As we approach the 50th anniversary of the closure of the Hayling Island branchline next month, it was only fitting that we dedicate a blog post to this famous line. Here we see an article which was first featured in Issue 25 of the UK Heritage Hub’s e-zine, back in August, written by Simon Shutt of Brookes Castle. Hope you enjoy!
The Hayling Billy – 50 Years On
Fifty years ago this November the iconic Havant to Hayling Island branch line finally ran out of steam. For almost a century the line, which ran from Havant to Hayling Island with two intermediate stations at Langston and North Hayling, brought families from all over the south to enjoy Hayling’s glorious beaches and sea front. But in 1963 the dream was over, along with dozens of other smaller railway lines the Havant to Hayling Line branch line had fallen victim to the infamous Beeching Axe.
When construction of the railway begun in the late 1850s by the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (LBSCR) they quickly ran into problems because of a cost cutting measure. The LBSCR planned to construct an embankment on the mud flats in the sheltered waters of Langstone Harbour rather than purchasing the more expensive land on the island. They were given a grant to the mud lands by William Padwick (Lord of the Manor), who was himself behind the plan, however the area was not sheltered as had been hoped which resulted in the bank being severely eroded before the railway could be completed. This came back to bite the LBSCR as when the Board of Trade Inspector was invited to certify the line as being fit for passenger traffic it was refused. This was on the grounds that he found many of the sleepers had begun to rot in the mud flats embankment section of the railway and there was also an unauthorised level crossing at Langstone. The former problem was quickly fixed but the level crossing remained until the closure of the line.
The key component to the Hayling branch line was the swing bridge which was a 1000ft long triumph of Victorian engineering that was able to be opened in the centre to create a 30 foot gap to allow for the movement of shipping between Chichester and Langstone harbours. Originally being built out of timber the legs were later encased in concrete for reinforcement the remains of which can still be seen today. The bridge together with some sharp curves, ensured that LBSCR A1/A1X Terrier tank engines would always be needed; continuing their life right up to the end of BR steam as the bridges severe weight restrictions meant that no other locomotives was permitted to use it. The Terriers and the old coaches that they hauled gave the line a unique and special charm. The line was opened to goods on the 19th January 1865 and in June 1867 the line was passed fit for passenger traffic by the Board of Trade. Celebrations took place at the Royal Hotel on the 28th June 1867 when the first experimental trains, filled with VIP passengers, including the Mayor of Portsmouth, traveled the whole length of the new railway.
The line was then opened to paying passengers on the 16th July 1867. The line proved very popular in the summer seasons with coaches often overflowing as people traveled to soak up the sun on Hayling’s beaches. But during the winter months the trains were almost empty. It was when the line was taken over by the Southern Railway in 1923 that the line had its finest hours becoming one of the south’s most became a popular holiday and tourist destinations.
The line was completely single track throughout, with no crossing loops, so up to four trains per hour could use the line. Beginning its journey at Havant Station the train would leave from its own bay platform and turned south towards Hayling Island after it left the station passing over a minor level crossing by Havant Signalbox. The track carried on south past watercress beds and a double Fixed Distant Signal, which had one arm for each direction of travel, one of three double arm Signals along the route. The line was surrounded by trees from this point whilst the locomotive, working hard, was reported to bark its exhaust in a quite un-Terrier like manner. The line would then pass some sidings for various goods traffic, the whole time the line curving first one way, and then the other as it whined its way through Langstone. The train would then arrive at Langston station which served the Langstone area of Havant, a former village which has grow into its large neighbour. The railway companies however always used the old spelling “Langston” for the station, in spite of this form not being used by the local community. The station was very small with a wooden platform and no freight facilities. As the train continued the sea came into view and the train would slow to 20 mph before venturing onto the wooden bridge. At each end of the bridge was a Home Signal, left permanently “off” and only used in the event of the swing being opened for sea traffic. Once off the viaduct, the train quickly arrived at the unstaffed North Hayling halt on the North West shore of the island. The station was very basic, with a timber concourse and wooden shelter and was most often used to load oysters caught by local fishermen but was also used by ornithologists and ramblers. Leaving the station the train continued close to the coast for a couple of miles through open country to the Hayling Island terminus. When just one train was working the branch, it would arrive in the main platform, and then the engine would run around ready for the return trip. However, when another train was expected, the first had to run around and shunt its’ stock into the bay to allow the second train into the station. The station was a single platform station with tracks on each side, several sidings, goods shed and also a small wooden coal stage used to refill the bunkers of the Terriers working the branch.
However on 12th December 1962 a meeting of the Transport Users Consultative Committee was convened at Havant Town Hall and despite the protests of local people and organisations, and ignoring that fact that the railway was making a small profit, the opposing arguments for the cost of repairs to Langstone Harbour bridge, which was deemed too much in age when the motor car was exploding in popularity. Combined with the ageing coaching stock, which were in need of modernising, the decision was made to recommend to the Minister of Transport that the railway be closed. Ironically the “ageing coaching stock” which were 1956 built Mk1s were actually all subsequently were put to use elsewhere on British Railways Southern Region.
Following the closure announcement passenger services continued normally but goods trains no longer ran separately and instead the goods were conveyed in mixed traffic trains. The final British Railways train ran from Hayling Island on Saturday 2 November 1963 was a mixed train, in order to clear away all the remaining coaches and was hauled by Terrier number 32650. The day after closure a special “Hayling Railway Farewell Tour” was run, hauled by Terrier number 32636, at the time British Railways oldest working locomotive, and this was the last ever train on the iconic branch line.
Following the closure an attempt was made to re-open the line by the local community using a former Blackpool Marton Vambac single deck tram. But with no support from the local authorities the re-opening venture came to nothing and the tram never ran on the line. The attempted re-opening delayed the lifting of the track. This finally took place in the spring of 1966, and included the demolition of most of the structure of the railway bridge at Langston.
Hayling Seaside Railway
The Havant to Hayling Island lines legacy can be found in the Hayling Seaside Railway which began life as the East Hayling Light Railway, formed by Bob Haddock, a member of the ill fated group who in the mid 1980’s attempted to re-instate the “Hayling Billy” Line. The standard gauge line on the former line was doomed from the beginning as Havant Borough Council had already decided to turn the disused railway line into a cycle-way and footpath which precluded any chance of rebuilding the line as standard gauge. However Bob with some other like minded members suggested a narrow gauge railway, but that was dismissed by the society committee who declared that it had to be standard gauge or nothing. Sadly the society got what they wanted at the end of the day – nothing.
Luckily the story doesn’t end here Bob, along with a number of other avid railway fans, decided to set about creating their own railway elsewhere on Hayling Island. After numerous setbacks, all the chosen sites were refused planning permission by the council, but eventually a site was found within the Mill Rythe Holiday Camp. So the East Hayling Light Railway was born and ran successfully for many years.
But surprisingly Havant Council, who had refused the EHLR planning permission for their railway on many previous occasions, took the unexpected step of including a railway in their draft plan for their redevelopment of Hayling’s popular Pleasure Beach. The society jumped at the idea of running the railway at a more lucrative and prestigious location and submitted a plan for a narrow gauge railway to meet the Council’s criteria. The council then changed their minds and refused planning permission for their own plan. Not surprisingly some people don’t like steam trains and the councilors didn’t want to risk losing there much cherished seats. A local attraction owner famously said “if someone wanted to build a sand castle on Hayling Beach 10 people would complain about it”.
Luckily Bob Haddock and his society are not the type of people who takes no for an answer and after a campaign lasting over 12 years permission to build the railway was granted, but only after the Council’s decision was overturned by the Department of the Environment. Following closure of the East Hayling Light Railway at Mill Rythe work started in October 2001 on the building of Beachlands Station on land leased from the neighbouring Funland Amusement Park. More red tape held up the track laying until May 2002. Work continued through 2002 and into 2003 although the original target of opening at Easter 2003 was not met. The line finally opened to passengers on July 5th 2003, re-christened as “The Hayling Seaside Railway” and as such has gone from strength to strength each successive year.
Like the original Havant to Hayling line the Hayling Seaside Railway is very popular during the summer and is often full to the rafters. My family and I have taken my any enjoyable trips along the seafront behind one of their trains. The Hayling Seaside Railways 4 locomotives are all diesels with one diesel masquerading as a steam engine, which for me don’t have the same charm and character as there steam powered brothers but the views and the character of the railway are second to none. The Hayling Seaside Railway is a lovely and charming narrow gauge railway and is well worth a visit for more information and running times please visit www.haylingseasiderailway.com
The Hayling Billy Line Today
Today this one time beacon of the industrial revolution is now a product of the green revolutions. The old railway line has become a nature trail teeming with bird species, and more eco-friendly modes of transport – namely walking and cycling. This is the result of hard work by Havant Borough Council who in the 1990s undertook a project to clear the abandoned site and convert it into a nature conservation site. It now is home to an abundance of species, including the little tern, common tern, sandwich tern, black headed gull and oystercatchers. Along the “Hayling Billy Trail” the old railways remains can still be seen, including the weathered bridge, the railway, bridge remains and the former goods shed which has been converted into the Hayling Island Amateur Dramatics Society (HIADS) Station Theatre. There are plans to restore the final signal subject to funding.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the closure a full programme of local community events, around Havant and Hayling Island, has been put together on dates throughout the anniversary year. Highlights include exhibitions at the Spring Arts Centre in Havant, and at the Station Theatre located on the site of the old Hayling station. Hayling related events are also being organised at the Kent and East Sussex and Isle of Wight Steam Railways, featuring surviving ‘Terrier’ locomotives. The Hayling Seaside Railway will also be running special train service which will l be run between Beachlands and Eastoke Corner to mark the exact 50th anniversary following the closure of the Hayling Billy. Full details of all these forthcoming events can be found as they are finalised, at the ‘HB50’ project website www.haylingbilly50.co.uk which is well worth a visit; for its growing collection of Hayling Railway memorabilia and memories.