September 2008: Railway gardens full of flowers were once the pride and joy of many a rural stationmaster, but the days when rail staff had time to plant and care for flower beds vanished with the age of steam. By the late 20th century, carefully-cultivated shrubs were disappearing under forests of weeds and being attacked by armies of slugs. But now, the forests are being cut down, and the slimy armies are in retreat.
Photographs: Charles Francis
The lush, semi-tropical garden at Penmere Station, on the Truro to Falmouth branch line, shows what can be achieved by a small group of green-fingered rail enthusiasts. The Friends of Penmere Station are pioneers in the growing movement to restore railway gardens. When they started work at the station 15 years ago, the brambles were 20 feet high.
After spending many hours in all weathers clearing and cutting back, the group landscaped the site and laid beds, as well as putting up a new shelter, lamp posts and benches. “Cornwall County Council bought us a strimmer, stone was donated by local quarries to create paths, and trees and shrubs were donated by local people,” says the Friends’ chairman Steve Lloyd. “The support we have had has been tremendous.”
The project’s horticultural expert, Brian Philpotts, smiles as he recalls those early days: “I would go round to friends and say: ’Don’t throw your plants away!’”.
With more than 60 years’ experience as a gardener behind him, Brian is a crucial member of the team. He started working in Fox Rosehill Garden in Falmouth, under the parks department of the old borough council straight from school in 1945, and later did the same job for Carrick District Council. Steve says that Brian’s expertise is vital. “I tend to pull up a flower and think it’s a weed!” he admits. “We have learned a lot about gardening from Brian, and he has learned a lot about railways from us, so it works really well.”
As well as creating new planting schemes for the garden, which slopes steeply up from the car park, Brian rescued a cerise-coloured camellia and a pale pink rhododendron thought to have been planted when the station opened in 1925. Once again, they are putting on a spectacular spring display.
One of Brian’s favourites among the newer additions is another springtime star, the fragrant, bushy shrub Viburnum carlesii, which has the added attraction of rich russet leave in autumn. The aim is to use such versatile plants to make the garden attractive all year round. Variegated evergreens brighten up winter days for passengers waiting for a train in the rain, and in the summer become a backdrop for bright spikes of agapanthus and gladioli, and clumps of day lilies.
Other contributors to the multicoloured summer show are a boat filled with scarlet fuchsias and begonias, and a sunny yellow trio: the rambler rose ‘Emily Grey’, the evergreen shrub Jerusalem sage and evening primrose.
Flag irises, usually seen by the side of streams, is an unusual choice for a railway garden, as are exotic yucca, cactus and Agave americana. A special feature, reflecting the station’s location close to Falmouth, is a privet hedge carved in the shape of Pendennis Castle.
One corner of the garden has been colonised by Japanese knotweed – but Brian is not unduly worried by its presence: “I just keep cutting it down“. The only other unwelcome visitors are vandals. “One day, I planted a lovely lot of daffodils, and the next day they were on the line,” says Brian sadly. Fortunately, it doesn’t happen very often.
The last station master to man Penmere Halt — and tend the garden with the care Brian now devotes to it — was Mr Grose, who retired in 1973 after 27 years in the job. A seat in his memory was unveiled by his daughter 10 years ago. “I like to think his spirit is watching over us,” says Steve.
He is grateful for the help of the Devon and Cornwall Rail Partnership, which promotes travel on rural branch lines and helps community groups to brighten up local stations. “They have been really good to us. They have provided finance and approached local groups to supply equipment,” he says.
He is delighted that with the Rail Partnership’s help, other Cornish stations have started to travel down the same track. “There is now a Friends of Penryn Station group, and they often ask our advice,” he says. “It’s nice to be at the forefront of something.”
Further west, Michael Shipp has been working almost single-handedly for the last four years to transform the neglected garden at St Erth Station, gateway to the St Ives branch line. He took on the job after being intrigued by an advertisement in a railway magazine for the Rural Stations Project, which at that time was placing volunteer gardeners with stations which needed a bit of tender loving care.
“I’ve always loved railways, and I knew that this had once been a beautiful station,” he says. “The staff were doing their best, but it did need somebody to give time to it. The railway company gave me a completely free hand – they just said: ‘Make it look pretty’.
“A hebe bush had grown out onto the platform, and everything was covered with ivy. It took three weeks to clear. I also had to get rid of 400 snails! There were beds here already, and somebody had once planted lots of bushes and shrubs, but they had become overgrown. I had to cut them back before I could plant anything in the beds.”
Unlike Brian, Michael does not have a gardening background — he is a retired mining engineer. But he does have a large garden at his home in nearby Heamoor, near Penzance, where he has been able to hone his horticultural skills.
He has planted box bushes to provide a second barrier for any weeds pushing their way through the boundary fence which separates the westbound platform from the wasteland beyond, and nursed neglected roses to act as a focal point for the beds. “They needed an awful lot of attention — they weren’t flowering, but I worked on them, and now they are,” he says with satisfaction. Among the roses, snapdragons and begonias provide vibrant splashes of summer colour.
“I also thought it would be nice to re-create the Great Western Railway tradition of planting dracaenas in Cornish station gardens. I can’t put them in the ground, due to the electricity cables, so they are in pots.”
“I come here every Friday morning, and the staff do a bit of watering and snip a few deadheads when I’m not here. I get a lot of support from them, and the customers appreciate what I’m doing, too. It makes it all worthwhile.” Bad weather doesn’t bother Michael — and neither did a broken arm: “I’ve got another one, haven’t I?”
Michael’s work is being complemented by a general upgrade of what had become a sad and shabby station, and a poor advertisement for one of Britain’s most scenic rail routes. In the former luggage office, there is a welcoming café, and all the station buildings have been given a fresh coat of paint in traditional Great Western Railway chocolate and cream. Sometimes, Michael swaps his secateurs for a paintbrush: one of his planters is a former horse trough now painted blue and white.
The Devon and Cornwall Rail Partnership is now supporting a scheme by the University of Plymouth to bring a bright new look to the stations on the Looe Valley Line. Having put up planters at Liskeard, cleared vegetation from the canal near the station at Causeland and cut down overgrowth at St Keyne, student volunteers began to tackle waist-high weeds at Sandplace.
Rail Partnership development officer Rebecca Catterall says: “On the first day, we had to bring a chopper to cut all the weeds down — but because more than 20 students came along, we were able to create a bedded area by the end o0f the day. The beauty of the railway project is that after just one day, the students can see the fruits of their labours.
“We had no real plan; it just evolved. We did contact BBC Gardeners’ Question Time and told them about the soil quality — it’s really sandy, but in the winter it gets very cold here, and quite damp. They suggested we try hostas. I wouldn’t have thought of that, but they’ve thriving.
“We’ve also got rosemary; lavender and heather in the beds, and a lovely rose, ‘Tequila Sunrise’. We put in three or four bags of compost, and it’s gone mad — we are now trying to keep on top of the weeds. We’ll be coming back in the spring to plant bulbs, and Looe Station will be our next project, for the new academic year. Looe Station will be one of our projects. We’ll start with some tubs. After that, we hope to tackle the Tamar Valley Line.”
Among the student volunteers is Mike Siddons, who is studying multimedia production and technology. “There’s only so long you can stare at a computer screen. I like to go outside and learn something different,” he says. “I’ve always liked railways, so this appealed to me,” he says. “You are contributing something positive to the community — it feels good to know you have made a difference.”
Mike admits that his level of horticultural experience could be described as “none whatsoever”. “Before I did this, I didn’t know what a weed was! But you learn what to look out for. You learn how to become a gardener.”
Claire Massey, volunteer co-ordinator at the student union, says that the scheme has captured the imagination of the students. “They can leave the city for the day, have a great time, and then see the results. It’s a win-win situation. And the project caters for all abilities. Those students who don’t have experience of gardening can get to know about plants, and those with disabilities can plant raised beds.
“We aim to have colour, or at least greenery, all year round, and we like to make sure native plants are put back where they previously grew. There’s one area where poppies are coming through, and it would be nice to keep that as a wildflower area.
“We have to think of planting which is low-maintenance and sustainable. These little stations have been so neglected, because they haven’t got the manpower to look after them properly – which is why we’re here. If we can bring a bit of colour back, people really appreciate it. Someone has even been secretly watering the plants when we’re not here!”