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Mid Hants Railway (The Watercress Line) - a Guide

      Written by Mike Pearson, who also took almost all the photographs

   

 

Where to go & what to see

Introduction

This is a more detailed guide than the Quick Guide, to help you get the maximum pleasure from your visit. You can of course commence your journey at any of the stations on the line, but for this guided tour we will start at Alresford. We will then travel to each of the other stations in turn, taking the opportunity to see the sights at each of them. The tour finishes at Alton where the railway connects with the main line. You will see not only the original features of the line but also the later additions that could be mistaken for originals, so well do they blend in.

The railway has a rolling programme of exciting new developments, designed to enhance the facilities for visitors and staff alike and so provide greater enjoyment for our most important asset - our customers. This guide includes information about these developments, past, present and future. New information will be added as it becomes available.

The railway is operated almost entirely by volunteers, who are involved in all aspects of operating and maintaining the railway. They work in support of a few paid staff, so enabling the railway to prosper as one of Hampshire's major tourist attractions.

Origins of the Line

The Alton, Alresford and Winchester Railway Company, which later became the original Mid Hants Railway, opened the line in 1865. It started from Alton where it connected with the London and South Western Railway line to Guildford and later to London via Pirbright Junction and Woking. There were three intermediate stations, at Ropley, Alresford and Itchen Abbas. A fourth station, Medstead and Four Marks, was added later. The other end of the line connected with the LSWR main route from London to Southampton, at Winchester Junction, north of Winchester City Station. From the outset services were operated by the LSWR, which eventually absorbed the line in 1884. In 1923 the line formed part of the Southern Railway, which became the Southern Region of British Railways at nationalisation in 1948.

Following closure by British Railways in 1973 the track between Ropley and Alton, and Alresford to Winchester Junction, was lifted. That between Ropley and Alresford was left in place for the time being. The Winchester and Alton Railway, later to become the present Mid Hants Railway, was formed with the intention of re-opening the whole line under independent ownership. Unfortunately financial constraints forced the section west of Alresford to Itchen Abbas and Winchester Junction to be abandoned. However, the line was re-opened between Alresford and Ropley four years later in 1977. After the lifted track was reinstated services were re-established to Medstead in 1983 and to Alton in 1985.

 


 

Alresford station

This is the administrative headquarters of the railway and the principal station on the line. The main building dates from the original construction of the line and has been restored to Southern Railway condition, although there have been some later additions. Car parking is available outside the station, with a pay-and-display ticket system.

 

The Old Goods Shed

As you approach the station look to your right where the former goods shed has been reconstructed as a new visitor centre. This was opened in November 2001 and is well worth a visit. Built soon after the original opening of the railway, in 1865, the building was derelict and out of use for several years, although it was recognised as a significant part of the local heritage. Goods facilities were withdrawn from Alresford by BR in 1964 and the shed was then used as a store. It formerly housed a platform, a crane and a small office and had a rail connection and road access. The MHR embarked on a major restoration of the shed following a successful application for funds from the Heritage Lottery Fund and an intensive fundraising campaign conducted by our Vice President, Norman Atherden.

Within the building a new first floor has been constructed to provide additional facilities to those at ground level. Access is provided for the disabled, including a stair lift to the first floor. 

  

  

The centre comprises:
  • A classroom-cum-meeting room. The room is available for educational purposes, particularly for local schoolchildren, enabling them to study National Curriculum subjects such as engineering, history, social changes, geography, art and transport. The room is also available for meetings of staff involved in railway business and for hire by outside organisations.
  • The railway shop, formerly located in the station building, has been transferred to the centre. This has provided the opportunity to improve the facilities and extend the range of merchandise on offer.
  • A reconstruction of the goods office as it was in the early 1900s. This uses original items and can be viewed from within the shop area.
  • Improved toilet facilities, with provision for the disabled and a baby changing room.

 

Warehouse

Across the station yard from the Goods Shed is the former warehouse, originally built in 1873. This had its own rail connection and was used for agricultural produce until the mid 1960s, most recently by the Southern Counties Agricultural Trading Society (SCATS). The building has since been converted into offices, although the exterior appearance remains much as it has always been. It now has no connection with railway business. 

Next to the former warehouse is the cattle dock siding where wagons were berthed for loading and unloading livestock and goods. At one time, up to 14 tons of watercress a day were despatched to destinations all over the country and this explains why the line is now marketed as The Watercress Line. Some of the livestock pens have been reinstated on the small platform next to the siding, to show how things were.  Nowadays the siding provides storage space for railway rolling stock. It is also used to load and unload locomotives and rolling stock transferred by road to and from other railways. Manoeuvring these huge trailers along the narrow station approach provides a severe test of skill for the drivers!

   

Picnic Site

The way to the picnic site is up the slope next to the cattle dock.  This grass-covered area has tables and benches for the use of visitors and offers a grandstand view of trains travelling to and from Ropley.


Alresford Station Building

The main part of the station was built in 1865. It included living accommodation for the stationmaster and had space for all the usual facilities to be found at a moderately important country station. Nowadays the whole building is used by the railway for office staff, operational activities and facilities for visitors. Within the station entrance is the ticket hall, where authentic Edmondson-style tickets to travel are dispensed through the original booking office window. The waiting room and ladies toilet are opposite the booking office.

At the far side of the ticket hall is the doorway to Platform 1, giving access to the West Country Buffet, the Information Office, the gentlemen's toilet and the trains. Notice the swan-neck lamps with their candy twist posts, still lit by gas. The footbridge, at the country end of the station, hasn't always been there although it may look that way. It was originally constructed for the London Brighton and South Coast Railway and served the station at Uckfield. It was transferred to Alresford and erected in its present position by the Mid Hants Building Department, in 1994.

Photos of the bridge and other items at Alresford

With the growth of the business it became necessary to extend the building, such was the need for more space. In 1979 the wooden station building at Lyme Regis, in Dorset, was dismantled and re-erected at Alresford. The building dates from 1903, when the branch from Axminster to Lyme Regis was opened, and fell into disuse following closure of the line in 1967. It has now been given a new lease of life as the ever-popular West Country Buffet.

 

West Country Buffet

   

   

The buffet (open every day except Mondays) provides hot meals and light refreshments at attractive prices, in an historical setting and lit with gas lighting. The main counter dates from the mid-1930s and was transferred together with many fittings from the former Southern Railway buffet at Okehampton, in Devon. When the shop was moved to the Goods Shed the West Country Buffet was extended into the space vacated, enabling the accommodation and range of services on offer to visitors to be expanded and improved. The entrance is on the main platform from where the trains for Alton usually depart.

More information about Alresford station

 

The Journey to Ropley

Trains generally depart from Platform 1, next to the main station building, although Platform 2 is sometimes used, particularly during special events or when an intensive service is being operated. Train movements are controlled from the signal box at the Alton end of Platform 1. The signalling is by semaphore signals. Track circuiting is connected to a visual display in the signal box and enables the signalman to observe the exact position of any train or rail vehicle within the station precincts.

Departures are controlled by the starter signals at the ends of the platforms. Trains heading for Ropley pass under Sun Lane bridge visible from the station. You can just see the ex-Swanwick signals just beyond the bridge, on the right hand side, now used to control down trains approaching Alresford from Ropley.

 


   

Roplet station   

   
Like Alresford, Ropley station dates from the opening of the line in 1865. A lean-to at the country end of the building was later replaced by a two-storey extension with rectangular windows, rather than the round topped ones elsewhere. The extension provided additional accommodation in the station house, which was until early 2004 still occupied by a former railwayman. The entrance hall is similar to the one at Alresford, although the former waiting room is now used as a shop. The way in to the ladies toilet and disabled facilities is from the entrance hall where, in cold weather, you can be sure of a welcoming open real coal fire. 
The booking office, which used to be opposite the shop, has now been removed to provide access to the new visitor attractions that will open soon.  A new doorway into the ground floor of the station house will lead into a large room to be used by schoolchildren and others studying our railway heritage.  
At one end is a reconstruction of the stationmaster's sitting room, as it would have been in the 1950s. 
Photo (16th May 2007): Tony Wood
   
 
 
Beyond will be the entrance to the new shop and garden.  Once the new shop is open, the room currently used will revert to its former role as a waiting room.
 
From the entrance hall a doorway leads onto Platform 2, on the down side of the line. The gentlemen’s toilet is located on this platform. Ropley has always been noted for the topiary and this can still be seen, nowadays kept in excellent order by Mid Hants volunteers.
Seats on the platform offer the opportunity to relax in pleasant surroundings whilst waiting for the train

 

Signal Box & Platform Extensions

The signal box on the down platform was originally used at Netley and commissioned at Ropley in 2007. After completion of this major project, the signal cabin that was at the end of the platform was removed to enable work to start on the down platform extension.

The up platform extension at the Medstead end of the station was also completed in 2007. During the construction of the extension with the water column in its new position, the track was slewed, the point rodding and signal wiring rerouted and the up starter signal repositioned.  


Less obvious are the changes made to the points and trackwork at this end of the station to enable the removal of the former 10 mph speed restriction for trains entering or leaving the loop through the up platform.
 
The longer platform enables longer trains to be accommodated and lets visitors see the locomotives close-up at the platform end. It also avoids having the front carriages of trains off the platform when drivers draw up to take water from the water column. Don't get too close or you might get wet - best grandstand view is from the picnic site.

Historical Locomotive Wheel

This is believed to have started life at Woolwich Arsenal around 1860. It was brought to the railway from the museum at the former Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, now closed. It was found buried in the ground as part of the foundations of a balloon shed, which was demolished in the early 1960s. It has now been mounted on a stand and can be seen just off the down platform, through the gate near the new signal box. A plaque explains its background.

 

Footbridge

The Ropley footbridge first saw service at North Tawton station, on the former LSWR main line from Exeter to Plymouth. When this line was closed to passenger traffic the bridge fell into disuse. In 1983 it was purchased by the Mid Hants Railway and transferred to Ropley, where it offered the prospect of providing a more satisfactory way for visitors to gain access to the up platform.

Also in prospect was a new viewpoint, enabling the station to be seen as never before. Once construction of the splendid new brick piers was completed, the bridge was craned into position and the decking and steps fitted. It was opened for use at Ropley in 1986.   

The station staff will be pleased to conduct the less able visitors over the foot crossing and through these splendid gates to Platform 1 and the picnic site
 
 
 
  Photo (28th May 2007): Craig Nobbs

   

Lineside Path & Picnic Site

For visitors wanting to see the trains in action or to put their cameras to work a footpath next to the railway has been created. This leads from the footbridge end of Platform 1 and extends for about a quarter of a mile towards Alresford.

 
   
   
   
 
 
Behind the up platform (No 1), from where the Alton trains depart, is a grass-covered picnic area with tables and benches for visitors.  As well as the steps near the footbridge you can gain access up the slope further along the platform. 
Opposite the station building there is a small memorial garden for those who contributed to the success of the railway.
 
 

During special events the T-Junction serves hot drinks and refreshments.

An ice cream & soft drinks kiosk is open for those preferring something cool.

There is also an adventure playground for energetic children. 

The site provides a lofty position from which to view the engines taking water at the Medstead end of the station. Across the line the engine shed and yard can be seen, perhaps an inducement to go and have a closer look. The site really comes into its own for the frequent special events that are staged. In particular, twice a year it provides children with an excellent view of the adventures of Thomas Tank Engine and his friends, on the railway below. 

Engine Shed and Yard

In the days of the London and South Western Railway and its successors Ropley had a small goods yard, used by the pick-up goods trains to serve the local community. The site of the yard is now occupied by the Mid Hants Engineering Centre, where the locomotives are restored and maintained. Major work on passenger coaches is also undertaken here. The shed was completed in 1981 and was hailed as a great improvement on the primitive polythene tents that had been used until then.

Visitors are welcome to look round the yard and to peep into the engine shed to see the work under way. Access is from the station forecourt, past the shed on the side away from the station building.

Boiler Maintenance Section & Water Tower 

This important new facility for the Locomotive Department is at the Medstead end of the yard at Ropley. It was originally planned to use it as a running shed but there was a more urgent need for a dedicated area for maintaining and repairing the locomotive boilers. This specialised work by highly qualified and skilled engineers can now be carried out under cover, to the delight of the staff who were previously obliged to work in the open.  The facility includes a range of machine tools, a small enclosed workshop and storage for hand tools and consumables.

At the same end of the yard, near the exit to the running line, the water tower can be seen.  This originally saw service on the Longmoor Military Railway, at Liss.

Wheel Drop

On the down side behind the signal box is the new wheeldrop shed, probably the most visible of the more recent improvements to the railway.  The wheeldrop was formally at Bricklayers Arms, just off London's Old Kent Road, and it has now been given a new lease of life following its installation next to the Ropley engine shed.  This facility has made a dramatic reduction in the cost and time needed to service wheelsets, axleboxes, etc and improve the availability of locomotives to work trains.  
 

The Journey to Medstead

Trains leave from Platform 1 and immediately pass the locomotive shed and yard on the right. Visitors will notice that the locomotive is working rather harder than on the Alresford to Ropley section. This is because of the 1-in-60 gradient, which is quite steep for a railway.

After passing under Bighton Road bridge the train enters a shallow cutting before emerging onto a high embankment. Soon, on the right can be seen the A31 main road, which runs parallel to the railway for much of its length. Around halfway to Medstead, next to the A31, can be seen The Shant. This is believed to be the last remnant of the accommodation used by the ‘navvies’ who built the railway. It is currently used as a kitchen and bathroom showroom. Consider the height of the embankment on which the train now runs and the depth of the cutting on the approach to Medstead. In the 1860s there were no mechanical excavators, just shovels, wheelbarrows and muscle power.


 

 Medstead & Four Marks station  


Medstead, or more correctly Medstead and Four Marks, is the highest station in Hampshire, 630 feet above sea level. It was not one of the original stations, having been opened in 1868, three years after the opening of the line. It was initially intended to serve Medstead a mile or so away but with the growth of Four Marks nearby the name of the station was eventually changed to recognise the situation.

There is limited car parking on the station forecourt and a free car park in Four Marks, behind the Total petrol station, five minutes walk away.

The station has been restored to how it was in the middle of the last century.  The main building is rather more modest than those at Alresford and Ropley. The entrance from the station yard leads into a ticket hall and waiting area, which in winter are kept cosy and warm by a coal-fired heater. The ladies room (heated by a blazing coal fire in winter) and toilet is off the ticket hall. Tickets are sold through the traditional style window at one side of the hall. A glance through the ticket office doorway to the left of the window reveals a fascinating glimpse into the past where there is an open coal fireplace, heavy wooden desk and chair and all the other essential paraphernalia needed for the administration at the station.  When looking round it is hard to believe that the building was heavily vandalised between 1973, when the line was closed by British Railways, and 1980, when restoration started. So much so that one option considered at the time was complete demolition, although ultimately this did not occur.

Beyond the ticket hall are the platforms and the gentlemen's toilet. The station building is on the up side of the line, next to the platform from where the trains for Alton depart. The station depicts a typical Southern Railway country station, an idyllic location on a warm summer day. It is fascinating to watch and listen to a train approaching up the long straight from Ropley climbing the 1-in-60 gradient. At first it is hardly visible but as it gradually gets bigger the hard-working steam locomotive can be heard more easily, reaching a crescendo as it enters the station. The arrival of a train heralds much activity. Once it has departed the station is restored to tranquillity, with little more to listen to than birds singing and bees humming.

More information about Medstead and Four Marks station

   

Signal Box

This is at the Alton end of the up platform and was brought into use in 1985. The box was transferred from Wilton, near Salisbury, after BR decided it was redundant. At Medstead it replaces an almost identical box which was demolished by BR in 1969. 

 

Footbridge

This was another major project for the Mid Hants Building Department. The footbridge formerly served the Isle of Wight Central Railway’s Cowes station, which closed in 1966. The structure was transferred to Medstead and after refurbishment was hoisted into position on the newly-built piers in September 1995. The footbridge was officially opened for use at Medstead in October 1996.

 

   

Waiting Shelter

On the down platform (Alresford-bound) the waiting shelter was demolished in the 1960s, so that waiting for a train on this side in winter could be a somewhat bleak experience. However, in 1993 the shelter was replaced by an almost identical structure on the original foundations, so that intending passengers once again have a refuge from the more extreme weather conditions.

 

The Building and Signal & Telegraph Departments

These two organisations each have their own headquarters buildings at Medstead, on the up side of the railway at the country end of the station. The photo shows the view from the footbridge, with the S&T building on the left and the Building Department's green workshop on the right.

   

 

   

The site was formerly a goods yard and this is being recreated, complete with crane, loading gauge and other items that were present in days gone by. Facilities for wagon repairs and maintenance have also been established at the country end of the yard.

The Signal & Telegraph Department building was constructed by the Mid Hants Building Department. It was commissioned at Medstead in 1997 and provides both office and workshop facilities. The Building Department workshop started life as a grain store at Alresford. It was reconstructed at Medstead and gradually brought into use from towards the end of 1999. It now contains the tools, equipment and materials of this busy department and allows jobs to be carried out under cover without commandeering waiting rooms and booking halls in the closed season!

     

The Journey to Alton

On leaving Medstead the train enters a deep cutting and climbs uphill for a short distance to the summit of the line, 652 feet above sea level. This is under Boyneswood Road bridge, a high three-arch bridge carrying the road from Four Marks to Medstead. The summit position is marked by lineside notices, on both sides of the railway. It is now downhill all the way to Alton, some four miles distant.

Three miles from Medstead is the site of Butts Junction where the Meon Valley line to Fareham and the Basingstoke line diverged. This is where the 1 in 60 downward gradient eases for the final mile into Alton station. The trackbed of the Meon Valley line, on the right, is overgrown but can still be picked out just before passing over Butts Bridge, which is actually two bridges, used by road traffic west of Alton town centre. Also at this point, to the left, was the line to Basingstoke, now just a memory following the removal of the embankment that carried it.  Again on the left are the remains of the signal box which was abolished in 1935, after the closure of the Basingstoke line. From then on the double track was operated as two single lines from Alton. One served the Mid Hants line and the other the Meon Valley line, until that too was closed in 1955.

Shortly before entering Alton station the line passes the brewery (on the left) for which Alton is well known. On this stretch some of the double track has been reinstated to enable two Watercress Line trains to pass each other outside the station. On the right is Kings Pond, with a population of ducks and other wildfowl.

On the return trip, trains travelling from Alton to Medstead need a good head of steam to see them up the hill to the summit.

 


   

Alton station


Visitors arriving at Alton station by car can use the pay and display park at the station. However the charges are designed more for commuters, so that it is usually cheaper to park in town centre car parks, go to Medstead and Four Marks, or to the Alresford end of the line. Tickets for Watercress Line services are available from the SWT booking office or from the on-train Ticket Collector.

The Watercress Line uses Platform 3 of the Network Rail station, which has been decorated in late Southern Railway livery throughout.  Access to Platform 3 is over the footbridge. If advance warning is given arrangements can be made for less able visitors to use the foot crossing over the Network Rail tracks, although the easier level access at Alresford is recommended.  Toilets, including facilities for the disabled, are on Platform 3.

 

  

Shop and Information Kiosk

   

On Platform 3 are an information kiosk and a shop (within the station building). Between them they can provide full information on Watercress Line services and a range of railway-related merchandise, as well as hot drinks and, of course, ice cream for those hot summer days when the children may be fretful.

  

Trains

The trains from Alresford terminate at Alton, so it is necessary for the engine to uncouple, run round the train and couple up at the country end ready for the return trip. For those wishing to view the engine close up this is usually the best location to do it, as the engine is on the platform after running round the carriages. If there is time the crew will be pleased to welcome visitors to the footplate. The children usually love this, although some find it a little daunting.

Before leaving for Medstead the engine crew will be found preparing the locomotive for the climb up the hill. With a four mile climb, three of them at a constant 1-in-60, plenty of steam will be required. Because of these gradients on the line the train crews in the past referred to the route as ‘over the Alps’.

Signalling

There are currently no fixed signals in operation for Watercress Line trains at Alton, so all signalling is carried out using flags. This is usually perfectly adequate but it does lead to difficulties when an intensive service, such as during special events, is operated.

A major project is now under way to install a modern high-tech signalling system, which uses colour lights, route indicators and track circuiting. This system will be centred on the signal box visible just outside the station. It will enable more than one train to be handled at a time and permit shunting operations within the station area to be carried out without the need to clear such operations with Medstead. It will also inform the drivers of trains approaching from Medstead about the readiness of the station to accept them and about the route to be used to approach. The result will be an efficient and flexible system able to handle a wide range of services.

The sharp-eyed passenger will be able to spot some of the new signal gantries and posts already in place, as they travel on the line to and from Medstead.

   

Conclusion

I hope this guide has helped to ensure your visit is as enjoyable as possible. I shall endeavour to update it from time to time, so that it reflects the latest position. I would welcome any suggestions for additions and improvements. Finally I would like to record my gratitude to the contributors to the various Watercress Line publications, particularly the Mid Hants News. These have been my main source of information and inspiration for the guide.

Mike Pearson      

.

Fauna of the Mid Hants Railway - by Roger Thornton

An 'invitation' from Jim Pitt to submit a few words for the magazine about the fauna of the Mid Hants Railway as seen from the driving seat of a diesel unit is not wisely ignored so here goes:
The differing reactions to a train of the various species is a constant source of interest, foxes and domestic cats seem to detect an approaching train very early and are rarely seen other than at some distance whereas rabbits and grey squirrels only seem to become aware of a train when it is almost upon them. First reaction is to run and the second to think where to run, fortunately they are usually quick enough to avoid disaster. Deer seem to have pre-planned escape routes which they use even though a train is between them and 'safety' which prompts the occasional hasty brake application!
Birds also have varied reactions to an oncoming train, cock pheasants might just stand and watch a train go by or they might make an undignified last minute rush for cover. Pigeons are often encountered on the track and tend to leave their escape until the last moment; luck rather than judgment seems to be their saviour. Partridge also find the p-way attractive and are inclined to fly along in front of the train until they work out that turning off to one side is safer and less effort. Buzzards are regularly seen along the line in recent years and the sight of one of these impressive birds launching itself into flight is possibly the best part of the journey.
Finally it should be noted that seeing the wildlife along the MHR is very much a matter of luck, one day nothing the next everything.
   
Written for Mid Hants News #129 and reproduced here with Roger's permission


For SATELLITE NAVIGATION DEVICES, AUTOROUTE SOFTWARE, etc., needing postcode information:
Alresford station: SO24 9JG
Ropley station: SO24 0BL
Medstead & Four Marks station: GU34 5HN
Alton station: GU34 2PZ


   

   

   
  The Watercress Line, The Railway Station, Alresford, Hampshire, England, SO24 9JG  
Tel No:  01962 733810            Fax No:  01962 735448
e-mail:    reservations@watercressline.co.uk
www.watercressline.co.uk

   

 

Copyright © 2007:  Mid Hants Railway Ltd  &  Mike Pearson
www.watercressline.co.uk
Webmaster: Tony Wood   -   tonywood@watercressline.co.uk

 

Quick Guide to the Watercress Line

Alresford Tourist Information

Alresford station

Medstead & Four Marks station

Alton station

LSWR Type 1 Signalboxes

The Old Road

Other pages of general interest on this website

More photos of Mid Hants Railway

Hampshire Gazetteer

Latest News from the Watercress Line

Loco Shed

Views from the Loco Yard

How to get to the Watercress Line