Fringe Box



Railway Embankment Never Saw A Train

Published on: 28 Feb, 2012
Updated on: 28 Feb, 2012

by David Rose

When a railway company built an embankment near Peasmarsh in the mid 1850s, it may have done so in the knowledge that a train might not ever travel over it.

Footpath across the former railway embankment near Peasmarsh, Guildford.

This seems a bizarre feat of civil engineering, but, if true, there was a good reason for doing so.

The London & South Western Railway Company (LSWR) reached Guildford from Woking in 1845. The line was extended to Godalming in 1849, but the LSWR was not in any hurry at that time to continue the line to Portsmouth. It already had a route from the capital to Pompey via Eastleigh and Gosport. Although this was longer, there was more revenue to be had as passengers were charged per mile!

An illustration believed to be Guildford railway station as it looked from when it opened in 1845 until 1888, when it was rebuilt.

As had often been the case in Britain’s railway building mania in the 1840s, speculative individuals and companies constructed railway lines, complete with embankments, cuttings, bridges and other structures, in the hope that when completed they could either sell or lease the line to a larger operating railway company.

The embankment seen from the towpath of the Godalming Navigation. The pillbox was built on top of it during the Second World War as part of the GHQ Stopline.

And so in 1853, private contractor Thomas Brassey and his Direct Portsmouth Railway Company embarked on building a line connecting Portsmouth and Godalming.

A John Bonham Carter cut the first turf on August 6, 1853, on his own hillside in Buriton near Petersfield and the last rail was laid in the winter of 1857.

Thomas Brassey had been clever, obtaining permission from Parliament so that when trains began running on the line he had built they could continue over the LSWR line from Godalming to Guildford.

Guildford railway station in about the 1860s.

Brassey then hoped for either the LSWR or even the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway (LBSCR) to buy or lease his line. However, they were having nothing to do with it. Like the LSWR, the LBSCR also had its own longer line to Portsmouth that was bringing in a decent revenue.

The cattle creek that goes through the embankment.

The other railway company operating in the area was the South Eastern Railway (SER) whose line from London via Redhill had reached Guildford in 1849. There was a chance that it might want to take over the running of the line to Portsmouth, so as to create a ‘serpentine’ route from London via Redhill and Shalford to Portsmouth.

Brassey may have built the curving spur up on an embankment, from the LSWR line at Peasmarsh to the SER line near Shalford, to draw attention to the SER and broker a deal.

However, the SER and the LBSCR had an agreement not to infringe on each other’s territory. By accepting the route on offer the SER would have broken that agreement.

Brassey may have been crafty enough to know that by teasing the SER with a simple spur to the south of Guildford, it would be enough to shake the LSWR into action to make a bid for the line from Godalming to Porstmouth.

And that is what happened. In 1859, the LSWR agreed to lease the line for £18,000 per year and the spur was abandoned.

The curving embankment of that spur still exists. It is now a footpath, from the original start of the spur next to the main Portsmouth to London railway line at Peasmarsh to the towpath of the Godalming Navigation of the River Wey – upstream from St Catherine’s Lock, a couple of hundred yards further on from the steel bridge that takes the Reading to Tonbridge line over the river.

This is where the spur would have gone over the river on a wooden trestle bridge. The steel viaduct of the Reading to Tonbridge line can be seen in the distance.

Here was once wooden trestle bridge that Brassey had built to take his spur over the river and on to another embankment that soon dropped down to meet the railway at Shalford.

A now crumbling bridge goes through the embankment about half way along its length. It was built as a ‘cattle creep’ so livestock could reach the fields on either side.

An article in the May and June 1947 edition of the Railway Magazine stated that some of the wooden piles that supported the wooden bridge could still be seen in the river.

It also stated that a “considerable station house exits, separate from the Peasmarsh Junction [signal] box and cottages”.

However, a look at OS maps of that period does not seem to show this building.

The spur has been noted in several railway history books. It is generally assumed that no rails or sleepers were ever laid on the spur. However, the Railway Magazine article includes the following: “‘When the LSWR acquired the Direct Portsmouth Railway, it took over the whole spur. The rails were removed, and a fence erected across the embankment at the cattle creep near Peasmarsh. The grass was mowed regularly from the LSWR boundary up to this fence, but the remainder of the embankment became overgrown by dense underwood and big trees.”

Thanks go to fellow historian Frank Phillipson who supplied me with a good deal of background information for this story.

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