End of the Line

An article written by Geoffrey Bull following the last passenger service on the Didcot – Newbury line on 8th September, 1962.

End of the line for the Didcot – Newbury service

At times as happy as a Bank Holiday excursion, at times as sad as a funeral – complete with coffin – thus did the Didcot to Newbury passenger service come to an end on Saturday evening. Only 80 years separated the opening and closing of the line; no more perhaps than a man’s lifetime.

Tickets for the occasion cost 4s.6d. Some passengers who bought them found that they did not have proper returns but singles stamped in black “Return”. Up the steps to the platform to the usual bay on the right where stood waiting the seven carriages that formed the last train. This was more like a train, not like the “minibus” sensation one had in the normal Didcot-Newbury diesel car.

Enthusiasts

Already on board were enthusiasts from the Smoke Box Federation and the national Train Spotters Club.

Time was speeding towards the witching hour, but before we left, there was something of a ceremony as Mr. Brian Dowding, of Didcot, the chairman of the Berkshire Federation of Young Socialists, staggerd onto the platform carrying a coffin!

This coffin-symbol proclaimed; “Died 8th September, 1962 – from an overdose of Beeching Pills”. With due ceremony the coffin was received by the guard, Mr. Jim Morrison, of Station Road, Didcot, who has worked the Didcot-Newbury line since 1940. Over his head was a thick black shawl. Now there was only time for a few snappy photographs.

The Didcot stationmaster, bowler-hatted Mr. Percy Hieatt, climbed aboard, and we were ready for off.

Interested parties

Silently, almost imperceptibly, we slid out of the station towards Newbury. The driver was Mr. Ralph Paintin, of 68 Wessex Road, Didcot. We had begun our journey.

Apart from the enthusiasts, there were also on the train parish councillors from Didcot and other interested parties such as Mr. and Mrs. F. Abbot, of Manor Farm, East Hagbourne. One of the Didcot parish councillors was Mr. H. T. Merritt, aged 72, who lives at Manor Road. For him and his wife this was really something of a sad occasion. Mr. Merritt travelled the line regularly for eight years from Hermitage to Newbury while still a schoolboy.

Flood of memories

For two old railwaymen, Mr. John Hacker, of 55 Church Street, Didcot, and Mr. Fred Holt, of 50 Wessex Road, Didcot, memories must have flooded back. Mr. Hacker, who is aged 80 thought the closure “a sad business”. He had been 47 years on the railway, retiring in 1945, but he thought “the Didcot-Newbury line never had a rush of traffic.” Mr. Holt told me that his age was 82 – two years senior to the railway service on which he was now travelling, his railway record bettered Mr. Hacker’s by two years; he, too, had retired in 1945. On we went past the Hagbourne Road houses where people stood at the back of their gardens, waving furiously.

Written notice

Before long we were at Upton and Blewbury. Seven people left the train but three climbed on after the train had pulled up to the platform to allow passengers to alight. On we slipped towards our next stop, Churn. Some of us smiled, remembering the instructions on the old timetables requesting passengers who wished to get off at Churn to notify the stationmaster 24 hours before their journey. No such formality this time.

Even Churn, squatting amidst the Downs, was to be honoured with a train. A bunch of hikers, complete with haversacks, heaved themselves on to the train from their small refuge; Churn, proud possessor of a brick station building, but now “closed for all purposes”. There was a group of some 20 people to greet us at Compton. As the train moved up the station one impulsive youth quickly stepped onto the platform from the train. Someone shouted.

Just out of reach

On we jogged through the lazy countryside to Hampstead Norris, where four adults and six children waited. Tantalisingly a tree laden with apples hung just out of reach near the station fencing. No time for scrumping as we wend our way a little faster towards Newbury. At Pinewood, condemned like Churn to a trainless future, there was no one in sight.

On to Hermitage and then, racing, we approached Newbury with a klaxon burping out a warning of the train’s approach. Reaching out came the first tentacles of Newbury. Down below us a group of children stopped their game of football. One yelled and threw up his arms. Ducks worked disinterestedly in a nearby pond not far from an overgrown barge lying crazily on the river bank.

Last snap

At Newbury East Junction signal box, the young signalman – something of an amature photographer – leaned out to snap us as we went by.

Then into the main steam of railway traffic from the privacy, almost cosiness, of the line’s embankment. Here were large signals, a profusion of signals. This then was Newbury, reached precisely at 6.42 p.m. – dead on time. Immediately we received the order from the porter “All change”. We did. Some made a beeline for the Railway Hotel. A few lingered as a loudspeaker, fixed on top of a car, began to bark.

Most of us were given pamphlets entitled “The Future of British Railways – is this what you want?”

Policy of despair

Published by the National Union of Railwaymen, part of the pamphlet stated “This mutilation is a policy of despair and must be stopped before it is too late.” This theme was developed as the man on the loudspeaker became more intelligible.

“This closure is the result of deliberate Tory Government policy”, said the orator. Mr. Cyril Carter, of Didcot, the County Councillor, told me this was Mr. Bill Stephenson, vice chairman of the Newbury Constituency Labour Party. Alongside him was Mr. Ron Spiller, a Newbury County Councillor. This was a demonstration staged by the Newbury Labour Party. Time to return Placards on the side of the car urged: “Labour says Integrate, not Eliminate”, and “Organize not Beechingise”.

Too soon it was time for the return trip. Seventy three people joined us on the train. But not even a furious blast on his whistle by Newbury Stationmaster Mr. Robert Cox could get the train away on time, 7.18 p.m.

It seemed like a Bank Holiday excursion at times on the way back. Those N.U.R. pamphlets, accompanied by strips of toilet rolls, were flown out of the windows.

Back we went through Hermitage. At Pinewood we were greeted with people on the side waving Union Jacks. There were constant screams by the younger element on board who sounded as if they, not the Didcot-Newbury line, were being killed.

Symbolic load

At every stop the symbolic coffin was unloaded and then reloaded. We lost many passengers at Compton, one remarking; “Compton has kept this line going for the past 12 months”. Perhaps there was truth in this.

Churn did not have the benefit of having us stop, and so we came to Upton. A few calves skittered across the skyline as we approached.

The lights of Didcot were not far distant. As we hove into sight one fought down that awful temptation; no, it will still cost you £5 to pull that communication cord, even if it is the last train.

We jogged into the usual bay. There was a final shudder and we had irrevocably, come to rest. A hissing came from the train as it relaxed, its journey done. People milled down the platform to the exit. Again some lingered to hear a political broadcast from the waiting car. Above, the train lit from end to end glowed against the gloomy horizon.

Our last rail journey to Newbury was over.