The Honeybourne Line by Jo Roesen

Click Here for Map of the Line

Photographs by kind permission of Brian Parsons.

The Honeybourne line was the name given to the GWR line between Stratford on Avon and Cheltenham, south of Honeybourne. There were two railways touching the new line already in the area. In the north was the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton railway, which opened in 1853 with a station at Honeybourne, and in the south the GWR's own original broad gauge line from Swindon to Cheltenham. In 1859 a single track OWWR branch was also built northwards from Honeybourne to Stratford on Avon, where it soon joined up with the Stratford Upon Avon railway, who built a branch from Hatton in 1860. In 1902 construction was started by the GWR on a line southwards from Honeybourne, to Cheltenham. Shortly afterwards, the GWR also built a new direct line from Stratford on Avon to Birmingham, between Bearley and Tyseley. At the same time, the earlier branch from Honeybourne to Stratford was doubled. This gave the GWR a new double tracked route from Birmingham all the way south to Cheltenham, over its own metals. In fact the new Honeybourne to Cheltenham line was built for fast running right from the outset, with wide curves and minimal gradients. It was also one of Britain’s newest lines, as most major railway lines in the country had already been completed by the end of the 19th Century. So what was the need to build a new line so late in the day, and one that did not pass through any sizeable towns not already connected?

Only 8 miles to the west of the Honeybourne to Cheltenham line another railway ran down the Vale of Evesham. This was the line from Birmingham to Gloucester, via Cheltenham, operated by the rival Midland Railway. The west of England was pretty much GWR territory, but while the GWR had lines to both Birmingham and Bristol, it had no direct line between the two towns, and the rival MR did! The new Honeybourne line had two advantages for the GWR: it achieved independence for 60 of the 88 miles from Birmingham to Bristol (to Standish Junction, a little beyond Gloucester), and it avoided the steep Lickey Incline at Bromsgrove on the MR main line; although it was less direct. In fact stopping trains on the Honeybourne line were a secondary consideration; it was a line principally designed for non-stop expresses and fast, long distance freight trains. Within Cheltenham, the MR station at Lansdown was inconveniently located some distance from the town centre. The MR line only just touched Cheltenham, then veered off towards Gloucester. The GWR completed its broad gauge line from Swindon to Cheltenham in 1847 to a more central terminus, later Cheltenham Spa (St. James). Initially it was just a single mixed gauge joint line between Tramway Junction in Gloucester, and Lansdown Junction in Cheltenham. When the GWR Honeybourne line arrived at Cheltenham, it crossed the northern suburbs on a long embankment and joined the St. James branch at a new station Cheltenham Malvern Road. GWR trains could continue further south from Lansdown to Barnwood Junction in Gloucester, take the Gloucester avoiding line and join the GWR's own original South Wales main line at Gloucester South Junction. Using the GWR's own tracks on to Standish Junction and statutory running powers over the Midland line GWR trains could reach their own metals once more at Yate South Junction.

The GWR obtained approval to build the new Honeybourne to Cheltenham line in 1899. Construction began by starting south from Honeybourne station. The line was marked by long embankments and cuttings, which were necessary to keep the line more or less level and permit fast running. The contract was awarded to Messrs Walter Scott & Middleton, who employed large numbers of navies who were housed in camps at various points along the line. One of these camps was in the fields near Broadway by the Childswickham Road overbridge, where the men slept in wooden cabins 16 men to a hut. The contractor laid his own railway along the route of the line, with up to 12 steam engines in use. These ferried about the clay spoil dug up from the cuttings by steam driven mechanical excavators that could take bites of one ton at a time. This was very modern, when compared to Victorian methods using horses and wheelbarrows. The spoil was taken away to make up the long embankments along the line, and, in the case of Broadway, raise the level of the goods yard from the flood plain below. Just as construction work at Broadway came to a close in July 1904, a coupling broke on a train bringing spoil from Didbrook, and 10 loaded trucks ran down the slope of the new goods yard to the Evesham Road, where they hit the new weighbridge office and demolished it. Strangely enough the same thing happened again 30 years later, when 4 trucks ran down the slope and overturned at the bottom. The new Honeybourne line was so laid out that there no level crossings. Most of the bridges had a steel deck, and these were supplied by Messrs E Finch & Co, Engineers, of Chepstow. On a number of bridges you can still see their worksplate, dated 1903. The new line was opened to Broadway on 1st August 1904, and a photograph taken the following day shows a large crowd embarking on an excursion train to Stratford. Toddington was reached on Dec 1st 1904, and Winchcombe on 1st February 1905, after which there was a short pause, while the tunnel under Greet was dug. In order to start an early through service to Cheltenham, a bus shuttle was laid on from Winchcombe. The Milnes Daimler buses used were some of the earliest models of bus used in the country, with the GWR playing a pioneer role in the use of motor buses. The brake blocks were made of wood and were so feeble that the conductors were instructed to walk behind the bus with a chock whenever it went up a steep hill. This no doubt explains why the shuttle service avoided the direct route to Cheltenham via Cleeve Hill, and went via Gotherington instead. On August 1st 1906 Cheltenham Malvern Road was reached, and the full 20 mile line from Honeybourne to Cheltenham was open.

In order to provide a through line of double track, the former branch from Honeybourne to Stratford upon Avon was doubled in 1907. The GWR then extended Birmingham Snow Hill station, and built an additional station at Moor Street in 1908, thus preparing the line for through services all the way from Birmingham. Local stopping services from Honeybourne to Cheltenham were run by steam rail motors until the 1920s, when they were replaced by loco hauled trains hauled by the 517 class, soon replaced by the well known diminutive 14xx class. These locos typically ran with a single carriage and the little train became known in local parlance as ‘the Coffeepot’. At Cheltenham it ran into a bay platform at Malvern Road, and then reversed the short distance back into St. James station terminus. The journey took just over an hour. Between 1907 and 1930 a slip coach was also detached off the London train at Honeybourne to connect with this service.

The Honeybourne line was always intended as part of a GWR through route, and the earliest service was one from Worcester all the way to Cornwall, which started in July 1907. Other through trains ran from Wolverhampton to Penzance, a service which became known as ‘The Cornishman’ between 1952 and 1962. Over the years the stopping service along the Honeybourne line was never of great importance, and the rivalry between the GWR and the then LMSR came to an end after nationalisation in 1947. The uneconomic stopping passenger service was withdrawn in 1960 and a number of the stations were demolished 3 years later, with Weston Sub Edge, Broadway, Winchcombe and Bishops Cleeve suffering this fate. Long distance through passenger trains were rerouted elsewhere in 1962 and the line had lost all timetabled passenger services by the summer of 1968, although through freight trains and diverted passenger trains continued to use it. However, a fatal blow was suffered by the Honeybourne line on 25th August 1976, when a southbound freight train derailed at Winchcombe in spectacular fashion. Although the track was reinstated BR decided to close the whole line on 1st November 1976. This included the section from Long Marston to Stratford Upon Avon, with a spur remaining from Honeybourne to Long Marston to serve the army depot there. The line was lifted in 1979.

Notes From Along the Permanent Way

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---------------------Page last updated on 21 April 2013 -------------------------