Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Freshwater and Yarmouth Railway Path



















The Isle of Wight is a haven for railway path walking and cycling, partly as a sad result of the wholesale closures of the 1950s and 1960s, but also the thinking of local authorities who managed to preserve at least some of each of the closed lines for recreational use. Since most of the sections of line are relatively short, I had considered a day of exploration covering several lines for a long time.

The first of the lines that I visited on the day was the former Freshwater and Yarmouth line. This independently built railway was eventually closed in 1953, having been run on a shoestring since it was first constructed through the sparsely populated western part of the Island. Given the time that has passed since its closure, it is something of a miracle that any of it has survived but the 3 mile section of trackbed between Yarmouth and Freshwater stations has been a popular cycle path for a good many years. Fortunately this is perhaps also the most scenic part of the railway following the banks of the tidal estuary of the River Yar for much of its length.

The original railway was a 12 mile branch line from Newport, the main town on the island, and was opened for traffic in 1889. Histories of the line and pictures are available at http://www.shalfleet.net/steve/fyn.htm and http://www.disused-stations.org.uk/graphics/wight/iow_station_index.htm .

The line always had a chequered history, mostly associated with sparse traffic and sailed close to bankruptcy until British Rail finally gave up on it in 1953. After closure and perhaps because of its rural nature, most of the line became absorbed into the countryside as part of farmers fields, while several of the station buildings were recycled into new uses. Between Newport and Yarmouth, very little of the line can be traced although determined relic hunters can still find the odd bridge intact. There are a couple of short walkable sections of the old trackbed at Wellow and Watchingwell but these are disconnected and could not be construed as forming any reasonable railway path.

The part of the railway path that is available for use begins on the B3401 just outside Bouldnor. There is a parking area alongside the road, although spaces are limited and I suspect very popular during the summer. I parked around the corner in the public car park, which is free. The rail line begins abruptly just north of Thorley Bridge. Any trace of the line eastwards has been completely absorbed within the garden of a large property on the opposite side of the road. I assume that there would once have been a road bridge here due to the height differential between road and rail, but any trace of this has also disappeared entirely.

Heading westwards though the story is different, with their being a well maintained path through the reeds of Rofford Marsh. The railway origins of the path are not at all obvious to begin with, but that all changes after half a mile or so when the former Yarmouth station is reached. Against the odds the old station has survived and is currently used as a youth centre. It is well maintained and is in remarkably original condition. It would be easy to imagine waiting on the platform for a train to arrive, although none have actually stopped for passengers for nearly sixty years (almost as long as the station was open for traffic!).

The line now changes direction as it reaches the formidable obstacle of the River Yar, heading alongside this very attractive tidal estuary. As the line swings away from the small town of Yarmouth, the station’s inconvenience at the edge of town can be appreciated although it was probably still the station generating the most traffic. It is hard to believe, but the railway company had originally had ambitious plans to connect the line via a 2.5 mile tunnel to the mainland at Lymington from here.These plans obviously came to nought and passengers had to rely instead on the ferry service across to the Hampshire port instead (as they still do!). Looking across to the estuary just past the station a large tidal mill building is still intact although inevitably now private housing rather than any industrial use. Just across from the mill is an old railway carriage now serving as a home. Its vintage isn’t known but is almost certainly from one of the three original railway companies that ran the network on the island. I suspect that the carriage dates from Victorian times, judging by its appearance.

Initially on the route south the old line runs through open estuary fringe with extensive views across the water, albeit through the reedbeds. It is a section of line remarkably similar to the Hayling Billy, although the surface is much smoother and more cycle friendly. After a short stretch the line then enters some very pretty woodland and it was easy to see why the closure of the line was fiercely opposed.Sadly, in these early days of railway closures very few protests were listened to. If the line were running now it would undoubtedly be a very popular tourist attraction, for it is very scenic.In the early spring sunshine the woodland was beginning to wake from its winter slumber and many of the leaves and blossom were out in full force. In a couple of places it was possible to head down to the water’s edge and look out across the estuary and to the attractive church of Freshwater beyond.

Once I had passed by the woodland, I passed another surviving railway building, the crossing keepers cottage at Freshwater. Once there would have been a level crossing across the road known as the Causeway controlled by the crossing keeper. Now the cottage is just another attractive house with its origins almost forgotten. At the adjacent bridge across the River Yar, its flow lessens considerably and is almost lost entirely within the reeds.

The path continues on for approximately half a mile until coming to an abrupt left hand turn. This is the point at which the railway line path stops; the line would once have continued onward into Freshwater station just beyond the fence. The site is now occupied by a garden centre and Co-op store. The only clue of its existence is the aptly named ‘End of the Line’ café, which even has some station awning as decoration to the outside of the building. As a station, the location of Freshwater was very inconvenient for any of the local attractions being too far from the beach at Freshwater Bay or The Needles, almost two miles distant. Considering these were the markets that the railway company had hoped to tap into it was probably no wonder that the line was doomed to failure.

For me this was the point at which I retraced my ride back to Bouldnor, but walkers could make a circular route by heading by road to Freshwater Church and then continue along the other side of the estuary via the waymarked Freshwater Bay and thence by coast path through Yarmouth back to the start point. As an introduction to railway cycling on the Isle of Wight this section of line whetted my appetite for the longest of the routes, the Perowne Trail which follows the former Newport to Sandown route. It was here that I headed next!

5 comments:

  1. Nice to see the IOW featured here....
    I was born on the Island and this has brought back some happy memories of both childhood and some more recent rides including this stretch of track bed..!

    -Trevor

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  2. Thanks Trevor - glad you enjoyed it! I've got three other rides from the same day to write up so hopefully they will keep you in touch with your roots too

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  3. Hello Wanderer! Thanks for nice description of the area - It might interest you to know that we have now bought Yarmouth Railway Station, have demolished the wooden hut connected to it, and are planning a complete restoration of the brick part of the Station, adding to it in the same style to creat a cafe/bistro with a bike hire and signalbox. It will look like a Southern Railway station, complete with green and cream colour scheme, and platform canopy. Hopefully it will do well as a watering hole for cyclists, walkers and birdwatchers....we hope to be open by Summer 2014! Cheers - Jules and Sarah Russell

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  4. Hello Wanderer! You might be interested in an update of Yarmouth Railway Station: We have bought it and now demolished the ugly wooden hut next to the brick part...The brick station will be extended and restored to Southern Railway colours, and will be a cafe/bistro, with bike hire and a signalbox for birdwatching. We think it will be a good spot for cyclists and walkers to stop for a break, and we hope to be open spring/summer 2014....cheers! Jules and Sarah Russell

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for the update - sounds like an exciting project! I'll be sure to look in on you if I pass by again :)

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