The start of through services
By: Ian Crowder
Although the Honeybourne to Cheltenham line opened throughout in the summer of 1906, connecting with the single-line branch from Honeybourne to Stratford upon Avon , it was to be another two years before the line came into its own as a through route.
The final section of line to open was between Bishops Cleeve and Cheltenham. To start with, all trains reversed at Malvern Road Junction to gain access to the St James terminus station in Cheltenham , as Cheltenham Malvern Road station did not open until 1908. There were proposals to build a spur to gain southbound access to Cheltenham St James but this never came to fruition.
With the southern half of the line complete, the engineers moved north to concentrate on completing doubling of the Stratford branch, which diverged from the Worcester to Oxford line at Honeybourne. Honeybourne Junction was remodelled and a new loop was completed allow access for trains to Stratford from the Oxford direction. Honeybourne station is actually about half a mile east of the junction and provided access to three routes: north towards Stratford ; east and west towards Oxford and Worcester and south towards Cheltenham. The Stratford-Cheltenham line passed beneath the Worcester-Oxford route and the two routes were connected by junctions to reach Honebourne station. Thus, through trains on the Stratford to Cheltenham line by-passed Honeybourne station altogether.
The first stretch of doubling of the northern section to be completed was between Milcote and Long Marston, followed by Long Marston to Honeybourne. Work on the section between Milcote and Stratford , including the bridges over Rivers Stour and Avon, was completed in February 1908.
Meanwhile, further north, construction of the North Warwickshire Line from Tyseley and Bearley West was completed, opening in July 1908; the line from Stratford to Bearley West was doubled, and the platforms at Stratford were extended. Thus, the way was open for the Great Western Railway to start running through trains from the industrialised West Midlands to the West Country and South Wales . While all this work was going on, Malvern Road station was completed, removing the necessity for through trains to reverse there. There was even a proposal for provision of water troughs on the stretch between Long Marston and Milcote but, given that most trains would stop at Stratford and Cheltenham this was never effected.
Local services ran from Cheltenham St. James, reversing at Malvern Road and on to Honeybourne. Initially steam rail motors were used, in due course replaced by the familiar 0-4-2 auto-fitted tank locomotives and auto trailers. Known by local people as the 'Coffee Pot' (possibly inspired by the shape of the vertical boiler of the rail motors) these trains served local stations until 1960, when the service was withdrawn. Services over the section north of Honeybourne were fulfilled mainly by trains between Leamington Spa and Worcester . There was never a through local train service between Cheltenham and Stratford - passengers had to change at Honeybourne.
Freight included of a mixture of local traffic, including produce from the fertile Vale of Evesham (there were fruit and vegetable packing sheds at Toddington) and heavy mineral traffic - coal and iron ore as well as steel from the South Wales steelworks.
The first through express passenger train from Wolverhampton to Cornwall ran in July 1908, setting the pattern for fast services over the line until it closed - indeed, there was a Sundays Excepted departure from Wolverhampton to Penzance throughout; this train eventually becoming named 'The Cornishman' by BR in 1952: the first officially-named The Cornishman ran on 30th June that year and although it didn't carry the familiar headboard, the carriages were identified with the name. It's often said that this was the only named express to run over the route - but in fact, there was a train called 'The Shakespeare Express' that ran between Birkenhead and Bristol - but it was short-lived, appearing as a named train only in the 1910 timetable.
There were some curious through services - for instance Bristol to Norwich, Cardiff to Yarmouth but these weren't very successful. After the Second World War, through timetabled services reached their peak with trains on Summer Saturdays from Wolverhampton and Birmingham reaching destinations such as Kingswear, Minehead, Newquay, Penzance and other Cornish towns; and to Fishguard, Pembroke Dock. This was the pattern which remained until the line was run down during the 1960s.
Diesel traction was no stranger to the railway. During the 1930s, the GWR's distinctive 'flying banana' AEC railcars were introduced and worked between Cardiff and Birmingham. This proved a popular service and demand outstripped the capacity of the railcars - even when two two-car sets had a conventional coach sandwiched between them, so the service eventually reverted to steam-hauled corridor stock.
In 1957, Inter-City Diesel Multiple Units were introduced over the same route. And, during latter years, Hymek, Warship, Brush (class 47) and Peak (class 45) classes appeared, the latter classes eventually taking over from steam. The last timetabled passenger services over the line were single DMU's ('Bubble Cars') between Leamington Spa and Gloucester but, on busy days, strengthened to a three-car set. Because Malvern Road station had been closed, passengers for Cheltenham had to alight at Gloucester and return to the former Midland station, Cheltenham Spa (Lansdown). This service ceased in 1968 to be followed by the remaining services between Stratford & Worcester the following year bringing to a rather ignominious end to the glorious succession of through expresses seen over the route in its heyday.
For a concise chronology of our line, click here
An Illustrated History of the Stratford on Avon to Cheltenham Railway;
Audie Baker, Irwell Press 1994 (ISBN 1-871608-62-7)
Lost Railways of Herfordshire & Worcestershire; Leslie Oppitz,
Countryside Books 2002 (ISBN 1-85306-754-7)
The Sleepers Awake Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway, Vols 1 & 2
Stratford upon Avon to Cheltenham ; Vic Mitchell & Keith Smith,
Middleton Press 1998 (Country Railway Routes series) (ISBN
The Honeybourne Line Colin Maggs & Peter Nicholson, Line One Publishing
1985, ISBN 0-907036-12-0
The first officially named The Cornishman. This is the up (northbound) working, seen departing from Stratford upon Avon on 30th June 1952 behind Castle class 4-6-0 no. 4092 Dunraven Castle, which was built in 1925. The train is without the headboard which was not finished at the time although the coaches did carry The Cornishman roof boards. (Brian England)