Memories of ‘The Honeybourne Line’ and the CoffeePot

As a part of the Centenary Festival of Steam in 2006 and in conjunction with the Gloucestershire Echo and BBC Radio Gloucestershire, we asked local people to share their memories of the line and in particular the "Coffeepot" auto service*.  Before the Festival many people who had responded were treated to a special trip over the full length of the line in Mike Little's beautifully restored Great Western Railway auto trailer no. 178, powered by 14xx 0-4-2T 'auto-tank' no. 1450: identical to the service that ran between Cheltenham St. James and Honeybourne until 1960.  The train used to stop at all stations: St James to Malvern Road, then to Bishops Cleeve (the train didn't stop at Cheltenham Race Course which only opened on race days), Gotherington (closed 1955), Gretton Halt, Winchcombe, Hayles Abbey Halt, Toddington, Laverton Halt, Broadway, Willersey Halt, Weston-sub-Edge and Honeybourne Junction. 


Many of our guests found this a very emotional experience - transporting them back decades to school days.  Old chums met again after years.  One lady felt a bit silly as she automatically looked under the seat for her school satchel. There was even a gentleman and lady who met once again having been school sweethearts.  Usually the school train was of two coaches, one for boys and one for girls but sometimes it was just one, meaning no segregation of the sexes!  They both recalled that sometimes the guard didn't bother to turn on the lights in the tunnel, giving an opportunity to steal a forbidden kiss in the dark…


A group of former Cheltenham Malvern Road enginemen also shared memories of working over the once-busy line, one driver recalling driving a Castle class 4-6-0 through Toddington at 88mph with a Cardiff to Wolverhampton express, the speed being recorded with a stopwatch from the quarter-mile posts by an enthusiast on the train.  


This is the story of the Coffeepot and other services - told by the people who travelled and worked on the much-loved line.  It's a wonderful reflection of the importance of the railway to the local community and the people who relied on it to get to work, to school for for a night out in town.


1900: the engineer's daughter - Mrs J B Adamson

George William Keeling was one of the engineers of the line - he was my great-grandfather. His main claim to fame was that he engineered the Severn railway bridge at Sharpness, which had a swing section to allow ships to pass along the Sharpness canal. The bridge was eventually abruptly closed when a ship demolished one of the piers.


I have lived by the line all of my life, being born above Hayles and then moving closer to Gotherington. Occasionally, during the 1930s, my mother and I went to Malvern Road to visit Cheltenham and my great-grandfather's daughters - my aunts - who lived there. I remember that one of my aunts had a model of part of the Severn railway bridge. During the 1940s, my friend, who lived by Hayles Abbey, and I used the halt there to Gotherington - by then in the 1940s - to visit each other.


During the 1950s my husband and I ran a small farm at Prescott (I still keep a few sheep) and we used to have rams delivered to Bishops Cleeve station - they used to come up from Hampshire! It is wonderful to see this lovely railway being brought back to life.


1906: the platelayer's daughter - Freda Jefferies

I can go back many years with tales of the 'Coffeepot' train. My father, the late Fred Norris, helped in the laying of the tracks between Honeybourne and Cheltenham and ended up working on track maintenace at Gretton, with others - Bill Claridge was ganger, along with Harry Williams, Bob Large and Fred Clayton. My father worked for the GWR until he retired in 1946 - a long and happy career helping to build and then looking after the line.


When I was 11 I left the local school to go to Pate's Grammar School in Cheltenham, with my friend Liliam Foster. We used to catch the train from Gretton Halt at about 8.00am. The service normally had two coaches, the schoolboys had the first coach to themselves and we girls travelled in the second coach with the other passengers and the guard. He also sold the tickets and I remember he always had a lovely button-hole flower in his jacket.


Very seldom was the train late, until the war cam. If it was late it was due to a breakdown - or the boiler would not work! The coaches were of an open plan type which enabled us to get to know the regular travellers. If there was someone new who became a regular we soon found out who they were and what they did.

On occasion there was just one coach and this is where the fun began. There was a short tunnel to go through (Hunting Butts) and in the brief darkness the boys' mortar-board hats came flying through the air and our hats were snatched off our heads. On entering daylight again we were glancing around for the guilty boys - and we went through the same routine on our return at 4.30.


Sometimes I went with my mother on the train to Broadway and would return to Gretton Halt on the last train. I remember that when we stopped at the unstaffed halts the guard had to go and put out the platform lights. These I think were paraffin lamps and they were very poor. I don't know who lit them - may be a track ganger.


In 1939 the war came and things changed - not for the better. Several of us left school and took employment in Cheltenham which meant we finished work at 6pm and travelled home on a train that left at 6.20pm. One very sad thing happened on arriving at Gretton Halt one evening. Someone called out: 'there's a body on the line', the engine driver immediately jumped off the footplate and sure enough there was a body in front of the engine. It was that of an elderly lady who lived across the road - she had committed suicide and was run down by an express train that passed through earlier.


That 6.20pm train was often delayed having to pull into a siding at Malvern road to give way to troop trains. We had to sit in the dark (because it was during the blackout) for as much as an hour. With the lights out we couldn't read or play a game of cards - very frustrating.


Sadly, the stations closed in 1960 so we had to travel by bus. That was not such a comfortable journey and was slower. Travelling by the 'Coffeepot' was indeed a privilege. Riding from Gretton Halt to Cheltenham St James as a schoolgirl was a truly enjoyable start to a life of 'travelling for pleasure'.


1927: living at the lineside - Winifred Smith

How well I remember the 'Coffeepot'! For the first 28 years of my life I lived in Great Western Terrace in Cheltenham with the line running at the bottom of the garden. Actually, we called the train the 'Broady' because we used it to go to Broadway and, of course, sometimes to Stratford (changing at Honeybourne). Would that you could still catch a train there today!


Mornings and evenings the train was full of school children, mainly going to the grammar schools (such as Pate's) from the surrounding villages. Sometimes it was stopped at the signal by St. George's Road bridge and the noise was horrendous! Many a 'dabber' (mortar board) came flying through the window never to be retrieved and possibly the odd satchel, too!

I think the train was also used for Sunday School outings from Cheltenham to the well-known pleasure ground* at Bishops Cleeve.


*The 'Eversfield Tea and Pleasure Gardens' used to be in Station Road at Bishops Cleeve and it was well known as a destination for Sunday School treats and other functions. Children were brought by train from miles around to enjoy themselves. An enterprising personality, Mr. Alec Denley and his wife Edith, ran the gardens. The children had the run of the orchard, where organised races were held. They had the choice of swings, slides, see-saws, helter-skelters and coconut shies to occupy their interests, after which, they sat down to home produced bread, butter and cakes, all made by Mr. Denley on the premises and set out in Eversfield Hall, which is now a factory, and is now 54 Station Road (


1940: the evacuee - Dick Garstang

The restoration of the line to Broadway will be, for me, a vivid reminder of being hurriedly evacuated to Broadway in 1940, after a particularly destructive air raid on Birmingham.


On the evening of the raid my brothers and I had taken shelter in the 'cubby hole' beneath the stairs and my father was standing at the back door observing, somewhat incautiously, the night's activities. He suddenly came rushing in shouting "get down, it's a parachute mine" and as he closed the door so the floor heaved beneath us, accompanied by a rumbling explosion and the sound of shattering glass. The explosion point had occurred at the furthest end of the cul-de-sac where we lived, some 100 yards away, yet our house, along with most others, was badly damaged and wasn't habitable for weeks to come.


The day following the air raid my two brothers and I joined, at minimal notice, a stream of children heading for our local school (Alston Road) to be registered, given a small hand towel, bar of soap and plimsolls, and eventually put aboard double-decker buses en route for Bordesley Station and thence via Worcester to Evesham Station.


After assembling at the grammar school, we were then transferred by bus to the Lifford Hall in Broadway for the allocation of what would be our place of residence for some time to come. It was the end of a bewildering day!


The association with Broadway Station at this time resulted from my becoming a pupil at Blackminster School, which entailed an early morning departure in order to catch the Midland Red school bus from Wells Gardens to convey we exited 'Brummies' to the station. Here we embarked on to a single carriage train (everyone knew it as 'The Coffeepot') and were taken, via Honeybourne, to Littleton and Badsey Halt to conclude with a quarter mile walk/shuffle and hopefully arrive at school in time for morning assembly.


We thoroughly enjoyed the novelty of train travel each school day along with being able to live in such a delightful area, and being so well cared for by the very kind couple in Bibsworth Avenue.


1942: the weekend visitor - Mrs.N.Weeks

I was born and brought up at Weston-sub-Edge and in 1942 came to Cheltenham to work, travelling on the 'Coffeepot' at weekends to visit home. I used it until 1954.


In those days Weston was quite a busy station, due to the operational air base, with lots of airmen using the train to visit Cheltenham and Evesham for leisure hours. The expression in those days was "The station gets more like London every day". It was 'blackout time' and there were no lamps at night, apart from an oil lamp at the end of the platform. The guard on the last train at night had to walk up the platform and extinguish the light.


On Sundays Malvern Road Station was closed so the 'Coffeepot' went into Malvern Road then back out to St James. This meant that I had to walk up to St Marks because the buses did not run on Sundays.


I sadly missed this train when the line was closed.


(I always thought the name came from the noise it made!)


1947: the schoolboy - David Barnett

I began travelling on the 'Coffeepot' to Blackminster school in 1947 at the age of 11 years. My brother and I - and several more youngsters - cycled from Childswickham towards Broadway, then along the path beside the railway cutting - about a mile and a half. Of course, we were often late and already out of breath when the train would pass us, the driver blowing the whistle to spur us on. The hardest part was riding up the steep roadway to the station, knowing that the train was in. Then we had to cross over the footbridge to the other platform and by then we had only just enough puff to board the train!


There were two teachers who travelled with us - Miss Lee who taught Domestic Science and Mr Foster, who taught Geography. We changed trains at Honeybourne junction to the Worcester - Paddington line and got off at Littleton & Badsey station. Then we walked in crocodile fashion to the school, and back again in the afternoon for the journey home. Sadly, in about 1950 they put on a bus for us - nowhere near as much fun!


1949: the signalman's wife - Mrs Mary Hayes

With reference to the Honeybourne to Cheltenham 'Coffeepot' of years ago, I well remember this service. My late husband was Signalman in the 'box at Bishops Cleeve between 1949 and 1953. We used the service to travel to Cheltenham Malvern Road station and change there to take a train to Banbury to visit my family. The train stopped at all the village stations and was a real lifeline for these outlying places.


My husband was a member of the GWR when it was founded in 1981 but sadly, he died later that year.


1950: the young mum - Mrs Gwen Elston

What happy memories the picture of the 'Coffeepot' in the 'Gloucestershire Echo' brought me! I used the train during the '50s about twice a week, boarding at Bishops Cleeve at 10.00am. At the time I had two babies in their pram and the guard, whose name escapes me, was a very pleasant and helpful man. He allowed me to travel in the guards van with the pram. I would meet my mother in Cheltenham and we would spend the day in the town before returning to the St James GWR station to catch the 5.00pm train back again.


In those days it was the only way to travel with children in a pram to the big town of Cheltenham. There were very few busses daily and they had no facilities for prams or pushchairs - the modern folded variety had yet to be invented! I seem to remember someone saying 'you never had it so good!'


Today there is an excellent bus service between Bishops Cleeve and Cheltenham but sadly, Bishops Cleeve station and the 'Coffeepot' to Cheltenham are just memories.


1950: the commuter - Mrs Robbie Whatcott

What a delightful surprise to see the 'Coffeepot' in the 'Gloucestershire Echo'! What memories that picture brought back to me. From 1950 to 1956 I used that train every day - I worked at UCAL in Cheltenham. I lived at Laverton and cycled to the halt where I would leave my cycle safely for the day. I went on the first train and back every evening from Monday to Friday.


Then Saturday was fun day. We would get on the train at the Halt and go to Cheltenham, to the pictures, for fish and chips or a pub crawl. Then we would catch the last train back home (10.20 from Cheltenham St James). The train stopped at every station - enough time for a quick 'penny spend'! (the coach did not have toilets!) - and we would have a sing-song. Such huge fun and so many happy memories. I often wondered what happened to that train - now I know. Thanks for making my day!


1951: the young fireman - Brian Knight

Reference to the 'Coffeepot' stirred memories of my BR service at Cheltenham Malvern Road engine shed, which I joined in 1950 and remained there until 1963. The trains normally ran to Honeybourne but I remember that the 2.30 service from Cheltenham continue beyond Honeybourne to Pershore, while the 10.20pm Saturdays-Only service only went as far at Broadway, returning empty stock.


I don't recall the term 'Coffeepot' amongst railwaymen - we referred to the 1400 class locomotive and coach as 'autos' while men working the services were in what we termed the 'car link'.


My first experience of the auto was the 10.20pm Saturdays Only service to Broadway, in about 1951. I was a very young fireman and had no experience of auto working at all. The train ran firstly from St James to Malvern Road (with the locomotive leading) and that was fine. Then I was on my own as the driver was in the 'car' (the driving end of the auto coach) with the locomotive propelling. Imagine the situation: it is dark, I'm alone, looking after the fire, the injectors, the reverser, keeping an eye on the water and the lubricator and assisting the driver by 'blowing off' the brakes as required. The condition of these engines wasn't always very good, possibly because of irregular boiler washouts, and they had a tendency to prime (water carried over from the boiler, through the regulator, to the cylinders) if the boiler level was too high or - in my case - if the fireman was inexperienced! There were plenty of drivers available for spare duties such as this, but not many firemen during the 1950s. Normally, such duties were reserved for experienced, senior men.


Well, we were in trouble before reaching Bishops Cleeve and had to stop for a blow-up. There was not much water in the boiler due to priming and a poor fire due to inexperience. I seem to remember that we stopped for another blow-up near Gotherington. The passengers, of course, were having a great time after visiting the pictures or the pubs in Cheltenham and going home on the last train. It wasn't such fun for me alone on the footplate! (see Mrs Robbie Whatcott's memory above).


Years later while a regular fireman in the 'car link' I enjoyed this work immensely - as by then I was competent to do the job!


1960: the Honeybourne fireman - A.G.Locke

During the early 1960's I was a fireman on British Railways, based at Honeybourne, from where I made many trips working over the line. Usually this was on the 'pick up' goods train, which ran to Cheltenham St James three days a week. Usually our engine was a 2251 class 0-6-0, but sometimes we had a Churchward 53 or 6300 class 2-6-0.


The stations had closed to passengers by then, but were still open for goods. We would call at all, except Weston-sub-Edge, shunting the yards until we got to St James where we would turn our loco on the turntable there.


I have read in The Cornishman (the house magazine for members of the GWR) of spooky goings on in Greet Tunnel. We were at Bishops Cleeve one day in the goods yard. A 9F hauled iron ore train stopped at the signal box, the driver reported feeling a bump in the tunnel. We went back light engine, searched the tunnel but found nothing.


I remember when the Cheltenham racing festival was on, we would see, at Honeybourne, spotlessly clean Castles and Halls turning on the triangle. The last time that I worked over the line was during the summer of 1964, on an evening Worcester to Cardiff express goods train firing, I think, a Grange class engine. It was run down but a good steamer! Happy Days!


*The Coffeepot 'auto service' comprised one or two special coaches and a small tank locomotive.  It was a 'push-pull' arrangement, the locomotive propelling the coaches in one direction and pulling them the other.  When propelling, the driver controlled the locomotive through linkages connected to a driving compartment at the front of the coach - these vehicles known by the Great Western Railway as 'auto coaches' or 'auto trailers'. Before these were introduced in the 1920s, the service was operated with steam railcars, which comprised a small steam engine within the body of the coach itself, driving the wheels at one end. These vehicles had a vertical boiler with a chimney extending through the roof of the coach - and looked much like a coffee pot, hence the name.