The Mid Hants Railway, known as The Watercress Line, is one of the most successful heritage railways in the country.
The Mid Hants Railway started life in October 1865 as the Alton, Alresford & Winchester Railway and was intended to fill the gap between Alton and the main route from London to Southampton 2½ miles north of Winchester. It was some 17 miles long through an agricultural area with only Alresford as a town of any size on the route.
Initial services were operated by the LSWR (London and South West Railways), running between Guildford and Southampton. In 1880 they took a 999 year lease on the line with the option of purchase which was executed in 1884 when the LSWR acquired all the assets of the Alton, Alresford & Winchester Railway.
In 1937 the line from London to Alton was electrified, through steam services onto the Mid Hants route virtually ceased and the line became a backwater. In 1948 the railways were nationalised and British Railways (BR) was formed.
The line played an important part during both World Wars due to its location between the Army centre of Aldershot and the sea port of Southampton.
Diesel units took over in 1957, the service improved considerably to once per hour; and passenger business picked up. When closure notices were published in 1967, John Taylor, deputy clerk of Winchester Rural District Council, led a major campaign to retain the line. Despite objections and arguments about the economics, the line eventually closed in February 1973.
The first trains ran in May 1977 from Alresford to Ropley. Funds were available to buy all the route to Alton. The new company, based on volunteer staff, re-opened in stages to Medstead in 1983 and finally back to Alton in 1985.
Operation as a preserved heritage railway has now taken place for 40 years, longer than its life under British Railways. The operations are under the control of the Mid Hants Railway Ltd (previously the Mid Hants Railway plc), whose major shareholder and supporting charity is the Mid Hants Railway Preservation Society Ltd (MHRPS). Interestingly, most of our engines on the line came to us from a scrapyard in Barry where they had been sent by British Rail during the period of 1962-68 and have been skilfully restored to their former glory for use on our line by our volunteers.
Want to find out more, watch a short film about the history of the Watercress Line told by one of our volunteers.