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Secrets of the Watercress Line

Malcolm Tattersall takes a trip to Hampshire to discover the secrets of the famous Watercress Line

Step back in time

The uniformed porter on the platform at quaint Ropley Station just shrugged after announcing the Watercress Line’s 5pm steam service to Alresford was delayed by 15 minutes.

‘It’s all part of the realistic nostalgia experience,’ he explained with a grin. ‘We like to make things as much like the old British Railway days as possible!’

Fortunately, the ‘realism’ did not extend to the catering. Gone were the stale ham sandwiches, weak milky tea and grubby glasses of flat beer. Instead, there were tasty bacon baps, fresh-brewed coffee and hoppy real ales.

And, anyway, nobody minded the train being a little late. Rather than sticking to some rigid timetable, we were soaking up the experience on a Bank Holiday ‘1950s weekend’ at the heritage railway line in mid-Hampshire.

The delay had been down to a vintage engine conking out earlier along the 10-mile track snaking through the rolling countryside. In Victorian times, this is where farmers grew the watercress that gave the railway its name.

Ironically, the culprit wasn’t the 95-year-old Class 7F 2-8-0 steam loco number 53808, which eventually puffed into Ropley hauling a cluster of 1950s-style carriages. It was a much more modern diesel shunter.

Rail nostalgia

Rail nostalgia is something the Watercress Line does in spades. As well as our engine, which had spent most of its working life pulling freight trains from Bath into the Mendip Hills, Standard Class 4 2-6-0 loco number 76017 was operating too during the day.

Also on display in the sidings at Ropley were the splendid gleaming green Schools Class 4-4-0 engine ‘Cheltenham’. Also on show was the 2-6-2 Tank engine 41812 and an 0-6-0 loco painted pale blue to look like Thomas the Tank Engine.

Meanwhile in the adjoining sheds, skilled engineers were busy restoring the magnificent Merchant Navy Class loco ‘Canadian Pacific’. This once hauled expresses like The Bournemouth Belle and The Golden Arrow from London to the South Coast.

Nor is the nostalgia is not confined to the locomotives and carriages. Spanning the track at Ropley station is the 128-year-old Handyside iron footbridge that used to have pride of place at King’s Cross. It famously featured too in the Harry Potter movies.

The Beeching Legacy

The Watercress Line opened in 1865, linking to Winchester and the main line into London, but closed in February 1973. This was when the country’s railway network was decimated as a result of the infamous Dr Beeching’s axe.

There’s a poem on the wall recalling the day: ‘Oh Dr Beeching, whatever have you done? There once were lots of trains to catch, but now there will be none. I’ll have to buy a bike ‘cos I can’t afford a car. Oh Dr Beeching, what a naughty man you are!’

Fortunately, a team of enthusiasts rescued the line, bought the track from British Rail and set about bringing back its former glory.

What’s Coming Up

The Watercress Line is open throughout the summer and on certain weekends during the rest of the year. Special Saturday evening beer trains and Sunday lunch trains are running in September and October. In November to January there will be spectacularly illuminated Christmas trains. For more details see watercressline.co.uk, email info@watercressline.co.uk or phone 01962 733810.