The end and the beginning
By: Ian Crowder, 2006
2006 marks not only the Centenary of opening throughout of the Stratford-on-Avon to Cheltenham line but the 25th anniversary of Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway Plc.
The final days of the railway in BR ownership are well documented, including the disastrous derailment of a Toton-Severn Tunnel Junction freight on 25th August 1976 at Winchcombe, that led to cessation of services over the line. This eventually led to official closure in 1979. Although there were unsuccessful efforts made to prevent closure, the movement to acquire and rebuild the railway is one of the most remarkable preservation stories in the annals of UK railway preservation. With the benefit of hindsight, it's interesting to see how the contemporary railway media reported these initial efforts.
In July 1979, The Railway Magazine, under a report headlined 'Stratford-Cheltenham closure confirmed', a correspondent - Mr M L Hooper-Immins, reported that BR had declared the line closed, except for the section (that still remains) between Honeybourne Junction and Long Marston. Mr Hooper-Immins inspected the line that year, reporting that much of the signalling infrastructure remained, and that the 'rails damaged in the derailment are still piled on the embankment.' He went on to describe the state of the route, with many signalboxes and buildings vandalised. He points out that south of Honeybourne, 'the only remaining 'box is at Toddington', where 'vandals have been tampering with the levers, with the result that signals have been seen to be "off" at various times.' Cheltenham Race Course station remained intact, although Malvern Road station was 'razed to platform level' and the track at Lansdowne Junction 'severed short of the junction'.
The correspondent comments on a rich vein of rumours of the line being earmarked for a high-speed HST route, reinstated passenger services and even a group 'hoping to preserve part of the line' - all being thwarted, with 'track lifting by BR imminent … with useful signalling equipment being recovered.'
Fortunately, Mr Hooper Immins was soon to be proved wrong, as The Railway Magazine reported little more than a year later, in October 1980. A news item, headlined 'Honeybourne line negotiations', stated that BR had advised the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway Society that it was prepared to sell the trackbed between Cheltenham and Honeybourne and between Stratford-on-Avon and Long Marston. The GWRS was reported as having reopened its earlier negotiations with BR for purchase of the two sections.
Just six months later, it was reported that terms for purchase of the line had been agreed and the following year, the first reports of the arrival of locomotives (5952 Cogan Hall, 7821 Ditcheat Manor and 7828 Odney Manor), rolling stock and equipment had begun at Toddington.
After that, reports of progress came thick and fast and by 1983, pictures were appearing of track being laid. In July 1983, The Railway Magazine reported that around a mile of track had been reinstated, including eight turnouts. The same issue records that agreement in principle had been reached for the Dowty Railway Preservation Society to move its collection of standard and narrow gauge stock and equipment to Toddington, from Ashchurch.
The early and extremely well supported effort to acquire the route for restoration led to extensive local media coverage and a rapidly rising number of members. It was decided that a public limited company should be formed with the purpose of purchasing the line. The company, the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway Plc issued its share prospectus on 8th August 1981, with applications for 400,000 ordinary shares at £1 each at par with a minimum application of 20, opening on 20th August. The minimum legal requirement for capital to be raised was set at £50,000 before 16th September. This was easily achieved and by that date over £73,000 had been banked.
Formal application for the Light Railway Order for the railway was made at the end of November 1982, followed by the statutory period for objections, of which there were five. Agreements were quickly reached with these parties and the result was the granting of the LRO on Christmas Eve 1983 - a Christmas present we are enjoying the fruits of today. No public enquiry war needed resulting in one of the fastest such approvals. The BR Board thus agreed to sale of the first section of line to proceed and just under 15 miles our route - from the Cheltenham Borough Council boundary at Pittville to the first overline bridge north of Broadway - at a cost of just £15,000.
The following year, permission was granted for a maximum two-coach push-pull operation over 600 yards of track, the formal reopening taking place at Toddington on 22nd April 1984. The then Secretary of State for Transport, Mr Nicholas Ridley MP, performed the ceremony, with the first public train hauled by Avonside 0-4-0T Cadbury No 1.
From such small beginnings the present operation has developed, growing at a steady half-mile per year. Now, the objective of reaching Broadway is well within sight - completing track laying over most of the 15 miles purchased more than 20 years ago. Now the GWR can look to further horizons - and acquiring the still-intact trackbed to Honeybourne is certainly on the cards.