On the south coast of England near Portsmouth lies a small isle known as Hayling Island, well-known for being a long-suffering caravan and tourist destination as well as another pleasant semi-rural corner of Hampshire where lots of houses have appeared over the years. Although visited by many tourists each summer, the island's seven square miles are served by just a couple of bus routes running in opposite directions around the same loop. However, this was not always the case, as between 1865 and 1963 the island was also served by a thriving railway line, often referred to as the Billy Railway.
Havant station opened in 1847 on the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (LB&SCR) extension from Chichester to Portsmouth, with a link line from Havant to Fareham appearing a month later, allowing passengers to reach London via Eastleigh on the lines of the London and South West Railway (LSWR). The direct line from London via Guildford reached Godalming in 1849, but it took a small company called the Portsmouth Direct Railway to build a speculative line from Godalming to Havant. The line was taken over by the LSWR, leading to a pitched battle as the LB&SCR tried to stop the LSWR from using its tracks at Havant. The LSWR won, and a direct service from London to Havant became possible.
The Hayling Railway
In 1851, an Act of Parliament was passed giving the Duke of Norfolk permission to build a horse-drawn railway from Havant to Langstone, but nothing came of the plans. However, in 1860 permission was given to Furniss, a railway contractor, to build a single-track line from Havant to Hayling Island, crossing Langstone Harbour via a wooden viaduct with a swing bridge in the middle. The construction of the railway involved the reclaiming of around a million square metres1 of mudflats in Langstone Harbour, with wharves being built next to the line's course. The original plans had the line travelling on an embankment some distance from the western coast of the island and terminating by the ferry to Portsmouth from Ferry Point, but it was found to be much cheaper to build the line on the shore.
It is likely that the line acquired its name early on in its life, with it coming indirectly from the Puffing Billy, one of the earliest steam locomotives. In those days expressions such as 'going like Billy-o' were commonplace, and several old steam lines around the world are referred to as Billy railways. The line opened to goods in 1865, and was taken over in 1872 by the LB&SCR, with the first passenger trains running in 1897. The LB&SCR bought the line in 1922, and while the LB&SCR became part of Southern Railways a year later, the line was nationalised in 1948, being part of British Rail for the rest of its days. The line came in handy during World War II as the weight limit on the road bridge to Hayling Island meant that heavy armament had to be transferred by train.
The line began by heading east from Havant station, branching off to the south just before the point where the line to London branches off towards the north. The line would have crossed New Lane by a separate level crossing, and then passed behind the houses, quickly curving towards the south. The track bed of the line between this point and Langstone is now a public footpath, and so the bridge where the line passes underneath East Street is still standing today.
The track bed of the line follows the course of Lower Grove Road and passes underneath the Havant Bypass (A27). It then runs behind Hamilton Close, Southbrook Road, Longmead Gardens and Langstone Avenue, crossing the main road just next to the end of Langstone Road. The line would cross the road by a level crossing that had never been registered and was technically illegal, though this remained right up until the closure of the line. The track bed then turns southwards and runs towards the shore of Langstone Harbour, heading onto an embankment built on the mudflats of the harbour as it reaches the coast.
Nowadays, the embankment ends abruptly and is followed by a series of concrete piles at regular intervals which could be easily mistaken for harbour defences. The trail of lumps used to support the wooden viaduct, and lead across the harbour to another embankment, which then runs onto the north-west corner of Hayling Island. The only break in the row of concrete lumps comes where the swing bridge used to be, with both this and the two embankments indicating just how close the line was to the water. A replica semaphore railway signal is situated on the southern embankment.
The line then followed the west coast of the island, calling at a small halt west of North Hayling, and eventually coming inland a little to reach its final destination at Hayling Island station2, which unsurprisingly lies just north of the junction between Station Road and Staunton Avenue. Hayling Island station has since been converted into a theatre, while the entire track bed between the theatre and the south shore of Langstone harbour now forms the Hayling Billy cycle route.
The line was run throughout its life by Stroudley Terrier steam engines, the only locomotives light enough to fall inside the severe weight restrictions of the Langstone Harbour swing bridge. Up to four trains would run each hour from Havant to Hayling Island and back, although there were no passing places on the single-track line. The level crossing with the main road at Langstone had gates and was manned, as was the swing bridge across the harbour.
End of the Line
In December 1962, the Transport Users Consultative Committee came to Havant Town Hall to shut down the line, with the cost of rebuilding the decrepit wooden bridge as their main weapon. Although the line was mile-for-mile one of the more profitable railways in the country and was very popular with locals, the Committee recommended that the line be closed. The last trains ran in November 1963, with a final 'farewell tour' running just before the railway was closed. One of the reasons for the closure, the 'ageing coach stock', was actually whisked off to other parts of the country for re-use as soon as the Billy Railway closed. Meanwhile, the track metal and sleepers were removed along with the bridge's superstructure, leaving just a flat mud track and the bridges' supports.
During the 1980s, a group of local enthusiasts planned to rebuild a section of the railway, but ran into the usual troubles of their proposed gauge being too narrow and the council already having made the route into a cycle path. Instead, a short narrow-gauge railway was built on the south coast of Hayling Island and was named the East Hayling Light Railway. There are still, of course, campaigns to re-open the line, including ideas for a combined train and cycle route. However, any new bridge across the harbour would have to allow for sailing boats leaving the harbour, with the only remaining means of crossing the harbour being the road bridge, which is high enough for boats to pass under, and the Wadeway, a bank of mud which is passable during low tide.