Then and Now: looking towards Hunting Butts
By: Ian Crowder, 2011
With grateful thanks to Nick Chiplen, we're happy to bring you a pair of fascinating pictures taken from the A46 bridge at Cheltenham Racecourse, looking towards Hunting Butts tunnel and taken 31 years apart. The pictures are historic because they show an end and a brand new beginning.
Hunting Butts tunnel often gets overlooked but it is the shorter of the two tunnels on the Honeybourne Line. It has track laid through it and it is used to store rolling stock although the Cheltenham end of the tunnel is fenced off with a robust steel palisade. Hunting Butts tunnel is just 97 yards long and was originally envisaged as a deep cutting. However, this would have severed the gallops then used by the new racecourse so, perhaps with an eye on future revenue afforded by the racecourse the GWR agreed to build the tunnel and it was completed in the Autumn of 1904. Cheltenham Race Course station was completed in 1912; six years after the line had opened throughout.
As has been often documented, the Honeybourne Line was effectively closed in 1976 following a freight train derailment on what is now known as 'Chicken Curve' north of Winchcombe, probably because of movement in the embankment. This is a problem that has beset this location since the 1920s and in January 2011 finally collapsed, severing the line. No through trains traversed the route after that date and it was officially closed later November 1976. However, British Railways did not start lifting track until 1979 and Nick Chiplin's first picture, taken on 13 January 1980, shows that demolition was progressing rapidly. At first glance the image might be mistaken for the GWSR Permanent Way team preparing to lay track, but no. Not long after this picture was taken the sleepers that remained had been removed and nature was left to overtake the trackbed, which curves to the left in the distance before disappearing into Hunting Butts tunnel. As Nick points out, this is a desperately sad scene and one that for many, finally dashed any hopes of preserving this once-proud and strategically vital Great Western main line.
Of course, hopes of preservation have been more than realised as the second picture, taken on Good Friday, 22 April 2011, amply illustrate. Not only has track been replaced but the cutting has been neatly trimmed. The tunnel portal can clearly be seen with the two sidings entering it and the countryside has changed little, although this could change soon with a proposal to build 5,000 new homes at Hunting Butts. 1905-built Great Western 2800 class 2-8-0 no. 2807 is seen about to pass beneath the road bridge as it runs round its train, which has been left in Cheltenham Racecourse platform, before taking it back to Winchcombe. This was the first day of steam operation during the 2011 season. 2807 was, in fact, the first steam locomotive to arrive at the Toddington headquarters of the embryonic GWSR in 1981 and its restoration steadily progressed until in 2010 it returned to steam for the first time since its withdrawal by British Railways in 1963. The headboard, 'Heavyweight Champion', is a reference to the feat performed by sister locomotive no. 2808 performed in 1906 when it hauled a 2,012-ton freight train from Swindon to Acton; a feat not surpassed by a production steam locomotive during the steam era.
And what of the future?
There has been endless speculation about whether the Honeybourne Line could extend southwards through Hunting Butts and perhaps into the centre of Cheltenham. This is clearly a very attractive proposition! GWSR Plc owns the trackbed as far as the Prince of Wales stadium at Wymans Brook; beyond which it is owned by Cheltenham Borough Council. The Council-owned section is used as a footpath and cycle way and although the trackbed is largely intact to Cheltenham High Street, beyond there the embankment is severed to make way for a road to the superstore complex on the site of the former Cheltenham St. James station: the gap is bridged by a 'Sydney harbour' style suspension bridge for the cycle way. There have been various discussions with the Council and the Chamber of Commerce over the years about use of the trackbed, including a guided bus way and a tram system that is envisaged to serve the new housing developments at Hunting Butts, mentioned above, and connect with the Honeybourne Line. Suffice to say, however, there is little physical impediment to reaching the town centre with a southern extension and GWSR Plc is open to any sensible proposals.
The view south from the A46 road bridge at Cheltenham Racecourse, with Hunting Butts tunnel in the distance. This sad scene taken from a Kodachrome transparency (this film itself is now history as manufacture ended in 2009) exposed on a chilly 13 January 1980, shows that demolition of the line by British Railways is well advanced (Photo: Nick Chiplen)
The countryside is much the same in this 22 April 2011 view, but showing a cared-for cutting and track once again disappearing into Hunting Butts tunnel. The locomotive is 1905-built GW 2-8-0 no. 2807, which is running round the train it left in Cheltenham Racecourse station. This was the first day of the steam operation during the 2011 season (Photo: Nick Chiplen)