Alan mar­vels at the Vic­to­rian rail­way

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Michelde­ver in Hamp­shire is a pleas­ant vil­lage be­tween Winch­ester and Bas­ingstoke. I drove through it in early Novem­ber, me­an­der­ing down the back roads from Alder­shot to Sal­is­bury. Although the vil­lage rail­way sta­tion is two-and-a-half miles away to the north, half a mile west the main line from Lon­don to Southamp­ton crosses the val­ley of the lit­tle River Dever on a truly im­mense em­bank­ment. It’s so huge that as you ap­proach it, you think for a mo­ment that it’s a nat­u­ral hill­side. The road goes un­der the em­bank­ment by a sort of mini-tun­nel – so mas­sive is this tri­umph of the early rail­way builders. The line it­self, cut­ting through the Hamp­shire down­lands, opened in May 1840.

The Michelde­ver em­bank­ment is al­most 90 feet high where it crosses the stream, and is made of chalk ex­ca­vated from equally deep cut­tings to the north and south. Now it’s thickly clothed in trees and dense veg­e­ta­tion, but when first built it was a mas­sive bar­rier of daz­zling white chalk, a sen­sa­tional in­tru­sion into the peace­ful land­scape of mid-Hamp­shire, while the great cut­tings formed raw scars that hacked through the gen­tle hills.

I won­dered what the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion thought in 1838-39 when the armies of labour­ers with their picks and shov­els and wheel­bar­rows in­vaded the area, when fields were sliced in two, the bare white chalk ex­posed, and the familiar time-hon­oured land­scape trans­formed. And what did the peo­ple think when the line opened and the steam en­gines clanked, puffed and whis­tled along the high rail­way track, not far off 100 feet above the once-peace­ful val­ley?

To­day, we’re used to noise, move­ment, ma­chin­ery, con­stant ac­tiv­ity, the dis­tant drone of cars and air­craft or the in­ces­sant din as ve­hi­cles rush along the roads. But in a world where the fastest thing hith­erto had been a horse and cart, and the nois­i­est ve­hi­cle was a creak­ing wagon with its wheels rum­bling along a stony road, the in­tru­sion of the Lon­don & Southamp­ton Rail­way must have been deeply shock­ing.

The rail­way trans­formed peo­ple’s lives in other ways. At ev­ery coun­try sta­tion like Michelde­ver there were sid­ings where agri­cul­tural goods were loaded into wag­ons for trans­port to the cities – farm­ing was al­tered im­me­di­ately by the quick ac­cess to new mar­kets. Lo­cal peo­ple could hop on a train and be whisked away to the big towns and cities – Winch­ester or Southamp­ton – or to the nearby mar­ket town, Bas­ingstoke, at a speed that was pre­vi­ously unimag­in­able.

Vil­lage shops might take de­liv­ery (for col­lec­tion at the sta­tion) of goods sent from the industrial ar­eas, giv­ing coun­try dwellers much greater ac­cess to con­sumer prod­ucts and new fash­ions. On spe­cial oc­ca­sions peo­ple might join a mon­ster ex­cur­sion – a Sun­day School treat or a church out­ing – and go to the sea­side or at­tend a fair in town. You can just imag­ine car­riage-loads of ex­cited chil­dren and (although maybe less likely to ad­mit it pub­licly) ex­cited adults, all hav­ing a jolly time for a fare of just a few pen­nies.

For oth­ers, rail­ways were a means of es­cape. They could far more eas­ily look for work in a more dis­tant place, so rail­ways meant out-migration and vastly in­creased mo­bil­ity. You can see the re­sults in the cen­sus re­turns. I re­mem­ber an en­try for a fam­ily living in Wok­ing, fur­ther up the line nearer Lon­don, in 1861. Their chil­dren were born (in or­der) at Ex­eter, Yeovil, Sal­is­bury, Bas­ingstoke and Wok­ing, as the fa­ther – a rail­way­man – shifted jobs along the line, each time a step nearer the me­trop­o­lis.

And don’t for­get that the rail­ways be­came one of the largest em­ploy­ers in late Vic­to­rian Bri­tain. Even a re­mote coun­try sta­tion like Michelde­ver might have a dozen full-time em­ploy­ees, from sta­tion mas­ter and ticket clerks to the shunter and the man who minded the horses. Rail­ways helped to make 19th-cen­tury Bri­tain – and they surely re­shaped the lives of all our an­ces­tors, a cen­tury-and-a-half and more ago.

The in­tru­sion of the Lon­don and Southamp­ton Rail­way must have been deeply shock­ing

The ar­rival of the rail­way was quite shock­ing in some com­mu­ni­ties

ALAN CROSBY lives in Lan­cashire and is edi­tor of The

Lo­cal His­to­rian. He is an hon­orary re­search fel­low at Lan­caster and Liver­pool uni­ver­si­ties

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