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Vale of Berkeley Railway

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November 2019

Look on any old map (pre-1963 that is) of the Forest of Dean and you will see lots of long black wiggly lines that don’t appear on modern versions. This is due to drastic amputations made by the fiendish Dr. Richard Beeching who in 1963 left the body of the British Rail network without any fingers, toes, arms or legs. Despised by many, Beeching is the original Mr. Marmite, revered by others as St. Richard, patron saint of the long distance cycle route. I assume that most of the audience at the November gathering of Thornbury History and Archaeology Society were in the first group, as Rob Carruthers of the VoBRT (work it out) presented his talk.

A minor diversion for sufferers of nostalgia. Many people don’t realise that nostalgia is actually a form of memory loss. People forget that steam trains were dirty, smelly and rarely on time. My grandfather, who luckily never suffered, worked on steam engines for much of his life and never wanted to go within a mile of one after he retired.

These days an area of outstanding natural beauty, in the nineteenth century the Forest of Dean was an absolute minefield of - well, mines. The river Severn was on hand to transport the coal. There was just the problem of getting the coal to the river. Rails were the solution, and the Severn and Wye railway was built to transport coal to the dock at Lydney. Starting as a horse drawn tramway in 1810 it became a standard gauge track in 1872.

So, what’s this got to do with the Vale of Berkeley? In 1879 the Severn and Wye amalgamated with the Severn Bridge Railway, transporting coal across the river on the 22 magnificent wrought-iron spans of the original Severn Bridge to the docks at Sharpness. Severely damaged in 1960 when two barges collided in thick fog and drifted into one of the piers, the bridge was demolished in 1967 and little now remains apart from the stone tower of the swing-bridge section that spanned the canal just above Sharpness. The 1960 accident could have been worse. The gas main that crossed the bridge was not operating because maintenance workers couldn’t manage to find their way back from the pub.

To link Sharpness to the main Bristol and Gloucester Railway a branch line was built by Midland Railway. It opened in 1876 and ran from Berkeley Road station on the main line to Sharpness station with an intervening station just north of Berkeley to serve the town. When the Severn Bridge Railway got into financial difficulty it was sold, together with the Sharpness branch, in 1894 to a joint GWR and MR consortium. The Sharpness branch closed for passengers in 1964 but remained open for freight and still transports the occasional wagon of low-level nuclear waste from Berkeley Power Station to Sellafield.

Nothing now remains of Sharpness station, Berkeley station or Berkeley Road station apart from a few old bricks and tiles. So why, you might ask, is the VoBRT planning to resurrect the line (but not rebuild the bridge – that would be a bridge too far)? They want to maintain the industrial heritage of the area and to work with partners and tourist attractions to help rejuvenate it. They plan to rebuild Sharpness and Berkeley stations, run a steam heritage line, and hopefully reconnect the passenger service to the national rail network.

There are reasons for optimism. Much of the line remains in good order, courtesy of Berkeley Power Station. Also, one of the trustees is the happy owner of over 400 items of rolling stock and says that the trust can take its pick. One of these is a diesel loco captured by the Germans and subsequently strafed by an RAF Hurricane, - you can see the bullet holes. They also have 110 enthusiastic volunteers to help them achieve their goals.

Much has been accomplished since the Vale of Berkeley Railway started in 2015. The engine-shed and workshop in Sharpness is restored, repairing and making parts for this and for other heritage railways, and open to visitors on Wednesdays. Locomotives and rolling stock have been restored. The four track sidings in Sharpness have been cleared of the sizable forest that had grown over them. Planning applications for platforms etc. have been submitted. The trust publishes a news magazine 3 times per year. The current target is to run steam trains from Sharpness to Berkeley in 2022. I feel a dose of nostalgia coming on.

Many thanks to Rob Carruthers for his entertaining talk.

The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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