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Ticket To Ride

Michael Hasted relives another childhood memory as he reveals the glory of Cheltenham’s former railway stations crack

As a child growing up in Cheltenham I had two great passions. One, the cinema, you may have read about in the last Cheltonian. The other was train spotting. Yes, I know it sounds a bit nerdy but before the days of video games or indeed much television, we boys were satisfied with much simpler, and indeed cheaper, forms of entertainment.

All we needed was a train spotting book which contained all the train numbers and a pencil to underline the ones we’d seen. Plus, if we intended to spend the day on a windswept platform or damp embankment, a few spam sandwiches, a hard boiled egg and a bottle of Tizer would keep us going until tea time.

As with films, Cheltenham was a bit of a Mecca for train spotting. My infant school was right next to the Alstone Lane level crossing so most days I would stand there and watch a sleek express steaming past on its way to Birmingham or stand patiently as a mile-long goods train chugged its way south. But to get more than a fleeting glimpse of a train, a day on a station platform was called for.

Here you could inspect the locomotives at close quarters while they stood, belching steam and smoke waiting for their passengers to get on or off. And this is where Cheltenham came into its own with no less than three full size railway stations in town as well as three or four smaller ones dotted around.

Cheltenham’s pride and joy, when it came to railways, was St. James’ Station in St. James’ Square dominated by the towns biggest church, St. Gregory’s. Cheltenham, as with many things, falls between two stools. We were served by the old Great Western Railway, brainchild and flagship of the great Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the L.M.S - the London, Midland & Scottish Railway – which, as the name suggests, served towns in the other direction. Now the site is a rather bland office block.

St. James’ was opened on 23 October 1847 by the G.W.R after the company opened a direct line to London via Swindon. It was built on part of Jessop’s Gardens which was essentially a plant nursery and seed merchants but eventually spread over nearly 20 acres and became effectively a public park. It was extremely popular and described as ‘a perfect picture of cultivated beauty’ with ducks, rabbits and owls roaming freely for all to see.

However, the station was initially little more than ‘dingy shedding’ and it was not until 1894 that it was transformed into the little Italianate gem with wrought iron and glass covered carriage entrance that survived until 1966. The site behind the station with its vast sidings and other railway paraphernalia stood abandoned until Waitrose rose from the ashes in 2002. The only reminders are a small green plaque on the front of the store, a pub called the Railway Arms in New Street and the St. James Hotel which served travellers using the station.

I loved St. James Station. It was like a miniature version of one of the great London termini. Later, when I lived in London, I would often go past St. Marylebone station and be reminded of the happy hours I’d spent on the platforms of its dainty little sister a hundred miles away to the west.

And it wasn’t just the trains. When there was a delay before the next one arrived, there was plenty to do on the station concourse. There were beautiful cast-iron Fry’s chocolate machines and a wonderful mechanical contraption like a primitive juke box that, for a few pence, would print your name or a message on a metal strip like a pre-plastic Dymo. There was also a dusty W.H. Smiths newspaper stall piled high with Exchange & Mart and The Lady while a few yards away a hissing urn of tea dominated a drab station buffet straight out of Brief Encounter.

Also part of the G.W.R was the Malvern Road station which opened in 1906. Little remains of it and there doesn’t seem to be even a plaque to remind us of St. James’ poor relation. Most of the site is now the Travis Perkins yard but where the main track used to lie is part of the Honeybourne Line public footpath. There is still a bit of wall supporting a grassy bank which seems to have been part of the old station.

Malvern Road was almost a haven of tranquillity after the hustle and bustle of St. James. Surrounded by trees and at the end of a long approach that led down from the road itself, the station was built on two levels. At street level was the entrance hall and ticket office, but to reach the platforms it was necessary to cross a bridge over the rails and negotiate some stairs.

The other main station in town was of course Landsdown which still survives even though it has been threatened in recent years. It is essentially the same as it was when it was first built in 1840 by the Birmingham & Gloucester Railway. The only part of the original station to have gone is the magnificent Doric portico that was demolished in the 1960s.

There were several smaller stations dotted around Cheltenham. There was one on the High Street where the bridge crosses the road near Tesco’s and another in up th hill in Leckhampton. Both of these are now long gone. However, one little gem continues to function thanks to the Gloucestershire and Warwick Railway. The Racecourse station survives more or less intact on what used to be the Honeybourne line. Originally it was only ever used on race days but is now beautifully maintained and open most weekends and daily throughout the summer.

A trip on that railway is as close as you will get to the old days and it will certainly be worth taking your train spotter’s book and a pencil as some of the old locomotives are still around.