First Stop Buggleskelly
The Basingstoke and Alton Light Railway
Half a mile or so towards Winchester, a passenger looking out of the window on the left-hand side of the train may glimpse a pair of rusty rails as they dive away southwards from the main line in a cutting. These rails now only extend a couple of hundred yards. They once formed part of an interesting little railway which went all the way to Alton, and whose lasting fame arises from events which took place after the last passenger train had gone. As those familiar with the area will know, the area between Basingstoke and Alton is not now, and has never been, particularly densely populated. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that the railway which linked the two towns was at first considered significant enough to warrant the President of the Board of Trade personally performing the ceremony of turning the first sod, and later became the centre of a controversy carried all the way to Parliament.
As mentioned in the introduction to this history, the reasons leading railway companies to open new lines were not always positive. This was certainly the true of this line: what lay behind its construction was the rivalry between the L&SWR and the GWR. After failing to reach Southampton by way of the Didcot, Newbury and Southampton line, the GWR turned its focus on Portsmouth, for there was money to be earned* from that port. In 1895, the " Portsmouth, Basingstoke and Godalming Railway" announced its intention to construct a line from Basingstoke to Portsmouth via Alton and the MeonValley. As was the custom with previous lines, whilst the PB&GR would have been a separate company, the GWR stood behind it.
* “money to be earned”: such rich pickings indeed, that there were already two companies sharing the traffic - the L&SWR and its eastern neighbour, the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway. The routes of these two came together at Portcreek junction, and the continuation south to Portsmouth was jointly owned.
Faced with this threat to its revenue, the L&SWR was fortunate to be able to take advantage of a new law passed in 1896 - The Light Railways Act. Under this legislation, companies building railways were able to apply lower than normal standards of construction to railways expected to be lightly used. The quid pro quo was that only lighter trains would be allowed to use the lines when built, and then only at reduced speeds. The great virtue in the Light Railways Act was that it allowed small railways to be built cheaply, and thus helped the economic case for their construction (which was by the 1890's one of the criteria considered by Parliament when deciding whether or not a line should be built).
The projected cost of the Basingstoke to Alton section of the PB&GR was some £200,000. Thanks to the new Act, the L&SWR was able to propose a light railway as an alternative, at a quarter of the cost. The L&SWR's proposal was accepted, thus keeping the GWR out of Portsmouth, albeit at the cost of having to construct a line which they hadn't really wanted. The L&SWR had made such haste to see off the GWR that the Basingstoke and Alton Light Railway was the first one authorised under the new Act - on 9 December 1897. History was therefore made, and to mark the event, the Rt. Hon. C. T. Ritchie, President of the Board of Trade, found himself in the Sixteen Acres field next to Thornycroft's works, starting the digging with a ceremonial silver spade on 22 July 1898.
The engineer for the line was W. R. Galbraith, of the L&SWR, and the contractor was J. T. Firbank, who had recently completed the Great Central Railway's London Extension*. The line was opened to the public on 1 June 1901*. As opened, it ran from Basingstoke to Butts Junction*, just west of Alton, and had three intermediate stations, Cliddesden, Herriard and Bentworth & Lasham. The stations were not particularly close* to their alleged communities - in fact the nearest houses in every case were built with the line for the railway staff! Whilst there were sidings at all stations, Herriard was the only station provided with two platforms. The route was otherwise single track, except where it widened to two for a few yards approaching Butts Junction. As a light railway, the line had an overall speed limit* of 25 miles per hour. The journey took typically 45 minutes end to end, and when opened the single fare was 1s 2d (£0.06).
* “GCR London extension”: this ran from the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway to Marylebone station, and was one of those rare railways - a branch longer than the trunk.
* “1 June 1901”: sidings were provided at Thornycroft's works and brought into use during 1900. The whole line could have been open sooner, but there were engineering works on the main line, and the L&SWR delayed opening the line until these were completed.
* “Butts Junction”: The approach to the junction is an impressive piece of railway construction, especially for such a small and cheap railway. It is on quite a tall embankment.
* “not particularly close”: The railway actually went through the centre of Cliddesden village, and residents could reasonably have expected the station to be built in the village, where the line crossed over the road to the Candovers. However, this site was on a 1 in 60 gradient, and would have made stopping and restarting trains difficult, so the station was built 1,200 yards beyond the village, where the land was more level.
* “speed limit”: There were more severe speed limits locally. 10 mph was the limit near level crossings at Viables, Bushey Warren, Grange Road, Herriard Common and Salter Hatch, as well as over some sharp curves a mile or so beyond Bentworth & Lasham going towards Alton.
At the start of the line's operation, there were three return trips to Alton daily. By Summer 1909, this had risen to six, with an extra couple of optional goods trains. By 1909 there had also been another change, at the southern end of the line. The Lord Mayor Treloar's hospital had been opened next to the line, and the railway was soon used for regular deliveries of coal to the hospital boiler and infrequent* deliveries and collections of patients from a private platform called Alton Park. The coal siding was slightly unusual in that it was built with a deliberate gradient so that loaded trucks could run into it under the effects of gravity, and be hauled back again by a rope run round a capstan near the junction with the running line.
* “infrequent”: the hospital station never appeared in public timetables, but there was a "regular" service - an excursion was run every year to mark the Founder's Day at the hospital.
World War 1 brought about an abrupt change of fortune for the line. Track was required for military use in France, giving the L&SWR management the opportunity to divest themselves of this inconvenient railway. The Government paid £2,000 per mile for just under twelve miles of track, and the line was closed at the end of 1916. The track which had lain between Thornycroft's works and Lord Mayor Treloar's hospital was exported to France by the end of the following August. This was not the end for the line, though. Even though there were no tracks, the stations at Herriard and Cliddesden remained open for milk deliveries; these were handled by a lorry which had been rebuilt from a bus. By 1922, the milk had ceased to be transported in this manner. The L&SWR may or may not have intended to reopen the line after the war, but a review of the projected revenues and expenditures convinced them they would save almost £100 per week if it remained closed. And so, with the end of the milk traffic, the line was quietly forgotten.
When the railways were grouped in 1923, the Southern Railway sought to tie up the loose ends by applying for formal abandonment of the line. Unfortunately for the infant SR, the local populace (who had been waiting for the line to reopen) got wind of this, and raised a petition in the hope of keeping the line alive. A public enquiry was held, and when Parliament came to consider its findings, it decided that the line should be reinstated.
The railway was re-laid, and reopened in August 1924. The SR were at pains to point out that they would review the line's performance after ten years, with a view to closing it if it continued to lose money. There were some economies in the reopened version of the railway, notably in the failure to reinstate the passing loop at Herriard, which immediately reduced the track capacity, and meant that the service returned to its original three return trip daily pattern. In the event, the SR did not try particularly hard to make the line pay its way. Nor did they wait the promised ten years to review the line. The main event of note during this period was the use of a section of line near Lasham to stage a crash for a film, The Wrecker, on Sunday 19 August 1928. This attracted much attention in the press, and the sequence which was filmed was so spectacular that it was reused in a later film (Seven Sinners, made in 1938). Passenger trains were withdrawn from the line on 12 September 1932, and the line was taken up between Bentworth & Lasham and Alton Park. A goods service operated from Basingstoke to Bentworth & Lasham, but this only survived a short while, all stations being closed on 1 June 1936.
While the track was being taken up on the line in 1937, it was again selected for a starring role in a film. For the purposes of “Oh Mr. Porter!” which starred Will Hay, Cliddesden station was disguised as the sleepy Northern Ireland backwater of "Buggleskelly". If you see the film and want to imagine how Cliddesden would have looked in operation, you'll need to allow for two major changes at the site made by the film company. First, the station building, which was made of corrugated iron, was deemed unsuitable, and was clad in wooden planks, and second, a signal box was erected at the Basingstoke end of the station. Some scenes for the end of the film were filmed in the yards at Basingstoke, making this film a useful archive for the local railway enthusiast.
The northern section of the line was reduced to a siding serving Thornycroft's works. There was on this short section from Basingstoke a further siding used for oil traffic, opened in about 1930, and closed by 1950. (Click here to see a 1932 map of the junction with the main line and Thornycroft's works.) The rail connection to Thornycroft's was severed in 1967, at which time the branch was cut back to a point near the water works. Events unfolded at the southern end of the line in a similar fashion. Alton Park continued to see its annual Founder's day excursion trains until the outbreak of World War 2. After the end of the war, there were a few other excursions* at irregular intervals. During the 1960's, there were a couple of enthusiasts' specials. The coal siding at the hospital continued in use until 1967. When this was closed, the tracks were taken up all the way back to Butts Junction.
* “other excursions”: some authors have recorded that the services for patients stopped completely in 1939. I have talked to a doctor who worked at the hospital after the war, whose recollection is different.
Today, there are still many signs of the railway's existence. At Basingstoke station, a bay platform (known in recent years as 1c) was built for the Alton line trains. This continued in infrequent use* until only a few years ago, being filled in with earth and rubble during the recent rebuilding work at the station. A short length of track can still be seen curving away from the main line just over half a mile from Basingstoke station - see the photograph below. At Viables, a short section of track was left more or less in situ on the roundabout to commemorate the line's passing. At Cliddesden village, a house named "Railways" stands at the point where the village residents had wanted their station, though the bridge over the main road has been removed. The platforms of the intermediate stations were built from concrete* and all survive, though the down platform at Herriard has been breached by a driveway. At Bentworth & Lasham station, which is clearly visible alongside the A339, the original corrugated iron station building is still on the platform, rusting away. Alton Park station is still there, though it is extremely overgrown and, being on an embankment, not particularly easy to get to - when I visited it in 1995, the capstan which had been used for the rope haulage of the coal trucks was still in situ. All the railway cottages still stand, though most are no longer occupied by railway staff. Various bridges, embankments and cuttings survive along the route, as do two crossing keepers' cottages. Perhaps the most surprising items to survive are the narrow gauge rails which were used by J. T. Firbank's men while building the line: these were cut into four-foot lengths, drilled and threaded with wire to make the fences along the line.
* “infrequent use”: after the end of the Alton service, the only time I am certain this platform was used was on Sunday mornings, for a local service which used to run to Salisbury. The train providing the service waited there for some hours.
* “concrete”: while today we take the use of concrete in buildings for granted, W. T. Galbraith was one of the pioneers of the use of this material for building railway structures. If things had turned out differently, some of these long-closed platforms could have become listed buildings for this reason!
Though the tracks have gone, in some places it is hard to believe that you've missed the last train by sixty years. Much greater railways than this one, closed much more recently, have disappeared completely.
The last remaining track in situ on the Basingstoke and Alton Light Railway,
photographed on 28 February 1998 from a Winchester-bound main line service,
almost exactly a century after construction of the line started near this point.