Old railway tracks, Gloucestershire
PUBLISHED: 11:58 16 December 2010 | UPDATED: 11:40 28 February 2013
How old railway tracks are proving a valuable legacy for walkers and cyclists by June Lewis
They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway-share
And charmed it with smiles and soap
When Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) wrote these lines in 1876, for The Hunting of the Snark, railway shares were the investment news of the day as by then railroads were crisscrossing the kingdom, changing the life and livelihood of a generation who had grown up in a horse-powered world. By the end of the Victorian era England had one of the most comprehensive railway networks in Europe. The potential and possibilities for travelling and trading made investment risks worth the taking for the private enterprises, funded by the shareholding public, which initially financed the numerous individual companies that ran the railways. For the mainly rural Cotswold towns and villages this new mode of transporting goods, farm and local produce and livestock to a wider market and bringing back coal and heavy materials for the emerging industries, revolutionised life in every community.
Building styles and facilities reflected the needs of the various towns and villages and for the serious railway enthusiast these are architectural chapters in the history of an area: stations that served mainly passenger trains to London or Birmingham required longer platforms and comfortable waiting rooms whereas a branch line serving a cluster of farming communities needed goods yards and sheds and cattle pens close by a small ticket office and a smaller waiting room.
The earliest railway system to serve the county of Gloucestershire was aimed at serving the industries - coal and iron from the Forest of Dean, coal north east of Bristol and stone from the Cotswold hill quarries. Passenger rail travel developed from 1840 when the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway opened its first section from Bromsgrove to Cheltenham. Four years later the Bristol and Gloucester Railway linked the north and south Cotswolds by rail, with routes to reach London and the far south west, with a many a track serving towns and villages to join up with the main lines. Edinburgh and Paris were, by one railroad or another, just at the end of the line. The rise and fall of what many regard as the golden age of steam has been so well documented that even those who were never part of 'the railway children' era still show an interest in that important chapter in our history. An older generation often lament the passing of the railway age and question the wisdom of the axe wielded so dramatically in the 1960s to sever these arteries of transport, especially when faced with the congestion of today's road traffic.
It is not logistically or realistically possible to reinstate those straight and level routes, many have been built over at one point or another with little evidence left of a station or halt having ever been alongside those stretches of abandoned, trackless routes. But what has been left as a form of legacy of that once upon a railway time is a network of quiet country walks, away from the noise and danger of road traffic, going deep into our countryside rich in flora and fauna. Here and there the railway walker will chance upon some relic of what had once been: decades of disuse with the ravages wrought by time and weather along with vigorous under and overgrowth have almost disguised old cattle pens, footbridges and underbridges, stiles and gates, embankments and abutments; nostalgic, almost whimsical, punctuation marks along the route of history.
Plans are afoot to make a cycle track along the four mile stretch between Lechlade and Fairford at what was, literally, the end of the line for the single track route from Witney. This would be similar to the designated cycle and footpath on lengths of the old Nailsworth branch line. Twelve circular walks along abandoned railway lines have been researched and published by Major Martin Green. The Major's keen and observant eye picks out the railway fences and boundary markers, the culverts and embankments which are still the visible clues as to their purpose in the whole scheme of railway engineering as well as other interesting features along the way.
The walk along the Nailsworth branch line starts from the former goods yard of the station which opened in 1867. According to press reports of the time, the cutting of the first sod some three years earlier was followed by great celebrations in the town including a dinner for some 120 people in the Subscription Rooms. The rather grand station building still stands alongside what is now the cycleway and footpath.
A relic of the Second World War sits in the centre of the rail track of the Malmesbury branch line at a point which had become disused by then to allow for one of the concrete pill boxes to be built on it. The pill box formed part of the defence line intended to prevent German invaders reaching the port of Bristol.
Other examples of the obstructions constructed as part of the war time defence line are to be seen on the Tetbury branch line walk. These are tubular concrete anti tank bollards: Major Green has also written a walks book following the Stop Line Green defence line, illustrating in detail the various types of pill boxes, anti tank traps and bollards and river bank revetting that were built along a route which looped along the west side of the Cotswolds. Triumphal arches spanned the streets of Tetbury on the opening of its railway, with some 200 passengers boarding the first train at 8.20 am to go to Kemble; on their return early afternoon the intrepid travellers were processed in style for a celebration lunch at the White Hart Hotel. Despite the heyday of transporting well heeled and smartly groomed polo ponies and school girls on specially chartered trains for nearby Westonbirt, regular services carrying thousands of churns of milk from some twenty local farms, and excursion trains for the everyday folk to take in such delights as the famous Tetbury Flower Show and Fete, the line was axed as trade was lost to the upsurge in road traffic.
Schoolchildren were given a half day holiday to greet the first train to arrive at Fairford station on 15th January 1873. The single track to Witney opened up a whole new world for country folk from the dozen or so villages it served on its way to Oxford and beyond. The planned through route from Fairford to Cheltenham never materialised due mainly to disputes between the GWR and the Midland Railway to whose lines the new railway would connect. These issues were never resolved and the Fairford branch line remained a terminus, but proved an invaluable artery of transportation during the two world wars to carry thousands of troops and tons of military equipment. In the immediate post war period, materials and personnel for the major airfields at Brize Norton and Fairford came by 'Old Tom' or the 'Fairford Flyer'. Little Faringdon level crossing makes a significant starting and finishing point for a circular walk along the part of the track where field scabious, St John's wort and Our Lady's bed straw flower in profusion in mid summer, with hedgerows and verges billowing with untended and unrestricted growth - like many of these old railway tracks it is a country lover's delight of a walk, with fascinating relics of an incredible civil engineering past scattered like abandoned toys from a story of once upon a railway time.