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Savernake, a Railway Crossroads in Wiltshire

An article written by Tom (T.B.) Sands
It appeared in the February & March 1958 editions of the Railway Magazine

Tom Sands was the youngest son of the Reverend Sands and arrived in the parish with his family in 1913. His eldest brother died in the Great War and his other older brother survived being seriously wounded to follow his father into the church. I know little else about Tom other than he was a railway enthusiast who, by 1961, was vice-president of the Railway Club (founded 1889). He took many railway photographs at a time when photography was an expensive hobby. He also had some historical railway works published. I would appreciate any information about this fascinating man.

THE parish of Burbage, in Wiltshire, in which are situated both the stations at Savernake, lies on a watershed from which streams flow off in three directions, some westward into the Vale of Pewsey to form the headwaters of the Salisbury Avon, some due south through Collingbourne and Tidworth to become the River Bourne, and some eastward into the River Kennet near Hungerford. To the north there is no easy outlet. There the land rises abruptly to a high, undulating plateau separating the Vale of Pewsey from the Kennet valley at Marlborough, covered in part by Savernake Forest and the parklands surrounding Tottenham House, the former residence of the Marquesses of Ailesbury.

The Kennet & Avon Canal, linking the Thames and the Bristol Avon, follows the east-to-west route across the divide. When this waterway was opened in 1810, the eastward flowing streams were formed into a reservoir, called Wilton Water, from which water is fed into the topmost reach, 457 ft. above sea-level, by a pumping engine at Crofton. The canal winds through the valley from the east, rising through successive locks to the summit tunnel, 502yd. long, at Savernake, named by the canal company the Bruce Tunnel, as the inscription over the eastern portal proclaims : " In testimony of their Gratitude for the Uniform and Effectual Support of the Right Honorable Thomas Bruce, Earl of Ailesbury, and of Charles, Lord Bruce, his son. ..."

Lord Bruce, who was created first Marquess of Ailesbury in 1821, is said to have opposed early schemes for a railway through the Vale of Pewsey, which was surveyed by William Brunton in 1832 and by Brunei in 1833 as a possible route for a line from London to Bristol. Nevertheless, in 1848, during the lifetime of the first Marquess, powers for a direct railway to Exeter, which would have passed that way were granted by Parliament, only to lapse during the years of depression which followed the Railway Mania.

The Vale of Pewsey fell at length to a kind of "pincers movement" after the opening of the Hungerford branch of the Berks & Hants Railway on December 21, 1847, and of the Devizes branch of the Wilts, Somerset & Weymouth Railway on July 1, 1857, had left vacant a gap of only 24.5 miles. Both these branches were built to the broad (7-ft.) gauge and were owned by the Great Western Railway, which in 1851 had acquired also the Kennet & Avon Canal. On August 13, 1859, a local company was incorporated to fill the gap, called the Berks & Hants Extension Railway - a somewhat ill-chosen title for a railway which did not enter Hampshire at all, passed for only two miles through Berkshire, and for the rest penetrated deeply into Wiltshire, where it soon acquired the placid tempo of that county more thoroughly perhaps than any other line within its borders.

The B.H.E.R. was laid out to follow closely the course of the canal for about ten miles from near Hungerford to Wootton Rivers, where it struck out on a more direct line through the Vale of Pewsey to Devizes. The ruling gradient was 1 in 150, except for a few chains at 1 in 102 near Devizes, and on the final approach to Savernake summit from the east, where the railway rises at 1 in 106 to take it above the canal tunnel. Earthworks totalled about 800,000 cu. yd. of excavation, occasioned mainly by a deep cutting near Hungerford and by a tunnel, 190 yd. long, at Devizes. The funds available for construction were limited, and the initial outlay, including the cost of stations at Bedwyn, Savernake, Pewsey and Woodborough, did not exceed £240,000. Thus the B.H.E.R. came to birth as a broad-gauge single line, abounding in curves, timber culverts and underbridges, and with few pretensions to any main-line status other than the provision of overbridges wide enough for double track.

Up parcels train, headed No. 2-8-0 locomotive No 48450 (ex-LMS!), passing Savernake Low Level in July 1956. The GWR-type station nameboards on the down platform has since been removed

The G.W.R. undertook to work the B.H.E.R. for 21 years from the date of opening, which for public traffic was November 11, 1862; this followed a formal opening, conducted on a lavish scale, on November 4. The public train service, however, was far from lavish,and for over twenty years totalled only four trains each way on weekdays between Hungerford and Devizes, with two on Sundays ; the average journey time for the 24.5 miles was 70 min. A horse bus plied between Marlborough and Savernake to connect with the trains, travelling over the main Marlborough to Andover road to a point beyond the canal bridge at Burbage Wharf, thence over a stretch of new road direct to the station, which was otherwise rather inaccessible from the Marlborough direction. It was indeed the original intention to put the station near the main road at Burbage Wharf, but on the advice of their engineer the directors of the B.H.E.R. eventually decided on a site further east above the canal tunnel, which passes under the present down platform. However, a siding and goods shed were provided at the wharf and became Burbage Goods Station.

Meanwhile, a Bill had been promoted for the Session of 1860 to incorporate the Marlborough Railway Company, with power to build a branch 5.5 miles long from the B.H.E.R. near Burbage, terminating "in a field called the Cherry Orchard" near Marlborough. The promoters toyed also with the idea of a northern extension put to them by the Andover & Redbridge Railway, which was seeking powers to extend its line from Andover to Savernake. This move was strongly opposed by the G.W.R. as portending the revival of plans for a north-to-south. competitive route through its territory, against which it had been on its guard since the narrow defeat of a Manchester & Southampton scheme in 1846. Thus the Marlborough Bill of 1860 was withdrawn, but was reintroduced in the next Session and passed on July 22, 1861, after the G.W.R. had taken the promotion firmly under its wing with a promise to subscribe £10,000 of capital and to lease and work the line when finished.

Construction started early in 1863, and the first train, carrying some officials of the G.W.R., arrived in Marlborough on March 2, 1864. There was a Board of Trade inspection on March 8, and a second one on March 30, the latter combined with the formal opening of the branch. This must have been a very odd affair, to the comic element in which the G.W.R. unwittingly contributed by providing for the occasion a most decrepit old engine, described by the inspecting Officer as "no more nor less than an old ballast engine." This specimen proved quite unworthy of the occasion by stalling so frequently on the steep gradients that the ceremonial journeys were only accomplished with much difficulty and delay. There is a local tradition that some of the passengers got out and pushed! Public traffic duly started on April 14, 1864, though the branch never perhaps quite lived down the misadventures on its formal opening day in that it was often treated as rather a joke. There used to be procurable in Marlborough humorous postcards depicting the branch train in the guise of "The Marlborough Donkey," with the caption : "You may push and you may shuv, But I'm hanged if I'll be druv !".

There was some excuse for stalling, as the gradients were severe, stretches of 1 in 61 occurring on the climb out of Savernake, where the line rose 142 ft. to the summit at 3.75 miles, while on the descent into Marlborough there were 1 miles at 1 in 58. The station at Marlborough comprised a brick and stone building with a single platform and run-round road, beyond which the branch terminated at a small engine shed ; the goods shed and sidings lay immediately to the south of the station.

From contemporary sources it is possible to gain a fairly clear picture of Savernake Station as it was ninety years ago, with its four daily trains trundling up and down the main line, and five on the branch - broad gauge until 1874, when the G.W.R. lines in that area were converted to the standard gauge. The station lies in beautiful surroundings, hidden in a cutting which originally was rather narrow, especially towards the west where the branch train from Marlborough crept unobtrusively round the corner into a short bay on the up side. The attractive station building with twin gables stood, as now, on the north side, and there was also a small refreshment room, added in 1863 under the management of the nearby Forest Hotel, which itself had just been opened. The refreshment room building still survives, though it has been closed for refreshments for many years.

Then there was a crossing loop, but no down platform, so that when loaded passenger trains were booked to cross, one of them had to back into the loop - a most undesirable practice with falling gradients at each end, and little or no interlocking between points and signals. The line was worked on the wooden staff and ticket system, with Savernake the only crossing place between Hungerford and Devizes until some months after the opening. In those early days, a serious accident nearly occurred when, on the arrival of a down passenger tram at Savernake on December 2, 1862, it was found that the staff instead of a ticket had been handed to the driver of a preceding goods train. No up train was due for over two hours and, as electric telegraph, had not been installed, there were no means of communication with Devizes. As it happened, the mistake was realised as soon as the goods train arrived there, so the engine was detached and sent racing back up the line bearing the staff.

Meanwhile the passenger train had got tired of waiting at Savernake, and had been allowed by the stationmaster to proceed without the staff! By sheer good luck some men were working on the line near Pewsey, saw the light engine and the train approaching one another, and managed to warn the drivers just in time to prevent a collision. Within a few years additional loops were opened at Bedwyn, Pewsey and Woodborough, and in 1868 disc block telegraph instruments were installed on the main line, though the Marlborough branch continued to be worked with staff and ticket only.

The B.H.E.R. had its own secretary and office in Devizes, and enjoyed a life of moderate prosperity until purchased by the G.W.R. with effect from July 1, 1882. The Marlborough Railway remained a separate and highly profitable little company, paying ordinary dividends of up to 6 per cent., until July 1, 1896, when it, too, was absorbed by the G.W.R.

On May 25, 1872, a group of prominent local people met at the Forest Hotel, Savernake, to launch what was, in effect, a fresh attempt to revive Stephenson's Manchester & Southampton project of 1846 ; and it proved to be a successful one. For from this beginning there emerged in due course the Swindon, Marlborough & Andover Railway (incorporated on July 21, 1873), which by an Act of June 23, 1884, was amalgamated with the Swindon & Cheltenham Extension Railway (incorporated on July 18, 1881) under the title of the Midland & South Western Junction Railway.

The S.M.A.R. Act of 1873 authorised two lengths of railway, one of which commenced by a junction with the G.W.R. east of Swindon Station and terminated at Marlborough by an end-on junction with the branch from Savernake, involving a tunnel 773 yd. long at Swindon and a viaduct or high embankment at Marlborough. Running powers were granted over the Marlborough Railway to Savernake, and over the B.H.E.R. for about 60 ch. eastward to Wolfhall bridge, where Railway No. 2 commenced. This terminated on the main line of the London & South Western Railway about 1.5 miles west of Andover Junction Station, at the point now called Red Post Junction, It was, however, provided by an agreement scheduled to the Act that there should be n0 physical connection with the L.S.W.R. at that spot, but that the S.M.A.R. should meet the cost of a third line of rails into Andover Junction Station, whence by a subsequent Act of 1882 it secured full running powers right into Southampton.

In 1879, the plans for the northern section of the S.M.A.R. were altered to avoid a tunnel at Swindon by substituting a deviation west of the town from a junction with the G.W.R. at Rushey Platt, while at Marlborough the proposed viaduct was replaced by a wide curve to the east, bringing the new railway into the branch from Savernake 25 ch. south of the terminal station. This meant that the S.M.A.R. had to provide its own station, namely, the present Marlborough Station which came into use when the first section of 11.25 miles was opened from Swindon Town on July 26, 1881.

The Cheltenham Extension had just then been authorised and the G.W.R., faced with the imminent threat of a competitive line between Cheltenham and Andover, had become bitterly hostile. Thus it was only after much dispute that the junction at Rushey Platt was eventually' opened on February 6, 1882, when passenger trains started to run through between Swindon Town and the G.W.R. station ; but the service lost so much money because of the payment of heavy tolls to the G.W.R. that it was withdrawn on February 28, 1885, never to be restored until after grouping in 1923.

The establishment of through running between the northern and southern sections of the S.M.A.R. was even more delayed. On March 21, 1882, a Board of Trade Inspector set out from Swindon to inspect the southern section, travelling in a special train of two coaches hauled by Jumbo, the celebrated Fairlie 0-4-4 tank engine (S.M.A.R. No. 4), one of the first locomotives in this country to be fitted with the Walschaerts valve motion, and of which the late E. L. Ahrons has written that it proved to be "a thorough white elephant."

With, the assistance throughout of a banker, and of a pilot over the Marlborough branch, Jumbo and its train duly reached Savernake, where (to quote from the Marlborough Times)" a delay of an hour occurred owing to the old opposition of the Great Western Company from running through to the southern section, the points at the junction having been spiked. Much indignation was expressed, and we understand that the Inspector was impressed with the circumstances of the case and of the need for stringent arrangements in the interests of the public." And well he might have been! For it was abundantly clear that at Savernake for the past twenty years time had stood still. "The arrangements at this station," he reported, "are such as would not be sanctioned upon a new line at the present time, and are in many respects faulty." In short, there was still no down platform, no proper interlocking, and no block telegraph on the Marlborough branch ; moreover, he found that the junction layout was unsatisfactory.

In order, therefore, to accommodate the traffic of the S.M.A.R., the G.W.R. was compelled to make many improvements at Savernake. These included the extension of the crossing loop and the provision of signalboxes at each end, additional sidings and a new junction layout on space cleared to the west of the station, and a down platform together with a footbridge - the latter still bears the date 1883. Meanwhile, on May 1,1882, the S.M.A.R. put on a service of four trains each way between Grafton and Andover Junction, using a temporary connection with the L.S.W.R. at Red Post Junction until November 19, 1882, when the independent third road was opened.

The full opening between Swindon and Andover Junction took place on February 5, 1883, when a service of seven trains each way, with two on Sundays, was inaugurated, and on December 18, 1883, the Swindon & Cheltenham Extension Railway was opened for 13 miles from Rushey Platt to Cirencester ; the remaining 13.75 miles to Andoversford Junction with the G.W.R. were not fully opened until August 1, 1891. Thus when the Midland & South Western Junction Railway was formed on June 23, 1884, the main constituent was the S.M.A.R. owning 27.5 route miles of single line, namely, 13.5 miles from Rushey Platt Junction to Marlborough Junction with a ruling gradient of 1 in 75, and nearly 14 miles from Wolfhall Junction to Red Post Junction with a ruling gradient of 1 in 100 - all worked on the train staff and ticket system with disc block telegraph, and with crossing loops at all the stations.

For 13 years, from 1884 to 1897, the M.S.W.J.R. languished in the hands of a Receiver, sunk in debt to which the cost and difficulty of working over the G.W.R. lines between Marlborough Junction and Wolfhall Junction contributed not a little. Moreover, the G.W.R., through its servants, was not above the adoption of obstructive tactics. For example, ticket inspection, which was compulsory on all M.S.W.J.R. trains at Savernake, was sometimes dragged out on a northbound train until an up train was signalled on the G.W.R. from Pewsey ; this would be promptly accepted, thereby blocking the junction to Marlborough for a further indefinite period. Another device was to hold southbound trains on the M.S.W.J.R. at Marlborough Junction while the single-line staff was retrieved from Savernake, five miles away. Whether the G.W.R. ever sent it over there deliberately on the approach of a train from the M.S.W.J.R. may be open to question, but there is no doubt at all that trains were sometimes held at the junction for nearly two hours.

There were abortive attempts in 1884 and 1889 to cure the delays between Marlborough and Wolfhall Junction, either by doubling the Marlborough branch, or by building an independent line, but it was not until 1896 that the M.S.W.J.R., through a committee of shareholders, succeeded in promoting a Bill to incorporate a separate company called the Marlborough & Grafton Railway - a procedure made necessary by the fact that the M.S.W.J.R. was still in the hands of a Receiver, and could scarcely hope to obtain the requisite powers or capital in its own name. The Marlborough & Grafton Bill was fiercely opposed by the G.W.R., but was passed on August 7, 1896, thanks partly to support from the War Office, which was acquiring large areas of Salisbury Plain for military training and was planning to build barracks at Ludgershall and Tidworth.

The M.G.R. was empowered to build a double-track railway starting by a junction with the existing line of the M.S.W.J.R. about 250 yd. south-west of Marlborough Station, curving away thence into a tunnel 647 yd. long. It then skirted Savernake Forest, heading for the forest boundary at Hat Gate, where it made a close approach to the G.W.R. branch before descending the slopes above Savernake Station in an easterly direction towards the Kennet & Avon Canal at Wolfhall. There it crossed the G.W.R. main line and the canal, and ran into the southern section of the M.S.W.J.R. about 30 ch. south of Wolfhall Junction on the G.W.R. main line. The stretch of single line from there into Grafton Station was doubled and embodied in the new railway, giving the M.G.R. a total length of 6.75 miles, of which 5.75 route miles involved new construction. A ruling gradient of 1 in 100 was achieved, though there were in all about 4.25 miles of it, mainly on the climb out of Marlborough and on the descent past Savernake, where a separate station was built 200 yd. north of the G.W.R. station. This new station (now Savernake High Level) was furnished with a private waiting room for the Marquess of Ailesbury - a little red brick building,long since disused, which still survives on the former southbound platform.

No time was lost in constructing the M.G.R., which was opened within two years of the company's incorporation. The final connections at Marlborough and Wolfhall were laid during the early hours of Sunday, June 26, 1898, in time for the 7.52 a.m. train from Swindon to pass on to the new line at Marlborough amid salvos of exploding detonators. Marlborough Junction with the G.W.R. was closed, though the signalbox (known as Marlborough South Junction) remained until 1905, when it was sold and removed. Subsequently, on November 23, 1926, a connection was reopened on that site, and is still in use for the transfer of wagons between the low level and the high level at Marlborough.

The life of the M.G.R. as a separate company soon came to an end. The M.S.W.J.R. took over the railway as tenants on July 1, 1898, and absorbed the company outright on August 1, 1899, leaving as a relic of its brief existence an inscribed keystone above the southern portal of Marlborough Tunnel, which bears the heading : " M. & G. Rly 1898." It is, perhaps, a fitting relic of a little railway, once described by Sam Fay, General Manager of the M.S.W.J.R., as the keystone of that company's liberty.

While the Midland & South Western Junction Railway was securing an independent line from Marlborough to Grafton, the east-to-west arm of the Savernake crossroads was being transformed out of all recognition under powers contained in the G.W.R. (No. 1) Act, 1894, whereby it was to become part of a shortened route to the west. By the end of 1899, double-line working was in force between Hungerford and Woodborough, and further west a new cut-off, 13.75 miles long, from Stert to Westbury was nearing completion.

The reconstruction of the old Berks & Hants Extension line was rather like the proverbial task of making "a silk purse out of a sow's ear." The many weak underline bridges and culverts had to be rebuilt or strengthened, and the curves were a problem, especially between Hungerford and Savernake, where the railway hugged the Kennet & Avon Canal so closely that there was no room for any drastic realignment. This is still a winding stretch of line over which downhill speeds are restrained, though the only official limits are of 60 m.p.h. through Hungerford and 50 m.p.h. over Crofton curve, two miles east of Savernake, where the railway sweeps round the canal pumphouse in a spectacular quarter-circle.

The descent through the Vale of Pewsey, where the original alignment was straighter, has become quite a galloping ground for down expresses, though it was necessary to ease the curves at points beyond Woodborough where the old formation can still be seen in places. The descent is not continuous as the vale does not slope uniformly from east to west, but from each end towards a point near Manningford, where two arms of the River Avon unite and flow due south through a long, winding valley to Salisbury. This feature is responsible for " Pewsey dip" on the gradient profile, well known to drivers and train timers as affording some relief to up trains on the climb of 18 miles from Lavington to Savernake.

Beyond Patney bridge, where the direct line to Westbury starts to drop below the level of the old line to Devizes, a new junction station was built, named Patney & Chirton, about a mile east of the point where the two routes finally diverge. Other stations were improved, including Savernake, where the platforms were lengthened, the footbridge roofed over, and new waiting rooms, of the red brick type much favoured by the G.W.R. at that period, provided on the down platform.

The Stert-Westbury cut-off was opened for goods traffic on July 29, 1900, and for passenger traffic two months later, on October 1, though at first the only fast trains diverted to it were the Weymouth expresses. West of England expresses did not pass through Savernake until the further cut-offs between Castle Gary and Taunton were opened in 1906, culminating on July 21 of that year with the first appearance on this route of the "Cornish Riviera Limited," which at that time made the longest daily non-stop run of any train in the world.

Its improved status on a trunk line soon brought some tangible benefit to Savernake. In 1900, it had a weekday service of six up and seven down trains, with two each way on Sundays ; most of these were local trains between Reading and Trowbridge. Then in July, 1902, the 5 p.m. express from Paddington to Weymouth began to slip coaches at Savernake at 6.35 p.m. A slip service at Patney off a new morning express to Weymouth (9.35 from Paddington) had started in 1901, and continued until the summer of 1910 ; this coach was taken forward to Devizes, arriving there at 11.35 a.m.

By July, 1906, as many as six trains were booked to slip at Savernake, namely, the three down Weymouth expresses (9.35 a.m., 12.35 p.m., and 5 p.m. from Paddington), the 3p.m. (now 2.35) Paddington to Bristol, and, in the summer service only, the 11.10a.m. Paddington to Penzance, and the 12.17 p.m. up express from Ilfracombe. The slip off the 11.10, due at Savernake at 12.25, was the only one detached from that train on a non-stop run from London to Exeter, and gave a journey time to Savernake of 75 mm. for the 70 miles ; it reappeared each summer until 1911. The slip service off the up express from Ilfracombe was repeated each summer until 1914, but the slip off the 3 p.m. to Bristol lasted for only a year, while the 9.35 a.m. to Weymouth was withdrawn altogether in the winter of 1911.

The two remaining Weymouth expresses continued to slip at Savernake until 1916, the 5 p.m. until January 1, when a stop replaced the slip, and the midday train until the withdrawal of all slip-coach services as a wartime measure on December 31. The midday slip ran direct to the down platform, and was cleared by the branch engine, but the evening slip was stopped near the east signalbox, and brought in attached to the rear of a local train, which had preceded the express and been shunted into the long refuge. The 5 p.m. from Paddington (now 6 p.m.) was often hauled at that time by a " Badminton " 4-4-0, a class with inside cylinders and 6 ft. 8.5 in. driving wheels which included No. 4116, named Savernake. The 4-4-Os with 5 ft.-8 in. wheels ("Dukes," "Bulldogs " and " Birds ") usually took the local trains, while the little shed at Marlborough housed a 2-4-0 side-tank engine for the branch train.

On the M.S.W.J.R. some 4-4-Os built by the North British Locomotive Company came into use between 1905 and 1914. They were very attractive engines, embellished with the initials M.S.W.J.R. in gilt script on the tender. A couple of 4-4-4 side-tank engines built by Sharp, Stewart & Company were equally handsome. Those were the palmy days of train services on the M.S.W.J.R., made possible by improved track, signalling, and rolling stock, and by widenings in many places. Double-line working was introduced between Weyhill and Ludgershall on August 28, 1900, Ludgershall and Collingbourne on September 1, 1901, and from Collingbourne to Grafton on November 2, 1902, thereby completing a continuous double-line stretch of 17.75 miles from Weyhill to Marlborough.

North of Cirencester, the 13.75 miles to Andoversford junction were doubled in stages between 1900 and 1902 as part of an agreement whereby the G.W.R. undertook to double its own line from Andoversford Junction to Lansdown Junction (Cheltenham) ; this was completed and brought into use on September 28. 1902. On the remaining single-line sections of the M.S.W.J.R., Tyer's electric tablet operating system replaced the staff and ticket system, and Tyer's block instruments also were installed on the double-track sections, including the Marlborough to Grafton line which for four years after its opening in 1898 was worked with Sykes lock-and-block apparatus.

The crack trains on the M.S.W.J.R. in its heyday were the "North" and "South" expresses (two in each direction), which originated in 1894 as through trains between Southampton and Cheltenham, but later carried through coaches for Birmingham and varying destinations on the Midland and the London & North Western Railways. These trains called at principal stations only on the M.S.W.J.R. ; indeed, in some years the afternoon "North Express" was booked to cover the 68.25 miles from Andover Junction to Cheltenham in 105 min., stopping at Swindon Town only. The morning "South Express," which had a good connection at Andover Junction with an up express to Waterloo, was generally booked to call at Savernake (M.S.W.J.R.), as also, though much less regularly, was the morning "North Express."

The M.S.W.J.R. adopted crimson lake for its passenger engines and coaching stock, and its trains at their best were distinctly pleasing to the eye - more so, perhaps, than their contemporaries on the G.W.R., where a so-called crimson lake was in vogue for coaching stock from 1912 to 1922. In reality this was a shade of reddish brown, which never seemed to go well with the green of the engine's.

Wolfhall bridge above the G.W.R. main line commanded a grandstand view of both railways, including a "frontier post" between the two systems. When the Marlborough & Grafton Railway was opened in 1898, a short stretch of the original single line of the M.S.W.J.R. was left in position at Wolfhall running south from the junction with the G.W.R. to a dead end beyond the canal bridge, where at first there was only a trailing connection in the up line of the new railway, controlled from a ground frame. This connection, plus a loop siding between the canal bridge and the G.W.R. signal-box, was opened for wagon transfers on November 1, 1900. Under the pressure of military traffic during the South African war, a second exchange siding was then added and the trailing connection was replaced by a facing connection and crossover, controlled from a new signalbox called Wolfhall Junction (M.S.W.). This was opened on July 28, 1902, the single-line spur between the G.W.R. and M.S.W.J.R. boxes being worked by electric train staff.

The next development arose from a desire of the G.W.R. to reach Tidworth, which was expected at that time to become a "second Aldershot." The branch from Ludgershall, which was War Department property though worked by the M.S.W.J.R., was opened for public goods traffic on July 1, 1902 (for passengers on October 1 of that year), and in 1903 the M.S.W.J.R. granted running powers to the G.W.R. from Wolfhall Junction to Ludgershall. These were exercised for military traffic, and from December 19, 1921, for a daily goods train between Westbury and Ludgershall, which still runs.

The G.W.R. on its part undertook the construction of a double-line loop from the east, called the Grafton Curve, which was authorised by the G.W.R. Act, 1904. It then became necessary to move Wolfhall Junction (M.S.W) Signalbox from its old site near the canal bridge to a more convenient one further south, where it could control not only the single-line spur leading westward to the G.W.R., but also the junction with the new east curve. It was, however, on its new site too far away to control the points at the south end of Wolfhall exchange sidings, which thereafter until 1932 were worked from a ground frame.

The box as rebuilt (now called Grafton South Junction) is a handsome structure of red brick, equipped with a 40-lever frame supplied by Sykes, which is still in use, as also is one of Tyer's three-position single-wire block indicators. It was opened on August 20, 1905, and on September 7 of that year the Grafton Curve was passed by the Board of Trade. This loop is 44 ch. long, with a gradient of 1 in 68 falling eastward, and although called a curve is in fact straight for much of its length. It never carried any regular traffic ; excursion trains to Tidworth ran over it on many occasions, and it was sometimes opened on Newbury race days to enable a light engine to turn on the triangle, but its chief use was for military traffic, which was very erratic. It has been completely closed since May 5, 1957, when the connections at each end were taken out of use. The turnout at Grafton East Junction was very sharp and had an outward cant, as the main line at that point is superelevated for Grafton Curve, which has a trend opposite to that of the loop.

The exchange sidings at Wolfhall Junction were a scene of great activity during the first world war, when much military traffic passed through them. Sometimes on very busy days a light engine stood pilot there to assist with the shunting and to bank heavy goods trains up the 1 in 106 to Savernake (G.W.R.), or up the 1 in 109 towards Grafton. This activity soon subsided after the war, and the sidings became redundant as an exchange point when the G.W.R. absorbed the M.S.W.J.R. on July 1, 1923. Ten years later the layout was again altered as part of a drastic upheaval affecting the whole system between Marlborough and Grafton.

The most important change was the introduction of single-line electric token working on the M.S.W.J.R. route between Wolfhall Junction (M.S.W.) Signalbox, which was then renamed Grafton South Junction, and Marlborough, where the signalbox was rebuilt on a new site south of the station. This left a spare track which was used to take the traffic of the old single-line branch from Savernake Low Level to Marlborough from a point two miles north of Savernake, where the branch was diverted into the former northbound road of the M.S.W.J.R. The terminal station on the branch at Marlborough was closed and all passenger traffic concentrated at the low level station, leaving only some sidings and a shunting neck on the high level; the redundant stretch of the branch for three miles south of Marlborough was abandoned and subsequently lifted.

The spare track on the M.S.W.J.R. route was also lifted for three miles north of Grafton South Junction, except through Savernake High Level Station, the southbound road was left as a loop siding ; it is not, however, available for passenger trains, which all use the former northbound platform. The signal-box was reduced to the status of a ground frame containing a token restoring instrument for the control of the sidings. At Wolfhall Junction the inner of the two exchange sidings was relaid as an additional running line, thereby confining the length of single line between Wolfhall Junction and Grafton South Junction to a short section over the canal bridge. This is track circuited, and movement over it is controlled from the boxes at either end by special levers (one in each box) which are electrically interlocked so that they cannot both be pulled over together ; by this method it was possible to abolish electric train staff working between the two boxes.

Elsewhere on the former M.S.W.J.R. the line from Cirencester to Andoversford Junction was reduced to single track in 1928, but at the other extremity, as a result of wartime widening south of Weyhill, there is now a continuous stretch of double line from Grafton South Junction to Red Post Junction, where a connection with the main line was opened on September 5, 1943. The separate third road into Andover Junction Station is, however, still worked as a, single line and is normally used by branch trains.

The altered layout between Grafton South Junction and Marlborough came into use on March &, 1933, when certain trains on the M.S.W.J.R. line were diverted to run via Wolfhall Junction and Savernake Low Level. However, the M.S.W.J.R. Act, 1899 (Section 8) gives statutory Force to an agreement with the Marquess of Ailesbury, whereby the Marlborough & Grafton Railway was required "to make and maintain a station adjacent to and at least equal to the existing station of the Great Western Railway Company at Savernake, and to stop trains at such station under the provisions of the said agreement." Thus three trains each way on weekdays and two on Sundays are still routed via Savernake High Level, though it is sometimes found convenient in practice to divert a train booked to travel that way to the low level station.

The alterations in 1933 caused the first casualty among the group of eight signalboxes which had previously existed near Savernake, namely, the box at Savernake High Level, which became a ground frame, though the cabin is still there. On that route, the local boxes remaining open are Grafton South Junction and Grafton Station ; the latter has been in the charge of a signal-woman for some years. A more recent casualty was on the east-to-west route where Burbage Siding Signalbox went out of use when the goods station there was finally closed on November 10, 1947 ; the siding itself has since been taken up. This box was switched in only while trains were calling at the siding, but it contributed to the former wealth of signals on that stretch of line, as did the box at Grafton East Junction which, except in wartime, was seldom open. The boxes regularly open are Wolfhall Junction, Savernake East, and Savernake West.

The seasonal variation in the traffic density on the West of England main line is very marked. The local trains, most of which travel via Devizes, form the bulk of the regular passenger services, to which must be added the Weymouth expresses, two each way daily. In all, Savernake Low Level has a weekday service on the main line of 10 up and 11 down trains, including two down trains which terminate there to form up trains. Included also are the 6 p.m. Paddington to Weymouth, and the 4.5 p.m. up express from Weymouth, both of which call at Savernake and carry restaurant cars. The down train with no exact counterpart in the up direction is the 2.35 p.m. Paddington to Bristol and Weston-super-Mare, which has called at Savernake since 1924. Coaches are detached from it at Newbury, and also from the 6 p.m. to Weymouth, to form stopping trains to Trowbridge.

In addition to these main-line services, two of the five weekday trains on the M.S.W.J.R. line are routed via Savernake Low Level, and there is also a shuttle service of seven trains each way on weekdays only between Savernake and Marlborough, a survival from branch-line days. Connections to and from the West of England via Westbury are poor, but one up express, now the 4.45 p.m. from Taunton, calls at Savernake on Sunday evenings and picks up an average of about 250 passengers there ; some of these come off a slow train from Trowbridge which shunts for the express to pass.

The West of England expresses are, by their very nature, "birds of passage" - welcome visitors though scarcely native to that bit of line, nor over-numerous for much of the year. In the winter service of 1957, for example, six down and seven up expresses are booked to travel by day through Savernake to or from the West of England, with the addition at night of the Penzance sleeping car train ; various through freight and miscellaneous trains also pass that way, many of them at night. At normal times, therefore, the local trains predominate, and so preserve for the Berks & Hants Extension line some of its traditional character and easy-going habits.

The picture is very different on Saturdays in July and August, when batches of holiday expresses crowd the route and the signalmen at Wolfhall Junction and Savernake may handle over eighty trains within ten or twelve hours. On such days the local trains are retimed and thinned out slightly, but may yet suffer the indignity of being shunted if they dawdle on their way, as there are no other means whereby an express can overtake a slow passenger train anywhere between Newbury and the junction with the Devizes line at Patney.

In conclusion, I must express my thanks to the Archivist of the British Transport Commission and his staff for their invaluable assistance in the preparation of this article, and to the Editor of the Marlborough Times for access to back numbers.

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İT.B.Sands 1958 & Colin Younger 2009