Archive for the ‘Geography’ Category

It’s been a while since my last post but something I’ve been working on has turned out to be a much bigger task than expected. In the meantime, a walking trip to the Eden Valley in the north of England last June with outdoors mate Patrick had many highlights.

drybeck hallThe fertile Eden Valley lies between the Lake District in the west and the northern Pennines in the east. We stayed at Drybeck Hall in the middle of farming country west of Appleby-in-Westmorland. It’s a Grade 2* farmhouse built in 1679 when Charles II was monarch and fighting with Parliament. Drybeck Hall lies in the eastern half of now defunct Westmorland, a sparsely inhabited historic county that has its origins in the 12th century, and which was absorbed into Cumbria in 1974.

We did three circular walks. There’s no detailed instructions but a small map of each walk (click on it to zoom) is included to give you a rough idea of the route.

Day One – Great Rundale Tarn & High Cup Nick

great rundale tarn & high cup nick walk map

The starting point of this clockwise walk was the village of Dufton nestling below the western edge of the Pennines, three miles north of Appleby. The 268-mile long Pennine Way passes through this attractive village which dates from the 14th century. With a youth hostel and several campsites, it’s a popular stopping off point for walkers. From here the Pennine Way goes north to Cross Fell and Alston, and east in a dog-leg to Teesdale. Dufton was a centre for lead mining, and the Quaker-owned London Lead Company which mined here between 1821 and 1873, provided housing, a school, a library and installed piped water. Before setting out we had tea at the Post Box Pantry in the village.

barytes, lead drift mine, dufton fell, dufton pike, rundale beck, threlkeld side

It’s a slow climb up the track towards Dufton Fell, past cone-like Dufton Pike, alongside Rundale Beck, and through the steep limestone walls of Threlkeld Side. All around were the remains of the lead miner’s drift mines, their smelting kilns, spillways, and spoil hummocks. Barytes (barium sulphate, a source of the metal barium) was also mined here in the late 1800s, and the dumps were worked for minerals in the 1980s.

great rundale tarn, tarn sike

Once onto the moors, there was a weather-beaten stone-built ‘shooting box’ at 2,224 feet, the highest point on our walk. It offers little relief from the wind for our short tea break, though the sun is out. Heading east along a stream bed we skirt Great Rundale Tarn, and follow its outlet, Tarn Sike, for several miles.

maize beck, maizebeck scar, tarn sike,

Many tributaries join the stream from the north. The path is hard to find and the stream has to be criss-crossed repeatedly. In wet weather the moor around Tarn Sike would be a soggy peaty mess. I don’t think we saw anybody, it was a remote spot. Tarn Sike turns south-east and eventually joins Maize Beck which becomes an unexpected trench-like gorge, Maizebeck Scar.

After a short distance Maize Beck turns again and flows north-east for four miles before joining the River Tees, which eventually flows into the North Sea, near to Cauldron Snout. The source of the Tees is to the north on Cross Fell, the highest point in the Pennines. But less than 500 yards away on High Cup Plain, a stream flows in the opposite direction over High Cup Nick and down to the River Eden, which flows into the Solway Firth on the west coast. High Cup Plain is a watershed between the east and west of England.

A sturdy all-weather bridge spans the scar, and an indistinct path crosses High Cup Plain towards High Cup Nick to the south-west. The map indicates there are ‘areas of shake holes’ on the plain. These are steep-sided, often conical, depressions in the ground formed through the collapse of the soil into rain-eroded cavities in the underlying limestone. The smaller ones are overgrown and hard to spot so we take care.

hadrian’s wall, great whin sill, high cup nick, high cup gill, u-shaped valley

High Cup Nick is a notch at the apex of the spectacular U-shaped glaciated valley of High Cup Gill. The horseshoe-shaped rim around the top end of the valley is formed of erosion resistant grey-blue crags of dolerite that are part of the Great Whin Sill. The sill was a tabular intrusion of igneous rock up to 70 metres thick that occurred across much of northern England some 295 million years ago. Hadrian’s Wall was built on exposures of the Great Whin Sill. At High Cup Nick the sill is exposed to dramatic effect, the dolerite having formed columns as the molten rock cooled and shrank.

The way back to Dufton is along the northern escarpment of the steeply sided valley of High Cup Gill. The track, called Narrow Gate, is on the Pennine Way, and it was indeed quite narrow in parts so again care was needed. Lower down, the well-worn and wide path passes through endless fields, but it is hard going. The Stag Inn in Dufton, which overlooks the village green and which was built in 1703, is a welcome sight.

Our walk was 9.7 miles long, the total ascent was 2,210 feet, and it took us the best part of six hours. The walk was taken from the Cicerone Guide Walking in Cumbria’s Eden Valley.

Day Two – Smardale Gillcrosby garrett

Five miles south-east cross-country from Drybeck Hall is the village of Crosby Garrett, the starting point of this anti-clockwise walk. An imposing railway viaduct passes over the southern edges of the village. I later discover that this is the renowned Settle to Carlisle railway, that the viaduct is 55 feet high, and that the village’s railway station closed in 1952.

smardale gill walk map

It’s raining as we leave the village under the viaduct on a short no-through-road heading south. After five minutes we leave the track and start a gradual climb across Crosby Garrett Fell. The directions for the walk quotes paths becoming fainter, gullies disappearing, and the need to keep going in the same direction over tussocky ground.

Unfortunately a mist descended and we lost whatever path we were supposed to be on. When the mist eventually lifted there was a great view of the Howgill Fells to the south, but it took some guesswork to locate where we were on the southern flanks of the fell. We unexpectedly cross over Wainwright’s 190-mile Coast to Coast Walk on a part of the fell called Begin Hill.

We found a path that took us off the fells and down to a new wooden gate at Severalls Gill. Crossing the footpath east-west was the cutting of a dismantled railway (photo below left). The rain eased a little and we had a damp but welcome tea break. Old railways make for easy and usually interesting walking so we set off eastwards full of expectation.

ravenstonedale, scandal beck, smardale bridge, wainwright coast to coast

The valley formed by Scandal Beck comes in from the south, and down below from the railway track, a packhorse bridge, Smardale Bridge (photo right) crossed the stream. What was striking was that this 18th century bridge (or 15th century depending on your source) just carried a bridleway; the nearest road is a mile away in Ravenstonedale. It was as if nothing had changed in a few hundred years. Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Walk also crosses over this bridge and heads up east away from the valley to Kirkby Stephen.

A county road once crossed this bridge and there was once an inn close-by, the Scotch Ale House, for drovers bringing their livestock south from Scotland to markets in England. It is reputed that at the time of the 1715 and 1745 Jacobite rebellions, plotters supporting the Stuarts against the Hanoverians met at the ale house. On the surrounding hillsides are the remains of Romano-British settlements, medieval strip lynchets, man-made rabbit warrens called pillow mounds (known locally as Giant’s Graves), as well as disused quarries.

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ickworth, river linnet, chedburgh, bury st edmunds, busted canal bank

This is near the spot that Zoe Ward refers to. The River Linnet is not much more than a stream for most of its seven mile course from Chedburgh to the town of Bury St Edmunds, where it joins the River Lark.

Zoë Ward lived almost all her life in Horringer near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. She was one of two daughters born in the first decade of the 1900s to the village postmaster, Charles Leech, and his wife Eleanor, and she was the village headmistress for many years. In her book Curtsy to a Lady (1985), Zoë Ward says that the Ickworth estate was like their playground. She recalls that the ‘busted canal bank’ was one of many favourite places for their games. ‘When there was any water in the stream – or, to give it its proper name, the River Linnet – we used to paddle there’. The story of the busted canal bank goes back to the start of the 19th century.

In 1808 the Little Saxham estate to the west of Ickworth was added to the estate as a result of an agreement between the then 5th Earl of Bristol, Frederick Hervey, owner of Ickworth, who had inherited the nearby Rushbrooke estate, and Robert Rushbrooke, the owner of Little Saxham, to exchange the two estates. The parish boundary between Little Saxham and Ickworth lay along the River Linnet for just under a mile, and a public road, the Chevington Way also ran along the boundary. This was a well used route at the time. It went from Chevington rectory past Chevington Lodge and Hall Farm, through the Iron Gates into Ickworth Park, down to the River Linnet and alongside it as far as Westley Bottom, and then onto Bury St Edmunds. It is said that the Abbots at Bury would use it to go to their manor at Chevington in the summer, but more importantly it would have been used by all kinds of people going to and from Bury St Edmunds, especially to sell corn, dairy produce and livestock at the ancient market which dates back to 630AD.

So in acquiring the Little Saxham estate, the 5th Earl of Bristol found himself with the Chevington Way, a public road, running right through his private land. The Chevington Way was joined by two other roads. One from Chedburgh joined just outside the estate boundary at Chevington Iron Gates, and the other, Hargrave Lane, met the Chevington Way further down the Linnet valley towards Bury. At best, the surface of these roads, which were the responsibility of the parish, would have been of broken stone, but they would have been bumpy, rutted and full of pot-holes. In winter they could be impassable for carriages or carts.

It was important to the Herveys as owners of a huge country estate, that they owned all they could see. This also required that they would not encounter anyone from the agricultural and labouring classes on the estate, indeed no one that they did not know, other than their own workers. Their presence on the Chevington Way would have been an inconvenience, an intrusion, though there is no written record of this being the reason for what the 5th Earl did next.

ickworth, river linnet, chevington way, hargrave way

The map shows the Chevington Way in red, and the New Road in blue. The gap in the dots on the blue route is where it is likely that a road already existed, part of the ancient Hargrave Way.

In 1814, the 5th Earl obtained an Act of Parliament to close off the road on condition that it was replaced by an alternative route. He had made a new road skirting the Ickworth estate, costing £2,000, which went from near Chevington Rectory past Chevington Lodge to Little Saxham, where it picked up the route into Bury via the Westley Road.

However, people were used to the shorter road, the ‘Cheventon Way’ as it was then called, and continued to use it in spite of notices and warnings. Something had to be done, so the Earl announced that he was going to have an ornamental lake made across part of the old road. In 1823 work was started on building an earth dam east-west across the valley of the River Linnet from the edge of the new Pleasure Grounds of Ickworth Lodge on the east side, and from Dairy Wood on the west side. Eventually the rising waters formed a 15 acre lake that drowned the Chevington Way and cut off the access through the park.

Constructing the dam took a lot of labour. This was recorded in the Ickworth Labour account book for 1818-27 with entries under the heading ‘New Canal Account’. In May 1823, there is an entry of 98 workmen’s days for ‘making head for trial to intended Canal’. The main work on the Canal seems to have done in the spring and summer of 1824. From April to July that year, over 100 days work was carried out each week. One of the last entries is for 54 days of ‘levelling’ in September 1825. The total cost of the work was £500. Material to construct the dam likely came from two chalk pits, one on each side of the valley, and which can still be found today hidden in the woods.

Around 1823, the 1st Earl also cut off the road from Chedburgh where it met the Chevington Way on the other side of the Iron Gates, by building a pair of cottages across it. Horsepool Lodge, now derelict, was also built beside Hargrave Lane on the edge of Horsepool Wood, and gates were put up across the lane presumably with the same intention of stopping people using the lane to go down to the Chevington Way.

The new lake first appears on C & J Greenwood’s map of 1825 (detail from map below left). The new Pleasure Grounds created a bulge of woodland towards the high water mark of the lake, and the New Canal, or Ickworth Park Lake, as it came to be known, dominated the west side of the Park (detail from Richard Payne’s 1850 Tithe Map below centre).

ickworth, river linnet, c & j greenwood 1825, richard payne 1850, ickworth new canal, ickworth park lake

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What are the furthest points north, south, east and west in Britain? Are they worth a visit? How easy are they to get to? In the first of four posts, I go to the northern-most point in Britain. And as getting there is quite a challenge in itself, I won’t tell you where it is straightaway.

ms hjaltland, ms hrossey, northlink ferries, shetland isles

Although the MS Hjaltland and the MS Hrossey are each 7,434 tonnes, the Shetland Islands Council is looking at the need for larger ships with more capacity and which would be better able to withstand the frequently choppy waters of the North Sea.

You can start by getting a train to Aberdeen which is on the north-east coast of Scotland. If you happen to live in Penzance in Cornwall at the other end of Britain you could catch the 08.28 train which will get you into Aberdeen at 21.55, a distance of 722 miles. Incidentally this is the longest single train journey in Britain. Southbound you don’t have to change, but northbound you have to change at Edinburgh. At Aberdeen you board the overnight ferry to Lerwick, capital town of the Shetland Isles. The ship will either be the MS Hjaltland or the MS Hrossey of NorthLink Ferries, each being 7,434 tonnes. The ferry sails at 19.00 (17.00 if the ferry goes via the Orkney Isles) and docks in Lerwick at 07.30 the next morning. It’s 224 miles (or 195 nautical miles). But to make sure of a good nights sleep, there are modern ensuite cabins or comfy reclining sleeper beds.

If you’re in a hurry though, there’s a choice of three or four flights a day from Aberdeen airport, five miles north-west of the city, to Sumburgh airport, 20 miles south of Lerwick, and the flight takes an hour and a quarter.

Lerwick is 600 miles almost due north of London as the crow flies. Bergen in Norway is 223 miles due east and is closer to Lerwick than Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh, which is 301 miles south. The Arctic Circle is 400 miles further north. Owing to its northerly location, Lerwick, which has a population of 7,500, gets only 5 hours and 49 minutes of daylight at the winter solstice. In contrast, daylight lasts 18 hours and 55 minutes at the summer solstice. For a period of time in the summer, the nights never get completely dark with dark blue elements remaining in the sky.

shetland islands, archipelago, lerwick, unst

The Shetland archipelago forms part of the division between the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the North Sea to the east. Of the 100 or so islands of Shetland, 16 islands are inhabited.

Next you have to get to Unst, the furthermost north island of the Shetlands and which has a population of 652. This involves two car ferry crossings, one of 20 minutes from Toft on Mainland (the name of Shetland’s largest island) to Ulsta on the island of Yell, then a 10 minute ferry from Gutcher on Yell to Belmont on Unst. The 55 miles by road and ferry takes about two and half hours, but there’s no quicker way. There was an airport on Unst, at Baltasound, the main settlement on the island, but this was mothballed in 1996 when flights to the offshore oil rigs were centred on an airport on Mainland. Baltasound is home to the most northerly Meteorological Office weather station in the United Kingdom, as well as the most northerly Post Office.

From the ferry at Belmont it’s a 12 mile drive north on the A968 through Baltasound to Haroldswick, the Viking centre of Unst and home to the Unst Heritage Centre, Valhalla Brewery, and Shetland Distillery Company, and then north-west on the B9086 to Burrafirth and Hermaness. The road is now single track with passing places. The B9086 ends at Burrafirth but a minor road continues to the car park and visitor centre for the Hermaness National Nature Reserve (NNR). The visitor centre is in the former shore station for the Muckle Flugga Lighthouse (see below).

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ForkInTheRoadI recall from a walk in Wensleydale a year or two ago, an unexpected fork in the path that my friend Patrick and I were taking down a hill called Addlebrough. There seemed to be two ways back to our starting point. For some reason the phrase ‘the path not taken’ came into my mind, and I briefly pondered that I might never find out what would have been different if we had taken the other path to the one that we decided to take. Patrick said that the phrase was ‘the road not taken’ and it was the title of well-known poem.

The Road Not Taken is a poem by the American poet Robert Frost in the preface to his collection of poems Mountain Interval which was published in 1916 when Europe was engulfed in the Great War. 

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference

robert frost, american poet, rural life, new england, pulitzer prize

Robert Lee Frost (26 March 1874 – 29 January 1963), the American poet, was born in San Francisco. His poems were often set in rural life in New England in the early 20th century. He was much honored during his lifetime, receiving four Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry.

Frost spent the years 1912 to 1915 in England, and in 1913 he became a close friend of the then writer and literary critic Edward Thomas, after Thomas had reviewed one of the older poet’s collections. They took many walks together in the fields and woods around Frost’s cottage in the village of Dymock in Gloucestershire. In 1915, Frost returned to New Hampshire and he sent Thomas an advance copy of The Road Not Taken.

The poem was intended by Frost as a gentle mocking of indecision, particularly the indecision that Thomas had shown on their walks. Thomas would often choose one fork in the road because he was convinced it would lead them to something, perhaps a patch of rare wild flowers or a particular bird’s nest. When the road failed to yield the hoped-for rarities, Thomas would rue his choice, convinced the other road would have doubtless led to something better.

Frost wrote to Thomas ‘no matter which road you take, you’ll always sigh, and wish you’d taken another.’ Unfortunately Thomas took the poem more seriously (as had college audiences to whom Frost had read his poem), and more personally than Frost had intended.

So close was the friendship that had developed between them when Frost was in England, Thomas and Frost had planned to live side by side in America, writing, teaching, farming. But Thomas was a man plagued by indecision. He also suffered from chronic depression. He found it difficult to choose between a life with Frost and the pull of the fighting in France, even though he despised the jingoism and the hatred of Germans that the press was stoking.

But Thomas was also haunted by the feeling of fear and cowardice he had experienced six months earlier in a stand-off with a gamekeeper that he and Frost had encountered on one of their walks. He felt mocked by events and possibly even by the most important friend he had ever made, and he vowed that he would never again let himself be faced down. The Road Not Taken did not send Thomas to war, but it was the last and pivotal moment in a sequence of events that had brought him to an irreversible decision. He broke the news to Frost. ‘Last week I had screwed myself up to the point of believing I should come out to America & lecture if anyone wanted me to. But I have altered my mind. I am going to enlist on Wednesday if the doctor will pass me.’

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fen-dwellers, reed cutting, lotting fen, the fens, fenland

The livelihoods of many medieval fen-dwellers depended on reed cutting. The rights to cut reed were carefully controlled by manorial courts. Willow and reeds were used in building and thatching houses. In this photo from the early 1900s, Mr Mason of Lotting Fen is still stacking cut reeds in the traditional way.

Around the coast of the Wash in Eastern England lies The Fens or Fenland. Until the early 1600s, it was a vast natural area of marshes and swamps much lower that the chalk and limestone uplands that surround them. Wildlife thrived in the reed marshland and wet woodland, plants and insects flourished on the peat soils, and in the open water fish and birds were abundant. Local people relied on fishing, wildfowling, and the harvesting of reeds for their livelihoods though unpredictable flooding caused many deaths.

To make the land more productive so as to feed a rapidly growing population, the Fens were drained over many centuries. This transformed Fenland from a natural wilderness into miles of intensive farmland with most of the land lying below sea level. It has been described by Ian Rotherham in his book The Lost Fens (2013), as the ‘greatest single ecological catastrophe that ever occurred in England’. Today only four pockets of the original fens survive. The final irony is that the drainage of the Fens has made the land much more susceptible to flooding as a result of the rise in sea levels caused by climate change.

A Potted Natural History

Fenland reaches into four historic counties: Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Norfolk, and a small part of Suffolk, an area of nearly 3,900 sq km (1,500 sq mi). The fens formed about 5,000 years ago as sea-levels rose after the last Ice Age. A fen was the local name for areas of nutrient-rich shallow fresh or salt water in which dead plants did not fully decay. Peat forms from this partially decayed vegetation, and a rich flora of plants grows in this saturated peat. Beavers, otters, water vole and other wildlife thrived in the reed marshland and wet woodland, plants and insects flourished on the peat soils, with abundant fish and birds in the open water.

Nearer the sea were washes, salt marsh and tidal creeks, and in higher areas where the peat grew above the reach of land water, were moors. There were also shallow lakes or meres: Brick, Ramsey, Trundle, Ugg, and Whittlesey Mere. The largest was Whittlesey, which was in Huntingdonshire. It measured 3.5 miles by 2.5 miles, it covered  3,000 acres (1,214 ha) in winter, and it was the largest lake in southern England. There were also isolated areas of higher ground, called ‘islands’, which remained dry when the low-lying fens around them flooded. The largest of the fen-islands is the Isle of Ely, on which the cathedral city of Ely was built, which is 39m above sea level at its highest point.

Early Inhabitants

medieval map of the fens, fen meres, fen islands, the wash, artificial river channels

This partly imagined map of the central part of the Fens in 1070 shows vast area of marsh south of the Wash with eight or so meres, and a variety of ‘islands’. The Ouse and Nene rivers join south of Wisbech, although as can be seen from the map below, they now follow separate artificial channels to the sea.

The fens were densely settled in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. Timber trackways were used in some places to move around the flooded landscape. Helped by a fall in sea levels, the Romans built a road, the Fen Causeway, from Denver near Downham in Norfolk to Peterborough. Gravel was used to raise the road above the marshland to link what later became East Anglia and central England. The Romans also dug the Car Dyke, an 85-mile (137 km) long ditch which runs along the western edge of the Fens, which is believed to have been used as a canal. But other than this, the Fens were generally left unsettled by the Romans.

After the end of Roman Britain, it is thought that peoples from the Iceni tribe of British Celts may have moved west into the easily defended Fens to avoid the invading Anglo-Saxons who were settling in what would become East Anglia. In Christian Anglo-Saxon England, hermitages on the islands in the Fens became centres of communities, and in the 10th century monastic revival under the Saxon king Edgar, these became monasteries and abbeys such as at Chatteris, Crowland, Ely, Peterborough, Ramsey, and Thorney. Ramsey Abbey, which was founded in 969, became a major centre of religious learning. The abbey’s illuminated manuscript Book of Benefactors, described the island of Ramsey.

The island stretches for some two miles in length … and is garlanded roundabout with alder thickets and reed beds, [and there was] flowering ash for building the church. [The island was] encircled by eel filled marshes … fish and swimming birds.

By the time of the Norman invasion, Ramsey was the fourth richest monastery in the country. Of interest, some of the family and servants of the Danish King Canute (or Cnut) were caught in a storm on Whittlesey Mere in 1020 and nearly drowned. And it is believed that Hereward the Wake, the 11th-century leader of local resistance to the Norman Conquest, sought refuge in the Fens after his escape from the seige by the Normans of the Isle of Ely in 1071.

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ShippeaHillUpdateWhat does Shippea Hill, a remote railway station in Cambridgeshire, have in common with Shinjuku railway station in Tokyo, Japan? It’s all a question of busyness. Shinjuku is the world’s busiest station and is used by 1.26 billion passengers each year, whereas at Shippea Hill there is not much going on. In Europe, the busiest station according to recent analysis by the Independent newspaper, which takes account of metro or underground users as well, is Waterloo in London with 200 million passengers a year, followed by the Gare du Nord in Paris with 180 million users a year. So what about the least busy railway stations?

shinjuku railway station, world's busiest station

No photo can do justice to Shinjuku Railway Station, the world’s busiest transport hub with its 11 separate railway lines, 36 platforms and 200 entrances. Here is a pedestrian crossing to just one of those entrances.

World-wide figures for the quietest stations are not available, nor are there any for Europe. But according to the figures for 2014-15 released on 15 December by the UK Office of Rail and Road, there are ten stations on the national rail network that have fewer than 100 passengers a year. By comparison, Shinjuku has 12 million times more users.

The Least Busy Railway Stations

The ten least busy stations in Britain during 2014-15, in decreasing order of the number of users, are

10 Breich in West Lothian, Scotland (with 92 passengers)

9 Elston & Orston in Nottinghamshire, England (88)

8 Buckenham in Norfolk, England (88)

7 Golf Street in the town of Carnoustie, Angus in Scotland (86)

6 Pilning in Gloucestershire, England (68)

5 Barry Links west of Carnoustie, Angus in Scotland (60)

4 Reddish South in Stockport, Greater Manchester (54)

3 Tees-side Airport near Darlington, County Durham (32)

2 Coombe Junction serving the villages of Coombe and Lamellion, near Liskeard, Cornwall (26)

1 Shippea Hill serving the hamlets of Shippea Hill and Prickwillow in Cambridgeshire (with 22 passengers)

The reason for these very low levels of patronage is usually the small number of trains that actually stop at these stations. Take Tees-side Airport. You would expect a station apparently serving an airport to have tens of thousands of users a year. Despite the name, the station is a fifteen-minute walk from the airport, so accessibility is a major factor in its lack of usage. The other is that only two trains stop at the station each week, both on a Sunday: the eastbound Northern service 11.14 Darlington to Hartlepool, and the westbound 12.35 Hartlepool to Darlington. Sadly campaigns to highlight the poor rail service at the station, and to persuade rail authorities to move the station 500 metres closer to the airport terminal, have so far been unsuccessful.

shippea hill station, railway map, ely, norwich, east anglia, the wash

Shippea Hill is marked on this railway map with Ely to the west and Norwich to the east. Most of the land to the north of Cambridge is the Fens, which drain into the square area of sea to the north, which is called the Wash.

Why did Shippea Hill however attract just 22 passengers from April 2014 to March 2015? Firstly only one train a day going eastwards towards Norwich actually stops there, the 07.28 which runs from Cambridge via Ely to Norwich (07.25 on a Saturday), and then not on a Sunday. Going westwards there is just one train a week, on a Saturday, the 19.27 that runs from Norwich to Cambridge. The service then is almost non-existent. Shippea Hill is also a request stop, so passengers must inform the driver or conductor if they want to get off, or put their hand out as they stand on the station to alert the driver that they want to get on.

On a weekday over 30 passenger trains, including an East Midlands hourly 125 service between Norwich and Liverpool, pass through Shippea Hill each way so the route itself is a busy one. But why don’t more trains stop there? The simple answer is that it is a remote location where very few people live.

Where is Shippea Hill?

shippea hill mapShippea Hill railway station lies in the east of Cambridgeshire, with the Suffolk border 200 yards to the east, and a triple border with Norfolk a little further to the north-east. The station is on the Breckland Line that runs between Ely in the west and Norwich in the east. The station was opened in July 1845 by the Eastern Counties Railway as Mildenhall Road, the road that crosses the railway next to the station, though Mildenhall itself is eight miles away.

In 1885, with the opening of a separate railway from Cambridge to Mildenhall, the name of the station was changed to Burnt Fen, the name of the surrounding area. Finally in 1905 the current name was adopted. The only settlements are farms, and the nearest hamlet of Prickwillow is four and a half miles away by road. The name Shippea Hill seems odd as being in The Fens, the area is very flat and much of the land around the station is about one metre below sea level as a result of the draining of the fens. It is therefore very likely to be the only station in the world with ‘hill’ in its name that is below sea level.

shippea hill farm, burnt fen, frederick hiam, new covent garden market, new spitalfields market

Shippea Hill Farm © Evelyn Simak / Creative Commons Licence

Shippea Hill Farm (photo left) is a mile and a half to the west of the station (see map above), and stands on slightly higher ground 5 metres high but it is still surrounded by land at sea level. It is one of the few areas within Burnt Fen which rises above sea level, hence the ‘hill’. Potatoes are the main crop today, and the farm is owned by Frederick Hiam Ltd. Fresh produce is still delivered daily to Covent Garden and Spitalfields markets in London.

There are farms that are nearer to the station than Shippea Hill Farm, though they may no longer have lived-in farmhouses. One of the nearest is Bulldog Bridge Farm, less than a mile away to the west along the A1101 to Littleport. Bulldog Bridge, which crosses Engine Drain, is back along the road towards the station. Might Bulldog Bridge have been a more appropriate name for the station?

The Fens, also known as Fenland, cover an area of 1,500 sq miles in eastern England, and they were drained in the 18th century leading so that most of the area lies at sea level or just above. Read more about this here. Incidentally the lowest point in Britain, at 2.75 metres (9.5 ft) below sea level, is also in the Fens at Holme Fen. The land is very fertile and it continues to be protected from floods by drainage banks and pumps that work continuously. In the 17th century however the land was described as being all above sea level so perhaps Shippea Hill was a more significant hill then.

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horsell common, sandpits, h g wells, the war of the worlds

Map of Horsell Common. The common also has three Bronze Age barrows which are scheduled ancient monuments protected by law, as well as a Muslim Burial Ground which dates back to the First World War. In the 1890s, Horsell, in the lower left, was a small village of no more than 50 houses.

To the north of the modern town of Woking in Surrey, England, is the village of Horsell, and to the north of Horsell is Horsell Common. The common, which is mainly heathland with many areas of woodland, 355 hectares (880 acres) in area, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The Horsell Common Preservation Society has owned the common since 1966 and it is one of only a handful of privately owned areas of common land in England with public access.

In 1895, the writer H G Wells, Herbert George Wells, moved with his wife to nearby Maybury Road in Woking, and there he wrote his classic science fiction novel The Wars of the Worlds. With his brother Frank, Wells had explored the lanes and paths of the surrounding countryside either walking or on their bicycles. The original idea for The War of the Worlds came from his brother during one of their outings, who pondered on what it might be like if alien beings were suddenly to descend on the scene and start attacking its inhabitants.

The Wars of the Worlds was first serialised in 1897 and then published in book form in 1898. The novel tells of the landing of spacecraft from Mars and the wholesale destruction of London, and much of the countryside to the south, by Martians in heat-ray emitting tripod machines. The unnamed narrator, a middle-class writer of philosophical papers, lives in Maybury, and a sandpit on Horsell Common is used as the landing site for the Martian space craft.

horsell common, sandpits, h g wells, the war of the worlds

Horsell Common. Sand and gravel were extracted from the woodland areas of Horsell Common for many centuries, much of it used in the construction of local houses. Sand extraction ended in the 1960s and the remains of old sandpits, roughly in the centre of the common, can be seen today.

Chapter 1, The Eve of the War, starts:

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. …

At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.

horsell common, h g wells, the war of the worlds, henrique alvim corrêa

This illustration of the first Martian to emerge from the cylinder that had landed on Horsell Common, was one of 30 drawn by Henrique Alvim Corrêa and which appeared in the 1906 French translation of The War of the Worlds.

In Chapter Two, The Falling Star, the Martians land:

But the very early in the morning poor Ogilvy [a well-known astronomer], who had seen the shooting-star and who was persuaded that a meteorite lay somewhere on the common between Horsell, Ottershaw [a village to the north of the common], and Woking, rose early with the idea of finding it. Find it he did, soon after dawn, and not far from the sand-pits. An enormous hole had been made by the impact of the projectile, and the sand and gravel had been flung violently in every direction over the heath, forming heaps visible a mile and a half away. The heather was on fire eastward, and a thin blue smoke rose against the dawn.

Today science fiction fans visit the sandpits on Horsell Common where H G Wells’ Martian spacecraft landed. In nearby Woking, a 23-foot tall Martian tripod, designed by Michael Condron, was erected in 1998 to mark the centenary of the publication of The War of the Worlds.

 

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