Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Wye Valley Railway Chepstow - Monmouth

Permanent Way
I have had a fascination with this railway for over twenty years ever since first coming as a teenage scout to the area and coming across some of the derelict track just north of Tidenham Tunnel. Back in the late 1980s this quarry line was on its last legs and although there were still some trucks stationed on the line, they were clearly destined for removal as the quarry had just about closed.
Driving Through The Thicket
This exploration is actually on two separate occasions, concluded recently when I took the opportunity to try and find the Tidenham Tunnel once again using the same track as my original visit. The section north of Tintern station formed a part of a completion of the Wye Valley walk section between Monmouth and Chepstow done some time ago but which has not yet appeared on this website.
Rails No More
It is impossible to follow the whole trackbed from Chepstow to Monmouth along the former route of the Wye Valley Railway since some is blocked off, bridges and tunnels are no longer in use and a small section still has track and has not officially been closed! However, there are some long sections available and for the railway walker it is still a good and interesting project. In the next few years the section between Chepstow and Tintern/ Brockweir is likely to be transformed if Sustrans get the wherewithal to proceed with their plans to turn the old route into a cycle path.
Tintern Tunnel
The original railway ran from Chepstow to Monmouth, a distance of 15 miles and was opened in 1876. The engineering of the line was quite difficult due to the tightness of the Wye Valley, which must surely have contributed to its scenic beauty when it was operational. After leaving the main Gloucester line just to the north east of Chepstow it plunged through a 1000+ yard tunnel at Tidenham, clinging to the side of the valley until reaching another tunnel at Tintern. It crossed the Wye three times en route up the valley until reaching Monmouth Troy station where it met with another line (now closed) that connected Ross-on-Wye with Pontypool via Usk.
Inside Tintern Tunnel
The section of line south of Tidenham Junction is still in situ although now heavily overgrown in places and impassable by trains, which have not been this way for almost twenty years. The tunnel itself is now block in the south portal by a fence keeping out all but the more determined trespasser. My journey though started from the north portal. As it happens just a couple of hundred yards to the north of the north portal as the undergrowth was so dense that I couldn’t penetrate the thick jungle! Since I am really a walker with an interest in old railways rather than a serious jungle buster I thought I would leave this to others (or come in the depths of winter when there is less undergrowth!).
Wireworks Bridge
It was slightly surreal coming across such an overgrown piece of line where little attempt had been made to remove the tracks. Rock falls across the tracks are evident where the vegetation doesn’t cover it all up. This was the section where I can remember the trucks being stationed last time I came this way in 1988. Eventually the rails are lost and only the chairs are visible and soon enough any evidence of track is lost entirely. Ironically just beyond here the trackbed is in much better condition, for it is now an official footpath all the way through the forest to Tintern tunnel. This section was one of the hardest to construct apparently, for the engineers had to build a shelf for the line to sit on so that it could cling to the edge of the valley. Now it makes for a very pleasant path through the woods, but because of the steepness of each side of the track it isn’t really possible to make anything much out of the engineering features, even the small viaduct crossed along the way.
Tintern Loop
Eventually I reached Wireworks Junction, still very visible even 60+ years since it actually acted as a junction. From here a short freight only branch headed into Tintern Village, to an old factory that manufactured, guess what? Wire! It was built with private money as a result of the railway company’s decision to by-pass the village for engineering reasons. Now some people have offered the branch as a possible opportunity for restoring the line to at least Tintern. The path ahead takes the Wireworks branch, but before I did I took the time to have a proper look at Tintern tunnel, a fairly short one, but because it is on a curve, impossible to see to the other end. The tunnel is closed off by a fence strong enough to deter all but the most determined trespasser and even if passed through it offers nothing for the onward walker for on the other side is a missing bridge over the Wye.
Former Bridge at Tintern
I instead took the short branch line into Tintern along what is now a very attractive woodland walk and difficult to believe that it was once a railway line. I soon reached another bridge across the Wye, the very useful (for walkers anyway) Wireworks Bridge and the only one across the Wye between Chepstow and Brockweir. This provides a good access for walkers based in Tintern to get across to the walking country on the English side of the River. For walkers of the railway line a mile long detour through the village is needed, but in truth this is no hardship and if there is time there are plenty of refreshment opportunities and the second hand bookshop is one of the best I have ever been in (even if a bit pricy).
Miniature Railway
As I stayed in Tintern this time I did not venture further north of the old station, which is sited about half a mile away from the northern edge of the village. Follow the main road through the village and then pass by St Michael’s church at the edge of the village following the signs for the Wye Valley Walk. I crossed a couple of muddy fields before coming across the railway line once again at a bridge abutment from the missing bridge across the Wye about three hundred yards from the tunnel mouth I had left over a mile ago! The Wye Valley Walk climbs up onto the trackbed and within a couple of hundred yards the old station is reached. This is a delightful location even in closure as it has been fully restored and serves as a visitor centre and tea room. I have visited the old place a number of times and is well worth a trip in itself if you happen to be passing.
The Train Now Standing
Outside in a siding that now represents the only section of track remaining between Tidenham and Monmouth is a couple of carriages that act as a countryside centre and display about how the railway once looked. It makes for a fascinating place to while away an hour or so and the old station building is still full of atmosphere. A signal box, old signals and water tower complete the scene but alas the possibility of trains coming by this way once again seem remote as 50 years have now passed since the passenger service ceased for good.
Tintern Signals
The trackbed does continue north for a few hundred yards from here but abruptly stops at the road that crosses the Wye at Brockweir Bridge. The bridge that once allowed the railway to pass under the road has now been filled in and replaced by a set of steps carrying the Wye Valley Walk northwards towards Monmouth. This is a very enjoyable route but high level for about four miles and for the railway walker there is no sense of what the rail traveller would once have seen. The trackbed from here for a couple of miles has been subsumed within the straightened A466 road and I have previously continued northward using the Offa’s Dyke Path on the English Bank of the Wye. Although on the other side of the river the old trackbed can eventually be made out nearer to Llandogo and Bigsweir beyond.
Tintern Station
For me though the second excursion on the track was made a few years ago while completing this section of the Wye Valley Walk. From Bigsweir bridge the old track can be picked up once again using an official footpath. Beyond the old tollhouse it is worth having a bit of a nose at the old St Briavals station, which is still extant but off limits to all but a brief glimpse. Interestingly the village it was supposed to serve is over a mile away, several hundred feet higher and in a different country!
Redbrook Bridge
After a mile or so of easy walking the Wye Valley Walk is reunited with the railway and continues along a very pleasant stretch of trackbed through trees and alongside a bubbling and angry looking River Wye (at least it was on the winters day I came through here!). Another station used to exist here, but as it was only a halt with a wooden platform not surprisingly no evidence remains. Eventually just before Redbrook the end of the rail walk comes with a final flourish as the path still uses the old bridge across the Wye, albeit on a short footbridge attached to one side.
Redbrook
Alas Redbrook station is now long gone – a great pity as was once a rival with Tintern for the best kept station on the route. The path from here to Monmouth doesn’t follow the railway line, but the bank of the river. It is nonetheless worth continuing to Monmouth just to look at the two old viaducts that converge upon the old Monmouth Troy station across the Wye. These are now silent monuments to a lost connection to the national rail network lost in the 1960s when good traffic finally ceased on the Wye Valley Line and passengers no longer used the Pontypool to Ross-on Wye line. Walkers can continue up the Wye using this old line as the Wye Valley Walk heads that way. I have done that myself many moons ago, but alas with no surviving pictures. Another trip that way beckons I think! There are also other lines heading into the Forest of Dean that are worth exploring, many of which are useful cycle routes these days.
Monmouth Viaducts
Since my first trip down this way in 1988 this line appears to have been the focus of a lot of attention, with some interesting web histories at http://www.urban75.org/photos/wales/wye_valley.html and an incredible and detailed plan of how the railway could reopen, courtesy of Nigel Nicholson at http://homepage.ntlworld.com/nigel.nicholson/gn/page%2032.htm . The most likely reuse option realistically though is for Sustrans (http://www.wyevalleycycling.org.uk/) to continue its plan for reopening the Chepstow to Tintern stretch as a cycle path and continue northwards as opportunities crop up. Considering the route has been out of action for 50 years, there is a surprising amount of infrastructure and trackbed left and it could make for an interesting and useful cycle route along the whole former line.

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