Time may almost be up for mechanical signalling along the 23½ miles of route between Norwich and Lowestoft, but some 100 miles further up the East Coast the era of semaphores lives on along an almost identical length of line.
The 23¾ miles of route from Boston to Skegness are home to no less than six signal boxes, three of which have secure futures as they are all Grade II Listed, and four of which still control semaphore signals.
Travel along the remarkable 55-mile long “Poacher Line” from Grantham to “bracing” Skegness and you will pass no less than a dozen working signal boxes and what is the country’s greatest concentration of surviving Great Northern Railway designs.
Add to that the remarkable octagonal chalet-style box at Boston Dock Swing Bridge (also Grade II Listed and pictured below) – which boasts the country’s last somersault signal outside the world of preserved railways – and it’s easy to see why this is an area well worth a visit.
Paying a long overdue return to the area by rail, I spent two nights at the delightful and convenient Bateman’s Brewery-owned Woolpack Inn at Wainfleet All Saints, just 200 yards from the town’s railway station, next door to the country’s smallest petrol station (pictured above), and an ideal base to explore the locality.
Hourly Nottingham-Skegness services on the pleasantly reliable Poacher Line are formed by a mixture of two-car Class 158 and 156 units, with one of the latter I noted being de-branded ex-Abellio Greater Anglia unit 156907 (156407).
My initial challenge was to see and photograph both of Wainfleet’s semaphore distant signals, neither of which I had managed to see on my only previous visit three years ago.
After checking a local map l began by taking an easy 10 minute walk out of town in an easterly direction until I reached the A52 Wainfleet by-pass, which has a level crossing over the railway only yards from up distant W22 (pictured above).
There is an easy photo of a passing train from the crossing, but sadly neither W22 nor down distant W1 seem to be worked, although both are wired and so perfectly capable of being pulled off.
156411 passes W1 on 22 January 2020 with the 10.15 Skegness-Nottingham
Returning to the station I went in search of W1, which can be seen from the station platforms, but can properly be appreciated by taking a 15 minute walk past the brewery along Mill Lane then turning right into Matt Pitts Lane until you reach the level crossing.
The two other down signals, outer home W2 (above) and home W3 (below) can easily be photographed from the station. That leaves up home W21, which stands close to the signal box with a sighting board behind, but can be seen by taking a short walk down Church Lane then following a path alongside the Steeping River for about 50 yards.
A ten minute train ride from Wainfleet, passing one of Britain’s least used stations at Havenhouse, brings you to what I described in my signalling book as our finest seaside terminus at Skegness.
Little seems to have changed since my only previous visit (March 2017) apart from removal of the signal arm from the exit to platform 6, where a missing section of rail suggests a fairly permanent closure.
The six-platform station remains a remarkable time warp, with the carriage sidings also still signalled and looking like they have been recently re-laid, perhaps in anticipation of revived summer traffic and the 26 September return to Skegness by steam loco 46100 Royal Scot.
This loco has a remarkable association with the town, having been acquired when withdrawn in 1962 by Sir Billy Butlin, to be displayed at his famous holiday camp, where it remained until 1971, before being moved and restored to working order at the Bressingham Steam Museum.
Its special train from King’s Cross will be one of the major events to mark the 50th anniversary of widespread line closures in the area (October 1970), with an exhibition on local railway history being staged from 1 August until 4 October at the Bateman’s Brewery in Wainfleet.
156411 passes the Skegness up section signal with the 15.09 to Nottingham
Apart from photographing on the station, I discovered another great vantage point less than 10 minutes’ walk away, by heading right out of the station, passing Lidl then turning right towards a Tesco petrol station and continuing along this road behind a vast Tesco store until reaching a foot crossing.
So finally to a misty and murky Boston (23 January), where the only changes since my March 2017 visit are a new tubular post for up home WS21 in place of the previous attractive lattice post (pictured above in March 2017), and scaffolding shrouding most of the town’s famous landmark, The Stump.
New look WS21 on 23 January as 158864 departs with the 13.15 Skegness-Nottingham
From a railway perspective, two highlights were a visit from Derby by the flying banana New Measurement Train, powered by 43014 The Railway Observer and 43013 Mark Carne CBE, and the sight of DC Rail Class 60 60046 shunting in Sleaford Sidings.
For those unfamiliar with Boston, the station is at one end of an extended loop that continues past the level crossing in front of West Street Junction Signal Box and ends just beyond a second level crossing (Broadfield Lane) at a place where the line on towards Sleaford bears sharply right, with Sleaford Sidings and the Docks branch on the left.
West Street Junction controls four semaphores on the main line, with up home WS21 on its new tubular post at the end of platform 1 and tall down home WS29 standing just beyond the signal box and the very busy level crossing.
Former Greater Anglia unit 156907 (ex-156407) approaches Broadfield Lane Level Crossing on 23 January 2020 with the 12.15 Skegness-Nottingham
An easy five minute walk from the station gets you to the Broadfield Lane Level Crossing, from where it is possible to see the other two semaphore arms, up section Signal WS17 looking back towards the signal box (above) and down outer home WS30 on the curving route in from Sleaford (pictured below).
Those who are familiar with Boston will know that there are two further semaphores on the branch to Boston Docks, that are controlled by a tiny box on the west side of a swing bridge leading to the Docks, and include our last surviving somersault Signal.
With no scheduled freight activity on the docks branch I did not venture down there on this trip, but for those who are interested in our signalling heritage, here is a shot (below) from my 30 March 2017 visit showing docks shunter 09022 emerging from the Docks with a train load of steel coil bound for Washwood Heath (Birmingham) passing the famous signal and unique signal box.
Quite what the future holds for the Poacher Line’s heritage infrastructure is far from clear. There has been comment that the route would be re-signalled during the course of this year, but that date seems to have slipped to at least 2021 and the route was not even mentioned in the Network Rail signalling plans for CP6 (2019-24) which I was given when preparing my recent book.
My book “Britain’s last mechanical signalling” is out now, and is available from publishers Pen & Sword, from good transport bookshops and from many online retailers. For more details of this summer’s East Lincolnshire Railway Festival, go to www.elrevents.co.uk