Max Le Grand reflects upon a future steam driven journey from Cheltenham
Train spotters and steam buffs, which congregate on platforms all over the country, are more intelligent than some ‘anoraks’ are portrayed. I was enlightened at Cheltenham Racecourse station while people waited for a steam train to Toddington. As an interloper among the eggheads, I kept my mouth shut and listened. These people know their onions, and will eat you alive if you impart any half baked information.
Some who I met were members of the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway Society. So, how many Cheltonian’s can recall First Great Western’s junction at Honeybourne? Work started on this rural intersection in Worcestershire during 1902, to provide a direct line to Cheltenham, then onwards to Gloucester alongside the Midland line. Our forbearers could catch a train at St. James station to Stratford-upon-Avon, Worcester and Oxford. From 1908, Cheltenham became a part of the greater routing system. Passengers could travel via Honeybourne to Birmingham, Cardiff, and even Norwich.
In 1948, Great Western Railways was nationalized by British Rail. ‘The Cornishman Express’ that ran from Wolverhampton to Penzance, via Cheltenham, bought many visitors to the town. Regretably, over the course of time, there was a steady decline in the service. Honeybourne Junction, slightly less notorious than those convergences at Clapham and Crewe, became subject of the axe wielded by the Chairman of British Rail, Doctor Richard Beeching. In 1960, the connection between Cheltenham and Honeybourne, was closed along with 5,000 miles of other rural services. The railways and the platforms became overgrown with weeds.
Come 1976, the Gloucestershire-Warwickshire Steam Railway Society was formed at Willersey Village Hall, and became a trust twelve months later. The aim being to restore the line, between Cheltenham Racecourse and Toddington, for pleasure travel, and to service race meetings at Prestbury Park. Then during May 1981, Honeybourne station was re-opened. This meant the company could gradually reconstruct the line between Cheltenham and Broadway. In 1983, the Department of Transport granted a ‘Light Railway Order’, to lay a track between Cheltenham and Broadway. Maybe, just maybe, the direct line to Honeybourne might be resurrected. More immediate priorities were restoring signal boxes, station buildings and the railway between Toddington and Cheltenham.
By 1999, British Rail had been re-christened Rail Track. The national company took interest in the eventual route through Honeybourne to Cheltenham, as a possible way of easing the congestion between Gloucester and Birmingham. After ten years of back breaking private enterprise, the shunting locomotive ‘King George’ chuffed its way from Toddington via Winchcombe to Cheltenham for the first time in over 30 years.
Back at Cheltenham Racecourse station today, I joined the steam fanatics and pleasure travellers with their cameras, to watch trains arrive and depart with commendable punctuality. One enthusiastic lady had purchased a footplate ticket. Another woman dressed appropriately for driving the engine, helped her mount the locomotive. Clearly, the love affair with steam is not confined to the fellows. Other less robust passengers can board ‘The Luxury Pullman Style Dining Experience’.
There are less ostentatious ‘Fish’n’Chip’ specials. Parents with children can enjoy a day out on ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’. Avid rubber neckers who watch the scenery through an open window, soon found their faces speckled with soot. The immediate aim of the untiring GWR society is to complete the section between Toddington and Broadway. Unfortunately, the scheme received a set back this year, when a land slip along the Chicken Embankment Curve skuppered the work. Consequently, manual and financial resources had to be diverted from the Broadway extension. In turn, this also meant the opening of the new stretch of line from Broadway to Honeybourne will also be long delayed.
For the real died in the wool volunteers, these set-backs are all part of the great adventure. The Gloucestershire-Warwickshire Railway passes through some of the most beautiful rural aspects to grace any railway in the country. The good people of Honeybourne will have to be patient. They now have a massive new pedestrian bridge that will eventually connect traditional steam travel with the diesel driven trains that currently stop at their unmanned, fully automated station on the Cotswolds and Malvern line. The good old days of waiting rooms warmed by a coal fire, and a café providing the daily newspapers with tea and cup cakes, will surely be upon us again. The train spotters will have never have it so good.