FORGOTTEN BRANCHES: The Hurn Branch – lost but still remembered

From our 2016 archive

Stephen Roberts recalls a Hampshire branch line that was first proposed for closure nearly 100 years ago.

FOR most people interested in Britain’s railways, talk of closures immediately brings 1960s bogeyman Dr Richard Beeching to mind with his controversial report recommending the closure of some 6,000 miles of track, getting on for 2,500 stations, and the decimation of routes that followed.

The Knapp Mill crossing keeper with family as the Hurn Branch crosses Mill Road on its way past the waterworks (which lies behind the photographer), and on towards Christchurch station. Courtesy Red House Museum

I have an interest in a quaint rural line that ran metres from my house in Christchurch, Dorset, which fell victim to redundancy as long ago as 1935. As railway closures go this had to be among the earliest.

The line in question was the first railway to reach the town of Christchurch, then in Hampshire, coming from the market town of Ringwood in the north.

As with many other towns and cities the arrival of the railway was an important development for Christchurch, although the railway did not actually come anywhere too close to the town itself to begin with. The first railway came to Holmsley, known as Christchurch Road, in 1847, but this was a good seven to eight miles away from Christchurch itself and over windswept heathland to boot. It was to be 15 more years before the iron road finally arrived for good with the opening of the line to Christchurch via Ringwood.

A group of railway promoters formed the Ringwood, Christchurch and Bournemouth Company, although its first attempt to get a bill through Parliament was aborted in June 1857 due to financial problems. This initial plan envisaged a division of the line somewhere south of Ringwood, with one line heading into Christchurch and another veering west for Bournemouth. The engineer-surveyor at this time was the little known William Collett Homersham. There were already visionaries who preferred a coastal route, but their hopes would be put on hold for a generation, while the Avon Valley route was pursued.

In 1859 powers were finally given to build a 7¾-mile line alongside the River Avon from Ringwood to Christchurch. The line was to be worked by the LSWR, with the contractors being Messrs Brassey & Ogling.

Prominent were surveyor William Moorsom, whose father fought at the Battle of Trafalgar, and who was responsible himself for surmounting the Lickey Incline for the Birmingham & Gloucester Railway, and Thomas Brassey, reputedly responsible for around 5% of the world’s railways, by the time of his death in 1870. Moorsom was responsible for a resurvey of the route.

The first directors’ meeting was held in August 1859 in London, one ‘interesting’ member being Edward Sleat Elliott, land agent to Lord Malmesbury, the major landowner ‘en route’, who was later disqualified and met his death by drowning in the River Stour at Iford in 1870. Come July 1860, Moorsom (also a director) was happily able to report that the earthworks were a quarter complete.

Sharp gradients

The Ringwood, Christchurch & Bournemouth Railway opened on November 13, 1862, with Christchurch becoming the railhead for Bournemouth. The line was always single-track, with sharp gradients and tight curves, following the landscape’s natural contours, as costs were kept down by avoiding any expensive earthworks that were considered unnecessary.

The railway’s prospectus claimed it was one of the cheapest lines to be built in England. It was also of ‘light’ construction and these factors severely restricted running speeds, generally 25mph, and down to 15mph over some curves. For a line designed to carry traffic from London and Southampton to the burgeoning resort of Bournemouth, the promoters had shown very little ambition and ironically condemned it from the very start. The first train was pulled by a loco named Albert, in honour of Prince Albert, who had died the previous December.

Opening the line as far as Christchurch, was though, the first attempt to bring the railway to the developing Bournemouth area; a horse-drawn omnibus service carrying passengers on to the resort. The intention of pushing on to Bournemouth was there from the start, the local Clingan charity selling off parcels of land either side of the River Stour, at Iford, in 1863, to expedite this.

Just to demonstrate that running a railway was not always straightforward, the loco Queen, (named after Queen Victoria, of course), broke its leading axle, near Hurn, in January 1865, and then, in November of the following year, this ill-fated engine hit a stray bullock shortly after leaving Ringwood. The bullock came off worse and was killed.

The first timetable reveals some quaint anomalies. If you caught the 08.40 omnibus from Bournemouth, you could connect with the 09.30 train from Christchurch, which would get you to London Waterloo at 14.30, after a change at Ringwood, if you were lucky. That would allow you a generous 30 minutes in London (cup of tea in the buffet anyone?) before catching the 15.00, which would see you back in Bournemouth at 19.35, allowing for the change at Ringwood and the omnibus from Christchurch. What a caper!

Initially, three trains daily passed slowly each way between Ringwood and Christchurch via Hurn. Anyone intrepid enough to attempt a journey from London to Christchurch faced a journey of around four hours after which Bournemouth passengers faced an uncomfortable ride along rutted roads to the new resort.

Notwithstanding all of this, Christchurch certainly saw the benefit of its new railway, as perishable goods could now be sent to distant markets, something that would become truer still with the completion of the coast line in a few years’ time. Tourism also began to grace Christchurch, so much so that it would one day have a holiday camp. It suddenly became a lot easier for fishermen to reach the world famous Royalty Fishery, a presence on the Avon since Anglo-Saxon times.

A single line from Christchurch to Bournemouth (East) was finally completed in 1870, which for the first time brought the railway directly to that resort. If anyone is surprised Christchurch received trains before Bournemouth, bear in mind that the latter did not get its first house until 1810, and by 1851 its population had only risen to a paltry 1,330. By the time the railway arrived in 1870 though, the number of citizens had grown to 5,000, amid talk of ‘getting businessmen to London’. Bournemouth (East), never a commodious station, no longer exists, replaced by today’s station, the other side of the Holdenhurst Road tunnel-bridge.

In 1874 the Ringwood, Christchurch and Bournemouth Railway was bought by the LSWR.

Industrial area

There is nothing left of the station at Ringwood, which sat on the line between Southampton and Dorchester, with the junction about a mile west, where the Hurn branch deviated to the south. There were two through platforms and a bay platform for the branch, with its own train shed. The former site of the railway station in Ringwood is now an industrial area, the Railway Hotel a welcome survivor and clue to what once was. The route chosen for the branch was, from the junction, turning south, skirting the New Forest and through 3½ miles of woodland owned by Lord Malmesbury. In the end, 18 acres had to be bought from Malmesbury, 15 of them either heathland, or planted with fir trees.

Fortunately, Malmesbury was a keen supporter of the new railway and made no objection to the route crossing his land. All he asked for in return was a private station at which trains would stop at his request. This was created about a mile south of the junction and was called Avon Lodge. This had been required under the terms of the act for the benefit of the occupant of Avon Castle, ‘his family, friends, tenants and persons having business with him, and also certain duly authorised residents of the neighbourhood’.

The railway was obliged to build the lodge and provide a crossing keeper, who would issue tickets and set the distant signals when the train was required to stop.

One of the perks of living at the castle was the right to stop a train with a red flag (day) or red light (night). An early owner was the flamboyantly named John Edmond Unett Philipson Turner-Turner, a big-game hunter, who tried and failed to stop a train in 1872. The aggrieved ‘hyphen’ took the railway company (the LSWR) to court and lost, the judge ruling that Turner-Turner was only entitled to stop an ‘ordinary’ service, whereas the train he had tried to flag down was a ‘through’ service from Waterloo, through-carriages having been introduced between Bournemouth and London in March of that year. The castle still exists today, overlooking the Avon, and is today apartments.

The 1909 survey shows the lodge and its private siding for the estate. Only 1,021 tickets were issued in 1929, these generating under £50 in revenue. Following closure this once forested area was ultimately to become part of a large residential development. Avon Lodge Halt still exists today as a private house.

Popular inn

The other station that still exists on this route is at Hurn, now a popular local watering hole, the Avon Causeway inn. Having fortunately survived it became licensed premises and is today adorned with an eclectic mix of railway memorabilia, little of it related to the Hurn branch itself. As a station, Hurn came complete with all the usual facilities and although it is now a pub it is easy to see what its previous occupation was.

One thing that makes Hurn interesting today is the fact that the old station still has a platform, with a C1 railway carriage named the Avon Express, which is used for ‘murder-mystery’ events. There is a door off the platform, which leads into the hotel part of the premises; nice to be able to step out of the hotel straight on to the old platform, especially at night when the platform lighting is on. This reminds one that when the trains ran, it was the duty of the guard on the last evening service to alight at Hurn, operate the level-crossing and extinguish the platform lights. Those were the days!

Originally named Herne Bridge and then Herne, from 1888, the station had been opened with the line on November 13, 1862. Although the line was never more than single track, there was a passing loop at Hurn, as it became known in 1897, until August 1929. There was a popular camping coach here in the 1930s.

Closure proposals for Hurn station were made as early as 1920, when Hurn issued just 1,953 tickets to Ringwood and 5,160 to Christchurch. In that same year there were only 296 parcels despatched and 334 tons of coal received. By 1929, a mere 2,331 tickets were issued in the entire year.

The writing was on the wall then, but in spite of the eventual loss of its railway link, Hurn still acquired a significant place in transport history and only just over a stone’s throw from the old railway, as an international airport bearing its name was developed north-east of the village (Bournemouth Airport today). This was an RAF station during the Second World War and post-war was the only British airport for transcontinental flights, until Heathrow was developed.

Walk or cycle

It is actually possible to walk or cycle along the old line from here south towards Christchurch. You can pick up the path-cum-cycleway by leaving the pub and crossing the Avon Causeway road, where the level crossing would have been in days gone by. The crossing gate could, until recently, be seen at the entrance to the pub’s large car park.

South of Hurn the track followed the line of historic St Catherine’s Hill, heading towards Christchurch over Dudmoor Farm Road, where you can still see Fern Cottage, which used to be the level crossing keeper’s cottage and then past the commoners grazing land at Town Common and Cowherds Marsh (now Cowards Marsh).

There are few photographs of this railway when it was still extant, but there is one showing the single line bisecting the Hill and the Common, with the Keeper’s Cottage at Cowards Marsh clearly shown to the right hand side (east) of the line. The line then ran alongside the Avon Waterworks as it approached Christchurch station.

The original Christchurch station was situated slightly to the east of the current one, on the other side of the Bargates road bridge, as it received the line coming down from Ringwood and Hurn to the north. This station was closed in May 1886, although the buildings remained open as a freight depot, with sidings being used for the storage of wagons.

The site of the old station, which was a terminus, is now lost under an industrial estate. That old station apparently had 19 staff, plus a station dog, when it opened in 1862; a bad case of over-manning by the sound of it. Come 1868, goods traffic had increased to such an extent at Christchurch that an extra siding had to be provided at a cost of £66, so maybe those extra men were needed after all. A passing loop was approved for the station in 1873, costing a further £110.

When the new station was opened on May 30, 1886 for the coastal route, it was a junction station to begin with as the Ringwood line continued to come in from the north. The station was situated to the west of the newly created junction, with the line on to Bournemouth being ‘doubled’.

The Ringwood connection was doomed, however, as it could not compete with the faster coastal line and was soon a veritable backwater. The line was relegated to a local, lightly-loaded branch affair just 26 years after it had been opened, once the faster route had come into play in 1888.

After protracted negotiations, the entire route was closed to passengers as long ago as 1935, as it had been left with few paying fares. It was finally also closed to freight in 1938.

The last passenger train to run left Bournemouth for Ringwood on the evening of September 28, 1935. The Christchurch Times reported: ‘When services cease, Hurn station will close finally for all time, its lights on the platform and in the signals will be extinguished and unbroken silence will descend upon the one-man station. The eight miles of track between Christchurch and Ringwood will be left to grass and rust. Maybe when the summer comes again the railway company will employ this length of rail to house some of their holiday homes, converted carriages let on hire to holidaymakers as summer bungalows’. We know that it was a Drummond ‘M7’ 0-4-4T performing the last rites, pulling two coaches.

It seemed the greatest loss of all was to Mr H Delia, who had been acting stationmaster, chief clerk, ticket collector, porter and generally chief bottle washer at Hurn for the final eight years of its existence.

He had no desire to leave Hurn, where he had allegedly ‘lived happily in a cottage, if lonely at times. However, he had a dog for company’.

As late as the 1960s it was still possible to see the remains of the 1862 line to Ringwood, curving away to the left out of Christchurch station as you looked in the London direction. Photographs in the mid-1960s show a ringed arm on the signal gantry, denoting that the stub of the line from Christchurch to Ringwood via Hurn was now only a siding, part of the track being retained as a head-shunt for the six-siding goods yard, which closed in 1972. Although the old station at Christchurch has long gone, there are sufficient poignant reminders of what was a relatively short-distance, short-lived and obscure line; enchanting though for all that.

Idyllic railway

It is still possible to walk or cycle some of the old railway line below St Catherine’s Hill all the way to Hurn station, conveniently now the Avon Causeway inn, so thirsty walkers and cyclists can ‘bivouac’ here for a cup of tea or something a little more brain-numbing.

Large parts of the track bed have, however, inevitably been lost to road schemes, and buildings have also cut across in places. In spite of this there is enough of the old route still traversable to remind us of just what an idyllic rural railway this must have been.

I am in the especially fortunate position that I can walk from my front door, across the road to a track, which leads down to Marsh House, the old level-crossing keeper’s cottage and the best surviving part of the old railway line, the long straight run up to Hurn and the Avon Causeway.

As with all disused railway lines this walk is a bitter-sweet experience, for it is an immensely enjoyable, peaceful walk on a pleasant summer’s evening, yet there is also a sadness at all the work that went into building a railway that was always destined to fail, the ghosts of railwaymen past such as the Hurn stationmaster, and the feeling that if you listen hard enough you might just hear the whistle from a long lost steam engine.

 

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