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Watercress Line

Mid Hants Railway
Watercress Line
Steam locomotive in green livery hauling a passenger train
60163 Tornado climbs the bank heading towards Ropley during the Spring Steam Gala in 2010.
Locale Hampshire, United Kingdom
Connections Network Rail track at Alton
Commercial operations
Name Mid-Hants Railway
Built by Alton, Alresford and Winchester Railway Company
Original gauge 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm)
Preserved operations
Operated by Mid Hants Railway Ltd
Length 10 miles (16 km)
Preserved gauge 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm)
Commercial history
2 October 1865 opened
Closed 5 February 1973
Preservation history
1975 Line purchased from British Rail
1977 Re-opened between Alresford and Ropley
1983 Re-opened to Medstead and Four Marks
1985 Re-opened to Alton
Headquarters Alresford

The Watercress Line is the marketing name of the Mid Hants Railway, a heritage railway in Hampshire, England, running 10 miles (16 km) from New Alresford to Alton where it connects to the National Rail network. The line gained its popular name in the days that it was used to transport locally grown watercress to markets in London. The railway currently operates regular scheduled services, along with dining trains, real ale trains and numerous special events throughout the year.


  • History 1
    • British Railways ownership 1.1
    • Heritage railway 1.2
  • Locomotives and rolling stock 2
  • Infrastructure 3
    • Stations of the Watercress Line 3.1
    • Imported structures 3.2
    • Signalling and safety systems 3.3
      • Alton signal box 3.3.1
      • Ropley signal box 3.3.2
      • AWS (Automatic Warning System) 3.3.3
      • Train Protection & Warning System 3.3.4
  • Future developments 4
    • 2008 lottery grant 4.1
  • Incidents 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8


British Railways ownership

In 1861,[1] the Alton, Alresford and Winchester Railway Company was authorised to build a new railway to connect to the existing London & South Western Railway lines at Alton and Winchester. It was opened on 2 October 1865[1] as the Mid-Hants Railway. Trains were operated by the London & South Western Railway[1] which eventually purchased the Mid-Hants Railway Company in 1884.[1]

Stations were initially constructed at Itchen Abbas, Ropley and Alresford.[1] The station at Alton was already in existence. The station at Medstead and Four Marks was added in 1868.[1] Just outside this station, the line is at its highest point (652 feet (199 m) above sea level)[1] having risen from Alresford (263 feet (80 m) above sea level)[1] and descending to Alton (339 feet (103 m) above sea level).[1] The section of line became known as "the Alps",[1] due to the steep gradients that exist there.

The line provided an alternative route between London and Southampton[1] and, besides transporting locally produced watercress, was particularly important for military traffic between the army town of Aldershot and the military embarkation port at Southampton.[1]

With the development of motorised transport, the line declined[1] during the inter-war and post-war periods of the 20th Century and was further compromised by the closures of the Basingstoke and Alton Light Railway in 1932[1] and the Meon Valley Railway in 1955.[1] Electrification of the line from London to Alton in 1937 meant that the Watercress Line was no longer part of a through route; it became necessary to change at Alton.[1] Electrification of the line from London to Southampton occurred in 1967,[2] which further affected the economics of the Mid-Hants route.

The line became part of the Southern Railway in 1923[1] and then part of the Southern Region of British Railways in 1948.[1] It survived the Beeching Axe[1] in 1963, but was eventually closed by British Railways in February 1973.[1] During final years of operation under British Rail, passenger train services were operated by Class 205 ("2H") two carriage diesel-electric multiple units.

In 1941, prototype Merchant Navy Class 21C1 Channel Packet travelled as far as Alresford after the naming ceremony at Southampton for a trial run with press and dignitaries.

Heritage railway

The section of line from Alresford to Alton that can be seen today was purchased from British Rail in November 1975.[1] Reconstruction of the line subsequently progressed in stages.[1] The section between Alresford and Ropley re-opened on 30 April 1977.[1] To provide engineering and maintenance facilities, the main locomotive shed and workshops were constructed at Ropley. The extension to Medstead & Four Marks opened on 28 May 1983[1] and the final section to Alton opened on 25 May 1985.[1]

On 12 June 1982, a replica of Sans Pareil visited the Watercress Line, running successfully under its own power from Ropley to Alresford.[3]

Some of the structures that can be seen on the Watercress Line today were not part of the original railway infrastructure;[3] they have been added to make the line serviceable again and to recreate the feel of a fully operational steam railway. The line is now maintained by a small base of paid staff (mostly in administrative duties) and a core of over 400 volunteers.

Locomotives and rolling stock

The Mid Hants Railway plays host to a large collection of steam and diesel locomotives, passenger carriages and restored wagons, most of which are from the 1920s to 1960s period. Steam locomotives operated include Bulleid Pacifics of the Merchant Navy and West Country, SR Lord Nelson class Lord Nelson, a Schools Class, 9F and a Black 5. Operated alongside these are a number of diesel locomotives including Class 37's, a Class 50, Class 08 shunters, a Class 11 shunter, and a Class 205 "Hampshire" multiple unit.


Stations of the Watercress Line

A view of Alresford station from the footbridge.

The Watercress Line has four stations, positioned in the same locations as the former British Rail stations. All stations feature a passing loop, allowing trains to pass one another, with all but Alton station featuring two platforms connected via a footbridge.

  • Alton – situated at the northern end of the line. Alton is the only station that does not have two passenger platforms (two are assigned to South West Trains, with a cross-platform connection to the town and to onwards services to London Waterloo). Alton effectively has two passing loops, one at, and one just outside, the station, allowing trains to pass one another outside of the station and thus reducing the impact of the single platform during intensive operations.
  • Medstead and Four Marks – the highest station in Hampshire and a depiction of a quiet 1940s Southern Railway station building. The Signal and Telegraph department is based here, along with the Permanent Way group and the Building department. This is where trains usually pass on standard running days, with the exception of Ropley once a day.
  • Ropley – the engineering centre of the line and the location of the locomotive maintenance and running sheds. The station is famous for its topiary and houses the largest signal box on the line, controlling movements through the station, as well as much shunting to and from the locomotive yard. The ongoing re-signalling project in the area will see a significant increase in the possible diversity of operations through the station.
  • Alresford – located at the southern end of the line. It is the main station for passenger facilities, including a museum, buffet and two shops. Most of the carriage stock is stored at this station, with Alresford Train Care performing day-to-day maintenance and cleaning to the carriages.

Information sourced from Watercress Line website, Railway Guide.[4]

Imported structures

Imported structures
Station Structure Original site
 Alresford  Footbridge  Uckfield, East Sussex[5]
 Alresford  West Country Buffet (building)   Lyme Regis, Dorset[3]
 Alresford  West Country Buffet (counter)  Okehampton, Devon[3]
 Alresford  Platform Canopy Columns (now supporting upper floor in Former Goods Shed Visitor Centre)  Ringwood, Hampshire[6]
 Ropley  Platform Canopy Columns (Heritage wrought iron stanchions incorporated into new waiting room building)  Ringwood, Hampshire[6]
 Ropley  Signal box  Netley, Hampshire[3]
 Ropley  Footbridge  North Tawton, Devon[3]
 Ropley  Footbridge near picnic area (currently under construction)[7]  Kings Cross, London
 Ropley  Water Tower  Longmoor Military Railway, Liss, Hampshire
 Ropley  Ex-LBSC Platform Water Column
(Reputed to be from Christ's Hospital Station)
 Christ's Hospital, West Sussex.
 Ropley  Wheel Drop  Bricklayers' Arms, South London[5]
 Medstead & Four Marks   Signal box  Wilton South, Wiltshire[3]
 Medstead & Four Marks  Footbridge  Cowes, Isle of Wight[3]
 Medstead & Four Marks  Signal box
(recovered by the Mid Hants Railway in October 2010 for use as a display) [8]
 Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire
 Ropley  Groundframe Hut
(formerly used at Ropley in two locations as a signal box for many years)
 Dean, Wiltshire[9]
 Alton  Signal box  Bentley, Hampshire
 Alton  Water Tower  Farnham, Surrey

Signalling and safety systems

Alton signal box

A new signalling installation has been commissioned at Alton.[5] It is a colour-light system, running from the signal box control panel; this contrasts with the mechanical semaphore signals used on the rest of the line. The new system allows a more intensive train service, making use of the loop, and allows shunting within the station, operations which the previous manual flag signalling did not allow. The new installation makes use of track circuits to detect where the train is situated and can change points and signals accordingly. It can run fully automatically, so there is no need for a signalman, unlike the other signal boxes on the line. When there is no signalman, all Signal Post Telephones are diverted to Medstead & Four Marks signal box. It works on a system where a member of the locomotive crew inserts the token into a token switch, to allow the system to take the next steps.

Ropley signal box

Phase One of the Ropley re-signalling project, construction of the new signal box, has been completed. Phase Two is expected to be completed in 2012. Phase Two will include installation of working distant signals, in place of the existing fixed distant signals. The new signals will be motorised semaphore signals as they are too far from the signal box to be operated mechanically without considerable physical effort by the signalman. The scheme will also include installing Advanced Starting and Outer Home signals in both directions.

AWS (Automatic Warning System)

The Watercress Line is currently the only heritage railway with a complete AWS system. It is used on all distant signals on the line and at all signals in the Alton colour light area, until an AWS gap is reached before the Meon Loop due to the large number of signals. Almost all of the locomotives and multiple units are fitted with it, apart from a couple of steam locomotives.

Train Protection & Warning System

Train Protection & Warning System (TPWS) is not used by the Watercress Line, however the Class 205 Hampshire Unit has TPWS fitted.

Future developments

Before its closure, the railway joined the South Western Main Line at Winchester Junction,[1] two miles (3 km) north of Winchester. There have been proposals to extend the existing line to rejoin Winchester but that would require significant civil engineering works and massive funding. Moreover, the M3 motorway from London to Southampton cuts across the old route and houses have been built across the right-of-way between the Junction (on the SW Mainline) and Itchen Abbas.

2008 lottery grant

In October 2008, the Mid Hants Railway announced that it had been awarded a £550,000 grant by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for a number of improvement projects.[10]

A new two-track carriage and wagon workshop is to be built at Ropley, capable of holding four carriages under cover. The workshop is intended to meet the particular needs for the restoration of wooden vehicles. New woodworking machinery will be installed and the grant will also pay for the employment of a carpenter and carpentry trainees.[10]

The existing locomotive workshop will be extended by the provision of a small machine shop and stores area and new volunteer mess (refreshment and changing) facilities. Viewing platforms for visitors will be provided in the locomotive and carriage workshops and the boiler workshop. Interpretation materials will be provided to enhance educational opportunities and provide explanations of the work being carried out.[10]

A historic signal box is to be rescued (assisted by a grant from the Railway Heritage Trust) and installed at Medstead. It will provide a hands-on signalling experience for visitors together with space for an exhibition of Strowger telephone equipment.[10]

The total cost of the projects is likely to be in excess of £1m, with the balance being funded from within the railway and by additional volunteer labour.[10]

The railway was successful in gaining two previous HLF awards: the Old Goods Shed at Alresford was restored and opened in 2000; the wheel drop shed at Ropley was built in 2005.[10]


There have been some incidents at the Watercress Line over its history. Most incidents are confined to mechanical failure of railway systems. On 26 July 2010, a fire broke out in the newly constructed Carriage and Wagon workshop at Ropley station.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z Alan C Butcher (1996). Mid-Hants railway in colour.  
  2. ^ South Coast railways – Portsmouth to Southampton. Vic Mitchell and Keith Smith. ISBN 0-906520-31-2
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Mid-Hants railway in colour. Alan C Butcher. 1996. ISBN 0-7110-2465-0.
  4. ^ "Railway Guide". Watercress Line. 1999-12-04. Retrieved 2010-08-13. 
  5. ^ a b c Pearson, Mike. "Mid Hants Railway (The Watercress Line) – A Guide". (Original, detailed version, now at the Internet Archive). Mid Hants Railway. Archived from the original on 2008-02-24. Retrieved 2 June 2010. 
  6. ^ a b
  7. ^ "Watercress Line gets Kings Cross 'Harry Potter' bridge". BBC News. 2 November 2011. Retrieved 2 November 2011. 
  8. ^ John Wright (27 October 2010). "Great Missenden Signal Box moves to MHR". Mid Hants Railway : Watercress Line. 
  9. ^
  10. ^ a b c d e f "Watercress Line Successful Again with a Substantial Grant Awarded by Heritage Lottery Fund.". Mid Hants Railway. Archived from the original on 2009-11-28. Retrieved 8 December 2008. 

Further reading

  • Hardingham, Roger (28 September 1995). The Mid-Hants Railway: From Construction to Closure (1st ed.). Runpast Publishing.  

External links

  • Mid Hants Railway – "The Watercress Line" official website.
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