It was one of Geoff Marshall’s excellent series of YouTube videos, which first introduced me to Swale Railway Station. Prior to watching the video, Swale wasn’t somewhere I had ever considered visiting: an attitude apparently shared by 99.9% of the UK population. Because that is the thing about Swale: no one goes there.
Swale Railway Station consistently records the lowest yearly visitor figures of any station in Kent. In 2017/18 the passenger usage was 4,740, representing a modest increase from the previous year. Perhaps Geoff’s video could be a contributing factor for the rise in popularity? Put into real money, 4,740 passengers a year means roughly 13 people using the station each day. And, on Saturday 5 January 2019, I was one of them.
The first thing that strikes me when alighting at Swale is that, although the platform is long and curving, it is also unusually narrow. Should there be a rush-hour crush this looks like it could be hazardous. But when is there ever going to be a rush-hour crush? I am the solitary disembarkee. Solitary, that is, except for the train driver, who gets off, too. He stares at me for a few uncomfortable seconds, as though confirming that I really do want to get off here; checking that I haven’t made some awful mistake; allowing me the chance to hop back into the warmth and safety of the train before, evidently deciding I am either a masochist or a madman, he returns to his driver’s compartment, and the train duly departs.
I am alone in Swale.
In one direction lie open fields, marshy and untracked, and a long vista to a concrete factory, spewing out white smoke. In the other direction, roads predominate, the chief of which runs across a vast and high bridge, which joins mainland Kent to the Isle of Sheppey. There is a noise of traffic from the road and a noise of wind blowing across the exposed marshes. In my isolation, the dual sounds are almost deafening; I feel like I want to clamp my hands over my ears to block out the cacophony. Edvard Munch’s The Scream personified. Instead, I draw my beanie hat further down over my head, so that I am coffined in its reassuringly woolly embrace.
Beyond the railway platform is a typically scary-looking hinterland of what happens at the border when the urban meets the rural; a visual representation of a clash of cultures. There is a mournful, deserted bus stop; a slow-moving meander on a river estuary; graffitied concrete; and fluffy bog-cotton. I have sympathies with both worlds although, here, I only feel a stranger in a strange land. As a consequence, I venture no further than the barometric chamber of the station platform, desperately clinging to it like a castaway on a lifeboat, adrift in a hostile sea.
I experience a sense of relief when, half an hour later, I spot the next train arriving to whisk me warmly and safely away from Swale but, perversely, I also find myself thinking about when I might return to visit Swale again.
© Simon Turner-Tree
Simon Turner-Tree, masochist or madman?