Tetbury Goods Shed Art Centre: Railway line to arts venue
PUBLISHED: 11:07 02 July 2019 | UPDATED: 11:14 02 July 2019
Stephen Roberts tells the story of the Tetbury railway line, long abandoned but now coming back to life as an arts venue
The final train puffed away from Tetbury on April 5, 1964 with all due fan-fair. If a small town is defined by its connection to the national rail network, then one can imagine a few tears being shed as the last service of all disappeared into the distance, its characteristic sounds becoming fainter until they were extinguished forever. Unlike some Beeching closures, there was to be no happy homecoming (or preservation) for the railway in Tetbury.
There is a light at the end of this particular railway tunnel, however, for the recent award of a £5,800 Heritage Lottery Grant will enable the fond memories of those who recall the Tetbury branch line to be recorded, collated and exhibited at the old railway's spiritual home, its goods shed, now occupied by the Tetbury Goods Shed Arts Centre.
We have to begin, however, at Kemble, an extant station on the Swindon-Gloucester 'Golden Valley Line', which was first used in 1845, but only so that patrons could change between the mainline and the branch to Cirencester, which had opened a few years before in 1841. The railway company, the Great Western Railway (GWR) had to overcome a lot of opposition from local worthy and landowner, Squire Gordon of Kemble, who didn't want noisy, noisome railways disturbing his peace, or local riff-raff turning up in their droves expecting to catch trains. It would take until 1882 for Kemble to become a public station with road access.
The nearest station to Tetbury had been the ominously-named 'Tetbury Road' (1845-82), the suffix 'Road' indicating that this was the closest the railway was going to get you, but that you now had a healthy hike awaiting you up the road. Given that Tetbury Road was a full seven miles from the town, I'm sure you can appreciate the need for some decent shoe leather. Tetbury Road was closed when Kemble got its road access: what Tetbury really wanted though was its own railway.
Tetbury, replete with its mid-17th century Town Hall, 18th century houses and box-pewed Gothic Revival church, completed by Francis Hiorne in 1781, was ready to embrace the railway age. It was felt that the town was missing out by not having its own, proper connection to the outside world. This was a birth with a lengthy gestation period, however, as the first attempt to build a line had begun in 1865, then, after the original company was wound up, local MP Col. Nigel Kingscote (1830-1908) intervened, calling a public meeting to consider, 'the propriety of taking the necessary steps for obtaining railway communication between the Town of Tetbury and the GWR near Kemble Junction.' Quite.
Those awkward Gordons had to be mollified, however, and this time it was the turn of Miss Anna Gordon to be obstructive, until protracted negotiations on the part of the GWR finally persuaded her that the new railway should junction at Kemble, which accordingly became a public station (1882) in readiness. Work on a new Tetbury branch project commenced in October/November 1887. Just over two years later the new standard-gauge 7½ mile branch line opened, with much hullabaloo, in December 1889. The junction was at Kemble, the terminus at Tetbury, and there was just one halt in between to begin with, at Culkerton. Prior to boundary changes, the station drive at Tetbury was partly in Gloucestershire and partly in Wiltshire. It was that close to the border. The line meanwhile got an almost immediate boost when a new cattle market opened in Tetbury, in 1893. Local people made the most of their new-found freedom too as excursions commenced to London, Cirencester (by using the other branch from Kemble), and even the seaside.
Tetbury's branch line has stories associated with it that reflect its essentially rural nature and evoke the spirit of 'The Titfield Thunderbolt'. There was the story of the farmer who moved his entire operation to Beverston (two miles from Tetbury) by train in 1946, how rabbit-traps were set alongside the line, and farmers' children would deface the coinage of the realm by placing coins on the tracks. And then there was the Maharajah of Jaipur, who used the line to convey his polo ponies to Westonbirt (three miles from Tetbury).
The line was gradually upgraded. Rodmarton Platform was added in 1904. A little bit of history was created here, for this was the first GWR 'Platform'. Small unmanned stops were normally 'halts' on the GWR, but the 'Platform' suffix was borrowed from Scotland, where it was the usual nomenclature for a tiny station that was singly-manned, as against the 'halt', that was not. The wooden Tetbury station was upgraded to brick by 1916. Jackaments Bridge halt was opened in July 1939 to serve RAF Kemble. There was another war just around the corner. Crisis over, the halt would close in 1948.
Culkerton actually closed as well (1956) but was re-opened (1959), along with two other stops, Church's Hill Halt and Trouble House Halt, the only halt in the country just serving a pub, and one that was immortalised in the Flanders & Swann song 'Slow Train' (1963), which became a lament for the many quaintly-named railway halts that would be disposed of by Dr. Beeching. 'The grass grows high at Dog Dyke, Tumby Woodside and Trouble House Halt'.
Those halts opened (or re-opened) when a diesel railcar, with a top speed of 55 mph, was introduced, the railway's attempt to complete against local bus services and save costs. Services on the branch were also increased to eight trains in each direction per day, with an extra one on a Saturday. Traffic accordingly increased by an amazing 150%, although how profitable this was, or wasn't, is an entirely different matter. At its apogee then, the little branch line had no fewer than four intermediate stations (five if you include Jackaments Bridge), before the terminus was reached at Tetbury, plus a healthy passenger service.
For most of its working life the branch had seen five passenger trains in each direction per day. These would be conveyed by steam tank engines. Two or three passenger coaches would be coupled to any freight wagons that had business on the line, so 'mixed' traffic was very much the order of the day. Water for the locos was supplied by a nearby well, with a steam pump being used to raise the water. Almost the last opportunity to see steam on the line was the end of January 1959, after which it was rather less romantic diesel railcars (I say 'almost' as the very last train in April '64 was a steam 'special'). We certainly knew how to bring the curtain down.
Dr. Beeching's report (March 1963) had the Tetbury branch in its sights and the bean-counters didn't waste any time. In July '63 the goods and parcels operation had ceased, and the engine shed had also closed by the end of that year. When the last day came feelings ran high and passengers loaded a coffin onto a Kemble-bound train at Trouble House Halt. It was destined ultimately for Paddington and Dr. Beeching himself (not for him to climb into I might add).
After the final passenger train ran in April '64 the track was lifted with almost indecent haste, as contractors got underway in the July. By the autumn anything metallic, and/or saleable, had gone. Regrettably, in the early 70s, the charming station and engine shed were demolished. Only the goods shed and livestock loading pens were retained to indicate that there had ever been a railway here.
With the removal or demolition of assets, and the sale of the track bed to adjacent landowners, there was little or any likelihood that the railway would ever be allowed to return in the future. Instead, the goods shed was acquired by Tetbury Town Council in the mid-1990s and redeveloped into what has become a flourishing arts venue, from spring 2017. Part volunteer-run, the Goods Shed aims to become a regional centre of excellence for the arts, whilst also utilising an historic site that once brought people into the town but can now bring excellent arts and entertainment to its townsfolk. The Shed has also gained Heritage Lottery funding to enable the collation of the memories of those people who used the branch railway during the 1950s and '60s, which will help to source an anecdotal audio-visual exhibition on the line's history.
Julia Hasler has worked on the renovation project for many years and was instrumental in obtaining the recent Heritage Lottery Grant.
"We felt that it was important to try and capture people's memories of the railway while we still had the chance (it closed 55 years ago, so our window of opportunity is limited). We've already found that everyone is incredibly interested in the history of the Tetbury branch line and the role that it played in the town's story. With the grant money we'll be able to interview and film those who remember the line, editing their contributions into short videos that we can show in the goods shed. We'll also have more photographs that we can put on display, plus a schools' pack to enthuse the younger generation, and generally more information boards around the station site, so that visitors can visualise what was once there. We have opened up the track bed between Tetbury and the Trouble House as a family friendly footpath and cycle route: it would be fantastic if eventually this route could run all the way to Kemble station.
"Tetbury has a higher than average proportion of retired people and residents without cars, so it is important that there are facilities that can be easily accessed. The Goods Shed is an important hub in this respect, providing entertainment and just a place to meet up. The café is doing well also. This is inside the shed during the winter, but ventures outside in the nicer weather, plus utilises the new railway carriage, which is half café and half meeting room / workshop area. The Goods Shed is also easily accessible for those with disabilities. The railway certainly played its part in the life of the town in the past and it's fitting that the Goods Shed is continuing in the same vein today and helping us to maintain a sense of community.
"We are expecting to complete our railway memories project during June and will hope to welcome many visitors to our exhibition after that. Whilst they might not be able to use the railway anymore, we'd hope that a visit to our Goods Shed might be the next best thing."
Share your memories
If anyone has memories they would like to share, they can contact the Goods Shed using firstname.lastname@example.org, or by ringing 01666 505496.