Angles on Ancaster

Last month’s highly enjoyable day-out to Heckington inspired me to re-visit another quiet spot along the delightful Grantham-Skegness Poacher Line, and another one that can boast two working semaphore distant signals.

Ancaster is described on my OS map as a Roman town and stands roughly midway between Grantham and Sleaford, one of two stations on this stretch of the route, along with Rauceby, that are only served by a handful of the hourly Poacher Line services each day.

Its sparsely-served station stands on the northern edge of the present village, with an attractive and diminutive Great Northern Railway (GNR) signal box, dating from 1873, standing at the western end of the up platform, where it oversees a foot crossing and controls a total of five semaphore signals.

158813 passes Ancaster with 2S13 from Nottingham (10.46) to Skegness

Opportunities to photograph its semaphore signals from the station platforms are very limited, with down home AR2 hidden behind a sighting board to the west, up section signal AR28 being a colour light, while up home AR29 is also obscured by a sighting board to the east of the station platforms.

That only leaves one of the five semaphores – down section signal AR3 – clearly visible from the station, standing alongside AR29 east of the station and close to where a long-abandoned brake van stands at the end of a disconnected siding on the south (up) side of the line.

156408/404 pass down distant signal AR1 with 2S11 from Nottingham (09.50) to Skegness

 But travelling on a Poacher Line service for my visit to Heckington I had noticed that Ancaster’s down distant signal (AR1) stood just east of a level crossing in a hamlet called Sudbrook, so well worth seeking out, while countryside east of Ancaster looked like it might offer a vantage point to see up distant AR30.

With only four trains a day in each direction calling at Ancaster, getting there from London meant buying a bargain-priced advance purchase ticket for the 07.06 LNER service from King’s Cross for a smart connection at Grantham into the 08.27 EMR service for Skegness, arriving in Ancaster at 08.45.

Perfect symmetry on the lever frame at Ancaster Signal Box, with down levers 1/2/3 up levers 28/29/30 and gate locking levers 14/15/16 in the middle

Arriving at Kings Cross on Friday, 9 July 2021 I had the same experience of my recent journey to Retford for the Robin Hood Line, when the 07.06 to York was cancelled, and there was then a scramble to get reservations for the 07.00 to Edinburgh, which would make additional stops at Peterborough and Doncaster, but not Grantham. 

170417 approaches its stop at Ancaster with the heavily-delayed 2S10 from Skegness (10.15)

Deciding I would take this train as far as Peterborough, then wait for the following 07.30 which would stop at Grantham, I pleaded my case with the train manager, who obligingly arranged for a taxi to take me from Grantham to Ancaster, given that I would otherwise not have been able to get there until early afternoon, so full marks for that to LNER. 

Three passengers were delayed by 54 minutes waiting for this train to Grantham and Nottingham

Once at the station my plan was to follow a footpath south of the line that led westwards towards the level crossing at Sudbrook, photograph the next two Skegness-bound services as they passed down distant AR1 and then retrace my steps back towards the station and to try to find a vantage point to see AR30. 

158813 passes AR3 with 2S13 from Nottingham (10.46) to Skegness

The first part of this plan worked perfectly, with a pleasant 20-minute walk on paths south then west from the station bringing me to the automatic half barriers in Rookery Lane (Sudbrook Level Crossing), from where there was a good view of the Skegness-bound services passing AR1.

An historic wooden crossing gate has been replaced since my previous visit in 2017

But after returning for some photos on the station, my attempts to find a place to see and photograph AR30 ended in failure. I walked for around 40 minutes to the village of Wilsford, up to a farm overbridge, then back close to the railway cutting as far as Waterloo Farm, but sadly failed to see the elusive distant.

For those interested in the pre-GNR history of Ancaster, it was developed as a town by the Romans in the first century AD and stands on one of that era’s principal thoroughfares, Ermine Street, the Roman equivalent of our A1, which is now the B6403.

Causennis, as the town is thought to have been known in Roman times, was location for one of the largest known Roman cemeteries in the country, with more than 300 burials recorded and two stone Roman sarcophagi now on view in the cemetery of St. Martin’s Church (photo of one above).

Tall thrift plants thriving in the cemetery of St. Martin’s Church, Ancaster

Besides its Roman interest, the cemetery at Ancaster has another claim to fame in that, along with the adjacent Moor Closes Nature Reserve, it is the only place left in the UK that is home to this attractive pink flower called the tall thrift, probably best known for featuring on the reverse side of brass threepenny bits during the reign of George VI (1937-1952).

Ancaster can boast this butcher’s shop in Ermine Street but little other retailing

Ancaster is a pleasant place to visit, with its particular archaeological and botanical interest and its attractive Main Street (Ermine Street) which could rival places in the Cotswolds for its attractive architecture.

But the village seems devoid of tourist essentials, apart from the Railway Inn, with the only shops I could see being a Post Office and butcher, both closed on a Friday afternoon, with no sign of any cafe or other places to attract tourists.

It also seems high time that something was done about its dismal train service – I wonder, for example, why Poacher Line stations such as Ancaster could not become request stops, with considerably more of the hourly services that pass through stopping on demand?

Historic running-in boards and a restored goods shed are attractive features of Ancaster station

Having a rather lengthy wait until my 16.23 service back to Grantham (the last up train of the day) I followed my cultural detour with a return visit to the Railway Inn (135 Ermine Street) at the foot of the station approach road and a place to savour a pint of not-very-local Exmoor Ale (3.8% / £3.60 a pint).  

Once back on the main line at Grantham I had deliberately given myself time before my return to Kings Cross, to allow for any delay on the Poacher Line, so paid a call at the delightful Whistle Stop bar on platform 1 where a pint of its locally-brewed pale ale (£3.40) was a great way to pass the time.