I imagined that scruffy little dog yelping and scurrying along the platform every single time a train arrived. In fact, he probably started going crazy ages before the train could even be seen by John Morrison, the stationmaster. And no doubt he annoyed the hell out of the more placid Jack Russell that also lived at Conon Station.
I had come across a photograph taken in 1920 of this Highland railway station. The staff of five, impeccably turned out, and two dogs posed for the camera outside the verandah of the timber station building. The stationmaster is seated cross-legged with a bowtie, brass buttons and peak cap with braiding. His pose suggests quiet authority and great pride. No doubt it is pride for his position in the Highland Railway, but also for his son standing behind him with crossed arms. Iain’s trousers look a little short and he has a cheeky grin, but he would go on to have a successful railway career and also become a stationmaster. Forty years after this photograph was taken Conon Station was closed.
Campaigning, investment and road congestion have resulted in the station reopening on 8th February 2013. It is Scotland’s “newest” train station and I had occasion to try it out for myself.
Conon Bridge is a 25 minute rail journey from Inverness, located near to the town of Dingwall in the Ross-shire area of the Highlands.
Nowadays there is no sign of the timber station with its verandah; there are no railway staff with peak caps to be seen and certainly no station dogs. The modern Conon Bridge has a very short platform, a glass shelter with metal bench and some cycle lockers. The reality of funding rural lines is that basic unstaffed stations are the only way to make the railway affordable. The days of staffed stations with waiting rooms and stationmasters on this remote line may be long gone, but the important thing is that this reopening provides a vital transport link for the community of Conon Bridge. There is a good commuter service that has three trains arriving into Inverness before 9am and two post-5pm trains that do the return leg. It is projected that 36,000 passengers per year will use the station.
Conon Bridge is also ideal as a cycling launching pad into the surrounding countryside. This is the Black Isle which has quiet roads, coastal scenery and pretty towns like Cromarty. This town has a mixture of Georgian merchant houses and Victorian fisherman’s cottages. It is also a good place to watch bottlenose dolphins as is Rosemarkie. There is a summer ferry service from Cromarty to Nigg on the opposite side of the Cromarty Firth. This provides a link to more cycling possibilities and rejoining the train at Tain, which is close to Glenmorangie whisky distillery.
On the occasion that I was using the station I had just arrived after getting soaked in the rain. I was the only passenger waiting for the northbound service. A van pulled up and a maintenance worker got out and checked the operation of the passenger help and information point system that provides the only contact with railway personnel. If your train has not turned up you can press the button and ask the crackly voice if they know what is holding it up. This is run from a central communications centre that supports hundreds of unstaffed stations. I had to make use of this today because my train did not show, but I was promptly given accurate information about the length of delay- only about 10 minutes.
The maintenance man proceeded to use a paper towel to wipe the rainwater from the bench in the shelter and told me “if you want a dry seat you can sit down now. Just in case it starts raining again.”
I was very grateful and slightly surprised to have this done for me. I could imagine this is exactly the type of thing that John Morrison would have done for his passengers in 1920. It made me recall the photograph of these boys in blue and brass that would have strived to deliver the highest service standards.
“Look at that!” The maintenance man suddenly shouted and pointed to the sky. “It’s a red kite. I haven’t seen one of those before.”
We both watched the large bird swooping down and then gliding gently, his head constantly moving around to look for prey.
Another railway man came out of the van and told me “they recently got reintroduced. Thriving now so they are. From where I live I can see them swoop down to the field and catch a wee mouse. It’s amazing that they can see tiny mice that high up. They can detect little movements in the grass.”
My train was arriving and I had to say goodbye to the two men. Normally there would not be any staff at this station, but they happened to be doing their rounds when I was there. I found a window seat and relaxed into the journey, wondering if John Morrison and his station staff had also talked to passengers about the wildlife they spotted near the tracks. Perhaps that little terrier barked and ran after the birds that swooped over the platform.
Tip: Conon Bridge has a very short platform so only one set of train doors is usually opened. Make sure that your bike is in the correct carriage of the train for getting off at Conon. Just ask the guard which door they will be opening.