Today, I’m reposting a blog I wrote for the History Girls a few months ago. This blog follows on from the one I posted here last month about the literary and historical associations of the route of the long defunct Meon Valley Railway. Today, I am relating a little more about the railway itself, and the purposes it served during its brief fifty-year lifespan.
Agriculture and horticulture
As might be expected in such an agricultural region, a good deal of non-passenger traffic for the Meon Valley Railway (MVR) came from shipping farm produce. In this part of Hampshire, this included watercress, fruit (especially strawberries and apples), milk and cattle. The London & South Western Railway (LSWR) put on special market-day trains, with both passenger carriages and livestock cars, allowing farmers to accompany their livestock. There were local “pick-up/set-down” goods services along the line, which called at every station to deliver and pick up any waiting goods.
Watercress has been grown in Hampshire for centuries. The area’s geology, with its chalky downlands, cut by clear chalk spring rivers, provides perfect conditions. Apparently, in the 1800s, many working people often ate watercress sandwiches, collecting the wild leaves from rivers and streams. Watercress had a reputation as a cure-all for everything from lethargy to baldness, scurvy and even freckles. Its popularity led to watercress farms being established throughout Hampshire. It was grown in gravel beds over which ran a constant flow of water from mineral-rich springs fed by rainwater leaching through the chalk.
The commercial viability of Hampshire watercress received a boost in 1865, when a new railway line was opened between Alton and Winchester, connecting at each end with the existing LSWR line. The new railway was called the Mid-Hants Railway, though in time it became known as the Watercress Line, because it transported so much Hampshire watercress to London’s Covent Garden Market. One of the line’s principal stations was at Alresford, which was essentially the “watercress capital”. But watercress was also grown in the Meon Valley, at Warnford – in beds that are still actively producing watercress – and when the MVR was built it connected with the Mid-Hants railway at Alton, providing a fast route to London for the Meon Valley watercress growers too. The Watercress Line is now a heritage railway.
The lower half of the MVR line ran through an extensive market gardening area. Strawberry growing was a very important industry for the area during the late 1800s to mid 1900s. An area just north of the Solent, around Titchfield and Fareham, bounded by the rivers Meon and Hamble, proved ideal for strawberry growing, the rather poor stony soil suiting the shallow-rooted plants, and a warm prevailing wind from the Solent reducing the risk of frost in the critical flowering weeks. In 1889, a LSWR station was built at Swanwick, a little to the north-west of Titchfield, specially to serve the local strawberry industry. In the late 1800s, the area produced as many as 7,000 tons of strawberries each year. During the weeks of the strawberry harvest, Swanwick station became one of the busiest stations on the south coast with the box vans of the “strawberry special” trains heading off to Covent Garden and across the country. But, while Swanwick was perhaps the focal point for the transport of strawberries, “strawberry specials” were also run on the MVR, with whole trains of strawberries being loaded at Mislingford and Wickham.
In the mid 1800s, the owner of the manor of Wickham, which included an area of the Bere Forest, built a settlement of houses for his forestry tenants, each house having an acre of land, at a place that was then, and still is, called Hundred Acres. The tenants found that the area was very suitable for growing fruit, and in particular for the production of early strawberries, and a few years later strawberries began to be grown there commercially. Initially the fruit was taken to Fareham station, six miles away, for onward transport to the London market and elsewhere. But the viability of the enterprise improved even further when the MVR was opened with a station at Wickham, only two miles from Hundred Acres.
It was in the 1960s that competition from imported fruit began to drive many producers out of business, and by the 1980s strawberry-growing as an industry in Hampshire was essentially over.
In the early days of the railway, all the MVR stations would have seen farmers bringing their milk in churns by horse and cart for despatch to the dairy at Portsea Island, in special milk vans attached to the normal passenger services. Livestock too travelled frequently on the line, to and from markets at Alton and Fareham. West Meon station was apparently the scene of the livestock of entire farms arriving by rail from such far away places as Cumberland and Northumberland, the farmers having hired special trains for the purpose. This must have been quite a sight!
With each outbreak of the two world wars, for the MVR, as for most railways, traffic increased, with the passage of troop trains bound for the docks and France. A box van was added to all MVR trains to cater for extra parcels and troops’ luggage.
In the second world war, the MVR line received some attention from the German bombers. Droxford Station was hit and two station cottages there were demolished. Bombs were dropped either side of the line at Soberton although they missed the track, but West Meon tunnel was also targeted and a stretch of track was damaged. Apparently, desperate telephone calls were made after this attack, in an attempt to stop the train coming down the line from Alton, and what might have been a serious accident was avoided.
However, the MVR did have an important role in the Second World War. During the build-up to D-Day, men and equipment had to be moved to the south of England, and large numbers of tanks were moved by rail to Mislingford goods yard, from where they were then dispersed to local lanes and fields for temporary storage.
I have mentioned this before, in a previous History Girls post, but I will repeat a little anecdote about Mislingford. The old loading gauge at Mislingford still stands (if nowadays much hidden by vegetation) on what is now the Meon Valley Railway trail (which follows the old railway from West Meon to Wickham), so you can pass by it as you walk the trail. I’m not really a particularly mystical person, but I have occasionally sensed a “something” at this spot… The ghosts perhaps of those D-Day soldiers disembarking from the trains? The clanking of those tanks being unloaded from the trains? There is actually a timber yard close by, so maybe it has only ever been the rumble of machinery and the sound of workmen’s voices that I’ve heard…? Or maybe not…
But the railway’s most famous wartime role came in June 1944, when the War Cabinet met Allied leaders in a special train parked at a heavily guarded Droxford station. When the train arrived, in it were just the British prime minister, Sir Winston Churchill, and the prime minister of South Africa, General Jan Smuts. Next day they were joined by Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, and Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour, who arrived by car. And, the following day, the prime ministers of Canada, New Zealand, and Rhodesia came too, and Dwight Eisenhower, the president of the United States, drove across from his nearby base at Southwick House. They were there to discuss the D-Day invasion.
Although the meeting was officially kept secret from Droxford residents, it seems that Churchill had chosen the station because it was near the coast and to the Allied command centre at Southwick. But there was also some speculation that the site was thought particularly secure because the train could be largely hidden by overshadowing beech trees, and there was a deep cutting into which it could be shunted if it came under attack.
Anyway, in the evening of the final day of their meeting, the 5th June, Churchill’s train pulled out of Droxford station and returned to London. And, shortly after midnight the following morning, Allied troops attacked Pegasus Bridge and, soon thereafter, the American airborne landings in Normandy began.
Decline and death of the railway
With all the early excitement of what the MVR might bring, and despite its obvious value to the local agricultural and horticultural community, the line never fulfilled its initial promise.
As early as the years following the First World War there seemed to be little or no increase in passenger traffic. The hoped-for London through-traffic never materialised, and after only a few years the London to Gosport services were cut back. During the summer months, Sunday excursion trains to the sea ran down the line, originating from Ascot and Farnham, but, without sufficient normal, daily passenger traffic, the line never really prospered, becoming only a rural branch line and a Hampshire railway backwater. The tourist traffic to the resort area of Stokes Bay (near Gosport) also failed to grow, with steamers preferring the more established ports at Portsmouth and Southampton. From then on the MVR only handled regular traffic between Fareham and Alton. and it wasn’t long before it was clear that there was no need for a frequent train service. Cutbacks were already being made by 1922.
It does seem that insufficient effort was made to promote the railway, with cheap fares, convenient schedules and more publicity. But, as early as the 1920s, there was increasing competition from road traffic, with more and more commercial vehicles making serious inroads into railway revenue, by competing for the carriage of goods. This applied to all railways, not just the MVR: rail passenger travel, as well as freight traffic, declined everywhere. And all railways began to make cuts.
Yet, there did remain a demand for the MVR from local farmers: sometime in the 1920s, the parishes of Corhampton and Meonstoke asked LSWR to provide a halt in Meonstoke to “assist the local farmers in the transport of milk etc to the towns”. The potential site of such a siding was marked by a short piece of rail set into the ground, but the siding was never built, though the section of rail remained in place until 1960 when it damaged a grass cutting machine being used by an unsuspecting hay making farmer, and was presumably then pulled up.
But the MVR was one of the early candidates for closure and, in 1955, passenger traffic was withdrawn completely and freight traffic reduced. Local people protested, but to no avail. Though, when the National Farmers Union made a strong objection to the closure on the grounds that the line was much used during the busy sugar beet season, an enquiry was at least launched into their case but the closure proceeded nonetheless.
And so, in February 1955, a mere 52 years after the MVR opened, the Hampshire Chronicle announced its final day:
“On Saturday last, February 5th, the Meon Valley Railway closed, and the last public trains left Alton to travel “down” at 4.30pm and Fareham to do the “up” journey at 7.46pm.”
Passenger numbers rocketed in the final weeks of operation, as people took their final ride on the railway. That very last train was apparently full of people, many of them, the paper asserted, people who often “attended the last rites of dying railways”. Local people watched the train’s final journey from the fields beside the track and from the stations’ platforms.
This MVR closure was long before the “Beeching Axe” of the 1960s, when many well-used yet still “uneconomic” railways were closed. Although goods services did continue on the MVR, with a once-a-day service from Fareham as far as Droxford, and a similar service from Alton as far as Farringdon, both services had been ended by 1968.
But there does seem to be little doubt that, when the Meon Valley Railway was closed to passenger traffic, it had been shown quite clearly to be unsustainable as a passenger railway.
Yet it was nonetheless held in some affection. When, on 5th February, that final train arrived back at Alton station, the Hampshire Chronicle reported that:
“…the final obsequies are observed. The Meon Valley Railway – friendly, pleasurable, beautiful – had come to its end.”
For detailed information, see The Meon Valley Railway by R.A. Stone, 1983, Kingfisher Railway Productions.