Having delved into Brief Encounter, The Railway Children and The Titfield Thunderbolt, STEVE ROBERTS’ next film foray takes him to Hampshire
RAIL travels back in time to the scene of “the most spectacular rail crash in cinema history”, and discovers what remains.
Opened in June 1901, the Basingstoke to Alton Light Railway was twice used as a filming location. But the line closed as long ago as 1932 - how much is there still left to see?
The B-A was a standard gauge 20-mile line, the first opened under the 1896 Light Railways Act. On opening day, only 50 tickets were sold at intermediate stations, so viability was always to be an issue, although the new route did cut the journey time from Basingstoke to Alton by more than half (it had previously been two hours via Winchester and was now 45 minutes).
Light meant light. Passenger trains were restricted to a maximum of five bogie vehicles, and goods trains to 15 loaded wagons or 25 empties. Mixed trains included sheeted wagons carrying the likes of hay, as this was an agricultural area.
There were three intermediate stops on the B-A, plus sidings. The line served the farming communities of north Hampshire, plus villages sited remotely from their stations. Station buildings were constructed from corrugated iron with match-boarding interior, and each station had four railwaymen’s cottages plus a stationmaster’s house, built some distance from the track (to avoid demolition should the line be doubled). Each station had a well, with two worked by wind pump. A small halt was also added (1909).
Much of the track was lifted in 1917 because of military demands. London and South Western Railway directors considered potential traffic insufficient to warrant relaying the track in 1921, but the locals objected and a meeting was held at Basingstoke Town Hall in January 1923, protesting at the branch’s abandonment and replacement with a bus service.
The locals prevailed, as the line was reinstated in August 1924. But it was only a temporary triumph, as traffic indeed proved inviable with wages exceeding receipts. Passenger services ceased in September 1932, with freight continuing until June 1936. Track was then removed for the second time, although stubs at either end survived until 1967 for goods shunting.
Film crews descended on the line either side of closure. First came The Wrecker (1929), a 74-minute crime film, directed by German Géza von Bolváry and based on a play by Bernard Merivale and Arnold Ridley (the mastermind behind 1931’s The Ghost Train, and later in life Private Godfrey in Dad’s Army).
The film was made on the cusp of sound, with shooting taking place in the summer of 1928. Originally silent, it was rapidly
re-released with a music track and some synchronised speech sequences.
The film bestowed an early screenwriting credit on Angus McPhail (of Whisky Galore! fame), while there is also an Alfred Hitchcock cameo. Ridley permeates this story and if you watch The Ghost Train you will find snatches of The Wrecker that have been edited in. Some unused film was also used in The Seven Sinners (1936).
The Southern Railway was a major stakeholder, co-operating fully - many locations and engines were used, and not all on the B-A. Railway buffs will enjoy some railwayana - there are shots of signal box apparatus and the technology of the time, including a wireless indicator showing train positions.
The Wrecker is famous for a derailment dubbed “the most spectacular rail crash in cinema history”. It was filmed at Herriard, about seven miles south of Basingstoke and the second stop on the route to Alton.
A locomotive and lorry were both written off on August 19 1928, when the filming occurred. The engine was SECR (South East & Chatham Railway) F1 Class locomotive A148, which was pulling a rake of six SECR coaches. This was ground-breaking for the time - models were usually used, not a real locomotive.
On the day, Hampshire Constabulary closed roads and employed crowd control, such was the public interest. It was a big event, with 200 workers from a Midlands railway company turning up to watch. There were 22 film cameras poised to capture the action.
The train was released on an incline to crash into a Foden steam lorry, working up a good head of steam (40-45mph) prior to impact. The driver ( J. Brown) and fireman (G. Goodright) were both from Guildford, the driver jumping clear just before the collision. The train crew may have departed, but there were two footplate dummies to keep things realistic.
Only one take was possible, so meticulous planning went into the stunt, which lasted all of 65 seconds. To ensure a spectacular derailment, some track was removed.
The train ploughed off the line with steam everywhere, smoke and sparks shooting 15 feet into the air, and carriages blazing. The explosion was heard a mile away. The doomed engine ploughed up the track for 120 yards before falling on its side, with a 30-foot rail gouging through the tender into the guard’s van. The whole train left the track except for the last pair of wheels.
After the high-octane fun there was a downside for rail workers, who toiled overnight to get the line working again for the next day. This was still an operational railway!
The ‘Wrecker’ of the film’s title was deliberately engineering accidents on British railways (United Coast Railways to be precise) - his motive was to discredit them so that custom would switch to a bus company (Kyle Motor Coaches).
Thirty-five perish when the ‘Northern Express’ is wrecked and more die when ‘The Flying Welshman’ is derailed by a truck left on a crossing. Roger Doyle, the hero of the piece, is on this train. The named trains are not that original - next in line is ‘The South Express’ - and the culprit is dubbed ‘Jack the Wrecker’ by sensationalist newspapers.
The baddie, Ambrose Barney (the railway manager and secret owner of the bus company), was played by American film star Carlyle Blackwell.
Chairman of the railway company Sir Gerald Bartlett ( Winter Hall) is shot dead after becoming suspicious. It then passes to his nephew Roger Doyle ( Joseph Striker) to follow up the clues, in tandem with his love interest, secretary Mary Shelton (Benita Hume). She suspects Kyle Coaches, who profit from each crash by immediately opening a new bus route.
The evil Barney suggests his pursuers use the ‘Rainbow Express’ to follow up a clue, but Doyle (who missed the train) learns that another crash is planned, which he manages to foil. It’s all very Dick Barton.
At the film’s conclusion our heroes thwart another planned crash, the villain is
The train ploughed off the line with steam everywhere, smoke and sparks shooting 15 feet into the air, and carriages blazing.
apprehended, and Doyle and Shelton profess their love for one another amid a cloud of steam as all the loose ends are tied up. There is light comedy and romance in there, which appear at variance with otherwise serious subject matter.
Interest in the film persists, and in 2009 footage of the derailment was restored with a new musical score by composer Neil Brand. Next up for the B-A was 85-minute Oh, Mr
Porter! (1937), directed by the French-born Marcel Varnel.
This time it was Cliddesden station (the first stop south from Basingstoke, and the one before Herriard) that was used. Cliddesden, including signal box, became the fictional Buggleskelly in Ireland. The station had closed in 1936, so this time the filmmakers had no worries about an operational railway.
Hired for three weeks, the set designers made the station suitably ramshackle, as the film’s theme required. Hilariously, with signs of life at the station again, between May and July 1937 passengers began turning up expecting trains. Perhaps a tender being used that had ‘Southern’ on it suggested the railway had re-opened!
As with The Wrecker, not all filming was done on the B-A. The windmill that features at the film’s conclusion was at Terling, in Essex, while the title sequence uses shots on the Waterloo to Southampton Railway. Gladstone was a 2-4-0T engine built for the Kent & East Sussex Railway in 1899 and named Northiam. It returned to the railway afterwards and remained in service until 1941, when it was scrapped. The film also used an X2 Class 4-4-0 No. 657 and an 0395 Class 0-6-0 No. 3509.
Oh, Mr Porter! was based on Ridley’s The Ghost Train. It is a comedy starring Will Hay as William Porter, a hapless stationmaster at an isolated halt on the ‘Southern Railway of Northern Ireland’, where there are tales of hauntings and very real gun-runners. The
name of both film and hero were taken from the popular music-hall ditty Oh, Mr Porter, whatever can I do? I want to go to Birmingham and they’ve taken me on to Crewe.
Buggleskelly station lies close to the border with the then Irish Free State (hence the illicit gun-running). It is a remote station, two miles from the nearest bus stop, so ideal for nefarious activities. The alleged haunting (‘One-eyed Joe the Miller’) aims to deter curious onlookers, especially at night.
In an implausible ending, Porter and his two equally hapless employees - Jeremiah Harbottle (Moore Marriott) and Albert (Graham Moffat) - pursue the gun-runners to a derelict railway tunnel, where a ‘borrowed’ train has been concealed.
Our three heroes end up trapped at the top of a disused windmill, but miraculously turn the tables on their adversaries by coupling their own engine Gladstone to the filched railway carriages and conveying them to a siding, where the gun-runners are arrested. Poor Gladstone explodes at the end in its moment of triumph.
Although there was nothing as spectacular as the crash in the previous film, this didn’t prevent star Will Hay from almost being killed by a train during filming!
There was also re-use with this film. A brief shot of Will Hay taking a ferry to Ireland morphs into a Channel Ferry in Hitchcock’s
The Lady Vanishes (1938). But this time there was no romance - the film is an out-and-out comedy using the best of ‘bumbling British humour’.
I needed to find what remained of this onetime light railway, little used by passengers but much loved by movie moguls. I started at the southern end of the line (Alton) and journeyed north (to Basingstoke).
Having last visited the station at Alton in 2013, I was keen to see how it looked five years on. I recall the new footbridge being put in then, and it remains operational today. An old footbridge at the southern end of the station was closed and no longer appears on National Rail’s station plan.
Alton, which was effectively the southern junction for the B-A, has three platforms. The main station building is on the station approach side (Platform 1). The footbridge connects to Platform 2 and Platform 3, which is utilised by the Mid-Hants Railway (the Watercress Line).
National rail services from Waterloo via Aldershot terminate at Alton (there’s a buffer stop at the southern end of Platform 1). This was once a through route to Winchester, but the only services south of here now are courtesy of the Mid-Hants, and only to Alresford.
Having closed in 1973, the line was purchased from BR in 1975 and began re-opening in stages from 1977. At the top of Station Road is The Railway Arms, with a cracking bit of signage-cum-sculpture - a 3D Southern steam locomotive emerging from a stone tunnel portal.
The Mid-Hants heads out of Alton and after half a mile reaches a pair of bridges over roads (the A339 and Butts Road) by the side of an open green ( The Butts). It was just a bit further on at Butts Junction that the B-A diverged, swinging off right to begin its journey to Basingstoke (the approach to Butts Junction
The site of Herriard station (The Wrecker) can be visited, although little remains today. Where the famous crash took place is now part of the A339.
was one of only two double-track sections on the line). There was also once a further line heading off southwest towards Fareham (the Meon Valley Line).
Having photographed the bridges (sadly, a Friday in late June was not a Mid-Hants running day, so no steam trains puffed across), I settled for a reconnoitre of The Butts instead. Looking towards where I knew the junction to have been, I could see the French Horn pub and visualised a steam train puffing along somewhere behind this.
The B-A line then crossed Chawton Park Road on a bridge (which is no more). Today there is a scout hut (the 3rd Alton Scout Group), set back from the road. The line would have crossed over the top here, arriving at the first intermediate stop.
Alton Park Halt (an addition in 1909) had a 200-foot platform. There there had also been a siding for a hospital and convalescent camp built under the auspices of the Absent Minded Blind Beggar Fund (from Rudyard Kipling’s
Absent Minded Beggar), boosted by fund-raising concerts during the Boer War.
The siding was eventually removed, but a similar one was provided in April 1910 for the Lord Mayor Treloar’s Cripples’ Home, which had taken over the convalescent camp huts from 1908.
The home took delivery of 1,500 tons of coal per annum - a train with a T9 4-4-0 at either end meant there was no tricky reversing needed around the curve. The platform, meanwhile, was used by Founder’s Day specials visiting the home. There is still an overgrown platform on private land behind the scout hut, and a finger post back at The Butts points the way to Treloar Hospital, although the site is today occupied by Alton Community Hospital.
I knew the site of Bentworth & Lasham station lay in between the two villages. Arriving from Bentworth at a crossroads, with Lasham signed the other way across the A339, I only had to drive a very short distance before finding fence posts for Station House and Station Cottages - a reminder that the next three stops, the principal intermediate stations, all had pretty-much identical arrangements of these (pleasingly, all are still extant).
Wandering down the drive, past the cottages to the onetime stationmaster’s house, I was met by a sign reading ‘Beware of Trains’. I was also met by Tony, who lives in Station House.
The actual station site is fenced off (the owner of one of the cottages owns the land and key). In his absence, a sprightly Tony hopped over the fence and bagged a couple of pictures with my camera. The configuration was also explained - the left-hand gate was where trains headed into the platform and the right-hand gate was where the passenger entrance would have been. Bentworth & Lasham had over four acres allotted to railway use.
The site of Herriard station ( The Wrecker) can be visited, although little remains today. The line’s summit is here, at nearly 600 feet above sea level. Where the famous crash took place is now part of the A339.
Again, there were over four acres set aside for the station, which had a 300-foot-plus well, served by an oil-driven pump. This was sadly the scene of a fatal accident when a seat lowering a fitter’s mate tipped, causing him to fall.
The station had stayed open during the First World War for milk and parcels traffic, carried from Basingstoke station on an LSWR Karrier bus converted to a lorry (the track having been temporarily lifted). The same applied at Cliddesden.
The station site in Bagmore Lane is about 300 metres southwest of a crossroads with the A339. Passing Elderfield House (the vicarage) on the left, we quickly arrived at the old station. Signs point the way, with the station house to the left of the entrance and the station cottages to the right (at Bentworth & Lasham they are alongside one another).
The former station yard is occupied by industrial units. Steve, who has been here over 20 years, pointed out what he believes were scanty remains of the cattle dock. He also took me to see the two passenger platforms (this was the line’s passing place - the only other section of double-track). One is clearly visible, but the other is pretty-much buried beneath a hedge, although the platform edge is discernible in places.
Next up was Cliddesden, the Oh, Mr Porter! station. I found Station Road easily enough - nomenclature like that is always helpful – and started photographing a terrace that resembled the station cottages I’d already seen.
There was a garage next door, which I assumed was occupying the station site. I was wrong. Gareth, a rail enthusiast and volunteer on the Mid-Hants, advised me that the cottages were only built around a decade ago, so I continued around the corner to find the real deal. The station cottages were there, this time with the station house at right-angles behind (interesting that while the buildings were replicated, the layout was always different).
I wasn’t to get a glimpse of the platform. I had read that the outline could be discerned in a field, but Gareth reckoned it is hidden among the gardens. There are also supposed to be several bits of concrete fence post remaining, and the beech trees that once lined the platform are still visible. It was once possible to glean the station name carved into chalk on an embankment.
One thing I always associate with Basingstoke is roundabouts. Approaching from the south, I reached the five-point Viables Roundabout. Here is a small section of track showing the direction of the BasingstokeAlton line as it approached Basingstoke station. Not only was there a section of track (1976), but a plaque with some history.
Thornycroft’s Siding was a private siding for a motor lorry works (originally the Thornycroft Steam Wagon Company) which arrived in Basingstoke in 1898. The last lorry built on the site was in 1972 and the sale of the works occurred in 1973. Engineering continued until the late 1980s, when demolition paved the way for a supermarket.
Not only had there been a siding here, the first ‘cut’ for the railway was made hereabouts in 1898 by Charles Ritchie, President of the Board of Trade. There is a museum just a few hundred yards away from the old works site (the Milestones Museum), which houses a collection of Thornycroft vehicles.
The B-A came in from the south, joining the main line just west of Basingstoke (there’s a 100-metre stub remaining today). Basingstoke station, at the branch’s northern end, sits on the Waterloo-Weymouth and Waterloo-Exeter lines, with a line also heading up to Reading.
When the B-A opened it offered three return trains daily, increasing to six by 1909. There were also a couple of goods trains.
Some of the motive power seen on the branch included an 0-6-0ST ‘Henry Appleby’, which was the inspection train. The first train was then an O2 class 0-4-4T No. 203, its engine still fitted with safety chains.
In July 1904 two steam railcars were trialled, both H12 class (no 1 and 2) with hand-braking and oil lighting. They proved insufficiently powerful to cope with a curved ruling gradient of 1-in-50 and needed banking from Basingstoke shed. Their short existence on the branch ended in August 1904. All LSWR steam railcars continued to use the branch for 1,000mile trials, sometimes coupled up in pairs.
Platforms 1 and 2 (left) at Alton are for national rail services, while Platform 3 (right) is the preserve of the Mid-Hants Railway. 34007 Wadebridge is about to run round to take out the 1600 Alton-Alresford service tender-first on June 7 2013, while...
Above, left: The Wrecker was famed for “the most spectacular rail crash in cinema history”. Above, right: Will Hay, Graham Moffat and Moore Marriott in Oh,Mr Porter! The two films were both shot on the now defunt Basingstoke to Alton Light Railway.
A pair of railway bridges carrying the Mid-Hants Railway over roads alongside ‘The Butts’ in Alton. Alton station is half a mile to the right, while the junction for the Alton-Basingstoke line came just to the left of these bridges (with the light...
Looking through the old footbridge, from Alton’s Platform 2, towards the main station building on Platform 1. The Basingstoke trains would once have headed away from the camera.
Platform remains at Herriard, which was the only intermediate station to have two platforms. A platform edge can clearly be seen (left), while a second platform can be discerned under the hedgerow (right). The Station Cottages are in the distance,...
The Station House at Bentworth & Lasham is one of three attractive former station houses on the route, all now private residences.
The Station Cottages at Cliddesden, with the station house in the background (right). The principal intermediate stations at Bentworth & Lasham, Herriad and Cliddesden had similar arrangements of station house and cottages - all are extant.
A rear view of the Station Cottages, Herriard.
The plaque to the Basingstoke & Alton Light Railway below the Viables Roundabout, where a section of track (installed in 1976) marks where the Basingstoke & Alton Light Railway once ran into Basingstoke.
South West Trains’ 1135 to London Waterloo on April 4 2017, with 444040 at the front, sits waiting to depart from Platform 3 at Basingstoke. This was once one end of the Basingstoke-Alton Light Railway.
A plaque at Basingstoke station commemorating the Basingstoke-Alton Light Railway, which confirms its two periods of operation and the fact that its rails had been sent to France during the First World War. Above it is a memorial to the staff of the...