Railway enthusiast Crawford Wright looks back to a time when the Meon Valley had its own railway – and Swanmore almost had its own line.


There were various railway schemes to improve links from the north of Hampshire (with access to Aldershot and London) and down to the south coast.

One scheme would have linked up Bishop’s Waltham to Petersfield via Meonstoke. Eventually on the 3rd June 1897 the LSWR (London & South Western Railway) obtained The South Western (Meon Valley) Act. The chosen route being from Alton down the Meon Valley to Fareham as both were reasonable size market towns. 

All the villages in between had relatively small populations and Droxford was in serious decline. Any goods rail traffic out of the area would have been agricultural whilst inward was mainly coal and livestock. 

The intermediate stations were Farringdon, Tisted, Privett, West Meon, Droxford (for Hambledon), and Wickham. In total some 298 acres of land were purchased. J C Garner was paid £7,500 for 23 acres. Although this was a country railway the construction was to be substantial with the line throughout and its infrastructure built to take two tracks, with significant stations at key locations. Construction began in 1898, which was rather late in railway terms. This had the advantage that steam powered excavators could be used, although much of the work still required the picks and shovels of the navvies. The majority of the earthworks were through dry chalk, although there was a problem of supplying water for the steam excavator. The spoil from the cuttings and tunnels was used for the embankments. 

Hampshire Chronicle: Navvies building one of the bridges

There were a number of interesting civil engineering works including a large steel viaduct at West Meon, long tunnels at Privett and West Meon with a shorter one at Funtley under the ridge of chalk. The latter was commemorated by the Miners Arms public house. 

Accommodation for the navvies building the line and their families was provided by huts along the route. Hence the name “Meon Hut” where the A32 crosses with the A272. 

Navvies had hard physical work and a reputation for brawling, often fuelled by drink. In July 1901 there were a number of accidents near Tisted. Arthur Hawking age 15 was crushed between two ballast wagons and at Privett a navvy lost both his legs when run over by an engine. He was taken to Alton hospital by horse-drawn wagon but found to be dead on arrival. A further accident occurred at night when two men were digging a shaft by candle light at Privet Tunnel when the earthworks collapsed on top of them. One man managed to dig himself out but his colleague died.

The estimated cost of the line was £399,500 and the contract was awarded to Robert T Relfe & Son. Included was the building of the five substantial stations at a total cost of £4,000. There was also Board of Trade approval for a railway line to be built from Bishop’s Waltham through Swanmore, and Droxford to link with the Meon Valley line at Corhampton but it was never built. 

The most substantial works were the tunnels at Privett and West Meon and the high viaduct at West Meon over the roadway to East Meon. This was originally to be of stone but due to ground conditions a steel structure was used. The final tunnel was at Funtley into Fareham through the chalk ridge. Due to the difficult nature of the earthworks this tunnel did not open until 1907.

Hampshire Chronicle: Wickham Station shortly before closure in 1955

Although the line was built throughout to take a double track, only a single line was laid with passing places at all stations and goods yards. Approximately 600 men were employed constructing the line, earning 6d (2.5p) per hour. In 1901 the Railway Hotel (later known as The Hurdles) opened just across the way from Droxford Station. This would have been convenient for those attending the races at Hambledon. It is now a private residence. 

The station architect was Thomas Philipps (1858–1948). Each building was large and to a very high standard including Portland Stone and stained glass windows. The platforms were 600 feet long, sufficient for ten coach trains. The railway opened on Monday 1st of June 1903. There were through trains of eight coaches from Waterloo to Gosport via the Meon Valley line, usually hauled by an express T9 Greyhound 4-4-0 engine or a Jubilee class 0-4-2. Special excursion trains ran on Sundays.

Since few people owned cars the railway provided opportunities for employment in other areas including Alton, Fareham and Portsmouth for the dockyard. Agricultural produce including strawberries, milk and sugar beet could also be sent to markets further away including London.
At the outbreak of the First World War passenger services on the line were reduced in order for troop trains and their supplies to be carried to the coastal ports. A goods siding was provided at Mislingford for a timber company. Swanmore and Shedfield Councils petitioned the LSWR to provide a halt at Mislingford to serve their passengers but this was declined. The poor train service on the line was also raised in Parliament, but no improvements were made. In the Second World War the line came into its own again providing a useful transit route especially to the ports of embarkation in the build up to D-Day. The most famous time was just prior to D-day when Winston Churchilland key members of the government were stationed in a special train at Droxford. This was close to Southwark House (General Eisenhower’s Headquarters) and ports of embarkation. They were protected by the local Home Guard and today a notice board commemorates this historic event. 

Hampshire Chronicle: Cutting through the chalk, from Keith Robertson's seminal book on the railway

After the war the rail service deteriorated further and all that was offered was a two coach push-pull train with an M7 class tank engine, running between Fareham and Alton, although “specials” to Droxford were run for horse racing at Hambledon. 
After the war further economies were made by BR (British Railways) including the closing of signal boxes and station footbridges. The rapid increase in car ownership and the Beeching cuts brought about the end of passenger services. 

The last passenger train ran on Saturday, 5th February 1955, although a pick-up goods train continued to run, serving the goods yards and usually operated by a class 700 engine. A special farewell enthusiasts’ train was run from Waterloo and then on to Petersfield, Midhurst and Pulborough – all lines that had met the same fate as the Meon Valley. The track was removed, stations either sold off or demolished. 

Today we are fortunate that Hampshire County Council purchased much of the southern section of the track bed for a public way. Those few stations that are left were turned into domestic accommodation. They originally cost less than £1,000 each to build but are today valued in excess of £1,000,000. 

By Crawford Wright