A Walkers History

A Walker's History of the Railways

Lines we lost – and ones we didn’t

It is fun to dream about what might have been. While the Beeching cuts of the 1960s were kind to the south east’s rail network, for reasons outlined in the previous section we did nevertheless lose some routes which might have been very useful for walkers. Equally, there were a few miraculous survivals.

A map in Victoria station
of the LBSCR lines at their height
One early closure resulted from the alliance between the South Eastern Railway and the London, Chatham & Dover Railway in 1899 (see Bitter Competition), which in 1911 led to closure of the SER’s line through Rochester and Chatham because it ran parallel to the LCDR track, the one we use today. The SER's stations were also badly-sited - its optimistically-named Chatham Central station was in fact in Rochester, not far from the LCDR station of that name (which remained in service until December 2015 when it was replaced by a new station 500 metres to the west). The SER line did have one lasting legacy, however, in that its bridge across the Medway is the one used by the railway today. The LCDR bridge alongside it was turned into a road bridge.

Rationalisation between competing SER and LCDR lines, this time after the two companies had been merged into Southern Railways in 1923, was also the reason for the closure of the SER line between Ramsgate and Margate. But in this case a new station was created which was actually less convenient for passengers than the two it replaced.

The SER line to Ramsgate - which opened in 1846 and came from Ashford via Canterbury West - originally ran to a terminus station half a mile from the town centre: the line then reversed out and crossed directly to Margate (a route still obvious on the Ordnance Survey map). The LCDR built its line to Ramsgate in 1863, coming in from Margate via Broadstairs. Its station, reached by a tunnel, was right on the seafront at Ramsgate Harbour. Both companies also had their own stations in Margate, the SER one being more or less where the Dreamland funfair is now.

In 1926 Southern Railways decided to link the two lines at Ramsgate to create the through line we have today. It used the LCDR's coastal route from Margate for this (incidentally opening a new station at Dumpton Park at the same time), and shut the SER's more direct Ramsgate-Margate line. Neither of the existing Ramsgate stations was in the right place to be a through station, so both were closed and a new station built on the link line. This leaves passengers today with a mile long walk to the town centre.

More useful for walkers might have been the railway that ran from Brighton to Devil’s Dyke at the top of the downs (the lunch stop on the Hassocks to Upper Beeding walk), which opened in 1887 and closed in 1939. Running from Dyke Junction on the coast line (now Aldrington), the problem with this line was that it stopped half a mile from the summit, while buses had no such problems. Part of the former track is now a very pleasant cycleway, the happy fate of many disused rail lines.

World War II then intervened, and one result was that in 1940 the line from Canterbury to Folkestone via the Elham Valley, which had opened in 1887 (see Bitter competition - and its benefits), was taken over by the army. It seems that the locals soon got used to the replacement bus service because the line only reopened to the public briefly in 1946 before closing again in 1947. Even now it is not difficult to go by train from Canterbury to Folkestone, but this line covered a corner of Kent - stations included Bishopsbourne, Barnham, Elham and Lyminge - that our walking routes currently don’t access.

More closures followed in the 1950s, some of lines that should never have been built in the first place. A good example is the Kent & East Sussex Railway – which is now resurrected as a steam railway from Bodiam Castle to Tenterden. This line started life in 1900 as the Rother Valley Railway from Robertsbridge to Tenterden (its first terminus being the station now called Rolvenden) and was extended to the current Tenterden station in 1903. It got its present name in 1905 when it was extended to Headcorn.

Quite what the economic purpose of this line was is hard to say. Attempts had been made to build a line to Tenterden, one of the most important towns in the Weald in the early 19th century, since the early days of the railways. Back in the 1840s the South Eastern Railway had wanted to build its line to Hastings via the town, but had been forced by parliament to choose the current route via Robertsbridge and Battle instead (see South East to Dover).

But by the early 1900s Tenterden was a small prize for a railway company and the Kent & East Sussex line otherwise went through remote countryside, with stations that were sometimes far from the villages they claimed to serve (eg Rolvenden, which is actually nearer to Tenterden than to Rolvenden village, or Wittersham Road, which is over two miles from Wittersham village).

Even in its heyday the line was lightly used. The author of Forgotten Railways: Volume 6: South East England (see Further reading) describes a journey he made on the line on a July Saturday in 1939 when there were only eight passengers travelling from Robertsbridge, only one of which (himself) got off at Tenterden. Going on to Headcorn (where the remains of the branch line platform survive, hidden in the trees to the south of the current station) there were only four passengers. Freight was mainly confined to domestic coal and there were just five trains a day. The line was closed to regular passenger services in 1954 and its tracks torn up between Headcorn and Tenterden. But the Robertsbridge to Tenterden section was used for hopping specials (East Enders from London travelling down for working holidays picking hops in Kent) until 1959 and for freight until 1961.

The Kent & East Sussex was the brainchild of one Colonel Holman Stephens, who built a number of these light railways around the country. Another was the gloriously named Hundred of Manhood and Selsey Tramway, which ran from Chichester to the coast at Selsey. Opened in 1897, its trains are described by Matthew Engel in Eleven Minutes Late (see Further reading) as looking like Model T Fords on rails. The line did not last long once road transport took off, closing in 1935.

Some other lines that closed in the mid 1950s included the Meon Valley Line, which ran from Alton south to Fareham and which had opened as late as 1903. It had been intended as a main line to Gosport, but was never used as such and closed in 1955. Passing through such villages as West Meon and Droxford, this line served pretty walking territory in the western half of the South Downs, albeit that journey times from London would be about two hours even today. Another line, linking Alton and Basingstoke, had an even shorter life. It opened in 1901 and closed again on 1 January 1917. It reopened in 1924 due to local pressure but shut again eight years later.

The South Downs west of Amberley and Arundel are in fact entirely inaccessible by railway these days, which is a pity as they have some stunning scenery. Today we can walk from Haslemere to Midhurst and come back by bus, but once three railway lines converged on the town.

For example, Midhurst was one of the branches of the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway line that splits off from the main Brighton line at Three Bridges and carries on to Horsham, which was reached as early as 1848. The line – known as the Mid Sussex Railway – was extended to Billingshurst, Pulborough and Petworth in 1859, and to Midhurst in 1866. In the meantime, in 1863, the line we still use today had been built south from Pulborough to Amberley, Arundel and Littlehampton.

The original intention of the LBSCR had been to carry on from Midhurst to Petersfield, but this would have encroached on the territory of the London and South Western Railway, so it graciously let its rival build this part of the line. The LSWR's Petersfield to Midhurst branch opened in 1864 but the result was a classic Victorian railway muddle, with both companies maintaining their own stations in the town and the link line between them being largely unused. Had through trains run from Pulborough to Petersfield, who knows if the line might still survive.

To make matters worse, when in 1881 the LBSCR built a line to Midhurst up from Chichester, passing through Lavant, Singleton and Cocking, it was for some reason routed into a third station, a half a mile to the east of the existing LBSCR station and a mile from the town by road. Bizarrely it was this inconveniently-sited station that was chosen to be the unified Midhurst station in 1925 after the LBSCR and LSWR had merged into Southern Railways. Petworth station was also a mile and a half south of the town it served.

Except when the Goodwood Races were on, the Chichester to Midhurst line had little traffic and it was closed in 1935. The Midhurst to Petersfield line then closed to passengers in 1955, and the Pulborough to Midhurst followed in two stages from 1964-6. Walkers might lament the loss of all these lines, but especially the route via Cocking, which is surrounded by wonderful downland walks.

It is worth noting that none of these lines was electrified in the 1930s (see The sparks effect) and that is almost certainly what sealed their fate. Two other LBSCR lines that got the chop in the Beeching cuts for this reason, even though on the map they look to be quite useful cross-country connections, are the ones from Horsham to Guildford and from Horsham to Shoreham-by-Sea, which closed in 1965 and 1966 respectively.

Opening in 1865, the Guildford line branched off the Horsham to Pulborough line at Christ’s Hospital (once a major junction with four platforms) and for a hundred years chugged up via Slinfold, Baynards, Cranleigh and Bramley & Wonersh to Guildford, crossing the Greensand Ridge as it did so. Baynards station on this route is lovingly maintained to this day in a private garden, looking for all the world as if the last train had just left – a surreal sight. At Bramley & Wonersh the platforms remain and are kept in good condition as a village park.

The Horsham to Shoreham-by-Sea line, opened between 1858 and 1861, also started at Christ’s Hospital, and took in West Grinstead (yes, there is such a place: a tiny village compared to its eastern sister), Partridge Green, Henfield, Steyning and Bramber.

Neither line was ever particularly busy. Horsham to Guildford was described in 1961 as "leading a peaceful and bucolic existence". It had just eight trains a day in the 1930s, the last one about 7pm, and only two on Sundays. Services could take up to an hour to traverse the 19 miles of single line track and connections at either end were poor.

Meanwhile Horsham to Shoreham was known as the "Linger and Die Line", with a 26 mile journey from Brighton to Horsham by this route also taking an hour in 1910. There were 13 trains a day in the 1930s and 17 in the 1960s, but they were lightly used. In 1953 the author of Forgotten Railways reports a Saturday afternoon train from Brighton largely emptying at Steyning, and no one getting on or off for the next four stops. Twenty changed at Christ's Hospital for Guildford and a handful were left when the train arrived at Horsham.

(Christ's Hospital, incidentally, was opened in 1902 for a housing development that never materialised. It is named after a nearby school. The former platforms for the Guildford branch are still there, hidden under the trees to the north of the current station.)

The Horsham to Shoreham line was considered for electrification in the 1930s, and who knows what might have happened but for the Second World War. Meanwhile Bramley, Wonersh and Cranleigh are today populous places that would almost certainly support a regular train service (there have even been vague murmurings about reopening this part of the line).

As it is, both lines now combine to make a wonderful walking and cycle route - the Downs Link between the North and South Downs Way: for a photo see The controversial Dr Beeching) - and who is to say that is not a better use of the track? And we can probably thank Beeching for the fact that south of Cranleigh the countryside is not covered with commuter development and could still be described as bucolic.

There is an interesting contrast between the fate of these two lines and the one from Leatherhead to Horsham via Dorking. This line, opened by the LBSCR in 1867, still survives, serving sleepy rural stops such as Holmwood, Ockley and Warnham and giving a true flavour of what a rural Victorian branch line might have been like.

The reason for its continued existence is that it is was once the mainline from Victoria to Portsmouth, with trains feeding at Horsham onto the Arundel line and then going along the south coast. Along with trains from Waterloo via Eastleigh, this was the main way to travel from London to Portsmouth by train until the electrification of the Guildford to Havant line in 1937 (see The sparks effect). The Leatherhead to Horsham line only lost this role due to the growth of Gatwick Airport. First express trains were diverted to serve Gatwick in 1978 and then all through trains to the coast in 1984. Yet luckily no one ever got round to closing this line, with its delightful walking territory.

A line through just as attractive territory which did not survive is the South Eastern Railway line from Paddock Wood south to Horsmonden, Goudhurst, Cranbrook and Hawkhurst. First mooted in 1864, this was another failed attempt to reach Tenterden in the Victorian era. In the railway mania of 1860s the fact that the line would also keep the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway out of SER territory was also a factor in its favour, but in fact it was to be 1892-3 before it finally opened.

While it did at least reach the substantial town of Cranbrook - another important early 19th century town that was fossilised in the Victorian era for lack of a railway connection - the Hawkhurst line was always very impractical for passengers. The difficult terrain meant that the line had to be built in the valley while the towns were on hilltops. There was consequently a steep mile-long climb to Goudhurst from its station, while at Cranbrook the station was two miles from the town. Hawkhurst station was 1.3 miles away.

The line really made its money from agricultural produce and from transporting hop pickers. But by the late 1950s trucks, buses (which stopped conveniently in town and village centres) and the decline of English hop growing had made it irrelevant and it closed in 1961

Elsewhere, there were a whole host of branch lines in the north of Essex and Suffolk which we might well have used for walks had they remained open. The line to Bures and Sudbury (which once went on to Cambridge and Bury St Edmunds) is a lone survivor.

There was also once a line to Westerham (on the Edenbridge to Westerham and Oxted Circular walks) which left the South Eastern Railway mainline at Dunton Green, just north of Sevenoaks. There was fierce local resistance to its closure in 1961, with locals arguing correctly that it could be an important commuter line. Instead its route became part of the M25. The town continues to be well-served with bus routes, however.

A long forgotten line ran from Sandling on the Folkestone mainline to Hythe and Sandgate. (Its trackbed is used at the start of the Sandling to Folkestone walk.) Built by the South Eastern Railway, this was originally proposed as an alternative route to Folkestone harbour, avoiding the steep gradients up from that town's cross-channel ferry harbour (see South East to Dover). But having opened the line as far as Sandgate in 1874, the SER dithered about purchasing the rest of the land into Folkestone and by the time it had made up its mind housing development along the coast had made the project too expensive.

What was left was a branch line which was reasonably successful in serving Shorncliffe Camp, an army base on the hills to the west of Sandgate (which is still there and now home to the Ghurkas), and which had some tourist traffic in the summer, even direct excursion trains from the north of England. But both Hythe and Sandgate stations were inconveniently sited for the towns they served and during the First World War the line was so intensively used by the army that the locals got more used to using buses, which stopped in town centres.

There was a brief revival in the 1920s, when SER (and from 1923 Southern Railways) had some success in promoting the line for holiday traffic, but that died away at the end of the decade and the line closed beyond Hythe in 1931. After the Second World War the remaining stub had just two trains a day, and in 1951 it was closed altogether. All that remains of the branch today is the station of Sandling itself, which was opened in 1888 specifically to serve as a junction for the line - before that trains originated in Westenhanger.

In the Chilterns, a Great Western branch line from Princes Risborough ambled south west along the foot of the Chilterns escarpment to Chinnor and Watlington, a point four miles north of Stonor on the Henley via Stonor walk. Had it not closed in 1957, it would surely have been as useful to us today as the line from Princes Risborough to Monks Risborough and Little Kimble (see Thames and Chilterns).

One might also cast a regretful glance over the "Sprat and Winkle Line" in Hampshire (the origin of its nickname is something of a mystery as it had no obvious connection with seafood), which ran from Andover via Stockbridge and Mottisfont to join the current railway line north of Romsey. Opened in 1865, important for military trains in the run-up to D-Day, it was nevertheless closed to passengers in 1967, depriving us of easy access to this pretty part of the Test Valley.

Perhaps the saddest closures of all, however, are the ones that occured in the early 1970s, just a few years before attitudes to the railways changed. Invariably these closures happened despite fierce local opposition. An example was the link between Alton and Winchester via Alresford – a proper main line with double track - that provided an alternative route between London and Southampton, missing out Basingstoke.

Closure of this 16 mile section of track was proposed in 1967 but was vigorously resisted until 1973. The problem was that unlike the rest of the line from Alton to London it had never been electrified. So instead of through trains to London, a shuttle operated between Winchester and Alton. This was perversely (probably even deliberately) timed not to connect with onward connections to London or the south coast.

Even before the line was closed the Mid-Hants Railway was formed to reopen it, but British Rail ripped up the track with indecent haste, and sold land between Winchester and Alresford for house building. As the Watercress Line, the Mid-Hants now operates steam trains from Alton to Alresford (having laboriously re-laid the track), but access to the pretty Itchen Valley between Alresford and Winchester via the former station at Itchen Abbas has sadly been lost.

Swanage station today
Another 1970s loss was the Wareham to Swanage line, which had not even been proposed for closure by Beeching. Why this useful branch to a popular seaside town was considered unviable is a mystery, but it still got the chop in 1972 after a five year battle with protestors. This cut off access not only to the beautiful cliff walks around Swanage but also to the tourist attraction of Corfe Castle and the surrounding Purbeck Hills. Once again, however, a steam railway has stepped into the breach and has nearly completed the task of reconnecting the line to Wareham: in the summer they run a useful diesel railcar between Corfe and Swanage that is competitively priced compared to the bus.

Beeching and those who followed him did not always win, however. One of the lines slated for closure by Beeching was Ashford to Hastings (the line that passes through Rye). But this delightful little line across Romney Marsh still lives, despite not being electrified. The case for closing this line was accepted in the aftermath of the Beeching report, but it was reprieved pending upgrades of the roads across the marsh (which would carry the putative bus services that would replace the train, this being the supposed rationale behind all railway closures at the time).

Happily the Department of Transport proved slow to do the upgrades and in 1974 the line was given indefinite leave to remain open. So we can still travel to remote stations such as Winchelsea (albeit only every two hours these days, but a reduction of trains to this station to the statutory minimum of two a day a few years back has now been reversed) and also Appledore, a station a good walk from the pretty village it serves and a wonderful example of an old-fashioned branch line stop. There is even talk of upgrading the line to allow high speed trains from St Pancras to serve Hastings.

Just beyond Appledore, incidentally, there is a spur line which for a long time served Dungeness nuclear power station. There was once passenger service on this line to Lydd, where the line divided, with one branch going to New Romney & Littlestone on Sea and the other to Dungeness. This line was opened in 1883-4 because the South Eastern Railway was considering Dungeness for a port, but the plan never came to fruition and the line closed for passengers beyond Lydd in 1937 and between Appledore and Lydd in 1967. However you can also still get to both New Romney and Dungeness by rail on the minature Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway, opened in 1927 by two train enthusiasts and still going strong.

© Peter Conway 2010-17 • All Rights Reserved