Trails from the Rails 10: Luxulyan to St Austell

  • Area: Cornwall
  • Local Train Operators: Great Western Railway, Cross Country
  • Length: About 10 miles
  • Points of Note: Luxulyan Valley, Par Harbour, the Cornish coast, docks at Charlestown
  • OS maps – Explorer 107 (1:25,000); Landranger 200 (1:50,000)

This is a simple and attractive walk, mixing level walking, uphill and downhill sections, woods, industrial ruins and coastal views before ending up pottering through suburban St Austell.

It is also particularly a “trail by the rails”. It is never much more than half a mile from a railway.


Luxulyan station, the first stop on the Newquay branch since the closure of the station at St Blazey, is a neat little affair. It consists of a half-overgrown platform set on the central Cornish plateau slightly down the hill from Luxulyan itself. Its one and pretty much only claim to fame came in 1991, when the shortest-ever High Speed Train formation to run in passenger service terminated here after a somewhat unscheduled journey from the other end of Luxulyan Tunnel. The power car at the other end of the train had derailed in an isolated location and this was the simplest way of ferrying the handful of customers back to somewhere with road access. Luxulyan remains proud of this sight.

The powercar involved has spent the ensuing years making other appearances in the media, including as the last powercar in British Rail’s Intercity livery, as the star feature (under a faked “43001” number) at a First Great Western relaunch and as the rear powercar in the Ufton Nervet incident, which gives her the dubious status of being the last UK rail vehicle to be returned to traffic after being involved in a fatal accident.

But to return to Luxulyan.

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On leaving the station and meeting the road, turn left up into the village and right at the top of the hill.

It is possible to do the first leg of the walk off-road (look at the OS map for details), but it is usually extremely muddy and involves disturbing the peaceful repose of several engaging native species of bramble, so instead follow the road down the hill out of the village and turn right at the bottom by Gatty’s Bridge. Follow the back lane into the valley for about half a mile, then take the left onto the lane heading sharply up the hillside. Take the second footpath to the right and follow this as it makes a level heading along the hillside.

The first footpath offers similarly good views and a similarly level walk through the same peaceful woods, but the second path leads to Treffry’s Viaduct and is therefore worth the extra little pull. It is a twin-level viaduct, with a stream on the lower level and the course of the old tramroad on the top. A curious irony of this particular railway is that it replaced a tramroad that was better engineered than the railway.

The viaduct is built of solid granite and very, very impressive. Through the gaps between the blocks that make up the deck can be seen the stream flowing along its lower level. Underneath the arches, swinging around endless sharp curves at a pleasingly low speed, is the replacement railway. It is unlikely that there will actually be a train to be seen here, given the branch’s service level. At the western end the tramway heads into a sheer-sided cutting through the granite, complete with stream, on its way back to Luxulyan.

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Having admired the viaduct, return to the eastern side of the valley and continue walking away from Luxulyan along this high-level path, now accompanied by a stream and rather a lot of evidence that this used to be an upmarket tramway. This evidence includes most of the granite sleepers and several lengths of rail.

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After two-thirds of a mile or so this opportunity for pleasant reverie, ambling along through the woods beside the silently bubbling stream, is brought to a rather abrupt end. The stream ceases to be peacefully bubbling and instead forms a waterfall off the end of a chute that drops it over an absent waterwheel. The tramway meanwhile takes up the course of a long-abandoned rope-worked incline, the winding house for which has tumbled down and returned to nature. (Or had its nicely-hewn granite building blocks recycled by environmentally-conscious locals, as the case may be.)

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Follow the incline downhill, across the lower path (which returns to Luxulyan to the right and dead-ends at a gate to the left) and on beneath an unusual skew bridge to the bottom of the valley, where it emerges next to and slightly below the current railway.

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Follow the path as it swings around the end of the hill and across a car park to the point where the tramway turns into railway. Until the early ’90s there was a china clay drying facility here, lightly served by this upgraded stub of the tramway route branching off the Newquay line. Now the stub is much overgrown and the path runs alongside as the rails rise to join the working railway.

The path dips and goes through a very small adit to pick up the hill side of the railway. It then runs alongside, separated from the running line by a stream, down to St Blazey.

There is nothing very notable about St Blazey as a place – the housing is fairly typical housing and the railway doesn’t get up to as much as it used to – but the stream runs through it in a green corridor so there is not too much need to attend to it. The first road is the A390 from Lostwitheil, Liskeard and Saltash, which crosses the railway on the level. Next to the crossing is the crossing keeper’s house, sandwiched between railway and stream and in private hands.

The path is now neatly gravelled as it runs down a fairly straight leg to the second level crossing. Here it is necessary to cross the railway, as on this side of the line the onward path plunges straight into St Blazey’s semi-moribund marshalling yard.

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Having crossed the railway, turn right (the first right, separated from the railway by a scrap of fence) and continue alongside a second stream that turns out to have been hiding on the other side of the railway (the railway losing no time in crossing the first stream, diving into the marshalling yard and vanishing behind a hedge). Follow this second stream down past the back of a wooded park. About halfway down the railway is crossed on the level as it curves sharply out of St Blazey yard and twirls up a 150-degree-or-so bend towards Par station. Continue to the end of this leg of the stream, where the path turns into a couple of dusty yards and a back alley before joining the A3082 to Fowey.

From here Par station is a left turn to pass under the railway and then another left turn on the other side to follow a gulley to the station forecourt. To continue to St Austell, turn right here instead and pass over the level crossing conveying the St Blazey Harbour branch (and former line to Fowey) across the A3082. This one retains not only its crossing keeper’s house but also a handsome set of classic crossing gates.

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Once over the railway, turn left and pass beneath the mainline on its low stone viaduct. The road promptly swings round to the right and a short, disagreeable bit of pavement-walking ensues, trapped between harbour boundary wall to the left, road to the right and Cornwall Mainline above.

After the harbour gateway the road dips to pass under the railway and the footpath diverges, running between railway and harbour before turning left to pass through the tail end of the harbour and clay dries complex.

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The path runs down to the seashore and turns right, following the cliffs and a sign marked “South West Coast Path” along the edge of a golf course. This offers some rather good views back towards Gribbin Head:

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On winter afternoons the sun also shimmers quite handsomely across the passing trains as they sweep round the curves on the climb towards St Austell:

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Less pleasing were the views of the abandoned Coliseum on the beach at Carylon Bay. These ruins have now gone, thereby mildly improving the view.

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Swing across the car park, sticking close to the cliffs, and rise around the coast side of the Carlyon Bay luxury hotel. The coast path runs across a grassy area and tries to avoid a spate of suburbia by going around the cliff side of several back gardens. These attempts are almost successful, though a brief stint on Sea Road admiring the houses is necessary.

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But Sea Road is private, so no time is lost dropping off it again and running round the back of some more houses before falling down the hillside to Charlestown’s little harbour. Slightly unexpectedly, this will usually be occupied by a classic ship or two.

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Work around the docks and pick up the main road towards St Austell, leading directly up the hill from the left-hand dock. This is long, fairly straight and steadily climbing in a way that, for all of the mixed architecture, has been a bore for a bit when it finally passes the Penrice Academy and hits the A390 on the fringes of suburban St Austell.

Pass straight across the roundabout and follow the pavement into town. This is a classic Cornish suburban road which, apart from the car designs and traffic levels, has not changed much in forty or fifty years. The telegraph lines have a pleasingly cluttered air. At the bottom of a dip a slightly staggered crossroads is handled by a pair of mini-roundabouts, where Victoria Road emerges as Alexandra Road.

Alexandra Road is followed for barely a quarter of a mile up the hill to a discreet, carefully-signposted gulley off to the right. This leads up between a couple of garden walls to the railway and then follows the same to a footbridge over the three tracks of the mainline. The overgrown third line, swinging sharply away to a buffer stop, is the former access to St Austell’s goods yard. Cross the bridge and continue along the path, now on the other side of the railway but still following it with much the same dedication, to the road.

The railway station is straight ahead; trains to Par and Plymouth are down the road ahead and across the old yard, while trains to Truro and Plymouth are better reached by crossing the railway by the road bridge and running down the pavement to the station forecourt. The forecourt is strikingly built-up on the steep hillside above the town and provides a rare bit of level open space for the bus station.

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Long a beautifully-preserved harmonious mid-19th-century/ early-20th-century wayside mainline timber station, St Austell has been not wholly sympathetically renovated in the 21st century. In 1999 the Down platform building was flattened and replaced by a building that in other circumstances might have seemed modern and vibrant instead of severely out of keeping – such as if the opportunity had been taken to remove the subsequently-derelict Up platform building (replacing it with something that matched the new Down building) and the old signalbox (closed 1980, which looked in keeping with the old station and now doesn’t). A new footbridge, appearing high enough to be future-proofed for electrification west of Plymouth (stop laughing), took so long to appear that styles have moved on so it doesn’t really match the new building.

On the other hand, the station is still here and is moderately looked after.

Trails from the Rails 9: Medstead & Four Marks to Alton

  • Area: Hampshire
  • Local Train Operators: Mid-Hants Railway/ South West Trains
  • Length: About 8 miles
  • Points of Note: Jane Austen’s House, Chawton
  • OS maps – OL32 & OL33 (1:25,000) (crosses two maps); Landranger 186 (1:50,000)

This is a pleasantly rambling sort of walk which done in this direction has a predominantly downhill orientation. If done in reverse, it is more inclined to have an uphill feel about it.

Travellers coming from the west (Alresford and Ropley) are advised to check their return train carefully before leaving the Mid-Hants station at Medstead & Four Marks.


To say Medstead & Four Marks is a rather well-preserved sort of station is rather like saying the late Wolfgang Mozart’s music is rather pleasant to listen to. A comparison with some “past” photos on display in the station eventually reaches the note that remarks the signal box cabin had to be replaced after the original was demolished. This fits in very well, and otherwise it looks much as ever.

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Medstead is the old community which thoughtlessly was founded some distance from the route of the railway. Four Marks, which mostly consists of mid-20th century houses, later grew up around the station. There is a certain air to the architecture of a place which stopped expanding when the station closed with the withdrawal of trains between Alton and Winchester in 1973.

Head out of the station using the footpath off the Alresford-bound platform and work through the back alleys (right, left, right, left, right, straight across) to the main road, emerging opposite the Chinese takeaway, which is next door to Tesco and just up the road from the chippie. Cross the road (the A31 to Winchester) and turn left up the hill.

At the top, just before the turning to Medstead, turn right down the gully and follow it through the housing estates until it skirts into open country and drops onto a road consisting of suburban villas. Cross this road and take the signposted path on the other side into the woods.

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Proceed down this path, which goes on for quite some distance along the edge of the wood. Eventually the path opens out into fields with attractive views off to the east.

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These are the fields of the rather wonderfully-named Pies Farm and, unfortunately, are actually after the required turnoff. Go back into the wood and take the right turn (left from the Four Marks direction) and continue along a different edge of the wood. From here the walk follows St Swithun’s Way to Chawton, but this is not overly well-signposted so the fact is not much use. Make do with enjoying the gentle falling gradient through the dappled light beneath the deciduous trees to the pungent scent of the pines off to the left. Eventually the path emerges again, this time at Upper Woodside Farm.

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Follow the road as it swings down the hill and over a little ridge until it reaches a hedge and takes a right-angle to the right. Take the left turn down a track along the side of a field, avoiding the bollard provided to discourage vehicular access. (This bollard is made out of a bit of old tree and makes a very strong and stable base for resting the rucksack while taking a drink, with the added benefit that it can be moved around as circumstances require – though the farmer would no doubt appreciate it finishing up where it started.)

Follow this track as it goes halfway up the field and then turns right across another field. At the cross-tracks by the barns turn left and up a new track which rises gently through the copse on a slight embankment, curving gently to the right. This is the former Alton to Fareham railway. An overbridge at Southfield Farm highlights the route’s former use.

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After the bridge the railway alignment abruptly ends where it has been ploughed back into the fields. After the first field the footpath turns right, drops down to a wood, goes through the wood, turns right down another field boundary and comes out on the A32 Alton to Fareham road.

Cross the road (obviously quiet as there is no need for the railway) and go up the path on the other side. This works alongside a field and into a cul-de-sac. At the end of the cul-de-sac, turn left.

This is the old route of the Alton to Fareham road, which proceeds northwards for a couple of hundred yards past cricket fields and cottages to the village green and a road junction with the old road to Winchester. On the right are two pubs next door to each other (“Cassandra’s Cup” and “The Greyfriar”). On the left is a large brick house, formerly part of the local landlord’s estate. In the early 19th-century the then-landlord let his widowed mother, his two sisters and their friend use it as a home rent-free. Thus it was that here, overlooking the junction between the two main roads from London to the various parts of Hampshire, several key ports and the Isle of Wight, the novelist Jane Austen revised two novels, wrote three-and-a-bit more and became a good-selling writer.

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Before her publisher started putting her name on the title page (instead of attributing the latest work to “The Author of Sense & SensibilityPride & Prejudice, &c.”) she inconveniently succumbed to a severe bout of ill-health and died at the age of 41, leaving the world a mere six satirical novels (as opposed to, say, a rather more desirable ten or twelve) plus a splendid collection of juvenalia, fragments and Lady Susan. The house is now a museum and Chawton has been firmly bypassed; the upshot is that the room interiors and the traffic levels outside are both much as Austen would have known them.

The option exists of dropping in on the museum for a couple of hours idle perusing. Otherwise carry on past the pubs and a couple of cottages beyond and take the footpath down the gully off to the right. Cross the following field next to the hump of an old wall, leaving the spinney to the left. Head through the gate on the other side, climb up through the copse and go through the gate into the field. Follow the signposts, the path through the grass and the shortest route to the next stile or gate. Austen fans can imagine her taking her afternoon walks with her sister Cassandra along this way.

After some little while the path comes to Whitehouse Farm and heads north up the access road to the B3006. Cross the road with due care and head through the hedge on the other side. The path emerges onto two tracks, separated by a fence, both heading in the correct sort of direction and neither obviously signposted as the right of way.

It appears the further path is the correct one, leading up to the farm buildings, running around the western and northern edges of the complex and then following the hedge eastwards on the far side down a designated double-fenced alley. The nearer path goes around much the same sort of route, passes through a builders yard and then picks up the correct side of the eastward hedge – via several wire fences. At the end of the eastward hedge the two options come together (with no signposting as to which side is preferred by the landowner). Head for a footbridge which carries the path over the stream into a nettle bed. On the other side is a minor road. Join it and turn left. (It is sorely tempting to follow the bank of the stream for a dozen yards until it passes under the road and pick up the lane there instead.)

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This is a very pleasant lane to follow for maybe a third of a mile until it comes to a sort of crossroads after a gate. Take the bridlepath (Water Lane) to the left towards Alton. This leads to the Alton bypass, which turns out to have been very cheaply built in 1970; the dual carriageway (with central reservation but no crashbarrier) passes above Water Lane but has to be crossed on the level. Visibility is reasonable. This is not an unusual state of affairs on British trunk roads; users are urged not to bring the fitness levels of British walkers into disrepute (or, indeed, bring the fine reputation of British road safety into disrepute and infer that truncating the duplicate railway might have been short-sighted) by carrying out experiments into whether cars react to people using public rights of way and generally contributing to the business case for a subway.

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As can be not-quite-seen in the picture, continuing along the lane will come to a bridge carrying a minor road under the bypass for those who prefer to chance narrow back lanes against sweeping bypasses.

Once past the bypass, clamber straight up the following hill into Alton’s outer suburbs. Drop gently down the other side, looking first for a turning in from the left (as a reference point) and then a discreet gully with a “No cycling” sign off to the right. It is maybe two hundred yards before the continuing road crosses the railway back to Medstead. Follow this gully, turning left at the end down a further gully and dropping down the escarpment via a flight of steps to Lower Turk Street.

Cross Lower Turk Street and follow the path alongside the railway embankment. This comes alongside King’s Pond, which in some sort of Spirit has been allowed to be largely separated from the path by a bank of trees. At the occasional breaks are warnings not to feed bread to the ducks. The locals get around this by giving them digestive biscuits instead. One feels this is a severe case of loopholery.

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Head out of the park at the other end of the lake into Waterside Court complex, turning right and then left to gain the main road adjacent to a gold postbox. Turn left and pass under the railway. The station is up the slope to the right. Following the road to the top and turning left will bring the walker to Alton’s takeaway.

Alton station is one of several good examples of shared National Rail/ heritage railway station facilities. The Mid-Hants comes in round the back on platform 3; platform 2 offers a through connection for the occasional special running straight through to Alresford plus periodic stock moves. The original footbridge survives, though sealed off, at time of writing following a campaign that it is part of the heritage air of the station. Its replacement is fitted with lifts and is a considerably longer walk for anyone unfortunate enough to find their train home leaves from the 2/3 island.

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Trails from the Rails 8: Pont-y-Pant to Roman Bridge

  • Area: Conwy
  • Local Train Operators: Arriva Trains Wales
  • Length: 4 miles
  • Points of Note: Dolwyddelan Castle
  • OS maps – OL18 (1:25,000); Landranger 115 (1:50,000) 

This is an innocent and scenic little walk, probably best done as part of a day out on the Conwy Valley line rather than justifying a day out in its own right.


The Conwy Valley line is a lightly-used route through lightly-populated countryside with a lightly-provided service. The timetable is, like all ATW services, based around a clockface hour; here trains leave Llandudno Junction for Blaenau Ffestiniog around xx:30 and return from Blaenau around xx:35. Owing to limited rolling stock, limited traffic and limited infrastructure, two out of every three of these hourly trains do not run. Some careful timekeeping is required to avoid being isolated in a notoriously wet corner of Snowdonia, particularly if aiming to make a Porthmadog connection at Blaenau.

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Pont-y-Pant is a pleasantly-placed little station, unencumbered by the presence of Pont-y-Pant itself; the community is a fictional creation of the London & North Western Railway and what housing does exist is situated on the A470 on the other side of the river. The station building remains, splendidly whitewashed and privately owned. Look out for evidence that the customer information system works and any signage remaining from previous train operators.

Turn right on leaving the station and follow the lane southwards up the valley. This follows the railway for a little way and then kinks up the hillside to a farm, where it ends. Pass the farm and continue along the successor track, which drops gently down over a ridge and falls to the valley bottom. A bridge under the railway leads out onto the floodplain of the Lledr and some pleasing views.

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Follow the track southwards as it wavers around the riverbank before regaining its road status and rises up to Dolwyddelan station.

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The station used to have an island platform, access only from the overbridge (which carries the “Sarn Helen” Roman road) and a crossing loop. An off-pattern service from Blaenau is timed to cross one of the “ghost” paths here. Not much actually happens here now, although those who alighted from a Blaenau-bound train at Pont-y-Pant have a reasonable chance of getting here in time to see it heading back to Llandudno.

Drop out of the station and use the nicely-modernised (a long time ago) Sarn Helen to cross the river to the community of Dolwyddelan, which like the community at Pont-y-Pant is located on the A470.

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Those used to the impressively straight lines of Watling Street and the Fosse Way will find Sarn Helen to be somewhat off the usual concept of Roman roads. There is a limit as to the ability to go in straight lines for thirty-odd miles in this terrain, so it wobbles its way across the mountain tops. It is alleged to have been built to allow a Roman Emperor to reach Caernarfon and collect the (literal) girl of his dreams. One has to have reasons for major infrastructure investment, after all.

For obvious reasons, when building the main turnpike road to Holyhead (now the A5) Thomas Telford used Watling Street to Shrewsbury and then took a lower route via Chirk, Llangollen and Betws-y-Coed to Bangor. It has some nasty curves, but avoids the bleaker mountain summits.

Once across the river and in Dolwyddelan, turn left and follow the A470 southwards. A pavement is kindly supplied, although at one point it turns into a lay-by. The Welsh Government is yet to follow their lead further south at Builth and recycle the pavement as part of a wider road.

Shortly after the lay-by, fork off up the byway that climbs off to the right. This swings gently round the hillside to a sign pointing to the left for the ticket office for the castle. This is awkwardly situated down in the farm (specifically it’s the farmer’s wife at the back door of the house) some sixty feet below the castle itself. If intending to explore the castle (a large tower on an outcrop) drop down to the farmhouse, buy tickets as required and then climb up back here before pressing on up the back of the outcrop.

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The castle has been coming in and out of view for a while, but is still quite something when actually reached. For all that it is one tower with a few ruins dotted around, its bleak situation tucked amongst the mountains gives it a grandeur lacked by larger castles sat in big cities. And while minimal in itself, the views are worth the entry fee.

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Once down from the castle, turn left and press on up the byway over the next rocky outcrop. It then drops gently down into the valley near Roman Bridge. On gaining the road, turn left to drop down to the water and the bridge itself.

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There is no centre of population here to speak of – merely a few scattered farmhouses around a bridge over the river. Thus having decided to build a station here – stark in its isolation amongst the mountains and wearing a coat of whitewash to match Pont-y-Pant – the London & North Western had to call the platform something and so why not Roman Bridge? Except, of course, for the small matter that the Roman road is at Dolwyddelan and the ramshackle stone bridge here has no particular historic connotations…

Follow the road as it snakes around the base of the hillock and then drops over the precipices to the station. Roman Bridge is well-maintained and provided with a customer information system. This draws train running information from the railway’s signalling which, like the train service, is sporadic. In 2015 it was Wales’s second-least-used station (Pont-y-Pant was fifth-least). The building was recently for sale for £450,000, including fishing rights. Aside from the railway station, there are no other facilities in the neighbourhood.

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Railway, river and passable track head two miles further up the valley (which can be followed by turning right at the end of the byway instead of left) before all comes to an abrupt halt beneath Moel Dyrnogydd. The river twirls up a gully, the road gives up and the railway plunges into a 2½-mile tunnel to emerge amongst the slate tips of Blaenau Ffestiniog.

Result: NOC gain from Con

One has to congratulate Theresa May. Knocking 18 points off one’s own poll lead in seven weeks is a very considerable feat, as is arranging for a party that was entirely united around you 11 months ago to be entirely united in staying off the airwaves for the day except for periodic “sources suggest” ideas that you may be on the dole sooner rather than later.

Still, a few points are worth noting:

  1. The polls were actually quite useful. Normally they insist on saying “this will happen”. Because they were all experimenting after 2015, this time they were playing with different weightings of the results. Thus it was clear for all to see that if the youth vote stayed at home the Tories would get a majority of 80 and if the youth vote came out the Tories would lose their majority. The youth vote, thus feeling empowered, turned out in larger numbers than usual and the Tories lost their majority.
  2. Presidential campaigns do not go down too well.
  3. Neither do early elections, particularly ones called to prove a politician has power. Attlee was pushed into one in 1951 (and lost); Heath called one in February 1974 (and lost); May called one seven weeks ago (and, all precedent considered, has done extremely well).
  4. John Major-esque soapboxes and megaphones in high streets are better than choreographed events in warehouses with bored activists behind you waving vacuous slogan-cards. They can even get people to vote for disunited parties offering policies that haven’t won elections in years.
  5. Negative campaigning has been used on the sinking side of the 2016 London mayoral elections, the 2016 EU referendum and the 2017 General Election. It may now be obvious to most people that it doesn’t work very well. First, it paints the negative campaigner as just being a whiner who doesn’t want the other side to get something (particularly awkward when the negative campaigner has called the vote and therefore has evidently only called it to stop the other side getting something). Second, the side who does want something tends to be more powerful than the side that doesn’t want them to have it (try reading a few books by manager Gerard Fiennes for practical demonstrations). Third, it leaves your voters with no positive reason to vote for you. Corbyn presented a wonderful sunlit upland where energy and rail fares are cheaper, university education is free for all, hospitals offer immediate service, schools are clean and effective, there are enough police around and the rich are being politely soaked. Theresa offered to devalue your house in your old age.
  6. Theresa was also very unlucky in her electorate. She got 13,650,900 votes, or a 42.4% vote share. In absolute votes this is almost what got Macmillan a 100-seat majority in 1959, though then it equated to a 49% vote share. It is about what Thatcher got in 1979 and more than Thatcher got in 1983, though without the benefit of a split opposition. It is of course some 500,000 less than John Major got in 1992 – the highest ever absolute vote total – which raises all sorts of questions as to whether spending a few months considering her wider legacy, her intricate policy positions and why people would be better-off all round at the end of her term of office might have actually seen Theresa become Britain’s Most Popular Prime Minister. As it is the honour remains with Major. Blair peaked at a shabby 13,518,167 votes, which combined with a split opposition and a 1% higher vote share to give him a majority of 179. In 2015 Cameron stuck at just over 11 million and 36% of the vote. May has therefore gained another 6% of the relative voters and another two million votes to lose a net 13 seats.
  7. What is striking is Jeremy Corbyn’s 12,858,652 votes, or 40% vote share. Gaitskill got 500,000 fewer votes in 1959, a higher vote share and three fewer seats in the days when the party still had a decent presence in Scotland. Callaghan shed a million more votes to the Liberals in 1979, but was rewarded with seven more seats (and the Liberals got eleven instead of the twelve they have this evening). It is four million more that Michael Foot got. Perhaps most strikingly it is two million more than Blair got in 2001, three million more than he got in 2005, four million more than Brown got in 2010 (but earning only a handful more seats) and three million more than Ed Miliband. He is the most popular Labour leader in over 16 years. In terms of absolute votes he is the most successful losing leader since Clement Attlee won the popular vote and lost the election in 1951. Any leader who won this many votes since then could reasonably expect to be the largest party.
  8. In traditional 1950s two-party politics a 49/ 46 vote split was common – still providing massive majorities. We are still in multi-party territory.
  9. Odd murmurings have floated around that this election proves centrist policies are good because the Nationalists (Tories) and Socialists (Labour) have both failed to win a majority. They have also got the highest absolute votes, highest vote share and highest turnout this millennium. This is a healthy democracy, if an indecisive one.
  10. The result is also likely to be good for Northern Ireland, as British majorities mean the separate Irish political system – and therefore the interests of the voters – can often be quietly ignored. Tonight the Democratic Unionist Party begin discussions on shoring up the British Government.
  11. The Lib-Dems are making a shaky return – popular vote is actually slightly down, but it is better targeted and has therefore made a net gain of seats.
  12. First-Past-The-Post has once again shown its power as an electoral system, taking two bad candidates and giving them impossible results. It’s strange how such a blunt system can do such a good job at capturing a mood – I’m sure I’m not the only one who wanted May to be untenable but Corbyn to lose…

Meanwhile I am off to write a re-make of Kind Hearts and Coronets about a Prime Minister who narrowly fails to get a majority so has small-majority opposition MPs quietly bumped off in the hope of winning the by-elections. I put this out there so that anyone who tries the same thing can sit comfortable in the knowledge that they will face the full force of copyright law.

Instead, why not consider the situation of this man, whose problems have been little discussed during the election:

Trails from the Rails 7: Altnabreac to Forsinard

  • Area: Caithness
  • Local Train Operators: Scotrail
  • Length: About 15 miles
  • Points of Note: Flow of Caithness
  • OS maps – Explorer 449 (1:25,000); Landranger 10 & 11 (1:50,000) (spans both maps)

There is only one word to describe this walk and that word is “unique”. Altnabreac is the most isolated and desolate station in the United Kingdom and the walk away from it is exceptionally barren.

Doing it in the other direction is a possibility for those who fancy walking out into the wilderness instead, but Forsinard not being wilderness is purely relative to Altnabreac in that the former has a hotel, a surfaced road and shelter on the station. (This shelter is provided by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, who use the old station building as an unstaffed visitor centre. It has been known to include a machine that provides drinks.) Forsinard also has road access for the replacement taxi should the train home chance to be cancelled.

People doing this walk should bear in mind that “isolated and desolate” does not mean Haywards Heath after ten o’clock at night. It means a station with no road access, dubious communications, two houses in ten miles (neither of which are necessarily inhabited) and an eleven mile unsurfaced track across a bleak, rolling landscape back to a lightly-used road. Take emergency food supplies, plenty of warm waterproof clothing, a working powerful torch, insect repellent, a compass, the 1:25,000 map (not a satnav and certainly not Google) and lots of water. Do not rely wholly on these instructions.


Welcome to Altnabreac.

Altnabreac 2 JPG.jpg

There are four stations in the UK with no road access. Berney Arms used to have a pub and, being in the Norfolk Broads not far from Yarmouth, has a homely air with civilisation (and wind turbines) on the horizon. Dovey Junction is not very far from a busy road and, being a junction, has a certain air of status and relevance, even when set in the middle of a marsh. Corrour has a restaurant.

Altnabreac, which most trains sail by without stopping (a request stop that nobody asks for), is the sort of place where people can get off a train, wander off onto the moor and do crazy things and nobody will notice. In fact it’s barely necessary to leave the station for this. In 2016 an “infrastructure summary” in the trade press reported the removal of the siding at Altnabreac. It had been missing a few years when these pictures were taken – in 2012.

Begin the walk by leaving the station, noting the amusing signs on the way out.

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Turn right and follow the forestry track alongside the railway and above the Sleach Water to the level crossing. Cross the railway and strike into the woods, still following the track up the flanks of Station Hill.

Altnabreac 4 JPG.jpg

The woods were planted as part of someone’s bright idea that the Flow of Caithness, also known as Europe’s largest freshwater bog, wasn’t doing much economically, commercially or in general (bogs generally don’t). Meanwhile woodland elsewhere in the world on more commercially-valuable land (which is, say, pretty much anywhere else on the planet) was being felled, thereby causing a shortage of trees. This was easily resolved by getting notable celebrities to invest in the coating of the Flow Country in conifers. The celebrities got the bonus of being eco-friendly while saving money on their tax bill until Nigel Lawson axed that particular revenue loophole.

In due course these trees were decided to be even more environmentally damaging than not having trees at all, and in any event the Flow Country is a highly interesting landscape, so the trees are being harvested early. This means the walk now benefits both from the presence of the forestry track and the absence of woods.

Patches remain however. Pass northwards through this one and swing round the left-hand hairpin bend at the top of the wood. Drop gently down the hill to the south-west, cross the two streams at the edge of the wood and rise gently back up the hill on the other side. (There is a lot of room up here, so there is no need for the geography to rush the hills.) Stop at the top and look back at the view, such as it is.

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The path then swings around the southern flanks of Cnoc Maol Donn. Another track forks away to the left, towards the railway (which is lost amongst the landscape). Ignore it and swing round to the north. The path then takes a sharp left itself and heads westwards, but soon begins a drifting route that works steadily north amongst isolated lochs. The ruins of the woodland are clearly apparent. It is very open landscape, lacking obvious reference points except the steady supply of junctions (straight on, left, fork left).

While passing through the area on the train it is quite usual to see a fair few deer along this stretch. They are shyer when it comes to walkers.

Flow Country 1 JPG.jpg

A feature eventually appears in the form of Slethill Hill – a 70-metre-high hulk that rises unexpectedly out of the Flow Country (reaching a summit 280 metres above sea level, most of which the train has climbed). The track swings around its south-western corner, ignoring another turning heading off to the south, and then flicks westward down the hill into Strath Halladale. Ahead is the rolling, semi-Martian landscape heading for the north coast of Britain.

Flow Country 2 JPG.jpg

The hill is completely trackless, as most hills round here are, but those adventurous walkers who have not already tired of scrambling through Scottish heather elsewhere may wish to climb it and see what the view consists of. (Miles of blanket bog mostly, interspersed with conifers planted for tax purposes.)

Slethill Hill 1 JPG.jpg

The track continues its northwesterly twist down the hillside until it makes a slightly unexpected return to what feels, after eleven miles in the wilderness, like civilisation. This is the patch of inhabited soil around Forsinain Farm, just south of where the A897 crosses the Halladale River by means of Forsinain Bridge. This means the road is now on the other side of the river, but happily a bridge is provided here too for crossing the rippling blue waters. The electricity pylons help link the former Dounreay nuclear power station with the rest of the National Grid; now the power is going the other way to Thurso.

Forsinain 1 JPG.jpg

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Having crossed the river, turn left and follow the road southwards. This goes on for about five miles, or a little under two hours – steadily rising and winding up the side of the Strath, accompanied by the Halladale on one side and the pylons on the other (until the pylons, in a sign of passing the two-thirds point, sling across the road and work down the other side of the river to bypass Forsinard).

Forsinard is opened by the lodge, set amongst its pine trees. There then turns out to be nothing else of interest (or at all) for about quarter of a mile, until what looks like the old chapel is reached and the place begins in some sort of earnest.

Forsinard 3 JPG.jpg

A road sign indicates 440 yards to the end of the walk, which comes into view about the same time. About another five minutes walking should see this long explore finish up on Forsinard station – Britain’s most northerly crossing loop. It has a car park, telephone box, level crossing, abandoned signal box and a station building designed with snug permanence in mind more than architectural features. For an idea of its remoteness, reflect that this side of OE449 has almost as many miles of railway as surfaced road.

Several “hut circles” are marked on the map hereabouts, showing that the place has always been a centre of population, but clearances and harsh living have left little evidence of substantial numbers of residents.

The yellow steps on the platform are to ease access from the low platforms into the high train. If the train does not stop in exactly the right place, tired passengers should note that they are designed to prevent high winds or amusingly-minded people walking off with them.

Forsinard 4 JPG.jpg

Election Literature 2017

Much as Trails from the Rails is getting more views, likes and general interest than my politics stuff usually does, and it’s nice to have a break from politics by sitting down and writing about peaceful walks around Duirinish, I’ve done this run-down for the last two nationwide elections so will pick up keyboard and go through it again.

Having attended the hustings it appears that for the first time the election material I have procured does actually match up with the number of candidates who think they are standing. So all I have to worry about is that I can’t find my polling card…

Conservative and Unionist Party (Tory)

  • Summary: The Tories have supplied two leaflets; the first is an awkwardly-folded bit of recycled paper and the second is a very posh “magazine” that calls itself the “Election Special” edition but which I have never heard of before. Note to parties – this sort of thing works better if the magazine comes round between elections too.
  • Key Policy 1: Advocate for the town.
  • Key Policy 2: Strong and stable Brexit.
  • Transport: Ongoing rail electrification and better roads.
  • Proud of: Living locally and producing jobs.
  • Quality of election material: Quite blue. Second one rather more impressive than the first. Couple of the pictures could do with being better quality; one looks like it might feature Theresa but might equally be a woman from round the corner. Exceedingly detailed; the magazine is a summary of the manifesto. While liking detail and thinking in politics, and nice to see the party does actually have some policies (they do an excellent impression that they have none at all), a summary pledge card on top of the detailed document might have been an idea.
  • Party has leader?: Yes.
  • Candidate remarks: Still a friendly chap who seems on top of his brief. Thoughtfully suggested in conversation that he’s in favour of actually privatising the railways. Gives an air that this is the candidate’s election more than the party leader’s, which given he is a better candidate than his party leader is sensible.

Green Party

  • Summary: Like the Tories, the Greens have put up the same candidate as last time. The leaflet promotes its policies through a series of Twitter “hashtags” and is very proud to have been “supported and funded by ordinary people.”
  • Key Policy 1: Opposition to the Government’s extreme Brexit.
  • Key Policy 2: “An economy for everyone”.
  • Transport: Renationalise railways and better buses.
  • Proud of: Campaigning to protect the libraries and buses.
  • Quality of election material: Small and coloured green, with more enthusiasm than specifics.
  • Party has leader?: No, but the Greens aim for localism and the leaflet is small so perhaps no mention expected.
  • Candidate remarks: Still a pretty impressive Green candidate.


  • Summary: The Labour Party have decided after last time that perhaps seven election communications is overkill. Two communications have appeared this time: one is a nice bit of A4 paper and the other is a newspaper-quality four-page spread.
  • Key Policy 1: The NHS.
  • Key Policy 2: Better education.
  • Transport: Renationalise the railways (benefits of this seem to go without saying, aside from the last trial having come in only marginally below national average traffic growth).
  • Proud of: Campaigning to protect the town’s libraries (opening hours and branches have been sacrificed on the alter of social care).
  • Quality of election material: Still red. “Widow and orphan” control could have done with another quick rake-through. Candidate looks serious but generally happy.
  • Party has leader?: No.
  • Candidate remarks: New candidate after the previous one finally got the message (one win and two losses against the same Tory throughout). This one is ex-Army, now much involved in a community. Support for the party that sent her to Iraq (picture on the leaflet to prove it) presumably suggests Labour has moved on or Iraq was a while ago. Talks very fast. Blunt and direct. Unlike some of her door-knockers does actually know why her party supports certain policies, but doesn’t take kindly to being told the experts disagree.

Liberal Democrat

  • Summary: This leaflet was procured by going up to the candidate in the street and demanding an election leaflet, which it turned out he didn’t stock. This explained why one hadn’t come through the letterbox anyway. So this leaflet is for the candidate next door, which is inclined to focus on why you shouldn’t vote for the others. What the candidate for my constituency has provided is a questionnaire in which I can tell him what he thinks about the issues that he thinks matter to me.
  • Key Policy 1: No damaging Brexit.
  • Key Policy 2: The NHS and/ or £26,801,284 on education (see some railway prospectuses vis-a-vis the rather precise education offering).
  • Transport: Wot?
  • Proud of: Something about a strong local voice.
  • Quality of election material: Orange and easy to read, though low on detail. Candidate seems to have only posed for one picture. Not sure if it opens the right way round. Grasp of commas is terrible.
  • Party has leader?: No.
  • Candidate remarks: Nice chap, but not very memorable. The candidate whose leaflet I’ve got is memorable, mostly for her impassioned call at hustings that we kill all the badgers.

United Kingdom Independence Party

  • Summary: This seems to be the first time UKIP have stood in my constituency, or at any rate the first time they have felt it necessary to appeal for my vote. The latter suggests desperation. The leaflet (singular) explains that this is a second EU referendum, which I might find less irritating were there actually a party standing explicitly in favour of Remain.
  • Key Policy 1: Reduce immigration
  • Key Policy 2: Kill foreign aid
  • Transport: Cancel High Speed 2 (not in election literature; had to go to hustings for this snippet).
  • Proud of: Um. (Honestly “um”, not remoaner sarcasm. UKIP does not rest on its laurels, which means it never promotes its record.)
  • Quality of election material: Purple-themed. Fairly easy to read, but not very upbeat. Candidate looks awkward.
  • Party has leader?: No.
  • Candidate remarks: Better than the candidate for the same party in the seat next door. Both trying to present themselves as centrists (an approach which is currently doing the Lib-Dems no good at all). Spent the hustings calling for the cancellation of High Speed 2, which obtained a sum total of no reaction at all. Would help if such key policies were more relevant to the constituency than irrigation methods in the Gobi Desert.

One thing we do seem to be fortunate about in this constituency is the candidates are all quite local; one hears about imposed party wonks from London and last time the Lib-Dem had been imported from 50-odd miles away, but this time it seems four of them live in the constituency. (The Labour candidate is the exception, being some rural rustic from ten miles down the road.) This is much to be praised, and suggestive of strong local parties, but means making the point of local candidates being a Good Thing is quite difficult because four of them have to lose.

In fact the whole constituency election is very local, with four of the five candidates standing seemingly wholly in their own right without any mention of party machines or who will be Prime Minister if enough of their fellow party members get elected.

The concept of fairness being hammered at in this election provides an opportunity to refresh (as though they’re newly discovered) some rules of how to tell where on the political spectrum your candidates lie. In order of likely controversiality:

  1. Left-wingers say fairness is everyone getting the same stuff. Right-wingers say fairness is everyone getting what they’ve worked for. (Variations on how broad the “same stuff” is and what flex is allowed to “worked” based on disability.)
  2. Libertarians trust you to do the right thing for everyone. Authoritarians trust themselves to decide what’s the right thing for everyone. (There is an awkward brand of authoritarian liberal who trusts themselves to decide on the certain definition of liberality that you are judged against.)
  3. Left-wingers blame the people above them in the social and economic pile for problems. Right-wingers blame the people below them in the social and economic pile for problems. (The embarrassing bit is that block of centrists who blame themselves for problems, which at least has the benefit of personal responsibility but makes identifying someone to blame for failed leadership very difficult.)

Here is a reminder of the circumstances in which you do not need to vote.

Here is a picture of some election hoardings, seen seven years ago:

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Vote early, vote carefully and vote hopefully.

“Trails from the Rails” is going to Altnabreac tomorrow after which, barring a sudden splurge of blogging ideas, see you on the other side.

Trails from the Rails 6: Ascott-under-Wychwood to Charlbury

  • Area: Oxfordshire
  • Local Train Operators: Great Western Railway
  • Length: About 6 miles
  • Points of Note: None really
  • OS maps – Explorer 180 & 191 (1:25,000) (crosses two maps); Landranger 164 (1:50,000)

This is actually a fairly simple walk which involves following a waymarked long-distance path and can thus be done pretty well without a map. Still, maps are handy things to have around even if it does inconsiderately involve two of them.


The starting point of this walk is not celebrated much in song or story; despite its picturesque name, it turns out to be two unloved platforms next to a level crossing and an unattractive signal box. Most of the Wychwood has gone, leaving a wood at the top of a small neighbouring hill. This walk follows the valley back around the bottom of this hill from Ascott to the next station at Charlbury.

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Once the train has left Ascott-under-Wychwood station, head northwards (up the road on the opposite side to the signal box) to the first right and turn in towards the Manor House. Walk down the lane towards the manor, turn left at the end, follow the field boundary around, cross the stream and turn right.

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This is not an overly taxing walk on the gradients front and this first leg is reasonably typical; steady plodding around the edge of a field on a broad track. On the third field the Oxfordshire Way suddenly decides to be more interesting; it follows a field boundary around seven sides of an eight-sided field, past a gate which it appears to go through (but doesn’t) and then goes out again on the opposite side to where it came in. In this manner it continues in an easterly sort of direction to Pudlicote House.

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Pass along the bottom of Pudlicote House’s back lawn and cross Pudlicote Lane, continuing to follow the Oxfordshire Way signs. The path easily undulates along the bottom of the gentle hill, keeping near the River Evenlode.

After crossing Catsham Lane the Oxfordshire Way flicks to a north-easterly heading around the top of the Evenlode’s meandering curve to the south-east (a very meandering curve). This involves the first gradient of note, around the top of Greenhill Copse and down into a dell beyond. Take the right fork on crossing the stream and entering the wood beyond. This works rapidly back out of the wood and follows the top edge of a field. On reaching the other side, turn right along the field boundary (not working around the hedge through to the lane) and drop gently down the hill alongside Dean Grove.

After the end of the Grove, pass one field to the left and then follow the signs through the hedgerow down the gentle slope towards the Coldron Brook.

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The path crosses Water Lane and runs across three fields on the outskirts of Charlbury. Keep reasonably well-down these fields. Signposting is limited and the final gate well-hidden.

The Oxfordshire Way abruptly returns to trafficked roads on the village boundary at the bottom of Pound Hill.

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Head up the hill and into the village.

The takeaway is unhelpfully (for walks from Ascott) on the other side of town. Carry straight on down Sheep Street and Hixet Wood then double back to the left at the end into Sturt Road. There are also several pubs in the village centre – a rather shorter explore. Walkers not in need of such refreshment can take the second right after topping Pound Hill to drop down Dyers Hill and cross the river to Charlbury station.

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Charlbury station is a well-maintained little place with a footbridge that can be seen from outer space. Most of it is the result of recent rejuvenation of the line; for many years the only bit of platform here was a couple of hundred feet in front of the station building on the then-single-track line. The main building survived because the Chairman of the British Railways Board commuted from here and the user group persuaded him to sign the petition against British Rail’s plans for its demolition.