Paul Merton on the joy of request stops

The comedian's father gave him a life-long love of trains, so what better way to explore Britain's smaller stations?

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Paul Merton vividly recalls the first time he saw his Tube-driver father going about his business. “My dad drove a District Line train, the line that runs from Wimbledon to Earl’s Court and the first part of it is overground,” he says.

“I was four or five looking up at this railway bridge going across the Fulham High Street and at an agreed time my dad came across and gave me and my mum a wave. It was the most thrill- ing thing in the world: my dad driving a train! But he didn’t see it as heroic the way I did.”

Young Paul had to wait another eight years before he got to ride in a train cab and it didn’t disappoint. “One day we were doing a short journey from Morden to Tooting Bec, which is on the Northern Line. He knew the driver so we sat in the front!” (All these years later he still sounds like an enthusiastic schoolboy.) “The view from the front was fantastic. You’re in total darkness. You can’t see anything. Then there’s a little pinprick of light in the distance and you turn a corner in the tunnel and it turns out to be a station. I loved it!”

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A miniature steam locomotive on the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch line, Kent

Nowadays, Merton contents himself with being an appreciative passenger, preferring a five-hour train over a one-hour flight when he decamps to the Edinburgh Festival every year. Occasionally, you might even spy him on the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch line, a 15-inch gauge working railway in Kent, where he and his wife, fellow comic Suki Webster, have a place in the country.

“It’s real steam engines one third of the usual size, but it pulls passengers. It’s run from Hythe all the way to Dungeness since the 1920s and it’s great. I think there’s a lot of nostalgia with steam engines because of the smell, the sounds – it’s sensory overload.” 


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GET ON AT A REQUEST STOP

Yet he admits he hadn’t known Britain’s 152 request stops existed until he made his series for Channel 4. “You have to put your hand up to stop the train. I assumed that trains stopped at stations according to their timetable – not whether somebody wants to get on or off.”

He’s a fervent convert and not just because it was an excuse to don a jaunty flat cap and tweeds. If travelling by train is often regarded as the leisurely option, alighting at one of Britain’s request stops – which make up about six per cent of stations – feels like stepping back in time.

“You get to see places you wouldn’t normally see because you are by definition away from the tourist track. So instead of saying, ‘We’re going to see this castle, we’re going to see this and that’, you get off and find out what’s there. It is exciting to arrive at a place at 11 o’clock in the morning and know you’ve got three hours to explore.”

In Paul Merton’s Secret Stations, he visits Reddish South, a station in Stockport where only one train stops a week and only in one direction. “It’s cheaper for the company to run this train than to have to close a line because that involves a parliamentary procedure. So there’s a group of aficionados who use this train every week just so the company can’t say: ‘Oh, nobody gets on at this station.’ ”

TAKE THE SCENIC ROUTE

Many stations visited in the series afford stunning scenery as well as novelty. Merton also alights at Attadale, a tiny station on the southern shore of Loch Carron in the Highlands, and the village of Silecroft in the Lake District, which boasts the heather-carpeted fell, Black Combe, on its doorstep. His favourite spot was Braystones on the Irish Sea coast in Cumbria.

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The view from Attadale request stop; Loch Carron, Highlands

“On a winter’s night, it would be fierce and extremely inhospitable, but that day it looked absolutely wonderful – a place where you have the advantage of sitting on your bungalow porch and admiring the open sea sparkling in the sunlight.

“One of the residents claimed it was very handy for New York because you could get a train from there to Preston, change for Manchester Airport, and from Manchester you could fly to New York. I think claiming it was handy for New York was slightly pushing it!” 

How to make a rail request stop

1. On timetables, “x” marks the request stop.

2.  If you’re on the train, tell the guard where you want to stop and they’ll communicate that to the driver.

3.  To stop a train, get to the request stop at the appointed time and simply flag it down

4.  Double-check the time of your train back as there might not be one! 

Paul Merton’s Secret Stations continues on Sundays on Channel 4 at 8pm


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