third point above is hard to calculate and can probably be ignored.

On the other two points, the following considerations apply around each station.

Purton

There was a station here until the 1960s; the building still stands, although the platforms have gone. Central Swindon is reasonably accessible by car, though if this point against bothering with the railway has been rejected for Cirencester then it can equally be rejected for Purton. The village bears hallmarks of being a dormitory town for Swindon – it is not really self-supporting in terms of industry or retail facilities – and is all within a half-hour walk of the former station. There is scope for developing incoming tourists/ day trippers as well as encouraging commuting into central Swindon and shopping trips by train – the village is sat in attractive countryside with many public footpaths, an unusual church and a small hillfort. The train would allow residents of Central Swindon to get in and out of the town centre with greater facility.

Purton’s old station, with surviving ticket office and waiting room. The original main building was demolished and replaced at the end of the 1950s under the railway Modernisation Plan. The modern structure has a flat concrete roof and ceiling-level windows. It lasted five years or so as a station and is now part of a car maintenance garage. It is an unusual example of a circa-1960 railway station and should really have listed building status.

Mouldon Hill

The railway passes beneath one of Swindon’s key suburban distributor roads – really the outer ring road, and a rather stop/start and polluting affair – between Mouldon Hill Country Park and various new-build housing estates. Primarily a station would give the housing estates access to the town centre and make it easier to use the Great Western Mainline as a superior alternative to the M4 for longer trips. It would also give rapid access to the country park for town centre residents (say an eight minute journey time). Once the Swindon & Cricklade Railway has finished its northern extension this would make an interesting, if slightly disjointed, car-free way of getting to the charming Saxon town of Cricklade.

Good spot for a station really – on straight, plain-line, close-to-level track, adjacent to an existing bridge (so no footbridge required), adjacent to housing, adjacent to a main road, open space for a car park (requirement debatable though), on edge of major conurbation. All it needs is some trains of a sort that want to stop here.

Rodbourne & Even Swindon

Getting from this part of Swindon to the town centre – a journey of rather less than a mile – is an awkward exercise for anyone not on foot or a bicycle (for whom the Western Flyer route is a slightly grotty but extremely direct option along the formation of the North Wilts Canal). In any case the town’s one-way system does not favour motorists (neither, alas, does it favour anyone else) so a railway station would give an option for short hops and make journeys from the main station smoother – allowing the rail network to be joined here instead of having to get into the town centre first. It is conveniently situated for the main road from the M4 and for the Western Flyer multi-use path from West Swindon, though accommodating a proper car park for such traffic flows is not really possible (but a pick-up/ drop-off point on Galton Way might be). The vicinity includes several industrial estates, the local B&Q and a hotel, so some commuting traffic may be in prospect. Its main functions would be giving Rodbourne access to Mouldon Hill, Purton and the Cotswolds while allowing incoming traffic an alternative access route (via Rodbourne High Street) to Swindon’s Outlet Centre in the former railway works.

Part of the complex of road junctions – and associated traffic jam – at a large roundabout built around two railway bridges between Rodbourne and Even Swindon. A station on the embankment to the right of the bridge would be reasonably accessible from most directions.

Cirencester station

There is the small matter that through some act of carelessness (actually several acts of carelessness) the railway alignment to Cirencester GWR has been blocked by industrial estates, housing, new roads and a supermarket. The building is now a rather unusual-looking set of offices for the bus station.

Cirencester Town station, with more than a passing resemblance to the still-operational station buildings at Kemble and Stroud.

The no-demolition solution is to terminate the line on the very edge of the town (these acts of carelessness are almost too thorough to be mere carelessness).

Taking over the edge of a patch of alloments, strimming the edge off a back garden, knocking down two industrial units and reorganising some car hire offices would allow a small station on the Chesterton Lane, which is a little under a mile from the church in the town centre (but very convenient for the various bypasses and expressways that carve up Cirencester, and so would make an excellent park-and-ride if only someone had left room for a car park).

If the line were a success a case could be made for clearing most of Meadow Road (Scottish rail reopenings have flattened more houses simply to provide a turning area) and taking a lane off the Bristol Road dual carriageway (reducing the northern half of the road to two northbound lanes, slewed eastwards with the central reservation removed, and one southbound lane). This would give rail access to a single-platform terminus adjacent to the hospital, the amphitheatre and Cirencester’s Waitrose. Such a station would be half a mile from the church. Timetable considerations would probably necessitate shutting the Chesterton Lane station.

The Amphitheatre. Not terribly impressive nowadays, being a large grassy area with enormous hummocks arranged in a circle. Behind the trees is a main road which rather cuts off this part of Cirencester from the town centre proper.

Back in the day there were also intermediate stops at Oaksey and Minety. Neither of these represent large centres of population and are therefore unlikely to generate loadings that would warrant extending the journey times to stop at these stations (as the half-hourly round trip would then require three units instead of two).

And here’s another copy of that not-very-to-scale map for people who don’t know the area to keep up:

So?

Well, there are two points to this.

First, a suggestion for a nice heavy-rail link to Cirencester which ties it into the wider rail network and increases connectivity for people outside Cirencester too. Not that it’s terribly likely to happen, and especially not like this, but a thought nonetheless.

Second, a thought for other schemes – what is your project actually for, other than restoring a railway? Any railway restoration will do something, but one with some thought given to details of its application and what its user base can do with it will obviously do better than one which says “look, railway”. To be quite honest, if it’s a good scheme you’ll be able to get ordinary people, or possibly even people who own large off-road vehicles for doing the school run, to say “Actually, I could use that”.

Kemble station looking north, with Thames Turbo unit preparing for the climb out of the Thames Valley on its way to Gloucester. The Cirencester bay is behind the station buildings out of view to the right while the Tetbury bay platform was behind the containers to the left.

US Election 2020

Elections in the USA are odd things to an UK observer. The President of London (we call him the Mayor) is elected by a sort of form of proportional representation where each voter marks a first preference on the ballot paper (for who they want to win) followed by a second preference (for which of the Conservative and Labour candidates they would like to win). All the votes are totted up, the top two candidates (usually Conservative and Labour, excepting 2000 when it was Conservative and Red Ken) are identified and the others are eliminated (acid baths generally). The second preferences for the less popular candidates are redistributed amongst the top two (where relevant) and one of these two wins.

The equivalent to the US system would be that every London borough gets to vote individually for who the majority of people in that borough want to win, and then the boroughs are allocated a number of votes based on their population and importance at some point, and those votes are allocated to the candidate that the borough voted for, and the candidate who gets most of those votes wins.

The main function of this is that it stops people voting for irrelevant and special-interest parties. (It is also supposed to stop the big states bullying the small states, on the assumption that the President doesn’t bully the small states anyway once elected.)

In the UK almost all the votes are counted on the night, even for complex things like the Mayor of London, and the new Prime Minister can be kissing hands with the monarch within 12 hours of the polls closing. It is shockingly quick – though not as quick as monarchical succession, which is instantaneous. (The business of Government must continue.)

Of course in the UK Government has all been at a standstill for the last six weeks because there’s been an election on; the Government can’t do anything interesting during the election, and the MPs (and most of the Cabinet, and the Prime Minister) are technically not members of Parliament but merely candidates for seats. None of this thing where you can appoint judges during election season in the UK. Not that UK judges are political creatures anyway.

So the idea that there won’t be a result from the US election for weeks and any new President won’t be in office for months is a bit ridiculous.

Not that my personal betting is that there will be a new President.

The final polling was something like Biden 52% against Trump on 44%, but that’s a nationwide result. That could mean that everybody in California is going to vote for Biden, which would be very cute – but won’t be of any more legal use for him than if 51% of the people in California vote for him.

Instead matters rest on swing states, in the way that they rest (usually) on marginal seats in the UK. The darling Beeb identified 10 of them – if Biden wins the right ones, or indeed all of them, then he’s President.

Thing is:

  • Arizona and Florida are very close;
  • Pennsylvania and Nevada are not much better;
  • Voters for Trump are more likely to be uncertain about telling pollsters this (he is hardly popular in certain areas);
  • The general impression is that Trump-voting is a vote for the President whereas Biden-voting is at least partly against the President, and voters who don’t want something are a very uncertain basis on which to fight an election. (Ask the Remain team in the Brexit referendum.)

If we go with the Beeb’s current predictions, and give Biden Wisconsin, Arizona and Michigan on top of the Democrat-leaning states, then Trump loses and we are apparently all happy.

If however we assume Trump picks up an on-the-day gain of one-to-two percentage points from:

  • being the incumbent;
  • shy Trump voters;
  • soft Biden voters not turning up;
  • polling uncertainties;

then Trump can expect Arizona, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida and Georgia, which on top of the Republican-leaning states is enough to put him back in the Oval Office for a second term.

I personally am no enormous lover of Trump, but have not seen great signs that I should be enamoured of Biden. I have some sympathies for those who don’t really buy career politicians, and I’m not that certain about a party that can’t attract successful younger candidates.

However, we will all find out what happened when the Supreme Court rules on who won.

Trails from the Rails 20: Betws-y-Coed to Dolwyddelan

  • Area: Conwy/ Caernarfonshire
  • Local Train Operators: Transport for Wales
  • Length: 12 miles
  • Points of Note: Llyn Elsi, some nice views, the Lledr Valley, trains on the Blaenau Ffestiniog line.
  • OS maps – OL17 and OL18 (1:25,000) (spans both maps); Landranger 115 (1:50,000)

At time of writing and posting there are in fact no advertised trains running on the line between Llandudno Junction and Blaenau Ffestiniog, and have not been since a major wash-out in February 2020. Prior to this the service had been fairly intermittent, with a lengthy closure in November 2019 for tunnel repairs, another five-month closure between March and July 2019 due to another wash-out, two months out of action due to rolling stock shortages following flooding just after Transport for Wales took over the franchise and a five-day closure over the handover period from Arriva Trains Wales in October 2018 because it had been raining. Readers intending to do this walk are encouraged to do so in the next few weeks.

The route is due to re-open on Monday (the 28th September 2020) and this post aims to commemorate this with the final walk for this second batch of Trails from the Rails.

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Betws-y-Coed station has a rather handsome building from the days when it was a major station for a Snowdonia tourist centre. Now it is a minor and badly-served station (sometimes) for a Snowdonia tourist centre – though it has a website which makes no mention of the rail service.

Leave the station into the forecourt, looking out for the interesting commemorative plaques:

(Much as this is a rather daring statement – Blodwen and Olwen could have plighted their eternal troth amongst the sheep on the watermeadows, and simply failed to go down in history for this. Choosing September 7th for 30 years earlier would have been a rather better bet, and possibly funnier.)

Amble up Station Road to the main road, which examination will reveal to be the A5 on its way from Marble Arch to the Port of Holyhead. Turn right and follow the trunk road to Ireland for a few yards to Vicarage Road, which loops around the back of the church.

Follow Vicarage Road to the back of the church and then turn left up the road up the hill.

This slogs away in a reasonably easy-to-follow manner for half-a-mile or so, after which it levels out and starts to have awkward branches. Keep following the generally main route (veer right, straight on, veer left, straight on, veer left) until the path drops suddenly to a reservoir called Elsi.

The quick route is to turn left, but for scenic charms turn right and go round most of the reservoir, admiring the views along the way.

The small path following the reservoir bank – not marked on the map, but followable by dint of continually turning left – eventually comes out onto a larger forest drive. Follow this on round a final corner to the south (top) end of the reservoir and take the drive that turns off to the right, dropping back down the hill.

Again, some moderate navigation is required; left at the first fork, carry on at the convergence and note that the useful path shown on the map bearing off to the right shortly afterwards doesn’t exist. In all honesty the next turning to the right, straight down the hill next to the stream from what the map says is a crossroads, isn’t much either.

At the bottom of the hill the path comes out abruptly onto a track beside the railway, just east of Pont Gethin – the railway’s viaduct over the River Lledr. Turn right and drop down to the road. This is the A470 Cardiff to Llandudno trunk road, which squeezes round a vicious “S” bend under the easternmost visible arch of the viaduct.

Once across the road and under the railway there is (around the point from which this picture was taken) a footpath dropping down off the road into the woods and working to the right towards a footbridge over the Lledr. Tree growth means that the railway viaduct is barely visible.

Having crossed the bridge, turn left and pass through the trees and an overgrown field to the access track to a farm.

Here there is a bit of a choice, as turning right, heading up this track to the road, going straight on and climbing southwards up the steeply climbing road beside the wood will eventually lead to a basin in the hills near the top of the Wybrnant, where the National Trust have a house and the landscape is rather something:

If following this option, keep on up the road over the top of the hill and down the ridge the other side, and look out for a point where the road sharply kinks to the left while a byway turns off under a tree to the right.

Alternatively turn left along the track, sticking close to the river, and come out onto the road a little lower down the valley. Turn left and enjoy the views as the Lledr valley widens on the approach to the confluence with the Conwy:

At the junction swing off to the right and climb up the hillside as the road enters the Conwy valley:

After some steady climbing the road turns to the right again past the buildings of Pandy Mill and into the Machno Valley. Soon after the road begins to fall and a forest track diverges to the right.

The track soon splits; leave the falling path to the left to fall away and take the rising one to the right. This swoops along the hillside, gently rising, for almost a mile and then doubles back. Another nearly-half-a-mile of rising leads to a junction. Double-back to the left and continue south-westwards for another half-mile of gentle undulations. At the next junction fork right and stick in a further stint of rising. This eventually offers some rather tantilising views of craggy peaks that the walk will neatly bypass.

Drop down through the junctions in a fairly straight line to the road and turn right up the hill. The road curves gently left and then turns off to the right. Ahead a byway leads under a tree into the woods. Follow it.

The initially claustrophobic passage through the trees eventually opens out into heathland at Pigyn Esgob; the byway, so far as it is of use to motorised vehicles, ends at a step in the hillside. The path continues through the heather across the watershed, eventually passing through the remains of a wall by a good viewpoint. This looks back across the Wybrnant valley towards Betws-y-Coed.

The path returns to being a track with two wheelways carved across the rocks and through the periodic wet patches, though exactly how four-wheeled vehicles get up here is not wholly clear.

After wandering through the heather and conifers for a bit the byway opens out again into plain moorland and descends past some more splendid views to the north – primarily towards Moel Siabod.

The mystery about the road vehicles is because the byway now disappears entirely into the heather before ending at a barbed-wire fence. A short walk to the left beside the fence will lead to a stile. Pass over it and continue in a similar sort of direction across the bogs.

Various small hillocks and peaks give an opportunity to get off the bogs and admire a view from a little above the prevailing ground level. Below lies the isolated little tower of Dolwyddelan Castle. Beyond is Snowdon – high and pointed on a good day, but usually covered in cloud.

The path drops across the surprisingly damp hillside in an unhelpfully indistinct manner to eventually pick up a forest drive, which can be followed straight down the hill. Technically the byway stays on the right of the stream and waits for the drive to come across and join it, but the path on the ground favours wading the stream to join the drive.

The byway then drops down the hill in a fairly easy-to-follow manner, which gives more scope for admiring the peaks and the unfolding valley.

As Dolwyddelan gets nearer the hillside steepens, forcing the byway to take up a zig-zag approach to the first houses.

The main path keeps weaving, but a side path drops down the hill by the banks of the stream beneath a couple of houses.

A proper surfaced road is then joined, terraces are passed, a junction is reached and the main road swings right to pass over the railway. This is the Sarn Helen Roman road. Beneath lies Dolwyddelan station.

Long ago the station had an island platform and it was accessed by means of a flight of steps down from this bridge. The point where the stairs left the bridge is still obvious – a narrow patch of wall between two 4ft pillars. As the northbound line and platform have been removed a new access route has been established across the formation. To reach this, continue down the other side of the bridge and turn back to the right.

The main part of Dolwyddelan village, with its shops, church and (more distant) castle is across the river and set around the A470. The infrequency of the train service may mean that those not already exhausted might fancy ambling onwards down the lane past the station to the next station at Pont-y-Pant instead of sitting on the platform here for anything up to three hours. The navigation is not difficult, but see Trails from the Rails 8 for more details.

Trails from the Rails 19: Gloucester to Lydney

  • Area: Gloucestershire
  • Local Train Operators: Transport for Wales/ Cross Country/ Great Western Railway (Gloucester only)
  • Length: 29.5 miles
  • Points of Note: May Hill, Soudley Ponds
  • OS maps – Explorer 429 (1:25,000); Landranger 162 (1:50,000)

This is a Stupidly Long Walk suited to people who have nothing better to do than spend 12 hours having a walk between two stations that are quite a long way apart (an urge to see Newnham reopened may arise about halfway through). It is not suited to anyone whose fitness levels have unduly slipped in lockdown, or who may have been in a habit of walking into things and injuring their knee recently.

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We begin at Gloucester station. Its main point of note is that platforms 1 and 2 represent the longest uninterrupted platform face in the UK. Otherwise we will leave its uninspiring main building behind as swiftly as possible.

Having passed out of the main building, cross the main road and walk past the bus station – which is newer, and actually called the Gloucester Transport Hub, and seems to have got in an architect:

Turn right along the road south of the bus station and admire the mixed architecture of Gloucester; this area makes a fair sampling. The brand new bus station sits opposite a bit of 1960s false marble, a 1950s bit of creamy faux stonework in concrete and two chunks of Victorian brickwork in non-matching scales. Having passed the Victorian brickwork, turn left down Clarence Street.

Clarence Street’s main point of interest is the line of bus stops that enable looming double-decker buses to park up and benefit the public by blocking the view of the shopping centre behind them.

At the end of Clarence Street turn right and follow Eastgate Street past the shopping centre entrances (and the site of the Eastgate) to the very centre of Gloucester. This is marked by St Michael’s Tower, which turns out to be just a tower rather than a church, and is where Northgate Street, Westgate Street, Southgate Street and Eastgate Street meet in a useful geography lesson for Gloucester’s primary-school pupils. Turn left into Southgate Street. This again has a glorious mix of architecture, plus a rather notable Clock:

Continue down Southgate Street, past the fork into Commercial Road, and into the square where the pedestrianised precinct meets the traffic. Fork right here across the road and down the steps into the Docks.

There’s a waterways museum in here, but there isn’t time to visit – instead continue along the north edge of the dock complex past the Victoria Warehouse to the North Warehouse and a second dock area. Admire the travelling crane, the mysteriously not-auctioned 2015 rugby ball sculpture and the view down this dock from the walkway over the lock gates.

Pass between the next set of warehouses to the road, turn right, go up towards the swing bridge, cross the road where safe to do so and turn left to go over the footbridge signposted to Over and Highnam. This crosses the East Channel of the River Severn onto Alney Island. Here we pick up the Wysis Way, which will be unimaginatively followed (with minor deviations) for the next eleven or so miles to Longhope.

The Island is a charming place that is almost entirely uninhabited except for a lock cottage for a derelict lock, a car park, some electricity facilities, a few rows of lost terraced houses, a load of mobile homes, a surviving scrap of railway and four major “A” roads. Turn left and almost immediately drop down the grassy path off the former railway headshunt onto the marshes on the riverbank, just before the embankment ends and becomes a low bridge. Follow this path around the edge of the island, avoiding the car park. Looking back will reveal that the bridge is struggling to stand out amongst the brambles and trees.

After a bit the nice grassy path is joined by a fresh gravel path from the car park, which passes under the main road and then begins to swing away northwards. A further grassy path splits off to the left to stick with the riverbank and passes under the decaying bridge that carried the GWR Docks branch into the docks. The main path/ cycleway swings away northwards and picks up the much-landscaped railway formation straight across the island. Either option will do, as they both end up in the same place.

The same place, about quarter of an hour later and after some pleasant views off to the left of Highnam Church, is next to the railway bridge carrying the Gloucester & Dean Forest Railway over the river Severn on its way out of Gloucester towards Lydney. For about 80 years the bridge was bookended by junctions; the Docks branch converged up to the right, and the Newent Railway to Ledbury diverged northwards on the other bank of the river to the left. Now the mainline passes through uninterrupted, observed by grazing cows.

The Docks branch is the first of six railways which branched off the mainline between Gloucester and Lydney, all of which have to be crossed (and occasionally followed) over the course of the walk.

Pass under the railway and follow the path as it winds its way towards the eastern end of Thomas Telford’s single-arch stone bridge for carrying the main road to Fishguard over the West Channel of the Severn. Disappointingly vegetation means that the best view is actually from the train. The main path winds a bit further northward to provide access for bicycles, but a steep cut-off has been created for pedestrians. Once on top, admire the newer bridges on each side and reflect that until 1966 this was the main road from London to South Wales.

The old road is higher because it was crossing a navigable watercourse used by sailing vessels, but the high level also came in handy when the Newent Railway had to fit under the road just beyond the west end. The railway and approach embankments have gone, and little trace remains of the railway bridge at the information board where the footpath now reaches the modern A40. Double back to the right and pass under the new bridge to get to the northern side of the A40 (which underpass is all one expects of a riverside path beneath a major modern road in an urban area). Continue westwards alongside the road to the Over Farm Market and then turn right up the gated lane towards Highnam.

This represents the first climb on the walk (apart from odd stretches out of subways) but is nothing very notable. Initially it offers some views across the plains of the bottom end of the Severn Valley.

These change into a more gentle and rolling look once over the ridge and dropping down the other side, where the lane briefly coverges with the Newent Railway’s trackbed.

The road then curves away from the railway formation to pass an airfield (which does look rather more like a field with air in it than some kind of airport, and could be mistaken for a spare field if it wasn’t for the sign advising against entry). It heads along the edge of this airfield to the corner of the woods at the left of the photo, where it divides. Fork right into the woods and follow the path diagonally up the hill. When it levels out at the top let it swing round to the right some more and follow it until it emerges into open fields on the edge of Highnam.

Staying on top of the ridge, cross the field to the diagonally opposite corner and briefly abandon the Wysis Way to drop down the direct path towards Lassington – a small hamlet easily distinguished by its church. Or rather, the lack of most of its church – the main body was felled in 1975 before it fell down. It was an attractive little Victorian rebuild of a Norman church.

On reaching the bottom of the valley the footpath crosses a stream and comes out in someone’s front garden (probably why the Wysis Way doesn’t come down here, and stays in Highnam instead before dropping down other fields). Leave the garden by the main gate and turn right up the access lane to the road. Turn right and follow the road through a dip to the large red-brick manor house and the remains of the church. The churchyard can be investigated. Having done so, pass around the back of the manor house, across the farmyard and through the gate at the end into the field beyond.

There is no defined path across this field, but the target is the spike of natural vegetation sticking out into it some 300 yards away. A set of right-of-way signs indicate a path that drops out of the field into the bushes, ponders dropping properly, thinks better of it and returns to the field boundary and then sneaks off down into the undergrowth when it hopes you aren’t concentrating. After a short walk through the trees beside the railway trackbed this comes out into the open again at a corner in the hills. The railway sweeps away northwards; the footpath follows the natural contours around to the right to come alongside the road shortly before reaching the hedge across the northern end of the field, turns sharp right to follow this hedge, passes through a gate and finds itself on the old railway line.

Turn left and follow the railway northwards for a field until the land on the left begins to rise away again. The path sneaks up the banking to the left when it hopes you aren’t concentrating, passes through a gate into another field and turns right to follow the railway boundary at a higher level.

Halfway across the second field it will be necessary for those using the 1:25,000 maps to swap Explorer 429 for the East Sheet of OL14.

At the end of the third field the path provides an opportunity to fall over a Great Western Railway cast-iron boundary post before climbing up to meet a small lane that passes over the old railway at this point. Cross the road and drop down the other side to join the railway trackbed.

The railway here was obviously intended to be double-track (though was always single) and also throws in the odd widening to highlight that the railway was built on a rather bendier (and drained) canal. After a bit of wandering it straightens out and heads for a distant road overbridge – plus a lot of traffic that confusingly is passing in front of the bridge.

This is because the road has been realigned to avoid the faff of going over a narrow bridge to cross an abandoned railway, so it is necessary to cross the road on the level. Off to the right, raised a bit above the road, is a memorial – in very lichen-coated carving – to the Welsh of Lord Herbert’s force who did something now illegible in 1543.

Cross the road, pass the allotments and climb up the bank to the next railway bridge. A slight diversion to the right onto the bridge is repaid with a view of the stationmaster’s house and Barber’s Bridge station, which has been very charmingly restored. The GWR’s pine trees still provide a shady feature that denotes the presence of a rural railway station.

Not quite opposite the point where the footpath joins the old road – it’s a little down the approach embankment to the left – is a track that forms the next few hundred yards of the walk. It swings down from the road, briefly comes alongside the station, thinks better of following the railway and strikes away towards the farm at Bovone. This is the last we will see of the former Newent line.

At the farm some signs point one way while the map shows the public right of way going straight on, avoiding the main farmyard and then swinging round the north-eastern corner of the main buildings to take up a westerly heading towards a small gate just down the slope from the farm. Pass through the gate and follow the path across two fields to the back of the village of Tibberton, where it runs along the backs of some gardens before diving between two houses into a suburban road.

Turn right and follow the road round and down to join the main road through the village (which is largely a pleasant backwater). Turn right onto the road, cross the river and turn left again into the lane towards Huntley. The gateposts for Tibberton Court lie off to the right of this lane. The path sticks – for now – to the road.

At the top of a slight hill the Wysis Way turns off to the right, just when idle strollers are distracted by the adjacent war memorial, and runs down a narrow track before bursting back out into fields. Away to the north are the shoulders of the Malverns, looming deep blue on the skyline. Off to the west can be seen the distinctive clump of trees atop the apparently nearby and not-too-high May Hill. Actually it’s a big hill and something of a step.

At the end of the track the path swings slightly to the left to cross a field, jars some more to the left at the next field boundary to cross a second field, and then goes straight on into a third field to discreetly dive off through a hole in the hedge and over a footbridge into a slightly more landscaped field behind the Grove manor house.

Cross this field towards the tree-lined drive most of the way across, ignore the public right of way arrows encouraging you to explore it and continue to the far boundary. Here the onward tantalising track will turn out not to be the public right of way after all. The public right of way goes through the hedge twenty yards to the right and then follows the damp and overgrown boundary of a wheat field up the hill. Other footpaths fork off up the hill towards a spinney in a more obvious and tempting manner.

A right-angled triangle of trees with the sharper corner cut off takes a bite out of the top end of the field; trying to hide in the corner beyond this is a gate leading through into the field at the top of this climb. Pass diagonally across this field to the top right-hand corner, letting the hedgerow climb up and converge from the right (crop permitting), go through the gate and then trot up the edge of the next field to Taynton.

Taynton is a small village with some big buildings.

Turn right up into the village and then take the sharp left back down the slope out of the village. The lane meanders beside a field briefly before a gate off to the right is signposted as the next bit of public right of way. Turn right and cross the field, where the farmer is known to kindly mark out the right of way through the crop.

At the end of the field turn left briefly and swing round the end of a clump of trees before resuming a westerly heading up the now definitely climbing fields towards May Hill. Keep the hedgerow and its stream to your right and rise up through the fields, orchards and sheep to the grand house at Byfords Farm. Turn slightly to the right to go up the access drive up to the next road.

Cross the road into further fields, where the woods are now closing in.

Two fields and a patch of scrub lead up to a dam, which holds back a charming reservoir. Turn left and follow the bank to the top. A footpath at a slightly higher level provides a means to avoid any fishermen.

At the top the signage goes cold and a certain amount of dead-reckoning is required. Two streams feed the reservoir, combining just before entering it; cross the first and then take the path to the left up the hill instead of crossing the second. This rises up through the trees for a bit and then starts offering glimpses of a woodland cottage. After a few more yards it offers some full-on views of the cottage and then joins another path. Turn right, pick up the cottage’s drive and run along the upper boundary of the garden to find that this is not an isolated cottage. It lies in the hamlet of Glasshouse, where people do not throw stones.

Turn right onto the road, pass the pub and follow the road round to the end of the hamlet, where a path leads steeply off to the left up the hill. Climb it, ignoring a couple of temptingly easier-looking unofficial turnings.

Eventually the path wearies of the straight climb and swings leftwards to rise up the hill more gradually before coming to a crosspaths with a rather more important-looking track. Turn left and go round the gate. Turn right, following the National Trust signs to May Hill, and resume climbing past the cottages.

The Gloucestershire Way trails in from the left and then the track comes out into the open.

Follow the track straight up the hill to the clump of trees, taking care to dodge the bogs, and then pause to admire the view, taking advantage of the benches as desired. The woods include a couple of explanatory plaques announcing that they were replenished in 1977 in tribute to the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.

If not stopping then follow the main path as it skirts the trees and then turn left around the northern end of the clump. The path down now lies more or less straight ahead and due west through the gorse and bracken; it drops almost sheer down the hill into the trees.

On reaching the road, stagger left and then resume the plunge, past the houses at May Hill Farm, leaving the drive to swing off to the left and down between the woods past several rather good views away to the north.

A small patch of scrub across the path is followed by a slight wobble to the right to pick up the old (very steep) lane between two rows of trees, which leads down to a gate and the road. Turn left and follow the road down into the valley.

The Gloucestershire Way forks off to the left to cut off a corner here, or follow the Wysis Way under the former Hereford, Ross & Gloucester Railway to meet the A40 again. Most of its traffic has gone now – dispersed amongst the Gloucestershire villages or diverged down the A48 towards Lydney – and it is a rather more amicable road than was met at Over.

Turn left and follow the road down into Longhope. The “hope” is a hill but could just as well be the village, which stretches for a little over a mile. Most of it is off the A40 and it is generally quite a pleasant place, complete with a fine old church.

It also has a small wayside shop near the bottom of the village, which can be useful for stocking up on essentials.

Beyond Station Lane the road joins the Old Monmouth Road – formerly the A4136 Monmouth to Huntley road (which cuts off a long loop in the A40 via Ross but goes over the hills and through Cinderford and Mitcheldean). Carry straight on southwards down the old A4136 until it meets the realigned formation at the south end of the village. Cross this with due care and attention, continue along the road at the other side, note the total disappearance of the railway formation to the left and follow Mill Lane straight on down to the river.

The lane crosses the river, weaves amongst some cottages and ends at an array of right-of-way arrows. Follow the blue arrow to the right down a more overgrown extension of the lane and then suddenly out into fields.

From here the field appears to be “L”-shaped, viewed from the bottom. Cut across the foot of the “L” and then once on the vertical (which here is laid out flat pointing down the valley) climb up the bank to a gate into the next field up the hill. Go through it and then work out a suitable way around the patch of woodland to the left (probably just follow the field edge) to get to a gate in the hedge at the bottom of this field. Pass through the gate and swing round to the right, taking a course that cuts off the irregular corners of the field to drop down into the dell ahead and enter the main woods just after crossing the stream.

After fording the stream under the shade of the trees it will turn out that the woods are protected by a barbed-wire fence. Fortunately this is a good spot to pause and admire the valley.

Work along the top of the field to the next corner, where a small climbable bit of timber fencing permits access to the wood. Scramble up through the undergrowth to the right to discover that the track marked on the map is a trifle overgrown.

Follow the track southwards as it eventually turns into a proper track, then rises to join another track and then swings around the bottom of the wood into the valley leading up to the hamlet/ farm of Abenhall. We are now getting into the Forest of Dean proper.

Eventually there comes a junction where a track turns off to the right but the main track appears to go straight on through a gate to join the road. It turns out that the road is merely a surfaced track, but following this round the edge of the wood soon comes to the road proper plus a rather good view of the remains of Gunn’s Mill. This is now, as the information board puts it, “Under wraps for safe keeping”.

Turn left into the road and then almost immediately turn right past the mill. Follow the track as it passes a couple more houses and then swings round to the right to pass a small pond.

Turn off at the pond (before or after, doesn’t matter much) and work up past it to the spring that feeds it. Turn left here and cut across the open land beneath the trees, roughly following the contours. Some minor satisfaction can be had if this turns out to meet the start of a footpath through the undergrowth in a less tree-covered patch.

Follow the path until it comes out at a set of unmistakable Victorian municipal buildings, which turn out to be a former pumping station (now holiday cottages).

Follow the track from the pumping station to the road and turn right. This is an irritatingly busy road (for its size), but there is a lack of alternative reasonably-graded routes through Littledean towards Soudley.

After rising up into Littledean, turn left onto the A4151 and then take the first available right, just before the next useful corner shop. Drop down the lane back out of Littledean towards the Forest of Dean proper.

The lane wends its way down the valley, eventually staggering right to cross over from the left side to the right. Shortly after this is the turning to Baynham Farm. Shortly after that a signposted footpath converges from the right. Opposite is a well-hidden track into the undergrowth. Take this track and follow it as it starts to climb the other side of the valley, not quite sticking to the forest boundary as the map suggests. Eventually it swings rightwards to point south and begins to fall through the trees down a ridge of land.

At the bottom of the ridge is a general confluence of valleys and forest tracks, plus a car park. Stagger right into the car park, turn left and follow the track onwards down the valley.

To the right are a series of ponds which can either be visited (by dropping down the hill slightly) or merely glimpsed while trotting onward. The last one lasts long enough that the path catches it up and runs along its shores to the road at the bottom, where a bench offers a view back up into the trees. These are the Soudley Ponds, which are well away from the Dean’s other ponds and something of a hidden gem.

Having walked across the dam at the bottom, leave the Ponds through the gate into the road and follow it round the corner to Soudley. There are many ways of getting through Soudley, but for general variety drop down the lane to the left at the start of the village. This briefly levels to cross the former Forest of Dean branch between Bullo Pill and Cinderford – our fourth dead railway, with its Bradley Hill Tunnel visible off to the left beyond the former crossing-keeper’s cottage – before plunging onwards to the bottom of the valley. At the end of the road, after crossing the stream, turn right and follow the track along the banks to the next bridge. Cross back over (by either bridge – the old one was retained when the new one was put up) and climb a little up the hill before turning left again a few yards short of the single bridge abutment for a demolished rail overbridge.

Follow this side road as it works back up the hill to join the main road and turn left to cross the river again.

Here a road sign points in various directions with many comments about “Scenic Route”. Motorists wishing to take non-scenic routes should avoid Soudley.

A footpath leads straight up the hill ahead; follow it as it scrambles up a steep valley, almost gets to the top, staggers right through some old workings and climbs some more to a plateau. Go straight on at the crosspaths and climb up again through the next band of trees. The following junction has done its best to hide the straight-on route amongst low-hanging trees that were supposed to be an orderly hedge. The path then emerges at the complex junction around Staple Edge Bungalows.

The Bungalows are one of those places that you end up at a lot if you walk a great deal in the eastern part of the Dean. Three paths (including ours) start off the junction by converging at the north end; a public footpath trails in a few yards later (actually the eastern end of the Spruce Ride that provides a similarly-useful feature of Dean walking on its two-mile course to Speech House) and then our onward track diverges to the right. The main track continues swinging round to the left and ends up heading back in a direction which is useful for returning to Soudley.

Having diverged to the right the new track drops for a little distance and then splits. Fork left here and run level for a short distance. Another junction follows; the left fork curves away to the left, while we take the right fork that drops down the hill. It makes an awkward crossing of a more important level track halfway down and then descends to a junction just above the noise and bustle of Mallard’s Pike.

If wishing to visit the lake here, turn right and take the footpath dropping to the left. Otherwise continue straight on and cross over a deep cutting. Here there used to be a bridge for our track (obviously gone and replaced by this embankment) and below passed the ill-fated Forest of Dean Central Railway. The section of track running through this cutting opened in 1868 and became a dead-end headshunt in 1872 that was largely abandoned in 1921.

The path continues dropping steeply to join the access road to Mallard’s Pike at a cattle grid before coming out onto the main road between Parkend and Blakeney.

Cross the road and follow the track up the hill the other side, which mostly rises fairly gently through the trees. At a cross-paths there are some good views across the prairie to the Rising Sun pub.

The track continues southwards to the Yorkley to Parkend road, where a path wending through the trees and bracken to the right (just before the gate) helpfully cuts off a corner and avoids walking along the immediate roadside.

Cross the road and dive into the trees again on another forestry track. Shortly after the gate (as opposed to at the gate) another footpath wends off to the right. Follow it along the ridge (ignoring a couple of smaller paths that branch off to the right) and down the hill into a small valley.

The small valley turns out to mostly contain a further ex-railway, in the form of the Severn & Wye & Severn Bridge Railway Mineral Loop – a peaceful backwater built to serve various central Forest collieries and bankrupt the Forest of Dean Central Railway, at which objectives it did rather well (even allowing for the Central Railway already being bankrupt before it really started).

Follow the railway down to Whitecroft and along the gravelled path in front of some houses that, thanks to the closure of the Mineral Loop, have front gardens and car parking. This path weaves out onto a side road, which promptly drops onto the main road. Turn left and follow the road as it curves down into the valley, climbs out again, swings round the end of a hill and drops into Pillowell.

At the bottom of the road’s plunge into the Pillowell valley and in the apex of the nasty corner at the bottom is a side turning to the right to serve some houses. Take this turning and fork left up the hill. Go straight on across the intermediate road and keep climbing to the recreation ground.

Follow the right-hand side of the very definitely not level football pitches, watch out for any wild boar digging up the pitches and drop back into the woods at the top right-hand corner. The path falls briefly before picking itself up and rising up the hillside.

At the crosspaths turn right and drop again to the next junction. Turn left and follow the track as it rises and falls along the hillside in an irritating and unhelpful manner. After the third climb it encounters a series of overhead pylon runs and turns left to drop gently down the hill into the Norchard valley. If not too late in the day there is also a rather good view over the right shoulder out to the Severn estuary.

The next turning is off to the right into the valley; the challenge is not so much to spot it as to not panic about not having spotted it. Right down at the end, just before the main track twists back into the trees and begins to climb again, a small track doing ditch impressions doubles-back into the undergrowth and young trees to find the bottom of the valley. Having done so, it rises briefly to a multi-way junction.

Head more or less straight across this junction to the track apparently heading into the hill on the other side. This promptly turns right. A small footpath climbs away to the left, very steeply. Take it (it avoids some bogs that may be encountered if staying on the forest track). This climbs sharply up, turns right, climbs some more and comes out at the bottom of a short cul-de-sac on the edge of Lydney. A carefully-placed pallet keeps some of the boar out.

This is really the end of the walk. Climb up the cul-de-sac to the main road and follow it down into Lydney; an initially easy and level walk becomes progressively steeper until it tumbles down into the town centre. Unless hunting chip shops or the Co-op, cross the main road, go past the bus station (not as fine as Gloucester’s) and fork right into a residents’ parking/ turning area. At the far end of this a path leads down beside the River Lyd (a busy stream) to a park and lake. Follow the path round two sides of the lake – left or right – to the sewage pumping facility at the opposite corner (easily spotted by anyone with a halfway-working nose) (there is also a sign to the station). Climb up to the bypass, cross with care and continue straight on down the road across the marsh.

This eventually crosses the preserved Dean Forest Railway at Lydney Junction station – formerly the Severn & Wye Railway – and completes the collection of six railways.

Beyond the road dips briefly and then rises to Lydney station.

Lydney station is generally well-used despite being so far out of town and so excessively utilitarian. Shelter on the Up platform consists of an airy plastic awning for bicycles and an unappealing small stone hut for passengers. On the Down platform the original 1850s shelter has been modernised by having its roof replaced and its windows sealed up. The signalbox was demolished in 2012. Seating outside the shelters is limited. Otherwise it is a welcome sight after nearly 30 miles, though not quite as well as the Turbostar that will eventually appear to provide transport home.

Trails from the Rails 18: Achnashellach Circle

  • Area: Ross-shire
  • Local Train Operators: Scotrail
  • Length: 8 miles
  • Points of Note: Views of several mountains and a lovely glen walk
  • OS maps – Explorer 429 (1:25,000); Landranger 25 (1:50,000)

Another circular walk, owing in part to the fact that the central portion of the Skye Line is a proper railway with stations at a proper spacing. The next station to the east (Achnasheen, ever since trains stopped making unadvertised ad hoc calls at Glen Carron Halt at some unspecified date) is 12 miles away over largely trackless terrain, which slightly constrains setting out walks that other people can follow. But it’s a very pleasant circle for all that.

Take a proper map, stout footwear, a good camera and your school geography textbook with the bookmark placed against the chapter on features of glaciated landscapes.

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Achnashellach station started out as one of the Skye Line’s private stations for satisfying landowners. These landowners paid a great deal of money for the railway and it was only fair that it made some efforts to serve them. Excepting Glen Carron, all these stations are now used by the general public.

Achnashellach’s operating heyday has passed – it lacks proper buildings, its once-important siding and the later crossing loop – but is still blessed with a low platform for weeding out those who are bad at mountaineering. (Ironically the abandoned platform is the newer one, and so closer to modern standards.)

Once the train has sorted itself out and cleared off in whichever direction it happens to be going, exit the station down the ramp at the Kyle (west) end and turn right over the level crossing. Follow the track up the hill to the right.

It almost immediately comes to a diamond cross-track. Double-back to the left and follow this track as it swings along the bottom of the hillside, keeping an eye out for paths off to the left.

One should eventually appear, not quite half a mile into the walk, not far from the end of the track and purporting to point in the wrong direction. Drop down towards the river until the path decides to regain its correct direction and starts working back up the valley into the mountains.

The climb up past the lump of mountain described by the map as “The Nose” is long but very beautiful.

Anyway, the occasional pause to look back will reveal a steadily growing vista southwards, with Strath Carron and Loch Dughaill at the bottom.

Around the path are the various loose rocks which your geography textbook will call “erratics” and possibly even say something useful about.

Eventually the path levels out rather abruptly as it enters the River Lair’s hanging valley, some 330 metres above the Carron. Here the path divides into several walking opportunities, including two Munros, an almost-ran (Fuar Tholl is 7m too short for a Munro), the onward path over the pass ahead which eventually leads back to the main road at a point awkwardly equidistant between Strathcarron and Achnashellach stations, and the walk being done here.

This particular walk involves crossing this area by turning right as much as possible without doing any more serious climbing. The path runs roughly level past the words “Drochaid Coire Lair” on the map and then, after maybe half a mile of this walking at moderate height, begins to fall (more gently) into another valley.

The valley is trackless, and the fall reasonably steady, until it finally comes to a confluence at a waterfall and a Scottish mountain bothy. The bothy is marked on the map as a small black rectangle with a creamy filling; it is the only building for some miles, so is fairly easy to identify.

Dotted around are masses of Scots pines, busy being highly scenic.

From the bothy things become perhaps excessively civilised; there is a hard track for vehicular access to some local dams, which is followed eastwards.

The valley eventually widens for the next confluence and prepares to swing away to the north.

At the confluence there is a bridge carrying another track over the river so that the track can head away southwards. Turn right, cross the bridge and follow the track.

The track, after some initial deliberations, settles down to a straight southerly heading up the east side of the valley, en route to the Coulin Pass. Once again, it is worth stopping periodically to look back at the view. This stretches away northwards through the rolling green mountains until it is cut off by the more severe ridge around Spidean Coire nan Clach (977m).

The eventual pass looks quite innocent when approached from the north, but turns out to emerge high up a mountain above Strath Carron with some dramatic views of the U-shaped valley (check geography textbook). Far below and away are Loch Dughaill and Loch Carron, which in turn leads into Loch Kishorn.

Speaking of the geography textbook, if you grew up in the South of England you probably never believed in this kind of scenery when it was shown as little artists drawings of exaggerated U-shaped valleys with hanging valleys at the tops of the sides.

The forestry track will now lead gently back down the hillside, over the course of a couple of miles, to the diamond cross-tracks that opened the walk. Admire the views and small waterfalls on the way. Go straight on at the cross-tracks and come out at the level crossing by the station.

The Kyle line service of four daily trains is not one of the nation’s great examples of turn-up-and-go train operating, so have a book on hand for the dawdle pending the train home.

The rustic, peaceful and quite isolated station was the centre of a rather amusing accident in 1892 when a train turned up from Inverness late one night formed with a loco, eight wagons (with no continuous brake controlled from the loco), three coaches (with the usual nine passengers) and a guard’s van (usually referred to alternatively as a brake van, but in this case the brake was defective). Once the train had stopped arrangements were made to uncouple the loco from the whole train prior to detaching the front two wagons from the remainder and hauling them into the dead-end siding with a tow rope. The uncoupling involved the loco squeezing the buffers between itself and the first wagon of the train to loosen the coupling chain enough to unhook it from the wagon. As it was detached from the loco the train rolled backwards very slightly, found it was on a gently descending slope into Glen Carron and escaped down the hill, leaving the loco and crew to watch as the darkness swallowed it up. Some brakes had been applied, but the working brakes were a bit useless and the useful brakes were broken.

After an appropriate tiff the crew got on the loco and chased after the unlit runaway train, which they encountered near the bottom of the valley after it had run partway up the next hill, stopped and run back down again. The wagons bore the brunt of the immediate impact; the passengers were merely thrown about a bit; the loco crew and stationmaster shared the brunt of the blame in the official report with the Board of the Highland Railway, who were not supposed to be condoning or justifying the operation of passenger trains not fitted with continuous brakes.

The station is properly a halt now, being merely a request stop; proper lighting is provided to aid efforts to by the driver identify late-night travellers.

Trails from the Rails 17: Horton-in-Ribblesdale to Dent

  • Area: Yorkshire/ Cumbria
  • Local Train Operators: Northern
  • Length: 12.5 miles
  • Points of Note: Vistas of the Three Peaks, Ribblehead Viaduct, Blea Moor Tunnel, views of two other viaducts, Dentdale
  • OS maps – Explorer OL2 (1:25,000); Landranger 98 (1:50,000)

This is the country of the Yorkshire Dales Three Peaks, all of which will be deftly avoided to provide an often boggy walk with a certain amount of road walking – plus two stiffish hills to avoid accusations of laziness. The weather shown in the pictures is not atypical of the area.

This is one of those walks that keeps the railway in fairly close proximity throughout the journey – in this case the mainline from Settle to Carlisle.

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Horton in Ribblesdale station is a charming place with many points of interest, the first of which is the step down from the train to the platform. The southbound platform has a “Harrington Hump” to make life easier. The northbound does not.

Leave the station (the exit is at the Settle end of the platform, using the foot crossing as required) and head down the steep road to the valley floor and the north end of the village. At the road junction carry straight on; follow the B6479 across the valley and the river, dodging the stone-carrying lorries, and turn left up the lane alongside the River Ribble (ideally using the road bridge to cross the river instead of the footbridge; not mandatory, but it makes getting at the left turn easier). This little byway soon pulls away from the river and offers some pleasant views across the valley towards the railway and the Ingleborough mountain (and some quarries, if you look in the wrong direction).

In due course the road, after winding and falling and fording, comes to the hamlet of New Houses. Swing leftwards through this and continue along the road.

There is not much traffic to speak of, so the (rather switchback) road offers a pleasant basis for views of the countryside as it rapidly becomes very wild and bleak.

The road ends, after a little under two miles, at High Birkwith farm. Follow the roadway around the edge of the site and through the gate out onto the onward track across the moor. This rises briefly past a wood and then splits. Fork left and roughly follow the contours (and the contour-following wall) northwards.

The track, which is not always that easy to keep track of, crosses a short stream coming down from the higher dales. The wonders of limestone country mean that this stream is somewhat longer than it appears – just most of it is underground – so when in flood it is rather impressive:

Another half-mile or so of winding on a more obvious path comes to Ling Gill Beck, beyond which is Nether Lodge. Cross the beck (more a small river) by the footbridge and then follow the path round through the wall to join the lodge’s access road. Turn right, away from the lodge, still heading roughly northwards.

The track eventually crosses the Ribble by means of a low but solid Bailey bridge.

Keep following the track as it swings up the hill (briefly heading south), works past some more lodges and comes out on the Gauber Road, otherwise known as the B6479. Turn right and follow the road north to Ribblehead.

The road climbs around the hillside past Gauber before dropping back down to the riverbank, eventually giving some rather handsome views of the viaduct as our road meets the B6255 Ingleton – Hawes road. Beyond the viaduct is the imposing bulk of Whernside, the highest of the Yorkshire Three Peaks.

The station (up the ramp to the left) hosts an exhibition in the station building (which is of the same design as the ones at Horton and Dent). There is also a pub. Having exhausted all points of interest in these fields, cross the B6255 and follow the tracks across Batty Moss. It is an interesting bog with many fine bog structures and bits of industrial archaeology, so try to not let the 100ft-tall viaduct hog all the attention.

Anyway, getting too close to the viaduct distracts attention from the immediate objective, which is the patch of trees by the embankment at the northern end of the viaduct. This involves carrying straight on up a side path when the main track across the moss curves left to pass under the viaduct. (But there are plenty of other paths around, so getting back to the correct side of the railway, even north of the viaduct, is fairly easy even with a dodgy sense of direction.)

Once up the slope and slightly above rail level, continue along the path beside the railway towards Blea Moor.

Looking back produce some rather good views of Ingleborough, occasionally interrupted by passing trains…

…while ahead is the signalbox, which offers a working environment highly suited to people who like walking a mile across a bog in order to get to a small timber cabin on the side of a mountain at varying times of day and night and regardless of weather, in which some often delicate physical work will be carried out for several hours without talking to too many people. The adjacent house is not in regular use. Alongside the flanks of Whernside descend towards the pass at the head of the Little Dale.

The stream in the valley here does not feed into the Ribble but curves around the western flanks of Batty Moss towards Ingleton, becoming the Winterscales Beck. This runs for about a mile down the valley before coming to an abrupt end at a pothole, and the valley has no river until it emerges again a few hundred yards later at Chapel-le-Dale, still heading for Ingleton.

The walk heads hurriedly away from Ingleton and past the signalbox, eventually coming to the confluence of the Little Dale Beck with Force Gill. The main path drops down to the beck and fords it (there is also a footbrige) before climbing up over the railway on the aqueduct carrying Force Gill in order to reach Whernside. To continue to Dent, veer right just before the final drop to the ford/ bridge and resume climbing up a rather smaller path, heading for the big lump on the hillside almost straight ahead. (The OS map says the right of way goes over the railway and then around the portal of Blea Moor Tunnel. This may be the case, but the whole area is open access and there is no physical footpath on the right of way, so stick with this scratch.)

The big lump, when reached, proves to be a large pile of spoil. It marks the top of one of the intermediate construction shafts for Blea Moor Tunnel beneath. This one’s been capped.

Further up the path is a second one, which was kept open as a ventilation shaft and features a high brick chimney to stop people falling down it.

Continue climbing past the next shaft, over the ridge and into Cumbria. The fall features a further shaft and some rather good views up Dentdale, including Dent Head Viaduct, before it plunges into a Forestry Commission plantation.

The path eventually emerges from the trees into a rather damp area around the north portal of Blea Moor Tunnel, where a sign by the lineside announces the portal to be 250 miles 65 chains from London St Pancras. Leave the railway to the right and drop down the hillside towards the stream and into the valley.

The path drops through Dent Head Farm but eschews the access track; it continues down across the fields to the cottages at Bridge End, where it joins the main road down Dentdale. Turn left and follow the road as it clings to the stream on the way down to Dent.

After the road crosses to the left bank of the river keep an eye out for Arten Gill viaduct up the hill to the right – although having admired its size, remember that Dent railway station is up on the railway and the road is still dropping.

A little further down the road swings sharply to the right and crosses back over the river by a low-arched bridge.

Immediately after the bridge the road curves left past a driveway and then swings left some more at a road junction. The road rising away to the right, littered with battered warning signs, leads to Dent station (and eventually over to Garsdale and its station, but this is very much “eventually”).

Start climbing this road and continue for half a mile to Dent station, which is immediately before the high brick bridge over the railway.

The station building is now a holiday cottage, and looks rather low because the northbound platform here has been raised. Access to the southbound platform is again by means of a foot crossing, on an even sharper curve than that at Horton. A new building on the northbound platform compensates for the loss of the traditional waiting room during the station’s period of closure; the old room on the southbound platform remains welcoming. Notoriously several miles from the village (although by no means the furthest station in the country from the village that it purports to serve), it has the honour of being the highest mainline station in England and Wales – 1,150 feet above sea level.

Trails from the Rails 16: Barrhill Circle

  • Area: South Ayrshire
  • Local Train Operators: Scotrail
  • Length: 18 miles
  • Points of Note: Some nice views
  • OS maps – Explorer 317 (1:25,000); Landranger 76 (1:50,000)

South Ayrshire is not a noted holiday area, so this peaceful amble is largely spared the horrors of traffic, waymarkers and other walkers. It is worth taking a map along and not just relying on these instructions, as it’s occasionally difficult to get across an accurate gist of where to expect to find a crucial turning.

The landscape is not quite the stereotype of Scotland, being less harsh than in the Highlands. Still, the bit of Britain between the Pennines and the Scottish Central Belt has a certain charm to its damp rolling hills (surprisingly steep rolling hills), even allowing for the massive Forestry Commission plantations and taste for wind turbines.

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Barrhill station is the first station out of Stranraer on the rail journey from the Northern Irish ferry (from Larne) to Glasgow. Once the ferry traffic for England went out by the “Port Road” to Dumfries via Castle Douglas, but that line closed in the mid-1960s, so it also came out this way until first the Sleeper trains went and then the ferry was moved away from Stranraer.

The line now hosts a local service for local people running at a two-hourly frequency, which rather notably goes to Ayr and then Kilmarnock instead of Ayr and then Glasgow. A shuttle service from Ayr fills this out to hourly as far south as the coastal town of Girvan; between there and Stranraer is a spindly single line which, uniquely, has three passing loops (with full semaphore signalling) but only one intermediate station. Still, this obscure survivor (make sure the ticket is to Barrhill and not Barrhead, which is in Greater Glasgow) has a certain pleasant charm.

Having tired of this charm (as if!) amble down the access road to the main road and turn left. This main road drops down the hill into the village, passing the cemetery, some derelict buildings and signposts to the Martyr’s Tomb. You can follow these signposts to the Tomb – a sad story of religious interpretations imposed by force through summary proceedings – and then continue down another path into Barrhill village, but picking up the joint between the two paths involves a bit of a scramble up a bank at the Tomb.

At the bottom of the hill is the village and the A714 Girvan to Wigtown road. This peaceful highway is partly responsible for the survival of Barrhill station – it is a bit inadequate, but it can (in the eyes of someone in London staring at a red line on a map) provide a means for residents of Whithorn, Wigtown and Newton Stewart to use Barrhill as a railhead. So thank it graciously and turn right to follow it through the village.

(Incidentally the main claim to fame of both this road and Barrhill station is their leading role in the Dorothy L. Sayers novel Five Red Herrings. If you are unfamiliar with Sayers, this absence of other note may be freely taken as a sign of something.)

At the bottom of the village the A714 turns sharply to the left and crosses the river. Continue straight on down the lane ahead (B7027 to Newton Stewart, as opposed to A714 to Newton Stewart in almost exactly the same distance).

The little-used B7027 is the home of this walk for the next five miles, so having dodged the peacocks…

… check watch, guess rough time for covering five miles, put the map away and relax, thereby having more time to admire the views.

A massive forestry crossing (it is unusual to see a forestry road larger than the lane it is crossing) is followed by Loch Nahinie appearing on the left, providing warning that it is getting on for time to find the map and prepare to have to navigate again.

Although actually the crucial junction isn’t for almost another mile, and as it involves a clearing, a cute cottage (called Marberry) and views of another loch in the far distance it is fairly easy to spot in its own right. Turn left immediately before the cottage. (Unless in a mood for continuing down to Loch Maberry, which is a pretty thing and has a ruined castle somewhere amongst its islands, in which case carry on for another few hundred yards and come back later.)

The new, even more minor, lane drops gently down run past a further loch, and steps over the ditch and fence separating road from loch make an easy access route for sitting near it and scoffing lunch.

Continue along the road for about a mile past a couple of small hills. A forest track then crosses the road; follow it off to the left and northwards as it rises up into the hills. Although despite it being a forest track it does not necessarily go into the forest; the Forestry Commission do like to harvest their crop occasionally, which makes waymarking very difficult now the masses of spruces are all coming of age.

Still, as the path wends past the large flooded holes in the ground described on the map as “Quarry” (actually quite small for quarries) it cannot be denied that the views across to Dumfries & Galloway are much improved by the demise of the trees:

A track converging from the right is followed, half a mile or so later, by the our track making a T-junction with a bigger one. Turn right and drop down the hill to the bottom of the valley. Here, not unsurprisingly, is a river, in the form of the bubbling blue River Cree, on its way from the wilds of Carrick Forest (ok, more Forestry Commission plantations) to its estuary at the simply-named Creetown. There is also a bridge over the river, which carries us briefly into Dumfries & Galloway to join up with the A714.

Turn left and cross the road bridge back into South Ayrshire, and follow the A714 as it folds across the landscape, rather like a piece of sticky tape applied to lumpy cardboard, for the next half mile. Then take the track to the right across the fields into the woods (the second since the bridge).

The track meanders through the woods for about two miles, passing three minor junctions and rolling over minor ridges and hillocks, before it works into a roughly northerly alignment along the edge of a clearing and comes to a crossroads with some evidence of buildings. Turn left.

This new track is in almost road-worthy condition, and as soon as it has reached an inhabited property at Darnaconnar Ordnance Survey will decide that it is one. Meanwhile there are still some nice views back to the east:

Follow the road as it drops past Darnaconnar and falls onwards to the Cammock Burn at Darnaconnar Bridge. Admire the pool on the left of the road and then continue up the steady climb as the road leaves the valley to pass over the shoulder of the hill. Alongside, slightly lower to the left, is a straighter roadway with a softer surface that trades directness for not following the contours. It eventually plunges into a wood that the road briefly skirts and then also dives into; the two meet at a crossroads at the ruined farm at Laggan.

Turn right past the side of the ruins and climb up the hill. After a bit the track swings left and drops a bit, then corrects itself and swings right again, and finally meets a track coming out of the wind farm to the right, turns left and plunges down the hill towards Barrhill.

Most of the way down the track comes into a farm complex and multi-way junction at Balluskie. Take the second right to pass around the front of the buildings and go down the proper road, which soon straightens up to drop down the hill to the river. This is the Duisk, flowing away northwards towards Pinwherry and ultimately Ballantrae.

Continue straight on, across the A714 and follow the signs up the hill back to Barrhill station.

Although the station retains its old semaphore signals and single-line-working tablet system, it has been thoughtfully provided with a modern customer information system. This is quite helpful for saying how trains are running, but has been known to have difficulty guessing which platform trains will use. All trains to Girvan, Ayr, Kilmarnock and Glasgow use platform 1 (over the crossing) while all trains to Stranraer (no other intermediate stations) use platform 2 (with the main building).

Trails from the Rails 15: Combe to Tackley

  • Area: Oxfordshire
  • Local Train Operators: Great Western Railway
  • Length: 7 miles
  • Points of Note: Blenheim Palace, Akeman Street
  • OS maps – Mostly Explorer 180 with an irritating few yards on 191 at the end (1:25,000); Landranger 164 (1:50,000) (spans both maps)

Combe’s status as the least used station in South-East England is earned in part by having only one train each way daily, weekdays only – a fact which makes it quite tricky to use. However, if you find yourself in South Oxfordshire at about half-past five on a weekday afternoon, particularly in summer and on a fine day, this walk makes a pleasant way to round things off and work up an appetite for a late evening meal.

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Combe station is not much to look at. A single timber platform of 46 metres sits beside the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton mainline in the Evenlode valley, looking across at Hanborough. There were once two platforms, but the other was removed when the line was singled. Exit is by means of the platform ramp at the Worcester end of the platform, dropping down past track level and the wheels of the departing train to the road.

Turn right along the road back past the platform to a T junction by the railway bridge and then turn left up the hill. At the top, turn right along the cul-de-sac and proceed eastwards for a couple of hundred yards to the gatehouse on the left.

Pass through the gates and into the wooded grounds of Blenheim Palace, following the public right of way signs. The Palace is the seat of the Dukes of Marlborough. They could never actually afford such a place themselves; it was built by the public, rebuilt by American railroad money and is now financed by visitor charges and various grants. Happily this walk follows public rights of way, so the best bits of view can be enjoyed for no charge at all.

The road swings away to the left and down the hill, through a clearing and amongst a wide range of trees. As you approach the bottom, the road swings left again while a track veers off around the edge of the wood to the right. Follow the track into the dry valley.

The track switches sides of the valley through a gate and passes another junction. One right-of-way leads sharply up the hill to the left; the other runs along the north shore of a lake. Stick with the lake, and follow the track along its banks through the bushes.

The winding valley is an original feature provided by nature, but the idea of actually filling it with water was produced by one Capability Brown. It reveals first a charmingly still river, winding lost amongst the trees dropping to the water’s edge and coated in water lilies. Little vistas are presented occasionally down the valley towards the main lake; the little building in the distance is not a boathouse but the Temple of Diana, where the Right Honourable Mr Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill (who was born on the estate) proposed marriage to Clementine Hozier in 1908. Then the waterway widens into a calm pool with fishing stands, still apparently lost in the forest…

… then Sir John Vanburgh’s massive bridge, partly drowned by Capability Brown to be reflected in the still waters, swings into view…

… and finally, with trumpets blaring in the mind, the Palace arises across the lake from amongst the trees:

Pass Fair Rosamund’s Well and the Harry Potter Tree (in a reflection of something, Ordnance Survey marks the former but Google favours the latter) and climb up the bank to the main road to the bridge. The public right of way goes onto the nearer abutment but no further; an entry fee must be paid to actually cross the bridge. (This is a bit awkward if you get thus far and feel inspired to go around the grounds properly, without being constrained to rights of way. See if you can find someone around the house to pay money to.)

Having reached the road, turn left away from the bridge and swing up the hill over the end of the ridge. Soon after the track from the valley bottom converges from the left and another right of way strikes off to the right across the sheep fields towards a column and some trees.

Follow this path up to the column, pausing to admire the view straight across the bridge to the frontage of the Palace. Then continue over the ridge and down into the next valley.

The path is inclined to come out onto the next driveway a little shy of the head of the lake; if so, turn left and head up to the cottage at just beyond the lake’s head. Swing around to the right on the path around the front of the cottage and follow the driveway around the edge of the lake until it comes to be squeezed between the park wall (left) and a small arm of the lake (right). Here a gate (signposted) leads through onto the A44.

Outside is the big, rowdy, bubbling world, a cheery pub and a busy road. Cross the road with the convenient zebra and turn left towards the pub. If not popping into the pub for food or a quick drink then climb the stile just before the bridge in front of the pub and cross the footbridge into the fields on the other side.

Follow the path for about quarter of a mile, keeping the stream to your left, until it enters a small housing estate. Weave around the network of Glyme Close (straight on, left, right) to gain the main road, turn left up the road and then keep straight on (signposted as a bridleway/ National Cycle Route 5 to Tackley) when the main road itself turns right.

This lane passes through a string of car parks and business units before becoming a proper back lane, running northwards up the valley past a cemetery and a sewage works. At the sewage works it stops being a proper road and becomes a rather pleasant bridleway, eventually crossing Sansom’s Lane (take the right fork to keep going more or less straight on) and emerging onto the B4027.

Cross the road and keep going northwards for a short distance to a crosspaths. Turn right.

The crossing path, which is now followed most of the way to Tackley, is the much-downgraded Akeman Street. This Roman road provided a direct link, with the usual near-total-absence of corners, from Cirencester to Bicester (35 miles) via nowhere of any particular note. Not one of the better-planned bits of Roman transport infrastructure, it is now mostly abandoned with a few legs retained as byways. This is one of them.

Roman roads do however make for easy navigation – simply proceed through the gate and across the field in a straight line, gradually rising up onto the ridge. (Interestingly the straightest route from Cirencester to Bicester goes through the main part of the park at Blenheim, but the road instead bypasses that and goes across a more discreet corner to the north-west – hence the long walk out of Woodstock to find it.)

The easy navigation hits a brief pause after a few fields when it meets the A4260 outside a motel at Sturdy’s Castle. Cross the A4260 with due care (it is a rather wide road – one of those 60mph single-carriageway things aligned to allow safe and easy progress for drivers doing the ton) and briefly follow the lane on the other side signposted to Tackley. Pass through a gate on the right shortly after the junction and continue the straight course beside a hedge, heading down into the Cherwell valley. Off to the right, a little below the route of the road, is the dominant building that Ordnance Survey simply calls “Field Barn”.

Partway down is an unmemorable lane and then the path attempts to dive into the hedge occasionally in an unhelpful manner.

At the bottom of the valley it plunges into a bank of trees, inside which are some bridges, a stream and a path leading away at right-angles to the left. Follow it out of the trees and through the undergrowth into a field. Quietly curse if doing this walk in April or September (or indeed October to March), as it will now be getting rather dark.

Eventually the path emerges into a proper field with the houses (or lights) of Tackley ahead. Strike forwards for the top right-hand corner of the field. A well-hidden path leads off to the right through the hedge, along the back of the houses and across the fields to the railway.

It is of course at this point that people who have got the timing wrong will hear their train power up and depart. Happily Tackley has a better service than Combe, and there will be another in a couple of hours.

On reaching the railway, turn left and head up between houses and railway to the station. Tackley station turns out to be reminiscent of Combe in general construction, except there are two platforms which are nicely lit with stylish lamps that are twice the length of Combe’s. There is also a shelter on each platform. Left-hand platform for Banbury; right-hand for Oxford and Didcot.

Since this picture was taken Tackley has become the centre of a major project to abolish the foot crossing at the south end of the platform, which is a bit of a disagreeable thing to use owing to it being on a line where drivers can be doing almost a ton entirely legitimately. It is being replaced with a subway, but at the time of writing a temporary footbridge is doing the honours. While awaiting trains, be aware that the non-stop service consists of an intensive flow of high-speed passenger and freight trains that no longer have to toot for the crossing.

Trails from the Rails 14: Coryton to Taffs Well

  • Area: Cardiff
  • Local Train Operators: Transport for Wales
  • Length: 4 miles
  • Points of Note: Castell Coch
  • OS maps – Explorer 151 (1:25,000); Landranger 171 (1:50,000)

This is a rather short and often urban walk, but makes an interesting way of visiting the Red Castle – Castell Coch – with a spot of exercise, a couple of nice views and an absence of motoring.

There are many easy ways of extending it, aided by brief examination of the map, and in many ways it makes a good starting point for enjoying the wider area.

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Coryton station is the current terminus of the Cardiff Railway. On the map this is a dead straight and apparently rapid line running due west across North Cardiff. On the train it turns out to be a rather tram-like operation provided by a well-worn slow-accelerating diesel unit in need of an engine overhaul.

The station itself rather lacks any pretensions, apart from its rather pretty garden.

The direct access from the station to the walk is blocked by the last few lines of running line and a palisade fence, so leave the station by the steep path to the road that passes over the bufferstop, turn right, cross the road and the railway and drop down the slope on the north side of the bridge to a roundabout. Here there is a gate on the left. Turn through it into the oddly-shaped grassy area.

This used to be a segment of land with the Cardiff Railway curving around the outside as it swung round to a north-north-west heading for a long and ultimately doomed attempt to reach Pontypridd. Now it is an enclosed park. To the left is the bridge with the bufferstop under it. To the right is the abandoned cutting curving away northwards. Enter the cutting and amble through it, admiring the trees.

By rights this would make part of a North Cardiff Orbital Railway, by continuing up here and then veering left, crossing the river and dropping down to join the other end of the City Line at Radyr. Or failing that an extension under the M4 to a station at Tongwynlais, which is not that well-served by rail. Or just another two-thirds-of-a-mile extension to the Asda at M4 Jcn 32. All of these would shorten the walk to Castell Coch. And one day perhaps it will be one of them, as it’s an obvious candidate for easy railway reinstatement. But for now it’s a tree-lined cutting instead, with handsome overbridges.

The second overbridge is the more impressive one, and as the cutting beyond has been infilled for a link road to an industrial estate the path climbs out of it to the left. Cross the bridge and turn left as soon as possible, dropping down a slight slope to the link road.

Beyond the link road the railway crossed the Glamorganshire Canal by means of a massive skewed three-span girder bridge before running on an embankment across the fields below Tongwynlais and into the depths of Tongwynlais Tunnel, coming out behind Taffs Well. A hole in the fence gives access, when the trees aren’t too enthusiastic, to the abutments and piers of the bridge in the sausage of land between link road and motorway. Part of the embankment beyond the motorway still stands. The hill that Tongwynlais Tunnel passed through was demolished to make way for the A470.

Having reached the link road and decided not to go scrambling in bramble bushes, cross the highway and follow a tarmac path around the back of a small service area. This rises through the trees and crosses the Jcn 32 roundabout.

The path then swings round to dive under the M4 by sharing the roundabout’s bridge before rising away through the triangle of land between M4 and A470. Drop down to the left through a complex of footpath junctions and pass under the A470. Rise up again over the other side of Junction 32. Walk on to the end of the path and enter Tongwynlais.

Trundle through the village along the main road, past a chapel with space for two bells in the bell turret but only one in place, and drop down to the Lewis Arms pub. Here you will find some signage pointing up the road to the right to Castell Coch, which helpfully is directed at pedestrians using the Taff Trail long-distance path (and pedestrians generally) and not at motorists.

Turn right up this road and amble out of Tongwynlais towards the castle, which will probably be visible occasionally poking out of the trees to the left. On the right the road remains built-up with houses of a 1950s vogue.

After the golf course and a row of older houses the Taff Trail dives off to the left up a discreetly-indicated steep path. This provides a traffic-free route to the castle. Missing it is no big deal, since soon after comes the more obvious and similarly steep car park access road (for all those motorists who have deviously found the castle by following signs intended for pedestrians). Either way eventually leads to a remaining patch of green in front of the castle, a surfeit of trees which make it nicely sylvan while slightly spoiling the drama, and a frontage which is probably familiar from some TV programme or another made by BBC Wales.

It is not a bad castle to go in and explore, but it should be remembered that it represents what a Victorian romanticist thought a Medieval castle should look like. (On which point, it must be said, it is a better representation of an active Medieval castle than the average drafty old ruin with no wall paintings or ceilings, though really the outside should be rendered and painted red.)

Some of the views are good too, though it doesn’t have a proper wall-walk.

Once done with the castle, turn away from the front gate and look away to the left, at the bottom of the rising hill. There can be seen a steeply-rising path. Climb it. Partway up is a former view point which has no view because someone let the trees grow, but which can make a good stopping point for a breather.

At the top the path swings left onto a plateau. Another path converges from the left. This is followed by a crosspaths and a gentle swing to the right, dropping into a valley, as the track runs through the woods. This is Fforest-fawr, or Big Forest – not actually a particularly big forest in the grand scheme of things, but a nice size for afternoon walks.

The whole forest is open access so there is free rein to explore, tracing the old mines, the blue pool in a crevice and the long muddy meanders through the depths of the trees, but for our immediate purposes the path to look out for is an well-hidden turning to the left at a crosspaths towards the top of the next rise.

This path used to be a simple straight-up-and-straight-down job but someone decided the down was too severe, so it does the straight-up and then turns left, descends a bit, loops round to the right, descends some more and turns left back onto the original formation. Follow the path through the trees and across another path to the edge of the wood. A rather handsome prospect opens up showing the normal uncomfortable adjunct of the South Welsh Valleys – the industrial units down in the valley to the left, the wild pastures ahead and the distant view (on finer days than this) of the peaks of the Brecon Beacons.

Here used to be a brace of sculptures – a wooden bench carved into the shape of a fox, another (very large) timber fox sat on its haunches with its tail curled round its back legs looking out across the view, and a low wall with three windows in it, each containing a cast iron representation of a crow. They’re all long gone now. Instead there is a dragon, a little back from the viewpoint.

When tired with the view, turn left and follow the path roughly along the edge of the woods. After a couple of hundred yards the main path swings away to the left and a smaller path drops off alongside the fence to the right. Follow this smallerpath. It soon loses itself in the woods again but is easily followed as it drops sharply down the hill, eventually emerging onto a larger track descending around the flanks of the hill from left to right. (If followed to the left this larger track climbs back up to the plateau above Castell Coch and converges with the path that climbed up from the castle.)

Turn right and drop down to where the track turns sharply left over an old railway bridge. This is the Barry Railway’s extension to the Rhymney Valley, running high above the valley of the Taff after crossing river, two railways and the A470 by means of the demolished Walnut Tree Viaduct, and on its way to a junction with the former Rhymney Railway mainline at Penrhos. Now long-since closed, the formation is a footpath for almost exactly a mile northwards from here. Follow the path from the road down the side of the bridge to join the trackbed.

It is possible to follow this line for the mile and then drop down the hillside to the similarly-closed Rhymney line before doubling back to Taffs Well, but for the shorter walk follow the Barry formation to the second underbridge and the junction below.

Turn right, drop down beside the former railway and pass under it, marvelling at the sheer hulk of the small arching structure.

Descend the path (marvelling at how much you climbed from Coryton with so little effort, given how much sheer descent is now involved) as it crosses a back lane and runs down beside a bubbling brook (Nant y Brynau). After a bit it emerges onto the wide tarmaced form of the Rhymney Railway’s alignment on the outside of a sweeping curve.

Turn left (the opposite way to that shown in the photo) and descend to the old railway cottages, beyond which a derelict semaphore signal, protecting the climb to Penrhos against ascending goods trains that never come, hides amongst the trees.

Beyond it is the old girder bridge carrying the former Rhymney line over the former Cardiff Railway (the formation here has been removed and replaced with an industrial unit); the larger bridge over the A470 also spans the former (re-purposed) alignment of the Glamorganshire Canal; a smaller stone arch lost in the bushes carries the old line over a path linking parts of a patch of (built-over) allotments that the railway cut in two; and then the bushes fall away to reveal Taffs Well station.

Taffs Well station continues to undergo a steady churn of change. There was a junction here until 1982, when the Rhymney line was closed to save the costs of renewing a signalbox at the Caerphilly end. The signal box at Taffs Well remained until it was replaced by Radyr signal box in one of Railtrack’s relatively few resignalling schemes. Road remodelling has cleared away evidence of the junction. A factory to the left of the line fell into dereliction and was cleared away in 2019 to make way for a new railway depot for the former Taff Vale Railway lines – ironically, and in a final guffaw for the TVR directors, taking away with it the Rhymney Railway’s single-road engine shed.

The station itself is a standard blank modern urban railway station – two platforms, long-standing footbridge, small but modern shelters, peak-time ticket hut and trees blanketing the former glories. Away to the south can be seen the surviving piers of the Walnut Tree Viaduct, while to the north a long straight (by TVR standards) carried the Pacer units away into the Valleys proper.