The Mid-Hants1 Railway, known affectionately as 'The Watercress Line', is one of Hampshire's most popular tourist attractions. The only standard-gauge steam railway line left in Hampshire, it runs for ten miles (16km) between the towns of Alresford2 and Alton passing through the stations of Ropley and Medstead & Four Marks.
Running through the South Downs, skirting close to the National Park, the Mid-Hants Railway contains one of the steepest ruling gradients3 of any preserved railway in Britain, and the highest station in Southern England. This means that only powerful tender locomotives can run on the line.
History of the Watercress Line
The history of the railway dates back to June 1861, when the Alton, Alresford & Winchester Railway was officially incorporated. At the time the London & South Western Railway had a main line from London to Southampton via Winchester and a line from Guildford to Alton, yet the people living in Alresford felt isolated. A proposal to build an independent 17-mile (27km) line connecting Alton with Winchester through the town of Alresford was made, which would enable the watercress grown around Alresford to be transported directly to London. In early 1865 the railway changed its name to the Mid-Hants (Alton) Railway and in October 1865 the line officially opened. At first the line's trains were supplied by their larger neighbour, the LSWR. In 1880 the LSWR took a lease on the line and bought it outright in 1884.
The station at Alton soon developed with additional branches serving nearby towns, with the Basingstoke & Alton Light Railway opening in 1901 and a line from Alton to Fareham along the Meon Valley opening in 1903. In 1923 the line, along with the rest of the London & South Western Railway, became part of Southern Railway.
The line soon gained the nickname the 'Watercress Line' after the common cargo carried along it to London on a daily basis. The area around Alresford, with its pure water, filtered through the chalk of the South Downs, is particularly well known for its abundant watercress crop. The watercress was transported to Covent Garden, where it was sold wrapped in paper cones, similar to a cone of chips, as either a staple part, or indeed only part, of a labourer's lunch, when it was nicknamed the 'working man's bread'. It was also a staple part of the nation's school dinners throughout the 1930s.
As watercress, gram for gram, contains more vitamin C than oranges, more vitamin E than broccoli, more calcium than whole milk, more iron than spinach and more folate than bananas, it is the top crop in the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index, scoring 1,000 out of 1,000. To this day Alresford is the capital of watercress growing, holding an annual watercress festival in the superfood's honour. During the one-day festival, the Watercress Line provides a unique park & ride service from Ropley to Alresford, which is probably the cheapest way to experience the railway.
The Mid-Hants Railway was never a particularly busy line, but it was able to provide a useful alternative route between London and Southampton or Bournemouth. During the World Wars, as the line led to the barracks town of Winchester and had direct access from the main Army centre at Aldershot to the principal port of Southampton, it was a vital military artery, but at all other times was considered largely redundant. Although there had been regular trains to London along the line until 1937, in that year the line from London was electrified as far as Alton. Southern Railway decided not to electrify along the Mid-Hants Railway itself, ensuring that the railway remained a minor branch line. The line to Basingstoke had already closed in 19324, and the line to Fareham closed to passengers in 1955, with freight between Alton and Farringdon continuing until 1968.
During the Beeching era, rumours that the route would close began to circulate, especially as electric trains could only travel as far as Alton, with diesel or steam engines required for the rest of the journey to Winchester. British Rail finally announced that the line between Alton and Winchester would close on 4 February, 1973.
Struggling to Save the Watercress Line
In 1972 many local rail enthusiasts, anticipating the expected closure of the line, formed two societies with the aim of saving the entire 17-mile line between Alton and Winchester. The Winchester & Alton Railway Company and the Mid-Hants Railway Preservation Society began a fund-raising campaign, aiming to raise £800,000 to buy the entire line from Alton to Winchester from British Rail. Their aim was for the Winchester & Alton Railway Company to run an independent daily diesel service during the week from Alton to Winchester Springvale Junction, a proposed station located 2 miles (3km) outside the city centre where the Watercress Line met the main line from London to the South. The line would then be used by the Mid-Hants Railway Preservation Society as a tourist steam railway attraction at weekends.
Sadly by May 1975, the campaign had only raised just over £100,000, far short of the sum needed. As this campaign had failed, the funds were returned to the donors. Instead later that year a second, smaller proposal was made: to save the ten miles of railway land between Alresford and Alton, and as much track as possible. This second appeal raised just £75,000, enough for British Rail to grant them a loan to purchase the land between the two towns and three miles of track between Alresford and Ropley. The rest of the track on the line was removed by British Rail and scrapped in March 1976.
The first steam engine, a Class N 2-6-0 numbered 31874 and built in 1917, arrived in March 1974. This had been saved from the Woodham's Scrapyard in Barry Island5 and was restored in 1975. Through the summer of 1976, preservationists persevered to restore the three miles of line between Alresford and Ropley, and after 31874's first steaming on 4 October, 1976 a Light Railway Order was granted, allowing trains to run. 31874 pulled the very first train on the restored line on 30 April, 1977.
In 1980 a workshop and engine shed were completed in Ropley, allowing more locomotives to arrive to the line and easing the task of restoration for both engines and carriages. The Mid-Hants Railway also paid off the £32,000 loan it owed British Rail and paid £23,000 to BR to rearrange Alton Station in order to allow their full access to the station when the Watercress Line reached the town. This was required to enable the steam heritage line to use the station safely and completely separately from British Railways' electrified track.
1980s: Triumph and Disaster
Following the triumph of the workshop, the railway confidently predicted that the railway would be fully restored by Easter 1983. Short-term loans were taken out to fund the project while a team of volunteers began the task of restoring the run-down Medstead & Four Marks station and re-laying the 3½ miles of track between that station and Ropley in May 1982. It had been planned to lay the track within 13 weeks, but the work was not finished until January 1983. The track failed an official inspection on 24 March and extra work needed to be done to overcome the official objections. The first train into Medstead & Four Marks steamed on 28 May, 1983.
In March 1984 work began on extending the line from Medstead & Four Marks and into Alton, where it would meet the main line. Again the project took much longer than expected, with the line not finished until 12 April, 1985, when the first train, again pulled by 31874, ran from Alresford to Alton. The ambition had been fulfilled.
Yet the railway had no time to rest on its laurels before the financial situation reached crisis point. Many of the railway's creditors demanded payment, the bank refused to cash their cheques and rumours of bankruptcy and the imminent appointment of a Receiver spread. Fortunately 22 of the railway's members raised £55,000 between them, just enough to keep the railway afloat. The situation continued to deteriorate. Shortly after trains to Alton had been restored, the steam service had to be cancelled due to the urgent need to renew pads between the chairs and the sleepers. Service was not resumed until 2 August, 1985. Shortly after, in 1988, a takeover bid for the Mid-Hants Railway was launched, ostensibly to end the problems plaguing the line. This failed and had the knock-on effect of bitterly dividing the volunteers. A Steam-Aid Appeal in 1992 failed to pay off the line's debts and cost-cutting measures took place, but the situation remained grim. What could be done?
Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends Rescue the Railway
With the situation looking grim, and the reliable 31874 in need of a major overhaul, someone had a tremendous idea. The engine 31874 is a 2-6-0, similar, though not identical, to the character of James from the Reverend Awdry's Railway Series, popularly known as Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends. By painting the engine red and making it look like James, it was hoped that visitor numbers would increase slightly. They advertised that on the weekend of the 18-19 September, 1993, James and Percy6 would be at the railway, hoping for a good turnout. Incredibly, the event was so popular that the railway needed every carriage it owned to cope, with each one full up.
Following this success the locomotive department at Ropley began a major overhaul of the tank engine that had played Percy. The Watercress Line is not a railway suitable for tank engines; they cannot cope with the gruelling ascent in each direction, and so it had previously been superfluous. There is no better way to describe this overhaul than with the words of Christopher Awdry7, the son of the Reverend Awdry, creator of theThomas the Tank Engine stories. Christopher has continued his father's work, writing new 'Thomas' stories, so his view can be considered definitive:
It is a fact, often bewailed in my own household, that none of the so-called Thomas lookalikes actually look very much like him at all! So the locomotive department at Ropley set to work. The 0-6-0 Austerity, hitherto masquerading as Percy, had its tank removed and circular cab spectacle windows inserted. The saddletank was replaced by sidetanks, with sections extending forwards above the front wheel-splashers, the coal-bunker was adjusted and a drop-front bufferbeam was fabricated to honour a request by Britt Allcroft (Thomas) Limited8, naturally fully conversant with what was going on. Four months later, out of the loco shops at Ropley emerged the most lookalike Thomas yet, to make a triumphant debut during a ten-day stint in April 1994. Despite the time of year, 29,000 visitors turned out to see him and his scarlet friend, and the event was considered an outstanding success.
The railway has regularly hosted Day Out with Thomas events since then. Fortunately since then the railway has been able to consolidate its position and is no longer under threat. Indeed, the railway has gained a strong reputation for the quality of its engine restoration work.
Tragically in 2010 a fire at Ropley's recently built Carriage & Wagon Workshop destroyed the two carriages, railway tender and a diesel shunter stored inside. The line also had difficult two year period when it was forced to close its mainline connection at Alton Station for most of 2019 when the decision was made to replace the Victorian brick Butts Bridge with a wider steel girder to benefit road traffic and work took three months longer than expected due to problems with the bridge's original Victorian foundations. After closing in January 2019 the bridge was re-opened in a ceremony in February 2020 in which world-famous locomotive the Flying Scotsman took pride of place. Unfortunately the Covid pandemic resulted in the Watercress Line's closure for much of 2020.
In December 2020 the Watercress Line made headlines for its Steam Illuminations event when two trains became the world's first to be lit up by 14,000 individually controllable LED lights that change colour and pattern in time to music, designed and operated by a team of arena lighting experts.
The Journey and the Stations
Here is a description of the Watercress Line today, from the current terminus at Alresford North East 'up' to Alton. It is a railway tradition in Britain that lines heading towards London are always 'up' while the line heading away from London is 'Down'. So although the platforms in the stations are numbered 1 and 2, they are more popularly known by railway staff as the 'upside' and 'downside' platforms, depending on which direction they are used for.
The Watercress Line operates both steam tender and diesel locomotives, but not tank engines. All stations have had improvements made. Originally the only station that had footbridges between platforms was Alton, but now all stations have had these added for safety. As with many heritage railways, the Watercress Line operates a Single Line token system to ensure that only one train is running on each section of single-line track at any time. Only the driver that has the token for each section of track is allowed to traverse along it.
Alresford is a picturesque Georgian town, and the station has been recreated to depict the era between the wars. Alresford is also the administrative base for the entire railway and, since the line reopened, the station has undergone expansion without losing its original charm. The main station building, located upside, has been expanded to the east, built from a 1903 station building from Lyme Regis station in Dorset which had closed in 1965. Both platforms have been extended to allow for longer trains, with a footbridge between the two installed that was originally in Uckfield in Sussex. Before this was installed in 1995, the only way between the platforms was via a ground-level board foot-crossing, which could not be used when the trains were in the station as the trains frequently blocked the route. The Old Goods Shed, originally used to store railway goods and mail, has since 2001 housed the line's gift shop and meeting rooms. The other key building at the station is the Signal Box, the only original signal box on the line.
Between Alresford and Ropley the line passes beneath Sun Lane Bridge, into a chalk cutting and over a bridge still called the 'A31 Bridge' even though the A31 between Winchester and Guildford has been diverted along the Alresford Bypass since 1986 and the road is actually the B4035. With watercress beds dominating the view south, the train climbs a 1 in 80 gradient and within ten minutes has travelled the three miles east to arrive in Ropley.
When the Watercress Line first reopened, Alresford became the railway's administrative centre and Ropley the engineering centre, having plenty of room for the Engineering Works and locomotive storage, although the railway does not have enough covered storage for all the collection. For health and safety reasons, visitors are not normally allowed in the workshops without prior arrangement. Located near a quiet village and with plenty of space in the surrounding area, Ropley often hosts popular events as the neighbouring fields are used for car parking. Ropley Station's facilities include the picnic area, a small gift shop, a small play area and the railway's holiday chalets.
Ropley represents a station from the 1920s Southern Region, and it also has been improved and modified. The footbridge at the Alresford end was originally from North Tawton in Devon and was moved here in 1986. A second bridge was moved here and opened in July 2013. This bridge, the 200-ton Grade I-listed former King's Cross Bridge, erected in King's Cross spanning platforms 1 to 8 in 1893 and removed in 2008 had previously appeared in films such as The 39 Steps and the Harry Potter films. This is used to give improved access to the workshop area as well as to provide wheelchair access to Platform 1 (upside). At the time of writing (2014) a new sheltered waiting room is being constructed on Platform 1, reusing pillars from Ringwood. The ticket office here used to be part of the Lyme Regis station, the watertower came from Aldershot while the watercrane was made for Brighton in 1891.
One feature that Ropley is famous for is its topiary. From as early as the 1880s station staff, during the gaps between trains, tended and shaped the topiary adjacent to the down platform, a tradition that continues today.
From Ropley the train passes rolling stock awaiting restoration and overhaul, passes beneath the Bighton Road Bridge and over Rockwood Lane Bridge as it ascends the ruling gradient of 1 in 60 for three miles (5km) whilst climbing 230 feet (70m). The line passes through a deep, dark cutting overhung by trees. This is too steep for tank engines to climb, especially as the line is often littered with leaves from the trees above which, when wet, make it impossible for lighter engines to grip the line. After passing on a bridge above Lymington Bottom Road the line passes the sidings where the railway's goods wagons are stored, and soon arrives at Medstead & Four Marks.
Medstead & Four Marks
Medstead & Four Marks is the highest station in southern England, located 630 feet (192m) above sea level. It was originally the last station to be added to the Watercress Line, opening in 1868 following a petition and a three-year campaign from the people of the village of Medstead, located over a mile northwest, to have a station. Later another village, named Four Marks, grew up to the south of the station and as this new village became larger than Medstead, in 1937 the station was renamed to reflect both.
This station required the most restoration of all on the line. It has been decorated in late 1940s style. The downside waiting room, a replica of the one demolished in 1968, is also used as an exhibition space for historical photographs, as well as occasionally displaying plans for the railway's future. The original signal box was also demolished, and the one on the site today is from Wilton South outside Salisbury, although the lower window is from the original signal box. Perhaps the most impressive structure here is the footbridge, which came from Cowes, Isle of Wight. Its restoration here was rewarded with a National Railway Museum Certificate of Merit in 1997.
From Medstead & Four Marks the line continues to ascend while travelling in the deepest cutting along the line until, 20 feet (6m) higher up, it reaches the line's summit, 652 feet (199m) above sea level. The line then descends at a rate of 1 in 60 for three miles, passing close to the village of Chawton, home of Jane Austen, which is celebrated with the Jane Austen House Museum. Soon after, the train reaches Butts Junction where the Basingstoke & Alton Light Railway once headed north and the Meon Valley line headed south. The line now descends at a rate of 1 in 100 for a mile (1.6km) through the outskirts of Alton in a cutting, passing beneath three bridges and the Coors Brewery and Kings Pond, the source of the River Wey. The train then pulls into Alton as the 10-mile trip along the Watercress Line ends.
Alton is a picturesque market town, perhaps most famous for Sweet Fanny Adams. Alton Station is where the Watercress Line terminates and meets the national railway network. Originally Platform 2 was used by the Watercress Line while Platform 3 was used for the Meon Valley Line, but when the railway was restored in 1985, it was important to keep the steam trains away from the third-rail live electric trains. Platforms 1 and 2 of the station are used by electric trains to London, and Platform 3 is now used by the Watercress Line. Although the Mid-Hants Railway own the track, the platform itself is rented from Network Rail. The station also boasts an information kiosk, a little souvenir shop and a toilet block constructed in 2006.
The Watercress Line is a ten-mile line, when originally the track continued a further seven miles west from Alresford to Springvale Junction, where the line met the main line 2 miles north of Winchester station. How possible is it to completely restore the original Watercress Line? Most of the line remains undeveloped with the bridges still intact, though in need of maintenance, however the trackbed just outside Alresford Station is now a playing field. Most of the route to Itchen Abbas is clear, though sold off, with some houses blocking the route in the village. From Itchen Abbas to Winchester the route is mainly undeveloped, although the M3 motorway would prove a formidable obstacle. At time of writing there are no plans to expand the railway lines west.
Features of the Railway
Although the Watercress Line is the only standard gauge steam railway in Hampshire9, there are other heritage lines in the adjoining counties10, such as The Isle of Wight Steam Railway and Swanage Railway. What makes the Watercress Line unique?
For a start the Watercress Line's pride and joy is the large number of powerful tender engines in its collection, unmatched anywhere in the south. Unlike the Isle of Wight Steam Railway, which has always been run exclusively by tank engines, the Watercress Line has collected a fine number of large steam locomotives. Many of which are nationally important engines that served with Southern Railways or were built locally at Eastleigh. These include examples of the West Country, Battle of Britain, Merchant Navy, Lord Nelson and Schools classes.
The Isle of Wight Steam Railway remains at heart a Victorian/Early Edwardian railway, with Victorian carriages and engines. The Watercress Line, on the other hand, runs predominantly 1950s carriages. The Watercress Line also occasionally offers a Pullman dining service and Sunday traditional roast dining cars. The RAT Real Ale Train is also a popular attraction.
Getting to the Watercress Line
The Watercress Line is easily accessible by rail from the north, where it is possible to change at Alton. From London by car you can follow the M25, A3 and A31 to Alton, from the west Alresford is a short journey along the A31 from Junction 9 of the M3. National Cycle Route 23 also passes through Alresford, with a spur of the route leading to Alton.