Title:

The rise and fall of the Golden Valley Railway

Date:

1875 - 1953

 

The rise and fall of the Golden Valley Railway

By Bob Steele

 

Introduction

The Golden Valley was a late comer into the ‘railway mania’ of the mid nineteenth century, and the railway built there was more of a product of enthusiasm than good judgement. The line from Pontrilas to Dorstone, later extended to Hay, was championed by many of the leading local gentry and landowners on a tide of optimism. A notable and prophetic exception was Mr Archer Clive of Whitfield, who observed at the outset: ‘Of the many unpromising schemes which are afloat, I think this the most silly. There can be no passenger traffic and but very little goods, and the capital, if any should be invested, will probably be sunk unprofitably.’ His son, Mr Meysey Clive, was even blunter giving evidence to a later parliamentary committee, saying that the line ‘leads from a place of no importance to a place of no importance…[it] appears to be practically useless and to involve a wasteful expenditure of money’ .

 

The route of the Golden Valley Railway and adjacent lines [1]

 

 

However, Parliament and sufficient prospective investors thought otherwise, and the Golden Valley Railway Act of 1876 and its successors were passed. In some respects, the expectations of the railway’s supporters turned out to be justified; communications and transport into and out of the Golden Valley were transformed to the benefit of many of the local people. However, the doubters in the end were proved right. The volume of traffic on the line was never truly economic and the capital was certainly ‘sunk unprofitably’ – investments in the Golden Valley Railway and its various extensions totalled about £335,000, a huge sum at the time, and when the investors were eventually forced to cut their losses in 1899 it was sold for a mere £9,000. For many of the local gentry [though presumably not the Clives of Whitfield!], this was a serious financial disaster.

 

The life of ‘The Thunderer’, as the GVR was known locally, though short was nevertheless eventful. It began operations in 1881 with services from Pontrilas to Dorstone, and the extension to Hay was opened in 1889 after much financial and other difficulty. A proposed extension to Monmouth [May Hill], though approved by Parliament in the same year, was never built, and the rest of the railway returned neither an operating profit nor the promised dividends to the shareholders, leading to constant crises and disputes. The line closed in 1898, having run out of money, but was bought for a song by the Great Western Railway and reopened as a GWR branch line in 1901. It then ran uneventfully, and at a small profit for the first time in its history, until the outbreak of war in 1939. It made a valuable contribution as a freight-only line for the duration of the war, but fell again into financial difficulties in the post war austerity.

 

The final death knell sounded soon after the line became part of British Railways in the 1948 nationalisation, and this time there was no-one to pick up the pieces. The last train to Hay ran in 1949 and to Dorstone in 1953. By 1970, the last scrap of track had been lifted and the last bridge dismantled. Today, all that can be seen by a passer-by is the occasional hump in the road where a level crossing used to be, some traces of bridge abutments, banks and cuttings, and a few stretches of footpath along the old track bed. Nevertheless, the saga of the rise and fall of the Golden Valley Railway, narrated below, gives a unique insight into the social and economic history of the area through nearly a century of rapid and sometimes dramatic changes to the local way of life. A traveller’s perspective is also available in two articles in ‘The Railway Magazine’ [1], one from 1901 when the Great Western had just reopened the line and one from 1938 , just before passenger services effectively came to an end. Both can be read on the Ewyas Lacy Study Group’s website by clicking on the links.


The cast of characters

click here for list of GVR Subscribers

A list of subscribers and guarantors for the first £10,000 of capital raised to launch the Golden Valley Railway project can be viewed by clicking on the picture opposite, which shows one of the hundred shares purchased by the Reverend Charles Longfield of Turnastone in 1876. The list illustrates the very local nature of the venture, and the extent to which people from all walks of life, from the landed gentry to the miller at Michaelchurch, were prepared to invest their money. However, it was from the landowning gentry of the Golden Valley and the surrounding area that the bulk of the capital was to come, and many of them also became heavily involved in the business as directors of the Golden Valley Railway Company. The most prominent of them included:

  • Captain Thomas Freke-Lewis, DL, JP, of Abbeydore Court, Master of Hounds and owner of 1750 acres in Abbeydore
  • Herbert Howarth Wood of Whitehouse, Vowchurch, chairman of the Petty Sessional Division of Dore and of the Highway Board, whose estate included about 1.000 acres in Turnastone and Vowchurch
  • EL Gavin Robinson, JP, of Poston Lodge, whose wife was Lady of the Manor of Vowchurch and with her sister owned 3,334 acres at the upper end of the Golden Valley
  • William Hamp of Bacton Estate, owner of some 5000 acres mainly in Bacton and Abbeydore, and one of the founders of the Dore Workhouse
  • Charles Guy Trafford of Michaelchurch Court, Michaelchurch Escley, owner of an estate of 1500 acres in Michaelchurch Escley and Lord of the Manor of Craswall and part of Ewyas Lacy, and his aunt, Miss Rawson of Nidd Hall, Yorkshire
  • Reverend Thomas Prosser Powell, vicar of Peterchurch, a major landowner living at Hinton Hall, and his father, Thomas Powell, who was Rector of Turnastone and a principal landowner in Dorstone
  • CE Lane, a businessman from Peterchurch who owned at the time what was claimed to be the largest department store in Herefordshire, based in Albion House in the main street of Peterchurch.
  • Richard [later Sir Richard] Dansey Green-Price, whose family estate of 8,800 acres lay in Radnorshire, but who was related by marriage to the Rev. Thomas Powell, Rector of Dorstone. In addition his father was both chairman of the Kington and Eardisley Railway and on the board of several other railway companies, and the family were heavy investors in railway developments.
  • The Rev. Sir George Henry Cornewall, Bart., of Moccas Court, who was Lord of the Manor of Dorstone and whose 7,000 acre estate included 2,800 acres in the upper part of the Golden Valley.
  • TJ Stallard Penoyre of the Moor Estate, who along with Benjamin Haigh Allen of the Priory was a principal landowner at Clifford.

 

Others, notably the construction contractors who were paid much of their fees in stocks and shares rather than cash, were important players in the company’s affairs at various times. However, despite fallings-out, resignations and sometimes outright confrontation, most of the above local people remained actively involved in some way with the railway throughout its life as an independent company.

 

The origins of the railway

An essential precondition for a viable railway through the Dore valley was the ability to link to other existing railway networks. By the 1870s this had become possible at both ends of the Golden Valley.

 

To the north a 3’ 6”gauge railway had been opened from the Brecknock & Abergavenny Canal basin at Brecon to Hay in 1816 and extended to Eardisley, connecting to the Kington Railway, in 1818. It was sold in 1860 to become part of the Hereford Hay and Brecon Railway, which completed and opened a new station at Hay on 11th July 1864. The line was subsequently used [1869], leased [1874] and then taken over [1885] by the Midland Railway company, giving access to a much wider rail network for passengers and freight in the Midlands and North of England.

 

To the south, a cast iron plateway with horse-drawn trams [the Hereford Railway] had been constructed by three tramway companies between 1811 and 1826 joining Hereford and Abergavenny via Pontrilas. In 1846, Parliament approved an Act for the formation of the Newport, Abergavenny and Hereford Railway, including the purchase by it of the Hereford Railway, and in 1853 the NAHR built its principal intermediate station on the Hereford to Abergavenny section at Pontrilas. This decision may well have been influenced by the Scudamore family who were major local landowners; in any event they were heavily involved in the rapid development of the local economy there that followed, with a steam powered sawmill, a brickyard, a chemical company and a large Inn springing up beside the new station.

 

By 1854 the Newport, Abergavenny and Hereford Railway had completed its line, only to be taken over by the larger West Midland Railway in 1860 – an outcome that was often actively sought by investors in smaller lines, who thereby [hopefully] achieved large returns on their investments relatively quickly, without the burdens and risk of having to actually operate a railway themselves. This was a course of action which the Golden Valley Railway was also to attempt, but consistently fail to achieve. Finally in 1863 the West Midland Railway in turn passed into the hands of the Great Western Railway, opening up access to South Wales and the South of England including Bristol and London.

 

The first proposal for a connecting railway through the Dore valley followed quickly on the heels of the opening of these nearby lines. It was put forward in 1866 by Thomas Savin, engineer of the Hereford Hay & Brecon line, with the support of the Green-Price family, who were heavily involved in railway ventures in the Hay, Eardisley and Kington areas, and were later to become leading investors and participants in the Golden Valley Railway Company.

 

However, the 1866 proposal failed to attract financial support, and for a few years things remained quiet. Then, in a letter to Hereford Times published on 21st August 1875, CE Lane of Albion House Peterchurch, a prominent local businessman, launched a proposal for a Golden Valley and Eardisley Railway that would link at Eardisley with both the Hereford Hay & Brecon Railway and the Great Western Railway. This was perhaps prompted by two other contemporary railway surveys aimed at connecting to the GWR, one following the Golden Valley to Pontrilas and the other exploring a route though the Escley valley via Michaelchurch and Longtown to Pandy. In any event, Lane’s letter quickly sparked off a hot debate on the merits or otherwise of the various schemes, both in print and through a series of public meetings during the remainder of 1875.

 

This time railway fever gripped the local populace, and the discussions very rapidly ceased to be about whether to build a line, but instead focussed on which of the competing routes should be followed and how much it would cost. The landowners fought to protect and enhance their own interests, and matters finally came to a head at a public meeting on 3rd November 1875 at the Green Dragon Hotel, Hereford, where broad agreements were reached to build a line between Pontrilas [linking with the GWR] and Dorstone. A Committee was elected to oversee the initial fund raising and to supervise the progression of a Bill through Parliament to incorporate the Golden Valley Railway.

 

Click to see text of the 1876 Act

On 13th July 1876 the Golden Valley Railway Act was duly passed to incorporate the GVR as a light railway, with authorised capital of £60,000 and borrowing powers of another £20,000. The Act also included considerable detail about the operating conditions, tolls for passengers and freight, and other matters. Photographs of the entire 1876 Act can be seen by clicking on the picture opposite.

 

Five years were allowed to complete the 10 miles 56.2 chains from the GWR station at Pontrilas to the north side of Bridge Cottages, Dorstone, including 6 level crossings and diversion of the river Dore to reduce the number of culverts and overbridges required. The Board of Directors was shown in the Act as

  • Gavin Robinson [chairman],
  • R Dansey Green-Price,
  • Guy Trafford,
  • Captain Freke-Lewis,
  • Henry Haywood [as agent for Rev. Sir George Cornewall].

 


Building the railway

The Directors wasted no time in appointing contractors once the Golden Valley Railway Act was passed. A tender from Messrs. Scott & Edwards to build the line and stations at Abbeydore, Vowchurch, Peterchurch and Dorstone for some £42,000 was accepted, and a ceremony took place at Peterchurch to cut the first sod just a few weeks later on 31st August 1876. This fanfare may have been aimed at encouraging investors, or perhaps reflected a lack of understanding of the realities of building a railway. Quite apart from the problems of turning potential investors’ enthusiasm into hard cash, with winter coming on and disagreements with the Great Western Railway about the conditions and payment for the necessary wayleave at Pontrilas still to be resolved, little progress on construction was in fact made until April 1877.

 

In the meantime, however, the Directors had other important business matters claiming their attention. The farmers, tradesmen and landowners of Hay, alarmed at the dual prospects of losing business from their local market and missing out [as they thought] on the investment opportunities of a railway, had held a number of public meetings during 1876 to canvas for an extension of the Golden Valley Railway from Dorstone to Hay. William Clarke, the same engineer who had surveyed the Pontrilas to Dorstone line, was commissioned to survey potential Hay to Dorstone routes. He came up with several alternatives, but recommended a line terminating at an independent station in Hay, with costs estimated at £60,000, or about £10,000 per mile for a 6 mile 16.7 chains line including new stations at Hay and one intermediate point.

 

Armed with this survey, in October 1876 a deputation from Hay met the GVR Directors in Hereford and it was eventually agreed that the GVR would assist in a Parliamentary Bill for an extension to Hay, subject to £10,000 being subscribed by local citizens. Thus the Company committed itself to a much more costly and substantial railway before a single length of track had even been laid on their earlier, more modest project. The Golden Valley Railway (Extension to Hay) Act of 1877 duly authorised the new line and permitted a further £72,000 of capital to be raised plus additional borrowing powers of £24,000. A sod-cutting ceremony was held in Cae Mawr meadow, Hay, on Friday 31st August 1877 more in hope than expectation, as there continued to be considerable difficulties raising the necessary finance before contractors could be appointed.

 

Gradient profile of the Golden Valley Railway as finally built [2]

 

Behind the scenes, the Company was even strapped for cash to pay for the Pontrilas to Dorstone section. By January 1878 the line was already complete as far as Peterchurch, but payments were substantially in arrears causing serious problems with the contractor. Although payment for additional works and compensation for late payment were agreed, pushing the contract value up by over £7,000, problems continued and by June 1879 the contractors were again threatening to abandon the work unless more money was forthcoming. Sufficient cash was found from the GVR Directors’ own pockets to keep construction moving on a hand-to-mouth basis, and by May 1880 the Directors were confident enough to announce that the line to Dorstone would open on 1st August. However, the contractors downed tools in July 1880, again demanding payment for work done, and the GWR also demanded payment for the connection at Pontrilas. In addition the company was successfully sued in the High Court by a local landowner over the diversion of the river Dore near Abbeydore. It took the GVR until February 1881 to reach agreements on additional payments in cash and shares and to find the money, raising the total costs of this relatively simple section to over £67,000. The Board of Trade Inspector approved the line for working by one engine on 5th August 1881, and the railway to Dorstone was finally opened with great ceremony on Thursday 1st September 1881.

 

The fate of the more challenging Hay extension remained unresolved despite the 1877 Act and the initial celebrations, partly because sufficient money could not be raised and partly because of continuing controversy over the plan to terminate the line at an independent station in Hay. The GVR Directors, and especially Richard Green-Price, wanted a direct connection at the Midland Railway station at Hay instead, as part of a ‘grand design’ for the GVR to become a key link in a new through route from Liverpool to Bristol via Hay, Pontrilas and Monmouth. In 1883, notwithstanding the parlous financial state of the company, they commissioned a survey for this new route from a different engineer, G Levick, and started the process of obtaining a new Act of Parliament for the Hay extension. This was duly obtained in 1884, including the revised route to the Hay Midland station and authorising £45,000 additional capital and extra borrowing powers of £15,000, over and above the amounts authorised in the 1877 Act

 

The next tasks were to find a contractor and raise the money. In 1885 a proposal from Charles Chambers, a railway contractor and Kington businessman, to build the Hay extension for £154,000 [of which £50,000 was in cash and the balance in shares and debentures] was accepted, despite being more than 2 ½ times William Clarke’s original 1876 estimate of £60.000. October 1886 saw the first of several prospectuses issued to raise money for the Hay extension, all of which were highly optimistic about the likelihood of it forming part of a claimed through route to Bristol [the Pontrilas to Monmouth link amongst others was still imaginary], likely traffic levels and potential gains from takeover by bigger railway companies. In addition, it became clear that local investors would no longer be sufficient, and London brokers were used to raise some £60,000 in 1886, though after their 25% commission it was still not enough. Money raising continued in 1887, and the financial affairs of the company remained complex and chaotic.

 

Meanwhile, by 28th May 1888 most of the permanent way to Hay had been laid and the stations were nearly finished, but signalling, ballasting and the line into Hay station remained to be done. Inspection by the Board of Trade on 9th December 1888 led to refusal of permission to open the line on safety and engineering grounds, and the line failed another inspection in March 1889. It finally opened without ceremony for freight only on 21st April and with greater fanfare for passengers on 27th May 1889. The timetable [2] showed two engines in operation, serving Pontrilas, Abbeydore, Vowchurch, Peterchurch, Dorstone, Westbrook, Clifford and Hay with 8 departures each way on weekdays. Bacton Road was noted as a ‘flag’ station where selected trains could be stopped by a signal.

 

The Golden Valley Railway Board was still far from satisfied, however. Even before the Hay extension opened plans for yet more expansion were being brought forward. Engineer Levick had submitted a proposed route for an extension of the Golden Valley Railway to Monmouth as part of his 1884 survey. Richard Green-Price was an enthusiastic supporter of this as the next link in his overall vision for the through railway, but it had been deferred at the time for financial and practical reasons. This proposal was picked up again in 1888, and despite strong opposition from several quarters the 1889 Golden Valley Extension Act was passed for the construction of 12 miles 22 chains from Pontrilas to Monmouth May Hill station, as a separate undertaking with capital of £189,000 ordinary shares and borrowing of £63,000.

 

At a celebratory lunch at the Drill Hall, Hay, reported in the Hereford Times of 25th January 1890, Sir Richard Green-Price was presented with a purse of £300 and an illuminated address for his services to the railway, noting that the Monmouth scheme would be in the hands of the contractors in ‘the course of a few weeks’. However, this was the high-water mark of the Golden Valley Railway venture. In fact the Monmouth extension proved to be little more than a pipe dream, and was never built. Instead, the Company was dragged into an increasingly desperate struggle to sort out its dire financial position and keep the existing Pontrilas to Hay line afloat.

 

Running the railway

The Golden Valley Railway began operations from Pontrilas to Dorstone on Thursday 1st September 1881 with an engine hired from GWR, three carriages decorated dark green picked out with gold, and a guards van. The service consisted of three trains daily between Pontrilas and Dorstone, with an extra early morning run on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. The journey time was between thirty and sixty five minutes. Separate goods trains were run at first, but freight and passenger volumes were not high enough to sustain this. From July 1881 onwards only passenger and mixed trains were operated, and the Tuesday and Saturday early trains were dropped from January 1882.

 

A mixed train at Peterchurch [3]

 

From the start strenuous efforts were made to persuade the Great Western Railway to either run the line for a percentage of the receipts or to buy it outright, and negotiations along these lines were to continue throughout the life of the GVR. Indeed, the prospect of such an outcome may well have been an important factor in persuading the GVR investors to maintain their support and perhaps to go along with the ambitious extension plans. However, though the GWR did come up with various offers from time to time, they were never considered attractive enough by the GVR shareholders – although in retrospect many of them no doubt regretted their intransigence in later years.

 

The GVR therefore remained independent, and financial pressures mounted, with the line operating at a loss and failing to even pay interest to debenture holders let alone dividends to shareholders. Various revenue raising initiatives were tried, including proposals for transporting flagstones [in demand for paving] from a quarry on the Michaelchurch Court Estate, though in the event a prospectus issued to form ‘The Golden Valley Lime and Paving Stone Company’ for the purpose did not attract investors. A degree of ‘creative accounting’ was also employed to disguise the harsh realities, but with limited success. The business was kept going largely by a series of temporary loans and personal guarantees by the Directors, and other behind the scenes arrangements with investors and creditors sometimes prompted by threats of law suits.

 

In June 1882, permission was obtained from Parliament to raise another £20,000 capital to cover debts and liabilities, and to postpone the completion date of the Hay extension to 2nd August 1884, but this still did not put the business on a sound footing.  On 22nd October 1883 the GWR withdrew their engine for non-payment of charges for hiring the locomotive and rents due at Pontrilas station; as a result no services ran on the GVR for nearly a month. Settlement of the arrears and rising costs led to record losses for 1883, although this did not seem to dampen the enthusiasm in some quarters for pushing ahead with plans for both the Hay and Monmouth extensions.

 

In 1884, against a background of increasing controversy amongst Directors and shareholders over a GWR proposal to take on working of the line to Dorstone [but not the as yet unbuilt Hay extension], serious problems were discovered with the condition of the line. Many of the original sleepers ‘had not been properly pickled’ and required replacement, meaning that the line was said to be no longer safe for normal working. The GVR could not afford the £3000 for the repairs, and the Directors were forced to contemplate closure of the line for passengers and a restriction of speed for freight to 6 miles per hour. The GWR came up with a revised offer for running the line that included financing the necessary repairs, but still meant abandoning the Hay extension, which the GWR opposed because it was hardly in its interests to funnel business to the Midland Railway at Hay, a competitor.

 

Matters came to a head at an extraordinary general meeting of the GVR shareholders at Peterchurch on 16th April 1885, where those who wanted to limit their exposure by accepting the revised GWR offer and those who favoured further major expansion financed by new London-raised capital went head to head. The meeting was reported by the Hereford Times as ‘stormy’, and failed to reach agreement on the central issue. It did, however, result in the resignation of the GVR chairman [Robinson] and a notice suspending the passenger service to Dorstone from 2nd July 1885, though a four days a week freight service continued.

 

After Gavin Robinson’s resignation, Richard Green-Price became chairman of the Golden Valley Railway as well as the largest investor, and his adventurous ambitions for expansion held sway. A second shareholders meeting on 18th July noted that the money to renew sleepers had been raised or promised, formally rejected the GWR proposal to operate the line, and gave the green light to the construction of the Hay extension. On 19th August the passenger service was reinstated, suggesting that the scare over the condition of the track may have been somewhat exaggerated as part of the ‘politics’ surrounding the shareholders meeting.

 

Golden Valley Railway Prospectus, June 1888 [3]

In the background, however, negotiations about unpaid bills continued with GWR and other creditors, but remained largely unresolved. The financial position continued to deteriorate until in March 1887 a receiver was appointed and was not withdrawn until 5th April 1888. By this time most of the local gentry had resigned from the board to be replaced by outsiders, who now saw the Monmouth extension as their possible salvation. Despite all the problems [or perhaps because of them], attempts to attract yet more new investors continued, as the cover page from an 1888 prospectus opposite shows.

 

After the opening of the Hay extension in 1889, passenger bookings rose to 25,000 in 1890 compared to 9,000 in the previous year and briefly there were 4 locomotives working the line. The first timetable of May 1889 [soon cut back substantially] showed five passenger trains daily between Pontrilas and Hay, with an extra early train on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and one more service working from Pontrilas to Dorstone and back. The full 18 ¾ mile journey took between an hour and seventy minutes, depending on the number of station stops timetabled. One goods train per day also ran in each direction. However, expenditure had risen more than commensurately, resulting in an operating loss of £723 in 1889, rising to £2129 in 1890, on top of which there were again serious concerns about the condition and safety of the line.

 

The Board’s troubles also extended to the holders of shares and debentures in the company. In the spring of 1890 a lawsuit against the directors alleged that their 1886 prospectus for the Hay extension had been [to put it politely] misleading and five other similar suits were threatened. The court’s findings threw the validity of the entire 1886 and 1887 debenture stock into doubt. Sir Richard Green-Price, then Chairman of the GVR, eventually negotiated a settlement with the debenture holders in November 1890, but only at the cost of agreeing to abandon his cherished plans for the Monmouth extension. This was perhaps a blessing, since the GVR by this time was struggling even to pay its workers’ wages and buy coal for the engines; on 15th January 1891 the line’s manager wrote to the directors enclosing an ultimatum from the workers that they would cease work on the following Wednesday unless the arrears of a month’s wages were paid. Most of the Directors resigned in February 1891, but Sir Richard raised sufficient money to keep the company going, though effectively without a board of Directors.

 

Conflict behind the scenes continued, with debenture holders in the original Golden Valley Railway and those who had invested in the separate Monmouth extension at odds, and despite previous agreements Green-Price continued trying to drum up £150,000 of new investment to build the Monmouth line. 1892 also saw the GVR rolling stock being repossessed for non-payment of hire charges and further problems with paying for repairs and maintenance. The GVR continued to struggle through the 1890s, with annual operating losses and erratic services, and although 1893 saw the second highest ever yearly total of passengers carried [44,891] and the highest ever volume of freight with 4,361 tons of merchandise and 3,760 tons of minerals, the operating deficit was still £881.

 

In 1895 a new board was elected by the shareholders, and it was clear that things could not go on much longer. Efforts to sell the entire operation to the GWR, which had been made sporadically for a number of years without success, were renewed. The GWR rejected an offer of the Golden Valley line for £20,000 [a reduction of £10,000 from a previous offer], and the company staggered on amidst rumours of closure until in August 1897 disaster finally struck with a derailment between Westbrook and Clifford. From Monday 23rd August 1897 trains ceased to run between Hay and Dorstone, and the Hereford Times of 28th August reported ‘The Doom of the Golden Valley Railway’.

 

On 28th October 1897 the directors of the Great Western Railway finally accepted a proposition that they purchase the line for £10,000, and after further meetings in February and March 1898, despite the reluctance of Golden Valley Railway investors who would only receive between 9d and 1/6d in the pound, the amalgamation was agreed. However, a parliamentary Bill enabling the takeover was required, and it failed in the face of opposition from a major dissenting shareholder [Chambers, the contractor for the Hay extension who had been paid largely in shares for his work] and the London and North Western Railway Company who claimed rather obscurely to want a part share of the GVR to protect their interests.

 

With the Hay section still closed this was the last straw, and on 20th April 1898 the Pontrilas to Dorstone section formally closed to all traffic and the Golden Valley Railway ceased to operate a timetable. Discussions with shareholders and the GWR continued, and on 15th December 1898 another agreement with GWR was signed, now for only £9,000, with a separate £2000 settlement with Chambers - a very poor return on over £100,000 face value of shares that he held. This deal specifically excluded any GWR involvement with the railway extension to Monmouth and investors who had bought shares and debentures in that venture presumably ended up receiving nothing. The Great Western Act of 1899 vested the GVR legally into the GWR from 1st July 1899, ending the independent ambitions of the local gentry that had begun so enthusiastically some 25 years earlier. It had also made a considerable dent in many of their financial fortunes, and caused hardship to untold numbers of less well-off local people who had invested hard-earned cash in GVR shares.

 

In the latter half of 1899 the Golden Valley Railway Company was liquidated and wound up. The GWR scrapped the worn-out rolling stock, dismissed the staff, and started major remedial work on the track at an estimated cost of £17,280.

 

The Great Western years

The Hereford Times of 23rd March 1901 announced the re-opening of the Golden Valley line by the Great Western Railway as far as Peterchurch. This was somewhat premature; the line actually reopened on 1st May 1901 right through to Hay, although the first train at 6.55 am from Pontrilas apparently attracted no custom at all, so it must have been a low-key event. Three mixed trains ran daily each way, plus a Wednesday market special from Dorstone and a daily goods run when needed. The line operated without signals, using five carriages [two pairs and a spare] hauled by a GWR 517 class 0-4-2T engine. Five level crossing keepers were appointed, and on 28th February 1902 GWR also appointed station masters at Clifford, Westbrook, Dorstone, Peterchurch, Vowchurch and Abbey Dore. A passenger platform and shelter was added at Green’s Siding in 1901 and at Bacton probably in 1903.

 

For the next two years passenger numbers averaged 27,241, compared to 39,592 carried by the GVR in its last full year of independence. However, gross receipts for goods and passengers under GWR were almost double the equivalent earned by the GVR, and the most economical working practices kept costs to a minimum. This generated a healthy return of nearly 10% on the total £26,000 GWR investment, and for the first time since its foundation the railway seemed to have found a secure and profitable future.

 

Pontrilas Station in the 1900s: The Golden Valley branch loops left beyond the signal box, crossing the main Hereford road via the arched bridge in the left middleground [4]

 

Thus things continued, largely unaffected by the First World War, into the 1920’s. Now, however, competition from private motor vehicles, motorised transport and newly formed bus companies in the Golden Valley area began to build up. In 1920 Reg Hallard of Poston Mill opened a bus service to Hereford on market days, and Hereford Transport Limited set up an ‘outpost’ at Michaelchurch in 1920/21. By 1924, Mr Wilfred Pritchard was running a Ford bus around the area of Michaelchurch and Longtown, while JC Wilding’s ‘West End Cycle Depot’ at Vowchurch was selling petrol and operating a garage catering initially for motorcyclists and later for motorists too.

 

By 1925 competitive and economic pressures had led the GWR to carry out a widespread cost survey of branch lines. The report in March 1926 identified the Golden Valley branch as a candidate for closure on economic grounds, pointing out that the population was insufficient to produce economic traffic figures, and that permanent way maintenance costs were particularly high – echoes of the perennial problems of the old Golden Valley Railway. Though this report did not become public knowledge at the time and was not acted upon, the writing was once again on the wall for the railway.

 

Nevertheless, services continued largely unchanged along with routine maintenance and operation of the line as the years passed. By 1927 further competition was developing with a bus service from ‘Bob’s Shop’ at Michaelchurch to Hay via Turnastone, Vowchurch, Peterchurch and Dorstone, together with market day services to Hereford and Abergavenny. The Red and White bus company was operating services between Hay and Hereford by 1929, and another local bus owner, Bill Morgan, was operating routes from Pontrilas by 1930. However, rail passenger numbers held up fairly well, with special excursions continuing to attract good custom, and in September 1933 the GWR replaced the obsolete 517 class engines on the Golden Valley branch with new Collett 0-4-2T tank engines.

 

By 1937 competition was finally beginning to hit the line’s traffic quite badly, with some trains requiring only two coaches. By 1938 this had become the norm, and the number of services started to be cut back as well, throwing the future into serious doubt. However, the outbreak of war in 1939 led to major changes in branch working. An outdoor assembly point for Allis Chalmers tractors, made from parts shipped from America through South Wales ports, was set up at Bacton, which boosted goods traffic substantially. The construction of a large Ordnance Depot sited at Elm Bridge, between Pontrilas and Abbeydore, had an even bigger impact.

 

The work at the Ordnance Depot [‘the Dump’] was completed in April 1941, including extensive private sidings, storage sheds and bays all linked by an internal rail network and connected to the Golden Valley line. Overall goods traffic became considerably heavier than in peacetime, and on 10th December 1941 it was decided that branch passenger services would be discontinued from 15th December, officially to avoid interfering with the war effort but perhaps also because passengers and high explosives did not make a comfortable combination. The line was also used in 1941/2 to transport substantial quantities of hard core to Vowchurch, where it was offloaded onto trucks to be taken to build the airfield at Madley. Subsequently, the tempo of ordnance shipments hauled by heavy locomotives continued to increase through 1943 and 1944 as D-Day approached.

 

A short GWR goods train near Vowchurch after the war [3]

After the war ended the line between Pontrilas and Elm Bridge continued to be busy, but there was little activity elsewhere in 1946 apart from some renewed timber shipments from Vowchurch. By 1947 a morning goods service was usually running to Hay daily, though demand remained light and it sometimes terminated at Dorstone or Clifford. Services were heavily disrupted by severe winter conditions in February and March, when snow and freezing conditions threatened to block the line and cut off the water supply for the engines. Strenuous efforts kept the trains running intermittently, and at times in March 1947 the railway was the only means of communication and supply into the Golden Valley.

 

On 1st January 1948 the GWR and the Golden Valley branch became part of the nationalised British Railways operated by the British Transport Commission. The daily goods service continued until the autumn of 1949, but demand did not pick up and it was decided to discontinue the service to Hay. The last train through to Hay ran on 31st December 1949, and Dorstone once again became the terminus of the Golden Valley line. By the end of 1950, the track beyond Dorstone had been lifted and the bridges dismantled, completing the demise of the Hay extension. The rest was soon to follow; it was announced that from 31st January 1953 the line would close north of Abbeydore leaving just the spur from Pontrilas to the Elm Bridge Ordnance depot in operation. Despite some local protests the official closure duly took place with small ceremony.

One of the last tickets to Dorstone [4]

By September 1954 contractors had largely completed lifting the tracks and other demolition work beyond Abbeydore. On the 3rd June 1957 the section to Abbey Dore beyond Elm Bridge was closed, and by 1961 this track too had been lifted. Pontrilas station closed to passengers on 9th June 1958 and finally closed completely on 12th October 1964 when GWR goods operations ceased, although Pontrilas marshalling yard was kept open to route traffic through to the renamed ‘Pontrilas Ordnance Explosives Storage Depot’ at Elm Bridge, whose internal rail network was still being run independently as a military railway by the Royal Engineers.


Finally, on 31st March 1969, the link to Elm Bridge along with the military rail network itself was closed. By the end of 1970 the bridge across the main Hereford – Abergavenny road was demolished, the last of the track was lifted, and the Golden Valley Railway finally disappeared into history.


The places, operations and people of the Golden Valley Branch during the Great Western years have been captured in a unique collection of photographs by CG Smith , an engineman on the line from the early 1900s to the eventual closure.

 


The Golden Valley line today

If history is to celebrate the Golden Valley Railway Company, it will probably be as a high-water mark of the Victorian love-affair with railways, propelled by enthusiasm that triumphed over marginal economics for a while before being overtaken by reality and fading into oblivion. Over half a century after trains last ran through the Golden Valley, little evidence of the old railway system is visible to the casual eye. Only fragments of the line are now accessible to the public, and even these show few obvious scars from the 72 years of railway operations. Most of the trackbed was sold off when the line closed and has been re-absorbed into the farms and estates of the Golden Valley. The British Railways demolition teams were assiduous in removing the railway infrastructure, oblivious of the local dreams it had represented and of the interests of future local historians.

 

Click to see more satellite photographs

The GVR track leaving Pontrilas Station and curving away from the GWR main line[5]

However, appearances at ground level can be deceptive – a fact well known to archaeologists who hunt even older relics using aerial photographs. Even after decades of disuse the track of the old railway line can still be seen and followed with comparative ease over most of its length using satellite imagery available free on the internet through Google Earth . Indeed, using a modicum of imagination [aided by large scale ordnance survey maps from the 1900s, photographs and other contemporary information] the sites of the stations, sidings and goods yards can still be pinpointed from visible ground features, as illustrated in the picture alongside on which the old route of the GVR track from its start in Pontrilas is superimposed in red. Click on the image to follow a link on this website to larger scale annotated satellite images for each of the stations on the Golden Valley line – or visit the Google Earth website and see if you can spot the tell-tale signs for yourself. Click here to view a map of the entire route of the railway, courtesy of David Phillips.

No doubt the traces will continue to fade gradually, even from the satellite pictures, but hopefully enough will remain for the foreseeable future to remind generations to come of the achievements of the Victorian engineers and their local supporters who overcame all the obstacles and built the Golden Valley Railway.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note:

Much more detailed accounts of the Golden Valley Railway are given in two excellent books by CL Mowat and WH Smith respectively, shown in the bibliography below. They are available on loan from the reference section at Hereford public library. My own summary above has drawn heavily on them both.

Bob Steele

January 2009

Bibliography



[1] The Railway Magazine, IPC Media Ltd.

 

[2] The Golden Valley Railway; Railway enterprise on the Welsh Border in late Victorian times

CL Mowat; Cardiff University of Wales Press 1964

ISBN 0708 300 529

Hereford Library Ref: H/385.0942.44

 

[3] The Golden Valley Railway

WH Smith: Wild Swan Publications Ltd 1993:

1-3 Hagbourne Road, Didcot, Oxon. OX11 8DP

ISBN 1 874103 16 X

Hereford Library Ref: H/385.0942.44

 

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_last_ticket.jpg

 

[5] Google Earth images: http://earth.google.com/


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