Explore the Railway

The Berks & Hants (B&H) line through Hungerford was opened in three stages. Originally a single track branch line along the Kennet Valley from the GWR main line at Reading, passing through Newbury to Hungerford and opening in 1847, it was continued up the Dun Valley by the B&H Extension Railway over the watershed at Savernake to Devizes in 1862. By 1900 the GWR had used the branch as the basis for a new direct route to the West Country via Westbury, bypassing Devizes in the process and upgrading the branch line to mainline standards.

The route was famous in the steam era for its expresses to holiday destinations in Devon and Cornwall, promoted by effective GWR marketing and hauled by a range of their 4-6-0 locomotives including the famous King Class. Engineering the B&H to support the axle loading of these powerful locomotives enabled it to handle the even greater requirements of the heavy freight traffic which was to become feature of the line today.

In time modernisation on British Railways saw steam locos give way to the distinctive classes of diesel-hydraulic locos adopted by the Western Region of BR. Rationalising the network saw the branch to Devizes closed as well as the connection to Marlborough. Passenger services concentrated on the long-distance trains to the West Country and local services became part of the Network SouthEast sector focussed on commuting to London and Reading. In recent years the new GWR have catered again for local journeys westward beyond the previous turnback point at Bedwyn, making possible day trips to Pewsey, Westbury and beyond.

Passenger services are reviving after the Covid pandemic but they have to contend with the use of the route by heavy freight trains, mostly from the Mendip Quarries beyond Westbury. One of these heavy and slower-moving trains is seen crossing Hungerford Common on the line of the original branch, a short walk to the east of the town. The line curves following the contours of the valley, limiting the speed of passenger trains to 75mph through Hungerford:

Looking in the other direction from the Dun Mill overbridge an occasional excursion train is approaching the town. The scenic nature of the route along the Kennet valley and over to the Vale of Pewsey makes it a popular choice with tour operators:

The first obstacle in extending the railway on from Hungerford was the High St. Fortunately the need to gain height up the valley takes the railway over the A338 rather than requiring a most inconvenient level crossing. With modern smooth welded rail, trains pass through with barely any impact on life going on below them – which could not be said of the large number of HGVs which would be needed to carry the heavy loads of stone by road! This type of photograph is a challenge for the enthusiast because of the lack of visual cues as to the train’s whereabouts:

Travelling west out of Hungerford, by rail or on the canal towpath, you leave the Kennet valley and cross Freemans Marsh, another area of common land. The railway here continues to be elevated as it starts the climb up the valley of the river Dun. All the viewing points in the area are affected by the growth of vegetation and any recent clearance work done by Network Rail at the line side. Here an occasional steam-hauled special has just crossed the canal and river before entering the marsh and the outskirts of the town:

Further west after passing Froxfield you become increasingly aware of the frequency of locks on the canal, indicating that the route is starting to climb more earnestly. On reaching Little Bedwyn you may be reminded of images taken from the road bridge
of Western diesels emerging from under its distinctive concrete footbridge with the church in the background. The view from that footbridge shows the intimate association between the railway and the canal:

Ironically the GWR used the canal to bring in the materials required for the building of the Extension railway, which was to make the canal obsolete, neglected and ultimately derelict. Happily the Kennet & Avon canal is useable again, mostly for leisure purposes, all the way through to Bath
as originally intended. A mile further on, the valley opens out to a water meadow as you approach Bedwyn station. Double-heading of freight trains happens frequently on this line, usually as a matter of operating convenience rather than due to any inadequacy in the General Motors diesels which provide the bulk of freight haulage:

Local services returning eastwards require a turnback siding to avoid blocking the main line during scheduled stopovers. This is provided in a field next to the church beyond the station. It is the site of one of many footpath crossings over the railway, in this case linking the church with the canal towpath. A heavy (and largely unstoppable) stone train is passing at speed down the gradient over the crossing. These are clearly dangerous locations for footpath users and the greatest care should be exercised in when crossing:

Looking back as we leave Bedwyn we see the squat church, with associations to the Seymour
family of Henry VIII’s times, just as a special working of Pullman carriages hauled by an exuberantly-liveried diesel loco thunders past. This image will be familiar to people who have the 2004 Locomotives pocket book published by Platform 5:

Further on a stretch of open countryside can be broken with a visit to canal bridge no. 99. This has been a popular location for railway photographers for years, albeit somewhat informally used as the redundant bridge had become overgrown and barely accessible. In recent years it has been restored as a viewing platform by the Canal & River Trust and provides an ideal location to enjoy the countryside and its wildlife, punctuated by the occasional train, another steam special in this case, disturbing the reed beds by the canal:

Continuing westwards you pass the ‘Roman’ level crossing (of an old Roman road) and soon see the tall chimney announcing the pumping station at Crofton, built to provide water to the upper sections of the canal in the absence of a natural water supply. The original steam beam engines are still in situ and take over from the later electric pumps on occasional steaming weekends:

The railway here squeezes past the old buildings and is forced into a sharp curve following the canal as it changes direction from SW to NW, requiring careful negotiation by the drivers of heavy freight trains:

As you emerge from the curve you become aware of earthworks from a disused railway. You are just entering the section where the B&H route was intersected by the former Midland & South West (M&SW) through route from Cheltenham to Andover. Although the later M&SW flew over the B&H further along the way the military requirement for inter-working between the two, resulting in a complicated triangular junction from the GWR:

As you approach the site of Wolfhall Junction more heavy-duty abutments line the canal as the two routes converge. When you look down from the overbridge at the far end it is difficult to imagine the scene of a signal box in the foreground with sidings and the link line climbing away to join the M&SW – such is the extent to which nature has taken possession again after closure. This is the Wolf Hall with historical connections to King Henry VIII and the Seymour
family in the novels of the late Dame Hilary Mantel:

If you look in the other direction you can see the line of the closed railway along the boundary of the field:

As you travel further you come upon the summit tunnel for the canal. The railway crosses over at this stage so that Savernake summit GWR station (as was) sits on the top of the tunnel and the line has a short sharp ascent at 1 in 106 to avoid the obstacle. Again it is difficult to imagine a busy junction station (for the GWR Marlborough branch) as you look down from the road overbridge at the far end of the site:

although the sight and sound of a single Class 59 bringing a 4000 tonne train past the grass track, which used to be the GWR branch to Marlborough
, and over the summit from the west is a vivid reminder of the here and now:

All the above locations could be considered local to Hungerford, perhaps requiring a short ride to Bedwyn for the upper reaches. Once over the summit the line extends spaciously through the Vale of Pewsey, whose award-winning station still retains a flavour of the GWR wayside station of the past. A modern bi-mode IET unit flashes past at nearly 100mph, providing the action photographer with a challenge to get a satisfactorily sharp and well-composed image:

At the other end of the Vale, Westbury lies on the later-developed main line to the west. It is an important junction for connections to Bristol and Salisbury, as well as being the concentration point for stone trains from the nearby Mendip quarries. It has a lot to offer the rail enthusiast as well as providing onward connections to the north, south and west:

Resources

A history of the BERKS & HANTS line Reading to Westbury by Peter Simmonds  ISBN 978-1-906419-88-2 – for historical context
RailMapOnline – to investigate railways that connected with the Berks & Hants line in the past
Realtime Trains for your nominated date – to investigate what trains are due to operate during your stay
OpenTrainTimes map for the B&H line – public signallers map to find out where trains are on the day
Steam-hauled specials in the Hungerford area – for advance info about steam trains which may operate along the B&H line

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