Watton at Stone Railway Station

A lifeline lost and then re-gained after 43 years

By Terry Askew

Terry Askew
Terry Askew

Anybody commuting regularly from Watton to London can be forgiven for taking the convenience of a station in the village for granted – I did, for many years, although I had heard tales of the action of residents back in the ’70’s and ’80’s and a collection house to house towards the cost.

Early days:
The railway came to the locality back in 1918, when a single track line was opened connecting Cuffley and Stevenage, although it was not until 1924 that any passenger trains stopped at the, then, hamlet of Watton-at-Stone. No station, as such, existed in those days and passengers had to contend with a modest ‘halt’, which was little more than a crude platform made of old railway sleepers and a basic shed, which was the shelter from inclement weather for those commuters waiting for one of the four trains per weekday for Moorgate, which ran in those days. The hamlet of Stapleford, a little way down the line, enjoyed a similar arrangement.

Wartime closure:
Upon the outbreak of War in 1939, both of the ‘halts’ were closed down and no more passenger trains were scheduled along that stretch of the line until 1962. Even then nothing stopped at Watton, although something was to happen at British Rail over the coming years and pressure was beginning to build in the, by then, village.

Back in business:
Finally, in 1981, a financial package was put together, of which the lion’s share comprised £80,000 from Local Authority funds, £4,000 from Parish Council funds and a remarkable £4,000 raised from the good people of Watton and neighbouring parishes.The big day finally came on Thursday 15th June 1982 when the Chairman of British Rail, Sir Peter Parker, officially opened Watton Station, and its first train for almost 43 years left, bound for Moorgate and bearing a banner entitled “Watton Venture”.

A very special booking clerk:
Before closing, I feel strongly that mention should be made of a gentleman who, for many years, made my travel on the railway a warm and pleasant experience and, I am sure, also that of my fellow travellers. David Elson has been the booking clerk at Watton station since 1999. Quite apart from his cheerful greeting each morning to everyone and his courteous assistance in every matter, he has been known to provide hot coffee to passengers stranded by delays, this apart from knowing every dog walker who passed by and providing a bowl of water and ‘doggie chews’ to their charges. Christmas time at the station has to be seen, when David decorates his ticket window with bunting  and provides a free raffle for his ‘regulars’. Thanks to him commuting from Watton at Stone to Town was, and still is, a necessary but pleasant experience for a great many people.

(Acknowledgement to Watton-at-Stone village guide for some source information)

This page was added on 15/05/2011.

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  • Yes, I remember the house to house collections as residents contribution to the reopening of the station.

    The first Moorgate bound train around 6.30am on 15th June 1982 was packed to the rafters though most passengers left the train at Hertford North for a return journey to Watton-at-Stone.

    I was a daily WAS commuter travelling to London until I left the village in 1990.

    By William Gibbings (28/09/2022)
  • Watton-at-Stone Station platforms were constructed with brick and concrete coping slabs from day one.
    Gravel was used as a top platform surface between the coping slabs and back fence. Open fronted wooden shelters were provided on both platforms. An identical shelter is still in use at Hertford North Station on Platform1.

    By Dave Coockle (30/08/2022)
  • p.s.

    Neither John nor the committee were ever given any recognition for this epic achievement!

    By john gittus (02/12/2021)
  • The following is extracted from the book by John Gittus, the Chairman who led the negotiations for the opening of Watton-at-Stone station back in 1981.
    It was reproduced as part of the entry into the Village Ventures competition at the time, and is now being reproduced again in a book by him entitled “Universal Guide to Negotiation” by publishers Austin Macaulay.

    It may be of interest to readers in that it depicts the long struggle the committee faced before the station was finally approved.

    **

    Watton-at-Stone is a small village you wouldn’t notice if you drove along the main road from Hertford to Stevenage, as did some twenty thousand vehicles daily before the bypass. The total population was just seventeen hundred, and today is little over two thousand. As such any transport services were virtually non-existent. There was a local infant and junior school but parents had to step in to get their children any place else, more especially for their social lives. To make matters worse the railway line between Stevenage and Hertford, which terminated in Kings Cross, sped through the village without stopping. A station halt had existed but was was closed not long before the war, and had since decayed and disintegrated. Only a few dishevelled stones and the odd area of brickwork remained. For the most part the remnants were covered in soil and plant growth.

    However in modern times the line had been electrified. Now engines could stop inexpensively with far greater ease. A germ of an idea came to mind that perhaps conditions might now be right to campaign for a new station. The parish council were aware that Government grants could be applied for for such projects, and an application was duly filed and as quickly forgotten. A word of caution crept in from the outset as it was believed that the County often made such applications under the name of any project which came forward, only to apply the funds it received to other favoured or more plausible projects. So they were always keen to hear of potential projects they could put forward simply to enhance their chances of getting some cash in to spend on projects they really favoured.

    But a considerable time later a letter landed in the Parish Council chambers to the effect the application was now being progressed through the relevant government departments. Residents were invited to form a committee to consider the notion and see if it could be taken forward. Johnathon volunteered and joined. Other lay members expressed dissatisfaction over the ponderous way the committee Chair was progressing matters, and after general discussion she stepped down and Johnathon became Chairman. She had been advocating they hold car boot sales and the like to raise funds, but he denounced such plans on the basis that the sums required were so large that any funds accomplished by that approach would be more than exceeded on the same time scale by inflation alone. Other more lucrative lines of enquiry would have to be followed.

    The moment goes down in history as the start of a string of negotiations that dwarfed most others he had been involved in, not just for the substance of the matter but because of the large number of separate institutions and the myriad negotiations involved.

    The first task was to locate just where the application had progressed to in Whitehall, so a deputation booked a meeting there with the local member of parliament. It was a productive meeting and he promised to try and hasten things along. If they could get the funds to County then they would be in a position to argue the case there, unlikely as it was there would be any real prospect of succeeding.

    Back home he arranged meetings with British Rail to discuss the plan in more detail and found them sympathetic to the cause. They would after all be getting a new station ostensibly at no cost to themselves if only the committee could find a way of funding it. Every extra passenger boarding or alighting at the old Roman village of Watton-at-Stone would represent added value to them once the costs of building the station had been met by the committee. None of this would have been remotely possible had the line not been electrified in the first place. After a degree of anxious progress chasing it was finally confirmed that County were in possession of the grant, or at least an undertaking that they would soon be so. They were on their starting blocks!

    County back room staff produced some crude cost estimates, and then came the hammer blow! It seemed they would be well out of reach, and in no time at all they were indexing the estimates for inflation and the notional cost was getting ever higher by the day! As time went on this practice of applying indexing to estimates continued apace, and no doubt County had already earmarked the grant for something else. It was all to easy for them to surmise the cost was beyond our means, and the committee were well behind in the race to secure them by making up the very substantial difference required.

    But they weren’t idle! Right from the beginning Johnathon decided to employ the local press to chart the progress and whet the appetites of local people. This raised its profile, not only with the residents, but also those in it’s hinterland. However the road was long and stumbling, and it seemed at every turn obstructions were thrown in the path. Such obstacles, and attempts to overcome them were reported by a sympathetic press. The station project became a regular feature both in the local papers and even the Times.

    They negotiated a “stay of execution” with County whilst setting about exploring other avenues through which they might attract funds. They held meetings at District Council level and added a small sum to the Parish rates through the Parish Council. The District Council pledged a worthwhile sum. Known dignitaries in the area such as the Abel-Smiths were approached and commitments made. They finally set out on a door to door collection in the hope that some wealthy enthusiast might make a substantial donation to the cause. There were one or two malcontents but otherwise the effort was worthwhile. Meantime despite the inflation indexing the gap was closing. To the Government grant could be added the commitments from the Parish Council, the penny on local rates, the District Council, the village collection, and wealthier individuals now coming in.

    ********

    A public meeting was scheduled at the County Council offices at which the project was due for discussion. There was no way of deferring this to give themselves a better chance of raising more funds. The date of the meeting had been set in stone. The common belief was the County Chairman already had his speech prepared proclaiming the whole idea to be a fractious unrealisable and wholly unattainable scheme. Even as he spoke the committee were well aware his mind would be elsewhere on some other project of his choosing.

    That meeting would determine the fate of the whole project. Fail there and it would all be over! But it could not in any way be avoided so Johnathon made plans to meet it head on. Special measures would be called for! Firstly he put the word around that they needed support from the public. As many members of the public as possible were urged to take positions in the public gallery to serve as witnesses to what transpired. The press were notified and promised to be there. Then Johnathon took himself off to British Rail where he could negotiate alone with their highest regional executive, and without fear of other members of his committee interrupting the conversation. Even worse going off at some irrelevant tangent as some of them were prone to do!

    The senior executive was based at Kings Cross and he appraised progress with Johnathon over a cup of coffee. The executive was informed of the crucial importance of the forthcoming public meeting to which he asked if there was anyway he could help. Johnathon explained the wretched “estimating and indexing” methods being employed by County, the consequence of which on paper at least damned the project to failure. He suggested other foul tactics might well be employed. Johnathon emphasised that the issue of whether or not British Rail themselves would bear part of the cost was bound to arise. But if they would contribute, and be seen to be contributing, then the imbalance in funds might be closed and the project on course for success.

    This much was accepted in good humour. As to how else British Rail could help Johnathon next came up with what any sane person would regard as sheer lunacy! He asked if, in the very last resort they could not meet the full cost, could they be given permission to build the station themselves! Just imagine asking British Rail if residents of a mere village could build its own station, and think how incredible it would be if they ever agreed!

    To Johnathon’s utter amazement the executive agreed providing the work was supervised by their own officials, and now Johnathon had two powerful strings to his bow and a fall back plan if all else failed that would be very difficult to challenge.

    Johnathon left the British Rail office that day with all the agreed terms stated in a letter, signed and sealed, and carefully tucked away in his pocket!

    *******

    The public meeting opened on time. All the residents and the press were in place watching every move and Johnathon was asked to present the case. He explained the proposal had been made possible in the first instance as a result of the monies already sunk in the electrification of the rail. He argued the capital now required would be marginal and small in relation to the original investment, but produce a useful yield for British Rail and a much needed form of communication for the village. Next he recited the details of all the funds they had raised thus far, and complimented his team on the enormous effort that had gone into the venture. The prime objective was to point out loud and clear, and in front of the assembled villagers and press, that it would be an outrage if funds obtained in their name were usurped for some other purpose.

    County were asked by Johnathon to make three pledges:

    1. That they would on no account base any decision
    on estimated, indexed costs, without first obtain
    ing at least two or three firm quotations.

    2. That the grant would not be allocated to any
    project other than the one for which it had been
    obtained until all else failed.

    3. That if, after all that, the costs still appeared too
    high, then we would be granted the right to build
    the station ourselves

    Needless to say the last request was received with incredulity, and the entire room and gallery fell silent. As the Chair of the County Council rose to speak Johnathon had little doubt he would make a show of some sympathy, but then explain how it was all a lost cause! He would undoubtedly say that British Rail would never agree to anything as unrealistic as permitting the village to build its own station. Johnathon waited eagerly for the pronunciation and was not disappointed!

    And that was his Neville Chamberlain moment! Out came those famous words!

    “I have here a letter!”

    He pulled it out of his pocket to the gasps of everybody present and, after waving it about a little, passed it down to the Chairman.

    “Check mate!”

    What else could he do!? With the locals and the press all peering at him hanging on his every word, where else could he go now!? You could read that unfathomable look of final acceptance growing on his face. He would clearly now have to change whatever speech he had prepared of which that was certain. As it was he accredited the Committee’s enthusiasm for the project as much a reason as anything else for finally pledging the funds to the station.

    That last piece of negotiation turned out to be the game winner, and keeping it quiet until the last moment gave it the fullest possible impact. Even the other committee members were not aware of its existence until it was produced at the public meeting.

    ********

    There was a moment when Johnathon sensed danger, and that was when one of the team members, a parish councillor in his own right went off on a limb pointing out how all the houses would become more valuable once served by a station. The last thing Johnathon needed at that moment was an observation that gave the impression they were involved in the project out of self gain. He tried to interrupt but the Chairman interrupted him and the moment passed.

    The meeting broke up and the press did the rest. Now there would be no going back! They were never called upon to actually build the station. County and British Rail liaised together to the exclusion of the committee, and British Rail contributed towards the cost of the materials and labour. After a marathon and a half of negotiations the case was finally won and Johnathon’s role was over. The result was a very handsome new station that still runs today. He is no longer in the region but whenever he passes that way he takes a lingering look at his very own station still standing as a monument to their efforts!

    All residents were given a free ride to Hertford and back on the first train to stop, a number of whom had never actually as much as left the village in their lifetimes! The station was formally opened by Sir Peter Parker long before any other communities achieved anything like the same success. Johnathon was present for the arrival of the first train but missed the official opening day since he was abroad on holiday with the family relaxing in the sun! He had asked but there was no way the date could be changed and he was very sorry to miss the conclusion of all that hard work.

    Subsequently the parish council entered the project into the national “Village Ventures” competition. The BBC were present to interview the author on the accomplishment but a cabinet minister interviewed next swiftly killed any hopes any other community might have for achieving the same end.

    ********

    By john gittus (02/12/2021)
  • Having read your interesting comments on the opening of wanton-at-stone station I am very proud to announce that I was the Chairman of the committee that was responsible at the time. The Council part of the funding was at serious risk because whenever a project was put forward if it failed then the Council were free to use any grants as it saw fit, and the chances of succeeding were rated as zero. I involved the press and the local community in the public meeting at which the final judgement would be made, but turned up with a letter expressing what I had negotiated with British Rail in my pocket that stunned the gathered community. In my opening speech I had asked the Council Chairman to guarantee that we would not be turned down on any grounds until first of all a proper quotation (as opposed to estimates) was obtained; that the grant obtained from Government would not be awarded to any other project until we had exhausted our efforts at funding from all sources, and that in the last analysis we would be permitted to build the station ourselves.

    That last request brought a look of incredulity on the face of the Chairman, and the obvious comment that that would never be permitted by British Rail – that is until I brought out the letter I had hastened back from Kings Cross with safely secured in my pocket which stated clearly that we would be granted permission to build the station ourselves in the last resort so long as this was under British Rail supervision!

    There was no possible response to that and we won our case. Sadly there was never any kind of recognition either for myself or my team and so our names will forever be forgotten when the history is told.

    I have since left the area but always take a fond look of the station if I am ever in the village.

    I will always be interested to hear from anybody who recalls our epoch adventure from the time.

    John Gittus (jfgittus@btinternet.com)

    By john gittus (01/11/2021)
  • My job (I support people with learning difficulties) is made easier – I feel happier knowing that David is there to support people who need to purchase a ticket at the booking office or help with using the machines. Not everyone finds these machines easy and sometimes they aren’t very responsive. It’s nice to know a PERSON is on hand at peak times to help.

    By Julia (13/08/2021)