A few weeks back I did a piece on the spectacular Alishan mountain line in Taiwan. One day, I might do something on the Gono line around the wild, craggy northwest coast of Honshu. Or the Trans-Mongolian, plying its lonely sea of sand and grass. But today we’re going on a shunt down a weedy, forgotten siding in the world of great railway journeys. We’re going to explore the Sheffield-Brigg-Cleethorpes line.
The Sheffield-Brigg-Cleethorpes isn’t spectacular. It isn’t remote, it isn’t famous, it has no tourist interest whatsoever and it isn’t a lifeline for any particular community. In fact, it hardly ever runs. For the past umpteen years, there have only been three round-trip services a week, all on a Saturday.
That’s the wonder of it. There is probably no less useful line in Britain. Or less used. A serious rival is the Stockport to Stalybridge route in outer Manchester, which operates just once a week. But the Sheffield-Brigg-Cleethorpes is much longer, and, in a masterstroke, manages to be almost completely useless despite serving two towns uniquely. (The rest of its route is duplicated, and there is an alternative Sheffield-Cleethorpes direct route).
These two blessed places are Kirton-in-Lindsey and Brigg, both in north Lincolnshire. But at Kirton, the station is a mile-and-a-half outside the town–you have to drive there to catch the train, and there is a perfectly good bus service serving Kirton anyway. As for Brigg, it is only a few miles from Barnetby junction, where regular fast trains east and west can be picked up. You really have to rack your brains to dream up any kind of sensible, non-autistic justification for using the Sheffield-Brigg-Cleethorpes line.
It was a challenge I did not shy from. One overcast Saturday morning in mid-December some years ago, I marched into Sheffield station with a roadster and a map of Lincolnshire and South Humberside.
My non-autistic justification for using the line was a bike ride that, I had decided, had to start at Kirton. I couldn’t get the bike on the bus, and I wanted to do a point-to-point ride, not a circle, so parking the car at Kirton was out. The train it had to be.
Seldom have I approached a ticket counter with a keener sense of occasion. I asked for a return to Brigg, not Kirton, as Brigg would be the end point of the bike ride. The ticket girl quoted me a price getting on for double what I was expecting. I queried it.
“Oh, I thought you said Brid. Where’s Brigg?”
“Do trains go there then?”
“Yes, they do,” a manager type butted in from the back. There was an edgy, protective tone to his voice, as if he suspected I was a plainclothes researcher for the Board of Review of Money-Swallowing Loser Branch Lines That Need to be Axed Immediately.
“On Saturdays,” he added. “And only on Saturdays.” You could tell from his tone, this was a line cherished by real railwaymen, even if the bimbos on the ticket counter had never heard of it.
The ticket was around a tenner, which seemed reasonable considering that the total travel time would be some three hours. At midday, a single-coach unit with the word Cleethorpes on the front trundled up to platform 1b.
To my surprise, I was not the only passenger. But the other guy didn’t count, as, from the familiar way he talked to the conductor, he was a railwayman cadging a lift.
It was a leisurely ride. Twice, in outer Sheffield, the driver stopped, got out of the cab and pottered down the line to request clearance or something from a line-side phone box. It was like a scene from the Railway Children. Evidently the line budget did not extend to staff mobiles. Although it did stretch to having two crewmen on a one-coach train. I tried to work out the cost of a run to Cleethorpes. Labour alone must have been getting on for £100.
“Yes, this is a trainspotters’ train,” the conductor said. “They’re wanting to knock it off. You can leave your bike where you like, we’re not going to be busy.
“Won’t catch me cycling any more,” he added, darkly. “I once did a sponsored ride, you know, Barnsley to Grimsby. When I got there, the transport back had gone, so I had to ride home too. In the snow and all.’
‘Had to? Why didn’t you take the train?’
‘Didn’t want to,’ he replies, illogically. ‘Anyway, no more cycling for me. Too old now.’
By this time, another passenger had boarded, and he was a trainspotter, or at any rate a pal of the conductor, and, I could overhear, someone who knew a lot more about regional trains than most people would readily admit to in public.
He said this train had been running Saturdays only for over fifteen years, that the service had survived because the Passenger Transport Executive kept pumping money into it (“and teks it back in fines,” the conductor slipped in), that the line was also used by freight trains from Immingham. Once a “Parliamentary” line—legally bound to run in perpetuity—it was evidently also kept running to avoid the costs of closure.
Anyway, this nerdy chat took us across rural South Yorks and Nottinghamshire. I returned to my seat to enjoy the view of the Trentside power stations near Gainsborough. Unlikely as it sounds, this riverside town is where Canute supposedly made a show of trying to hold back the waves. The Vikings used the Trent as their main artery of conquest, and to this day Danish village names abound along its length.
At Gainsborough, a sorry factory town that suffers from both industrial decline and rural isolation, two more middle-aged men get on, and they too are mates of the conductor. I leave them to it, and enjoy the only part of the route unique to this service, the half-hour from Gainsborough to Brigg.
Nobody would put themselves out to see this bit of northwest Lincolnshire, but I quite like it. Again, it’s easier to describe in terms of what it is not: it’s not quite flat, it’s not quite wood-less, and it’s not quite sheep- and cow-less, but there’s no denying this was mainly dull, low-lying arable featuring a lot of cabbage and sugarbeet. What charm it had came mainly from its remoteness and big horizons.
The most interesting events in the landscape were the old maltings and windmill at Kirton, which were unexpectedly followed by a short tunnel, under the Lincolnshire limestone ridge. At this point, a railway historian worth his salt would put in a line or two about how the line came to be built, how many navvies got killed, how much the shareholders lost and when the company went bust and so on, but a three-minute Google search yielded nothing useful, so I’m going to give guesswork a go instead. From the directness of the route, it’s a safe bet that this line was originally built to convey fish from Grimsby, and Notts and Yorks miners and steelworkers to the north Lincolnshire holiday coast. In fact, the conductor said, it still does this, though the miners and men of steel are now council workers and Tesco delivery guys.
We were on a single track now.
“You’ve almost caught the end of the service, pal,” the conductor said. “There were plans to shut it down when the timetable changes. Which it does tomorrow.” But evidently it was; going to scrape through the review again. He was doing this job almost as volunteer, having retired as a golf-course designer.
“I do this because I like it,” he said. “Except on Friday nights.”
I had changed my plans. I had decided to stay on to the stop after Brigg, Barnetby, and start cycling there instead. Barnetby was a large junction in the middle of nowhere, with lots of old, train-set style signal sets. As we pulled in, we passed four more trainspotters, with cameras on tripods, waiting by the line like birdwatchers after a golden eagle. Riding in a threatened service, for the experience, I could understand, but driving out to some godforsaken goods yard, alongside Network Rail blokes in orange jackets, just to wait and take photos of a one-coach 153 diesel unit in the wild—that was odd. It’s not as if this was the Flying Scotsman, careering majestically down Shap.
I wondered what they did with the photos. I suppose some would end up one day in Lost Branch Lines of North Lincolnshire, available at bookshops in Scunthorpe, Grimsby and Louth (what uncouth names towns round here have), and, in years to come, I might find a dog-eared copy in a Christian Aid shop somewhere, buy it for 50p, and on page 47 see my own face gawping out of the window at Barnetby.
From Barnetby I cycled north, to the day’s destination: the bleak and reedy mudflats where Ermine Street reaches the Humber. This was the original Midlands end of England’s main highway. From here, the Romans had ferried over the river. You would not call it a beauty spot; somehow it is always mid-December by the Humber. Now Ermine Street is a modern road, bypassing Scunthorpe, and I headed back south along it. I reached Brigg at dusk.
With Christmas lights prettifying its warm Georgian facades, Brigg was charming. Its only historical claim is Brigg Fair and the song of that name, which Grainger and Delius nicked. It’s a proper farming town, and proved this by having more pubs than any place of comparable size I could recall. I had a quick pint in one of them before the return train trip.
Brigg station was less charming. It was at the back of an industrial yard and was completely unlit. Without a torch, it was impossible to read the timetable—come to that, find the timetable. You weren’t even sure which platform to stand on, though the darkness did at least mask most of the fly-tipping. It wasn’t hard to see why nobody rode this train. You could be mugged and left for dead here and your body wouldn’t be found for a week.
It was an eerie wait. Was I on the right side? Which way would it come from? Would it be on time? Would it come at all? Suppose the driver and conductor had got ratarsed at the North Lincolnshire Railwaymen’s Christmas Do and thought, “bugger it, let’s cancel it tonight, nobody’ll notice?”
The silent minutes dragged by. I peered hopefully into the darkness, thinking, this is more like badger-watching than catching a train. But it did appear on time. From the rusting footbridge I thankfully watched it lumbering closer along the glinting rails, headlight burning bright. And there was something stately, triumphal, even, about its progress out of the night, as if it were telling the world, ‘there’s life in the old dog yet.’
Again, there was just one other passenger, an elderly and frail-looking woman. And she was a real passenger, not a 50-something-year-old joyrider with a thing about Victorian infrastructure. She got off at Kirton, a much nicer station because the station house is a neat, well-lit private home, to be received with kisses and hugs by her daughter and led away to the car. It was a touching little scene. By making possible this reunion, and by picking up me and my bike at Brigg, the 18.46 had justified its existence for another week, at least in my book.
There must be days, though, when it ran empty between Cleethorpes and Gainsborough. I couldn’t believe things had been like this for fifteen years.
‘Yes, it’s been years alright,’ confirmed the conductor, this time a young man. ‘Every time they try to close it, they get up a petition in Brigg, with a thousand names.’ He looked up and down the empty coach and laughed. It seemed to me, towns always oppose railway closures, not because they want the trains but because forming part of the national railway network gives them a sense of importance, of being somewhere.
‘And yet, it can be busy in July and August,’ the conductor reminisced. ‘Really. Day-trippers to Cleethorpes. Standing-room only. But winter is dire. Personally, I hope they don’t close it. I like doing this. It’s nice country, especially in the mornings. And it sure beats Leeds via Barnsley.’
At grandly named Gainsborough Central, actually a mossy strip of concrete next to a steel stockyard, two more passengers were just discernible on the unlit platform. I was reminded vaguely of border guards at midnight Iron Curtain crossings. (Gainsborough Central was the least used station in Britain in 2002, Wiki tells me, clocking up 8 non-season-ticket passengers in the whole year). Things livened up and at Retford, when Unit 153 became a normal train again. A group of Saturday night revellers bound for the bright lights of Sheffield piled aboard. One of them, a rough, pissed-looking lad, swaggered up the corridor holding several small beer bottles. Uh-oh, I thought, and stared intently through the window. He stopped by my seat. ‘Beer?’
‘I’m alright, thanks.’
‘Have a beer. On me. Happy Christmas.’
So I did. It had been a nice day.
© Joe Slater 2018