The railway between Alton and Knowle Junction, near Fareham, was a late-comer to the scene, not being opened until 1903. It ran through what was then (and still is) a very rural and sparsely inhabited part of the Hampshire countryside and it is little wonder that in 1955, long before Dr Beeching began to wield his axe, it succumbed to closure. The mystery is not why it closed but why it was ever built in the first place, and on such a grand scale.
Once passenger trains were withdrawn the section from Droxford to Farringdon, including the magnificent viaduct at West Meon, closed completely and was demolished the following year. Freight services continued at each end of the line – from Fareham to Droxford until 1962 and from Alton to Farringdon until 1968.
The section from Knowle Junction to Droxford was subsequently used to test an experimental railbus and Droxford also became the temporary home to a number of preserved steam locomotives and carriages for a while, but all this activity ceased by 1973 and the track was lifted. The section south of West Meon is owned by Hampshire County Council and survives intact as the Meon Valley Railway Path.
The trackbed survives in a good state for the 11 miles from Knowle Junction to West Meon though the stretch between Wickham and Knowle Junction is currently a dead-end bridleway.
North of West Meon station the viaduct was demolished in 1956 isolating the section of trackbed leading to the tunnel, which is privately owned. Much of the cutting at the north end of the tunnel has been filled in but a massive embankment, through which the A272 passes in a tunnel, survives near West Meon Hut. Privett Tunnel was used for a while for growing mushrooms and the stations at Privett and Tisted are privately owned. Much of this part of the line was sold to neighbouring landowners, who removed some of the embankments and filled in cuttings. A long section of embankment was also removed to straighten an awkward S-bend where the A32 passed under the line at Hedge Corner. In a few places, though, short lengths of footpaths and bridleways run next to (but not actually on) the railway.
The site of the railway at Farringdon is clearly identifiable and a footpath runs northwards along the trackbed to near Chawton. However, the final stretch of the line was demolished without trace when the A31 Alton Bypass was built – the roundabout where the A31 and A32 meet lies on its course. A very short length of line remains at Butts Junction and is now owned by the preserved Mid-Hants Railway which runs the adjacent Alton to Alresford line.
The station site at Wickham is slightly to the north of the town and to avoid the built-up area the line crossed briefly over to the east bank of the River Meon, for which two substantial bridges were needed. Once clear of the town the line heads south-west, before curving round to the south to join the Eastleigh-Fareham line at Knowle Junction.
The path crosses a golf course, where it now occupies only a narrow part of the original trackbed, before entering a cutting in which passes under a bridge and approaching Knowle Junction on an embankment. Here the bridleway comes to a dead-end at a fence as the electrified railway line ahead is very much in use. The viaduct beyond the junction has a empty space where the Meon Valley track used to run, but it has not yet proved possible to extend the bridleway to connect up with another disused length of railway into Fareham, although it is hoped to do so in the near future. In the meantime, there is no alternative but to head back to Wickham.
The line soon passes over an 'occupation' bridge – a bridge provided by the railway company when the building of a railway severed a farmer's land-holding – and then crosses the river once more, before passing under a brick arch bridge carrying the road to Kingsmead. There is access to the path from this bridge, as at many others on the line. 600 yards further on the line passes under the A32, then under another bridge as it approaches Mislingford, with old railway cottages on the right. On the left is the site of Mislingford sidings and also a large timber yard and a waterworks. A concrete loading gauge survives at the exit from the sidings as does a platelayers' hut concealed in the undergrowth.
The cutting beyond Mislingford was dug through clay and gave a lot of trouble when the line was being built and later. The trackbed is raised above the bottom of the cutting to help improve the drainage. A little further on a steel girder bridge carries the lane to Soberton Mill over the line.
Along the next stretch there are a couple of bridges under the line after which there are good views towards the west across the river valley. The line runs along quite a high embankment with the river immediately on the left as it crosses another trackway, climbing all the while. It then enters a cutting, curving gently to the right and continuing under another steel girder bridge as it passes the village of Soberton.
A stretch of broad embankment follows before the path turns left onto the site of the old siding at Droxford. There are still remains of old sleepers in the ground, making for a somewhat bumpy ride. The line then passes under a concrete-arch bridge and the path soon veers to the left around the site of Droxford station, which is in private ownership and has been beautifully restored. A gate leads out onto the station approach road.
The trail heads north from Droxford through a deep, half-mile long cutting, which can be muddy after wet weather. A short stretch of broad, drier embankment follows, but then the trail dives into another cutting in which it passes under a brick-built road bridge. Just beyond the bridge there is an entrance from the road on the left. This is a convenient place to leave the trail to reach the tiny village of Meonstoke, if you wish to do so.
Meonstoke is one of three villages clustered together in the valley, each no more than half a mile from the next, the others being Corhampton and Exton. Amazingly, each has its own church and, since the one in Meonstoke is on the edge of the village, in the meadows down by the river, it is barely 200 yards from that in Corhampton. The one in Meonstoke dates from the 13th century, but the unusual timber top to its tower was only added in 1901. Often described as 'incongruous', it gives a Welsh look to the building. Corhampton church, on the other hand, is a late-Saxon building, dating from about 1020, more than 40 years before William the Conqueror landed at Hastings. However, the east wall (the one which faces the road) is brick, built in 1885, after the original collapsed. Exton village is a little further away, but well worth a detour to visit. You can reach it from Corhampton or from further up the railway trail.
A short way on, a new wooden bridge carries the trail over a footpath, and about 400 yards after that it passes under another road bridge. (You can also reach Meonstoke by leaving the trail here, using the steps up to the road.) The trail runs out onto a long embankment now. In summer the trees which have grown up along the sides of the line can mask the view, but if you come in winter you can enjoy the marvellous views to the right up the valley between Old Winchester Hill and West End Down. It's a pity that the council do not carry out some judicious thinning of the scrubby trees to allow users of the trail to better enjoy the beautiful scenery through which it runs.
Before long the path veers to the right down the side of the embankment. A low bridge over a road has been removed and the trail is forced to descend to the level of the road to cross it. On either side of the road obstacles have been provided to prevent motorcyclists gaining access to the trail, and you will need to carry your bike through them. (They also have the regrettable effect of excluding wheelchair users from the trail.) The road itself can flood after very wet weather, and you may find yourself riding through several inches of water to cross over! (If you want to reach the village of Exton, turn left under the bridge then left again at the junction just beyond. When you come to the A32 turn right, then left.)
On the far side of the road the path runs back up onto the embankment. As you continue along the trail you can see that, although the embankment was only built to carry a single track railway, enough land was bought in places to enable it to be doubled if required. The trail has a firm bottom but years of leaf fall has produced a fair depth of mud on top of it, which is another good reason for thinning the lineside trees. If it's wet you're generally better off riding through the puddles. The council have thoughtfully provided a small seat. overlooking Beacon Hill, on the left, a substantial mound of a hill with a steep scarp slope on its northern side. It's becoming obvious by now that the trail is climbing steadily towards the Downs ahead. The gradient may be only about 1 in 100, but it's noticeable, nevertheless.
The embankment becomes quite broad as you continue on. A brick bridge carries the trail over a stream and a footpath crosses the old railway. A couple of occupation bridges follow. The long embankment continues, still gradually climbing, until it comes to another missing bridge. Once again, the trail descends to cross a tiny lane. On the far side the embankment stands high above the surrounding countryside and follows a dead straight line for half a mile.
At the end of the embankment the trail crosses another occupation bridge and enters a deep, narrow cutting – there have obviously been several chalk falls over the years since the railway closed. Conditions in the cutting can be bad after very wet weather, and it can be hard work getting through. A tall bridge with a concrete arch passes overhead, carrying the road to Warnford, known as Hayden Lane; a path leads up to the road on the left a short way beyond the bridge. Warnford is best known to travellers on the A32 for its bends in the road, its spacious coaching inn (the George and Falcon), and its watercress beds, fed with water from wells dug deep into the chalk. But there's more to the village than this, most of it away from the main road, if you have the time to spare.
To reach the village church, head south from the pub, past the watercress beds, then watch for an entrance on the left into Warnford Park. A right of way (on foot only) leads through the park to the church, crossing the river by an ornamental bridge. The original church on the site is said to have been built in the time of St Wilfrid, who converted the 7th century people of the Meon Valley. An inscription notes that it 'was repaired and added to' by Adam de Port, who was Lord of the Manor of Warnford from 1171 to 1213. The tower, built in about 1175, has something of the look of a Norman castle keep about it. Behind the church are the remains of 'King John's House', in reality a 13th century house that was once owned by the St John family. Warnford House, which stood in the centre of the park, was described as a 'plain and rather dilapidated mansion'. It was a demolished in 1956.
From Meonstoke to the Hayden Lane bridge the railway was laid on sleepers made of concrete and, when the line was closed, the sleepers were recovered and used to build a jetty on the River Hamble. Eventually the deep cutting ends and the trail runs along another high embankment with Brocklands Farm on the left. The embankment ends as the trail enters the broad cutting in which West Meon station once stood. The old platforms can be seen ahead on the right, but the trail veers to the left to end in the car park.
The site of West Meon station amply illustrates the folly that was the Meon Valley Railway. The substantial station buildings and the brick-built signalbox have long since disappeared, but the 600-feet long platforms remain. The spacious goods yard can easily be identified; in latter years the council have used it to store materials for road repairs. It may have occupied a large area, but it only ever had two sidings and a loading dock, although no fewer than three coal merchants were based there.
A wooden footbridge originally linked the two platforms but it didn't last long. Rather than replace it, the company put in a foot crossing over the line instead, which was reached by a curious dip in the platforms near their southern ends – it's still there today. West Meon was the only station on the line to provide water for steam locomotives. The supply came from a deep well which fed a water tank near the railway cottages just up from the road bridge.
The Act of Parliament which authorised the building of the railway required that a station be provided at West Meon when the line opened and for ever thereafter, so the closure of the line was technically illegal and could have been delayed, as happened on the Bluebell line in Sussex, until another Act of Parliament could be obtained to authorise the closure.
Unlike most other railway paths, this one seems to have had little work done on it to convert it to its new role. As a result, although much of it is in very good condition, parts can be exceptionally muddy and occasionally hard work after wet weather, so a mountain bike is a must for this ride. Having said that, it's a very worthwhile trip. The great pity is that it isn't possible to continue further north. Other local authorities have overcome greater obstacles to revive old railway lines. Is it too much to hope that Hampshire might be able to do the same?
To return to Wickham you can either retrace your steps along the railway line or there are some delightful downland lanes to discover to the east of the railway line.
These two books give more of an insight into the building, operation and closure of this fascinating railway.
The colour photographs on this page have been borrowed with thanks from Hampshire Cam.
You can either follow through the pages in sequence or go back to pick another route from the list of the old railway routes I've used.
Updated: 22 August 2004