Many towns have bits of abandoned railway, maybe a tunnel or a viaduct, but there are few that have both. Such a place is Winchester, and this is a tale of a lost railway.
In the town centre can be found this huge tunnel.
And on the outskirts, is a long brick viaduct.
Rarely open to the public, the tunnel is now occasionally being opened up, but why is it here, and why isn’t it a railway anymore?
Winchester (Chesil) railway station opened in 1885 as the town’s second railway station. It wasn’t supposed to be here, and it’s location proved to be its doom.
It was the unintended terminus of a railway, the Didcot, Newbury and Southampton Railway (DNSR) which aimed to allow goods, and people, to travel north-south without having to go via London first.
As the terminus of the railway, you might have guessed, it didn’t reach Southampton, at least not at first.
Opening in 1885, the line ran from Didcot to Winchester, but obviously, that wasn’t much use to goods traffic, and eventually, in 1891, they opened another length of track along a grand viaduct over marshy land to reach the existing LSWR railway down to Southampton.
Now it got fractious.
The DNSR was a small company with limited resources, so they effectively outsourced the running of the railway to the Great Western Railway (GWR), who already managed some of the other stations the new line joined up with.
But… the GWR wasn’t allowed to run trains past Winchester onto the existing LSWR lines down to Southampton. The two companies were fierce competitors, so, at Winchester, in an incredibly cramped space, the locomotives had to be swapped over.
GWR handed over to the LSWR when heading southwards, and reverse for northbound trains.
As one of the advantages of the new railway was that it would be faster than the longer routes that already existed, the swapping of the locomotives pretty much ruined the commercial viability of the line.
However, the sleepy railway secured an unexpected reprieve — thanks to war. The line proved to be a useful route getting supplies and people to the south coast, especially during the run up to D-Day.
It was a short lived moment though, the line slumbered after the war, with the running joke that when trains switched onto the line, they switched from the timetable to the calendar.
Although not a formal victim of the Beeching cuts, it slowly died off as traffic faded away, and the final trains left in May 1964.
Today, the station has gone, replaced by what was once seen as the transport of the future – the motor car, in the guise of a car park — but the tunnel remains, sealed off yet occasionally open to visitors.
Yesterday was such an opportunity.
A local Blue Badge guide was leading a tour of the railway around the area, and as she willingly admitted, she’s not a railway historian. In a way, this made for a better tour, as a railway person would have lost the audience in overly excessive details that thrill railway people, and send everyone else to sleep.
The railway station was squeezed into a very narrow strip of land, and only by cutting into the sloping face of the hill behind. Which was to be a bad idea as in 1901 the chalk slope soaked with rain, slid down over the railway blocking it for some time.
Part of the repairs to the slope though are of interest, as the GWR had some unwanted steel lying around and it made for very good fencing — the rail tracks from the GWR’s abortive attempt at a wide-guage railway, and since ripped up as a bad idea. Today they are still here, productively holding up fencing.
Sadly, the station no longer occupies the site, but a massive car park does instead, and hidden down inside is a hint of its former heritage with a mural running along one wall.
It’s around the back of the car park that the tunnel still remains, behind locked doors, and today used by the council for storage.
Sadly, the main lights weren’t working, and it seems that most people had brought their own torches, so in we went and maybe about a hundred yards into the long tunnel. Dug out of the chalk hill, it was of necessity lined with bricks to prevent rock falls blocking the railway.
It’s quite an atmospheric place, if typically very cool and damp. Every so often a big dollop of water fell from the ceiling, and no matter where you stood, somehow running right down the back of your neck.
The railway closed, the tunnel sealed up, and much of the adjacent sidings, turntable and sheds removed — today largely for housing. One small bit remains, the original goods shed is still waiting for someone to work out what to do with it.
Although the railway has long vanished, the path it left through the town remains, as a popular walking and cycle trail, leading down to the Hockley Viaduct, the vast brick work that connected the railway onto the old line down to Southampton.
Restored in 2013, its now part of the National Cycle Route Network.
I was going to give it a miss, as it’s a decent walk to the viaduct, and I had enough to do, but around 4pm, a street artists was setting up stall in a mild drizzle that was falling and exclaimed that the worst of the drizzle was over. He had checked the forecast.
So, off to find the viaduct.
Within 20 minutes the drizzle was a decent downpour. By the time I was at the viaduct, it was sheets of water flooding down and drenching everything.
A thought to follow a footpath through a field which ordinarily gives lovely views of the viaduct was cancelled when it was clear the soil was sinking into marsh.
The viaduct itself achieved, and plans to take photos slowed by the realisation there’s a bit of railway heritage to see — at the far end of the viaduct, so a walk in the driving rain until I was close enough to get away with a photo. By now it was becoming difficult to take photos, and indeed there were times I feared for the water safety of my camera.
In the railway alcoves, some have artwork, some have benches. I am sure the benches are lovely to sit on in the sunshine, but not today.
The cycle path now detours to run beside the old railway, bits of which can be seen through the sodden trees and undergrowth. Or in places, leaping across the footpath, and the arches offering much needed space to wring out sodden clothing. A few hardy dog-walkers were about, in clothing more suited to the weather.
Past St Catherine’s Hill, which had been on my itinerary to visit, but that’s for another day now.
Along the former railway bits of railway heritage can be seen, a few old signs, bits of concrete supports, some brickworks, but its the occasional glimpses of the brick arches that remind you of the area’s heritage.
As a railway it was a bit of a failure — and on a soaking wet afternoon, it’s manpowered successor wasn’t proving to be that popular either. But on a sunny day, it’s said more people walk along this path than ever took the train.
The viaduct and walkway are open to the public all the time. Tours of the station area and inside the tunnel are organised by the tour guides, and need to be booked in advance here. I wasn’t told this when making my booking, but I would suggest bringing a torch.
The next tours for 2018 are 23rd June, 17th July, and 11th August.
Remember that I said the station had been replaced with a car park? Well, the station building actually survived and was removed to be rebuilt. You can now find it at the Hampshire Cultural Trust in Basingstoke.