The Watercress Line is part of the old British Railways secondary route from Alton to Winchester and Southampton. It was closed by BR in February 1973, despite a six year campaign to save it. The present company was formed in the same year with the original objective of running a commuter service during the week with steam trains at the weekends. Various factors prevented this scheme from coming about, not least the construction of the M3 across the route east of Winchester.
The section between Alresford and Alton was bought from BR and steam trains commenced operating the 3 mile stretch from Alresford to Ropley in 1977. However, BR had torn up the lines and even removed the ballast over the remaining 7 miles to Alton and this had to be re-laid by our volunteers. This section to Medstead & Four Marks opened in 1983 and the last section to Alton in 1985, this cost close to £1m.
The entire route is single track with passing points at each of the intermediate stations. As your train leaves Alresford it enters a deep chalk cutting before crossing over the old A31. Then you will cross the river Alre, from which Alresford takes its name, and to the right you should be able to glimpse some watercress beds.
The line continues climbing eastwards past Bishops Sutton and on occasions buzzards are seen in the area. Grand views of the Hampshire hills open up as your train approaches Ropley where our Locomotive Shed and engineering works can be found. The topiary at this station is famous and has been cultivated for over 100 years.
The steam engine may well take water here before continuing its journey. Immediately the climb steepens to 1 in 60, which is hard work for a steam engine, hence our need for large, powerful locomotives. More good views may be had after Ropley, and to the right may be seen the ‘Shant’ a building where in the 1860’s the Navvies who built the line were housed. Rounding ‘Wanders Curve’, the next cutting is entered and then you reach Medstead & Four Marks station, the highest in Southern England. This is a very pretty and peaceful station, the gardens are always worth a visit and there is an interesting display of photos in the downside platform waiting room. Medstead is the base for our Permanent Way and Signal & Telegraph Departments who tend to the track and signaling equipment, making sure the railway runs smoothly – quite literally! It is also home to our Wagon Restoration Group who restore heritage wagons, now not seen on the national network and an important part of our industrial heritage.
The summit of the line (652 ft above sea level) is reached in the cutting beyond this station and then it is downhill (again at 1 in 60) most of the way to Alton. About 1 mile before Alton station you will pass the site of Butts Junction, where two other lines branched off at one time. To the north (left hand side) was the Basingstoke & Alton light railway (1901-1933) and to the south the route to Fareham (1903-1955). The remains of the junction signal box can be glimpsed to the north of the line just before you cross the main road into Alton. Before Alton station you pass the Coors brewery, previously owned by Bass; and on the other side of the road there was another brewery that was rail connected. To the south of the line is Kings Pond on the River Wey, used originally to store water for a mill. At Alton we share the station with South West Trains who provide onward connection to Woking and London (Waterloo).
Want to find out more, watch a short film about the history of the Watercress Line told by one of our volunteers.
You can also purchase one of our glossy souvenir guides at our stations and shops for £5.00.