A lot has happened at Avoncliff Halt since the West Wiltshire Railway Users Group appeared in 1989: then we had an average of 8 ‘on request’ (of which more later) trains a day in each direction. There were no shelters, no information points, no seats, and (though we didn’t know it at the time) no mobile ‘phone reception. Three of us regularly caught the (most) popular train, the DMU 8.10 to Bath. And we knew each other by name!

Now in 2011, we have 23 scheduled stopping trains (in each direction), two shelters, solar powered information points, rainwater butts, period seats , a salt/grit bin, cycle racks, a phone box…and mobile ‘phone reception, running in boards and a guaranteed plethora of passengers. There are so many passengers that the drivers often remark that the whole village must be having a day out! The station is a community in itself.

It hasn’t always been easy getting to where we are today but we’ve had great support along the way from the Heart of Wessex (take a bow Catherine Phillips!) and the various station managers. The halt represents what can be achieved and on more than one occasion has united the hamlet.

“In the beginning” the Halt was probably earmarked for closure – it was little used, the service was poor and the station had a neglected air. Indeed it had been scheduled for closure in the Beeching era together with Freshford and Limpley Stoke. Avoncliff and Freshford survived – in our case due to the lack of good road access – which is why there was a Halt here in the first place.

As readers will know, the single track line through the valley was opened on 2nd February 1857. In June 1872 it was converted to standard gauge, 4’81/2”, and finally to the present double track on 17th May 1885. However, the station itself wasn’t built until 9th July 1906. What prompted its construction? Rumour has it that the GWR Chairman was staying at the Hotel and demanded a station be built, but the hotel (The Old Court) didn’t arrive for another 20 years. Was it perhaps that the stone yards serving Westwood Mine on the other side of the aqueduct may have contributed to its origins?

Whatever the reason – anyone got further thoughts? – it was originally built as low wooden platforms to be used by autocoach or railmotor operated trains. An occupation crossing was provided for farmers (still used in the 21st century even though the crossing has long gone!), but passengers were expected to cross the line by the aqueduct.

Following  a request from GWR to the Board of Trade in June 1906, the station was inspected by Colonel Yorke on their behalf who reported “I have inspected the new Halte at Avoncliff on the Bradford Branch of the GWR…two platforms…14” above rail level, no shelters but the platforms are provided with lamps and name boards. The Halte is suitable only for, and should be used only by special rail-motor cars fitted with folding steps”. The platforms were subsequently raised to standard height and shelters were provided.

Back in 1989, the first green shoots’ for the Halt were when some residents asked if we could have some wooden barrels for flower tubs – to our surprise the answer was Yes. (One of these was to be subjected to a great indignity when I chanced upon a young Japanese gentleman relieving himself in the tub! “I had accident” he explained. “I can see that,” I said, “now get your trousers on, the train’s coming”).

The shelter on Platform 1 was blown down in the 1987 storms and its demise was followed by that of Platform 2 in the gale of 1990. We were shelterless for a year or two but eventually the one on Platform 2 was replaced in 1992 and a campaign was started to resurrect that on Platform 2.

After Network Rail quoted £16k for a steel and glass structure (which we all thought was out of place in a Conservation Area), we designed one ourselves in timber at a quarter of the cost, replicating the original and yet meeting Health & Safety requirements. A fundraising campaign was initiated but as if by magic and very much like a Tardis the new shelter appeared one weekend in 2008.

Of course that was a cause for celebration and special ale was brewed by the Box Steam Brewery (named Turpin’s Shelter for some reason) and the firkins were consumed before nightfall!

In all the years that the Halt was ‘on request’ only once did a train fail to stop and that was when a 158 hurtled past my outstretched hand before it squealed to a stop beyond the aqueduct. I was all for running along the track to climb up into the rear carriage but the guard wouldn’t have it so the driver ran back to the signal – and here I fantasise – and brought the whole rail network to a standstill while he reversed the train on to the platform.

The coming of the 158s caused an amazing problem one morning when they were first used. We boarded the overcrowded 8.10 as usual when the driver noticed that the front carriage had settled on to the platform edge. A passenger announcement asked us all to move to the ‘offside’ of the carriage with passengers sitting on each other’s laps. I watched in amazement as the carriage gently rose from the platform and allowed us to set off. We had to maintain these positions for the approach to Freshford – who knows how many relationships were formed that morning! One encounter that did endure was the early morning 6.15 gang who met each morning and travelled to Bristol. One of the women is the choreographer of the Hippodrome at East Woodlands so every year a party from Avoncliff deck themselves out in Victoriana for a truly old fashioned evening – highly recommended!

The whole village dressed in 1906 costume for the 100th anniversary in July 2006, together with silver band, refreshments and marquee – even Mr Brunel came to unveil our celebratory Running in Board!

Villagers celebrate the Halt’s centenary

Whilst we’ve had to campaign for the ‘facilities’ that we have today, there have been occasions when we’ve had to object and make our feelings known to the ‘authorities’ one such instance was when the lamp standards were to be replaced. Allegedly, if a bulb had to be replaced on the traditional style standards, the whole line had to be closed to traffic whilst a ladder was procured; a Network Rail man climbed the ladder to change the bulb. New modern standards had to be provided to avoid this crazy situation. The village didn’t like this plan and we campaigned against them and the plan was withdrawn; the bulbs still get changed somehow!

Before the telephone box and then the information point (previously inconveniently sited at the top of the steps – always a decision whether to run up the steps to see if the train’s late and risk missing it because you’re no longer on the platform to wave it down) and long before mobile ‘phone reception, we had to shout across to the Millers at The Stables and they would ‘phone Bradford to check if the train was coming!

There’s always been a reciprocal relationship between train crew and villagers – nowadays its ‘we stop, you get on’ – but allegedly in the days of steam, there used to be an arrangement whereby the fireman would drop off some choice Welsh coal and collect half a dozen eggs in return.

The Halt is now resplendent ….but sadly it is no longer a halt – as I write this in April, the timetables say its ‘on request’, the departures boards say on request, the announcement at Bath says on request…but the train crews advise us that they always stop. This has led to existential discussions amongst the ‘intelliegicia’ that is the Avoncliff Halt community “how do we know it stops if we’re not here? Does a tree falling in the woods make a noise if there’s no one there?” perhaps an Avoncliff Passengers Philosophy Group Lounge should be the focus of our next campaign!

Trevor Turpin   www.trevorturpin.co.uk
Passenger for only 23 years

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