diamond geezer

 Wednesday, June 08, 2016

The least used station in... Berkshire
(Annual passenger usage: 33996)

Having visited several of the least used stations in London, I thought I'd cast my net wider and visit the least used stations in the surrounding area. Not all of them, because that would be a mammoth task, but specifically the least used station in each county. I'm going to stick to the Home Counties, however they're defined, and I'm considering traditional counties, none of this post-1998 unitary borough stuff. Having drawn up a potential list of places to visit, I'm then going to visit them in decreasing order of busyness, over the next few months or however long it takes, which might be a very long time. And I'm starting with Berkshire. [10 photos]

Midgham station is in West Berkshire, about ten miles west of Reading, on the line out to Hungerford and the southwest. If you've ever taken the InterCity to Exeter or Penzance you've probably rushed straight through, although rather fewer services stop. On weekdays an hourly shuttle runs between Newbury and Reading, while on Sundays there's a direct link to Paddington, but only every two hours. I checked the timetables very carefully, and headed down in one hour flat.

The station's nothing special but, given that the entire point of this feature is to visit it, I'll do my best with a description. There are two platforms, with a level crossing at one end the only way to pass from one to the other. Both platforms have a shelter, the eastbound a proper brick hut and the westbound more of a slouching space, complete with an abandoned half bottle of Australian Shiraz which I hope someone's cleared away by now. Arriving from Reading you head down a short ramp to the main road, which isn't terribly main at all, while on the opposite side access is via a not very big car park. There's nothing much here of any antiquity, nor anything jarringly over-modern. And it's very quiet here after the train has gone - a sentence I suspect I'll be writing quite a lot as this feature progresses.

Midgham station has a proper peculiarity in that it's in the middle of a village, but that village isn't called Midgham. The houses round about and up the road are part of Woolhampton, a linear cluster on the Bath Road, better known today as the A4. The station was originally called Woolhampton, but the story goes that the stationmaster grew tired of receiving packages which were meant to go to Wolverhampton and so the name was changed to Midgham instead. There is a village of Midgham, but it's a mile away, and rather smaller, and an entirely illogical name for the station unless the mispronunciation fable is actually true.

Woolhampton's rather nice, as you'd expect in this well-to-do part of Berkshire, with a mix of housing old and new, and several large piles shielded off country lanes. Only one of the former coaching inns survives, that's The Angel, a sturdy beast with daily carvery and monthly jazz night. Queen Victoria is commemorated by a Diamond Jubilee drinking fountain at the top of the road from the station, with the devoted inscription "Righteousness Exalteth A Nation", while the former Working Men's Club is of similar Gothic antiquity, but now a detached home.

If you discount the BP garage then the village supports two shops, one of them The Old Corner Shop, which genuinely is old - its half-timbered frame dates back to 1560. The contents were rather more modern, however, with a window display of brightly coloured handbags, raffia bowls and flamingo-print textiles suggesting this was a place where local ladies come to buy things other local ladies don't have. For more everyday essentials I can recommend the Woolhampton Village Shop, an impressively-stacked resource, particularly the counter blessed with pies, pasties, scotch eggs and other freshly-baked specialities. Non bog-standard coffees and teas were also served - damned good for a village of less than a thousand people - while the table piled with Timeses, Telegraphs and Mails hinted heavily at the clientèle.

The village has a companion up the hill, that's Upper Woolhampton, which is essentially an independent school, the parish church and a monastery strung out along a lane. Now I come to write that sentence it sounds particularly interesting, and I probably should have gone to take a look, particularly at Douai Abbey, an extensive monastery which started out in Paris in 1615 and arrived here three centuries later. But instead I was intent on heading to Midgham, simply because the station was named after it, and that was probably a mistake.

The direct route from Woolhampton to Midgham, if you can call it that, rises up a quiet country lane before making a break for fields and parkland. I crossed the first two fields without trouble, but the third was full of cows, who on closer inspection didn't have udders so weren't cows at all. Bullocks. As I stood by the gate wondering how suicidal it would be to unlatch it they turned slowly to face me, all two dozen of them, then wandered purposefully across to collectively stare me out. I was forced to retreat, which meant a dull detour along the A4, four times longer than the cross-country path would have been. But I was getting the hang of the locale, the kind of place where the largest landowner deploys inappropriate farm animals to block the only public right of way.

Midgham's not big. Its pub is at the foot of the hill on the main road, that's the Coach and Horses, older than the Angel and a slightly more upmarket proposition. The village hall is a timber shed, where such weighty matters as replacing the glass in the local bus shelter are discussed. St Matthew's church is Midgham's finest feature, its spire dominating the hilltop and a series of corbelled heads along the nave, but still nothing to go out of your way to visit. Some fairly ordinary houses line the single rising street, which if you continue along for a couple of miles you reach Kate Middleton's home village. I think that makes Midgham her family's nearest station, not that I suspect they'll have been among the 33996 passengers last year.

With Woolhampton small and Midgham dull, I spent most of my trip following the area's finest tourist attraction, which is the Kennet and Avon Canal. This river/canal hybrid was famously restored and reopened in 1990, and was being well used by boaters, ramblers and particularly cyclists as I walked along. I started in Midgham and headed east, returning to Woolhampton via a considerably more scenic route past locks and several swingbridges. On the banks of the Kennet, close to the station, The Rowbarge pub proved to be Woolhampton's social hotspot, with a hundred sunbathing souls sprawled on the lawn enjoying beer and grilled meat. If I'd had any sense I would have stopped and joined them.

But no, I was enjoying the canal too much so continued to Aldermaston, where I'd just missed a two hourly train so continued further to Theale. Beneath blue skies and alongside scenic waters, the seven mile stroll was a delight, and I don't think I've ever seen quite so many dragonflies in one place before. You don't need to walk that far, or even in that direction, but a Rowbarge/canal combo would make a decent day out should you ever choose to boost Midgham station's meagre passenger total.

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