A MSWJR adventure in August 1967 courtesy of Peter Hoskins

It was a sunny Sunday afternoon in August 1967, probably the 13th or at the latest the 20th after reference to the calendar and the Guinness Book of Hit Singles, that I caught a bus after lunch from Chippenham to Calne with the intention of reaching Marlborough. There was only a weekday bus service between Calne and Marlborough and so I was obliged to hitch the rest of the way. I walked a few miles beyond Calne before a Volkswagen Kharmann Ghia pulled in to the side of the road and kindly took me to the centre of Marlborough. As Pick of the Pops was on the car radio airing some new releases I was none too early reaching Marlborough where without ado I set off down the Salisbury road and up the approach to Low Level which had become a county council depot. All station buildings had long been demolished but both platforms, as I remember, remained.

Having seen all there was to see I set off over the bridge not knowing that within a few weeks it would be gone. The ballast had not been recovered and the impressions left by the sleepers after removal of the track made for the usual uncomfortable width of stride. This was not so evident where the first of the two tracks had been taken up some time before the second. I passed the stationmaster's house and proceeded into the shallow cutting neglecting to glance to the right at the site of High Level to see what, if anything, was left. On I went under the black footbridge and round the curve ever deeper into the cutting eventually to be surprised by the tunnel entrance presenting an obstacle that I had carelessly overlooked. The enormity of the cutting had by this time become spectacular compared with, for example, the approaches to Combe Down tunnel or Fisherton tunnel in Salisbury. Chalk had tumbled down copiously on to the track bed and been allowed to rest with no need any longer for removal. The tunnel mouth had been blocked up with breeze blocks but there was a green painted door under the zenith which somebody had forced and left open. What should I do now?

I stepped inside into a chill that contrasted strikingly with heat of the afternoon outside. I had forgotten the length of the tunnel but assumed by the absence of light from the other end that, however distant it was, it was similarly blocked up. I allowed my eyes to acclimatise and made out the arched brickwork. Foolhardily or otherwise I proceeded tentatively from the doorway holding my arms out in front to reflect the receding daylight it admitted and to cushion myself in case of collision with a wall. I plodded on in the pitch black for what seemed like a long time. Eventually a small intermittent glimmer of light caught my attention. I thought it must be someone coming the other way with a torch. The light became constant and I headed towards the source, which became larger as I advanced. I reached the far end where there was no corresponding door but the solid wall had been breached by the removal of some of the blocks just above ground level. I stuck my head out and my glasses instantly steamed up in the heat. A couple of local lads were in the cutting and soon took their leave while I emerged into another chalk and ballast landscape still free of the weeds, brambles and stingers that were to claim it in later years.

There was no stopping and turning back now. The track emerged from the deep cutting into open countryside with not a road or sign of habitation in sight. I therefore had no clear idea of where I was. The only obstruction I encountered was an occasional single strand of barbed wire strung across the trackbed as a fence. On I went and eventually came to Hat Gate. Having come through the tunnel I had assumed without further thought that I was on course for Savernake High Level. I was therefore surprised to find myself at the GWR bridge over the minor road to Wootton Rivers with remains of the MSW bridge on my left. Accepting this I pressed on, crossed the stone arch over the A346 and further down encountered the end of a siding from Savernake Low Level. There was nothing for it but to proceed and incur the displeasure of the signalman at the junction for trespassing and perhaps even a 40/- fine into the bargain.

On reaching the junction I found the block switched out and so walked on to the station unchallenged. Everything was in place here. Even the closure notices still advertised the closure of all the local stations including the route through Devizes on the same day in April 1966. I examined the running in board that had twice been modified. Savernake Low Level Junction For Marlborough had been reduced first to Savernake Junction For Marlborough and finally Savernake For Marlborough. The words were clearly discernible at close quarters where they had been painted out. I reluctantly left Low Level and walked up the road to High Level which was not so enclosed as it is now although by then in private ownership. Here I met an obliging man on crutches. I told him where I had come from and he kindly showed me around the remains of the station.

So ended my unplanned adventure. I walked back to the A346 and near Cadley got a lift from a man on his way to Lechlade. I got out at Marlborough and managed to hitch a lift back to Chippenham. I was probably among the last, if not the last of all, to walk from Marlborough to Savernake without having to leave the trackbed. I undertook my next timely trackbed walk a few weeks later from Devizes to Holt Junction.

Other memories….well I was on the A420 approach to Swindon from Wootton Bassett when the MSW embankment came into view carrying the truncated line from Old Town to Moredon power station. I recall the lower quadrant signals on the bank fitted with visibility shields. As my visits were invariably made on a Saturday afternoon I never actually saw a train on the railway. I did see a number of black Esso tank wagons on my visit to Swindon Town. These used to be seen on the route from Southampton to Bristol until a pipeline was installed and on the DNS up through Winchester.

Living in Salisbury I never had occasion to travel north by train in my childhood and odd occasional outings as far north as Marlborough or Swindon were made by car. I recall passing under both bridges on the edge of Savernake Forest and seeing Marlborough station lit up in the evening. I also remember the shock of seeing it stripped of its roof after closure of which I had been unaware. I kept various BR Railrover maps for Southern and Western Regions from the early 60's. I recall seeing Andover Junction included in the WR map for 1961 but missing from the 1962 map.

After my posting to Chippenham in 1967 I got my push bike sent up from home. In the second half of 1967 and the early months of 1968 this enabled me to visit a number of sites. I regularly rode up what was still the A420 through Dauntsey and Wootton Bassett to Swindon on Saturday afternoon and casually left my bike unattended in Faringdon Road much like the picture of the bike outside Old Town station. I was in time to explore what was left of Swindon Town and walk over the footbridge to the island platform. I cycled up to Cricklade one damp Saturday afternoon and found the platforms still there but nothing else.

I cycled up to Gloucester and Cheltenham one afternoon. On the way back I stopped at Charlton Kings where the station had already undergone adaptation to other use. Despite riding through Cirencester I never visited Watermoor in time, which I have come to regret. I did pass Town and I have the idea that the track might still have been down the first time but I cannot be certain. It frequently rained on these excursions and enough perhaps to distract me from closer observation.

In the other direction one Sunday I cycled through Calne, Quemerford, Bishops Cannings, Pewsey and on to Grafton station where I met a farmer on the platform who expressed surprise that I had cycled so far just to see an old station. I went up to Grafton south junction, got on to the track bed and walked past the remains of the signal box up to the K&A canal where I found the bridge abutments leading to Wolfhall.

I visited Collingbourne Ducis in the spring of 1968 where I found the station building extant and in rather faded WR brown and cream colours. Earlier in 1966 I went on a family holiday to north Wales and on the way up we passed under the bridge at Ogbourne which prompted a remark on the condition of the station from a travelling companion who had used the line during the war. The A346 of course bent sharply here to negotiate the railway. It was a shame eventually but inevitably to see it straightened out and the formation consequently broken at this point between Marlborough and Chiseldon.

A couple of years ago I found Withington station having sought directions in the village. I went back there for a closer look when I realised that it had a bay platform hidden amongst all the greenery. I have not so far managed to find the site of Chedworth or the tunnel but I have now seen where Foss Cross is and it looks fairly easy to find from the main road.

As a personal commemoration of my walk in the dark through Marlborough tunnel I went back 30 years later but this time approached from the other end. I went into Brown's Farm and asked permission to cross their fields to reach the south portal of the tunnel. I got on to the track bed but progress north was seriously impeded by brambles and stingers far taller than I was. This caused me to abandon the track bed in places in favour of the left bank of the cutting. Eventually I reached the portal where a mound had been heaped up to the grating, which admits the bats. I fancy I might have just squeezed inside but I did not know what was on the other side and eventually retraced my steps.

A couple of years later I returned to the north portal having inspected the last vestiges of the High Level station at the top of Cherry Orchard and then proceeding through the development to cross the GWR to reach the site of the MSW trackbed. This had become so overgrown in places that I had to get off and continue in the adjacent field on the south side. The old black footbridge was still there but unreachable. I eventually got as far as the portal but this time I had to descend from above. The right hand side of the parapet looked on the point of collapsing on to the track bed without much persuasion. On the way back I paused at a foot crossing of the MSW to view the GWR trackbed heading for the A345 and decided to walk over to it. Once again stingers dashed any hope of walking very far towards High Level.

Although I never travelled by rail north from Andover I admit to a profound feeling of loss and regret over the closure of this line. I am inclined to attribute it to impressionability associated with childhood when railways were innocently assumed to be permanent features in the landscape. Their construction after all took time, effort, money and indeed lives and the very thought of closure and subsequent destruction of something created at such cost was unthinkable. This was the first major closure of which I became aware and it was in the county of my birth. It was of course the best part of a couple of years before the publication of the notorious Beeching report that was to inflict further unjustified destruction throughout Wiltshire.

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