New Publication: ‘Chathill Station’, in Archipelago

Pamela Clemit has published an essay, ‘Chathill Station’, in Andrew McNeillie’s eco-literature magazine Archipelago, 2.2 (Spring 2023), pp. 152-61. The essay is a recollection of her early childhood years as a stationmaster’s daughter, and an elegy for a way of life that disappeared with the restructuring and privatisation of British Rail towards the end of the twentieth century.

Here is an extract from the opening:

On 21 July 1955 the Berwick Advertiser carried the following notice:

British Railways North Eastern Region announces the appointment of Mr A. E. Clemit, Relief Station Master, York, to the post of Station Master, Chathill.

My father, newly married, had just turned twenty-five years of age. Chathill was one of the fourteen original stations on the Newcastle and Berwick Railway which opened in 1847, built by George Hudson, the York-born ‘Railway King’, and now part of the East Coast Main Line. No expense was spared. Almost all of the stations were designed by the Newcastle architect Benjamin Green in ornate Jacobethan style. My father’s new job came with notable perks: a large, elegant house on the down platform, a garden as long as a railway siding, and a coal business subsidized by British Railways.

A few months before my father’s appointment, the British Transport Commission published a plan, ‘Modernization and Re-Equipment of British Railways’ (1955), intended to stem financial losses due to post-war growth in road transport. It called for the replacement of steam locomotives by diesel, and, in the long term, electrification of all major trunk routes. British Railways, it rashly predicted, would be back in profit by 1962. But it wasn’t. In the early 1960s, the Conservative Minister of Transport Ernest Marples (a former director of a road construction company who kept a finger in the pie) brought in Dr Richard Beeching from ICI to reorganize the whole system. Beeching’s first report, ‘The Reshaping of British Railways’ (1963), led to the mass closure of unprofitable lines and stations. His second report, ‘The Development of the Major Railway Trunk Routes’ (1965), advocated further downsizing. It was rejected by the Labour government which came to power in 1964, but more closures went ahead.

By the time I was born at Chathill in 1960, railway workers who had welcomed nationalization in 1948 as a promise of economic security were starting to feel the pinch. Even so, Chathill remained a place of safety – for the time being. It was a busy working main line station with enough passengers and freight going through to escape Beeching’s axe. But in the mid-1960s British Railways (British Rail from 1965) began phasing out the role of stationmaster. My father was the last stationmaster at Chathill. In 1967 it became an unmanned station, though the signal box remained in use until 1990. A way of life was vanishing while my life was just beginning.

The full essay is available to read in Archipelago, 2.2 (Spring 2023), which may be purchased here, or at the London Review Bookshop.


Image: Chathill Station from the road, 2018. Photograph reproduced by kind permission of Mathew Harrison.