Looking back at the last decade of steam’s dominance

The old Steyning line, pictured in 1964
The old Steyning line, pictured in 1964

NOTHING creates a mood of nostalgia quite as quickly or as surely as the sight of a steam train.

Author Michael Welch offers the most delightful of train trips down memory lane in his latest volume, Southern Counties Branch Line Steam – a journey to a place where they most definitely did things differently.

The old Steyning Line from Brighton to Horsham is featured, along with Pulborough to Midhurst, Horsham to Guildford, the Bognor Regis branch, Havant to Hayling Island and Alton to Winchester lines.

In the volume, Michael looks at branch line steam during the last ten years or so of operation.

“Some of the routes featured in this album are still busy today, but most have long since been erased from the landscape,” he said.

“One is left to ponder whether the orgy of closures in the 1960s was prudent, bearing in mind the development that many towns have experienced since those days, when car travel and expansion of the road system seemed to be the only way ahead.

“Most of the branches depicted in this book saw occasional infiltration by diesel locomotives and multiple units and, indeed, some were completely ‘dieselised’. But, in many cases, the introduction of diesel traction failed to stave off closure despite the enhanced service that was often provided.

“Other lines, however, retained steam on timetabled services right until the end, notable examples being the Hawkhurst branch, the Horsham to Guildford line and the Somerset and Dorset.”

The branch line from Pulborough to Petworth was originally built as part of the Mid-Sussex Railway’s single-track Horsham to Petworth line, which opened on October 10, 1859, and was the first railway in that part of the county.

The line was extended southwards from Pulborough to Arundel junction in 1863. The branch to Petworth was extended to Midhurst, this section opening in 1866, where it met the LSWR line from Petersfield, which had opened in 1864.

“The Pulborough to Petersfield line ran through a particularly attractive part of rural Sussex and Hampshire,” said Michael. “But one that was sparsely populated and hardly fertile territory for the railway.

“Passenger services were abandoned on the entire line from February 7, 1955, with the section beyond Midhurst closed completely.”

Despite their relatively small geographical area, the southern counties possessed a remarkable variety of branch lines, ranging from the flat and featureless line to New Romney, to the Alton to Winchester link, which climbed up to 650ft above sea level, the highest point on a railway in southern England.

One of the most picturesque was undoubtedly the Polegate to Eridge ‘Cuckoo Line’, in East Sussex, which boasted some of the prettiest scenery – and certainly the most impressive station buildings.

The Hayling Island branch had a character all of its own, while the Lymington line became famous as the last steam-worked passenger branch line in Great Britain.

Southern Counties Branch Line Steam is available now, priced £18.95, from Capital Transport, Trade counter, Mendlesham Industrial Estate, Norwich Road, Mendlesham, Suffolk, IP14 5NA.Fax 01449 767122. ISBN 978-1-85414-359-4.