Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Hungerford Arcade Railway to Hungerford

Our great author, Stuart Miller-Osborne has written a wonderful article on Hungerford and the railways.  It is a very interesting and nostalgic read, especially when you are relaxing with a nice cup of tea and a biscuit.  Feeling refreshed? Come and visit us at the famous Hungerford Arcade and see what people get excited about!

One of the great joys of visiting Hungerford is that you can travel to the town by either road or rail or, water if you choose to use the canal. 

The town is made up really of two main roads. The Bath Road and the Salisbury Road which meet at the Bear Hotel near the Rivers Kennet and Dun but if you travel towards the town on the Salisbury Road (the main High Street), you will as you cross the canal bridge, see the railway bridge which cuts the town in half.

You will also note that Hungerford is partially built on the side of a hill and this, when the railway was being planned, would have presented a number of obstacles.

This is why for part of its journey through Hungerford the railway was built on an embankment which can be clearly seen when the railway is viewed from the main street in the town. 

Obviously if the railway engineers had planned otherwise then the railway would have been threatened with flooding as the ground at river level would have acted like a basin when the rivers overflowed, as they were prone to doing during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In my view there is nothing better than being in the High Street when an express thunders across the bridge at speed. The whole area seems to rock and shake for a few moments before peace is restored. 

The railway like the Town Hall, is a part of Hungerford Life and surprisingly the railway pre-dates our present town hall by some twenty-five years.

The first stirrings were in 1845 when a line from Reading to Hungerford (via Newbury) was proposed. This was some four years after Brunel’s main line between London and Bristol was opened in 1841 and by the December of 1847 Hungerford had become the termini for this double track broad gauge extension from Reading.

The railway even had a turntable so that engines could be turned and this is how things stayed for the next fifteen years. 

In 1859 it was proposed that the railway be extended beyond Hungerford for some twenty-four miles to Seend near Devizes where it would be linked with the Wilts, Somerset and Weymouth Railway. 

It was then that the railway really began to take shape and the first of three bridges was constructed over the High Street and the railway began to resemble the railway we see today.

There is a beautiful account of Hungerford in the Bradshaw’s of 1866 which I have copied below. This can be found on the excellent Hungerford Virtual Museum website along with a number of nostalgic photographs

Bradshaw's Guide [Bradshaw's Tours, Section II, 1866)
A telegraph station
HOTEL - Black Bear
MARKET DAY - Wednesday
FAIRS - Last Wednesday in April and Sept., and first Wednesday in Oct.

HUNGERFORD is a market town which stands partly in the county of Berks, and partly in that of Wilts. The Kennet flows past this town, which opens a communication with the river Thames on the east, and the Avon and Bristol Channel on the west. The town principally consists of one long main street, with a few smaller ones branching from it.

In the centre stands the market house, over which there is a large room for public business and here is still preserved the Hungerford Horn, presented to the corporate body by John of Gaunt. It is made of brass, and is blown every Horn Tuesday to  assemble the inhabitants for the election of the town constable.

From Hungerford you may follow the Berkshire Downs round to Reading, past Lambourn, Ashdown (where Alfred beat the Danes). Uffington Castle, Wayland Smith's Stone, the White Horse Hill (893 feet high with the figure of a galloping horse 370 feet long, cut in the chalk). Wantage, along Ickleton Street (a Roman way on the ridge) to East Ilsley (noted for its great sheep fairs), and so to Reading, a strip of about 40 or 45 miles, never to be forgotten by a light-heeled pedestrian.
The Berks and Hants, a railway 24½ miles long, begins here and runs through a nearly level country. Although the title would seem to imply, it forms no connection between the two counties named, taking as it does a westerly direction from the borders of Berks through the very heart of the county of Wilts. 

In those far off days you could travel from Hungerford to Devizes quite easily or change trains at Holt Junction. In time, the Broad Gauge tracks were changed to Narrow Gauge and the line which had originally been a single line was doubled.

In 1896 the original bridge was replaced (This bridge was subsequently replaced again the 1960s).

A fine country station, a goods shed and two signal boxes were also added.

As with most things Victorian, it was a tidy compact set up which seemed to compliment the nearby Hungerford Common. 

But sadly whilst the line survived the Beeching/Marples cuts in the 1960s, the station did not. It was deliberately left to go to rack and ruin and the last buildings were demolished in the early 1970s.

What we were left with is roughly the station we see today. The initiative by Network South East in the 1980s can still be seen, although the spartan waiting shelters are in the process of being replaced. 

Whilst functional, the state of the current station is a little sad but there is, I hope, light at the end of the tunnel as there are plans to redevelop the station area, which I trust will include the upgrading of the station.

As with a lot of things these days and after the farce of privatisation, there are so many agencies involved that this might be a lengthy process. Time will tell. 

In a way current events are mirroring the pioneering days of Victorian times. The railway is soon to be electrified to Newbury which I have mixed feeling about having seen the destruction it caused in the Hemel Hempstead/Berkhamstead areas in the 1960s.

Personally, I do not think that electrification will proceed beyond Newbury for three reasons. Firstly cost, as there are a large number of small bridges in the town and beyond. 

To replace these, (some of which carry just farm tracks), would be very costly and if the new bridges near Aldermaston are to be the type of replacements then this would run into enormous opposition.

This also brings me onto my second point as here in Hungerford, we live in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (the totems and station signs at the station advertise this) and any thoughts of electrification would run into a very strong green lobby and the arguments and counter arguments would take years and years to resolve. 

Thirdly, the current line does not run towards Devizes anymore but towards Pewsey and

Westbury which are essentially lightly populated areas. It would not really make proper economic sense to electrify this part of the line. 

As I mentioned, Devizes is no longer connected to the railway. The station site (which I remember from my childhood) is now a car park and the tunnel that ran into the station is now used in part by a gun club. 

Seend station is just a couple of platforms hidden in the undergrowth with the once busy track bed a series of puddles. 

I have not been able to locate Holt Junction station but I was told locally that it was just another meadow with no trace of its former use to be seen. 

We are lucky that Hungerford retained its railway with smaller communities such as Kintbury and Bedwyn also being served. Although the railway station is a little scruffy, we have a fine refurbished railway bridge which adds to the majesty of the town.

I would like to think that any visitors that do travel to Hungerford will find the town most agreeable. We have some fine antique outlets which, if you look hard enough, do sell items connected with the railway.

Recently I have seen a couple of cast metal signs for sale plus other railway memorabilia such as lamps and railway tickets. If you prefer model trains then these can also be found in the town at reasonable prices.

It is quite fun to collect things connected with the railway as today in many areas of the country the railways disappoint. I frequently travel to Kent and some of the fine Victorian stations are dreadfully neglected.

Unless we do not care for the railways at all, there is a sense of nostalgia when one looks at old photographs of the railway.

When sturdy stations were built even for the smallest of villages, these stations were fully manned by caring railwaymen in company uniforms. 

Perhaps if you read my article again in five years’ time (2020), and the proposed development of the station area, maybe the station will be complete, which would be delightful. 

The madness of electrification would have been stopped at Newbury and visitors would able to travel the ten miles to Hungerford and sample the delights of our town (there are many) and perhaps seek out their own small piece of railway history when they visit one of the many antique establishments in the High Street and beyond.

Stuart Miller-Osborne

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