Hungerford photographer and train enthusiast Tony Bartlett shares some insights on his recent photos from Hungerford Common (above & below)
I was in place on the Dun Mill overbridge on a very cold morning after it had snowed the previous afternoon. By midday most of the lying snow had melted away but it was still to be seen in the shade of the cutting as the regular Whatley Quarry to Churchyard Sidings (nr. Kings Cross) stone train approached. This is usually composed of a rag-bag mixture of wagons still painted in their previous Amey Roadstone orange livery, much adorned by graffiti artists.
However today I was immediately aware of a new bright red livery as the train snaked through the curve and under the footbridge at the station. I was set up for a ‘sunny side’ shot as DB Class 66 no. 66152 passed below me in the cutting (see image 1 below), but quickly re-adjusted for a preliminary shot in the distance. I had noticed the attractive uniform pattern formed by the 22 brightly-lit wagon‑ends contrasting with the dull sides of what appears to be a rather new set of DB Cargo stone hoppers. The resulting image, cropped to near letter-box format to focus the attention, not only captures the train in context as it enters the Kennet Valley, but also illustrates a number of features of this delightful rural location (see history below).
An effect visible on the photograph which was not apparent at the time is the colour cast on the remaining snow alongside the train. At first sight appearing as a wrong White-Balance setting on the camera, it is actually caused by the sun reflecting back off the brightly coloured ‘Verkehrsrot’ DB‑liveried wagons. It requires a rare combination of light and snow for this to be noticeable. Of course when the DB Cargo contract with Mendip Rail for stone haulage expires later in 2019 it is likely that the bright reds will be replaced by Freightliner green livery, and stone trains will merge back in with the green surroundings of the Common – another challenge for the rail photographer!
The green areas in the fore and middle ground are part of Hungerford Common. This dates back to medieval times when John o’Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, granted a charter to the Town of Hungerford. ‘Commoners’ have the right to graze cattle on common land, and to fish in the chalk stream nearby. These assets are now managed by the Town & Manor of Hungerford as a charitable trust and they are responsible for the conservation of this unique environment, in which commoners’ rights are still exercised.
During its history the Common, or the Port Down to give it its historic name, has been put to a variety of uses not originally conceived, including being the base for military encampments in the two World Wars. Notably future President General Dwight D. Eisenhower gave a morale-boosting address to 55,000 American troops on the Common before D Day and again received returning troops there after the successful launch of the invasion of Western Europe.
It has suffered a number of incursions, notably in the 19thC with the building of the Kennet & Avon canal which forms the northern boundary here on the right; and later the coming of the railway, initially as a branch line to Hungerford, before being extended through to Devizes. At the end of the 19thC the railway achieved main line status by being incorporated into the new GWR direct line to Devon & Cornwall.
Evidently the building of the railway required intrusive earthwork – cutting and filling to provide a level path for the tracks across this sloping valley-side location. Over the 150 years the railway has become established and accepted as part of the landscape, although recent savage cutbacks of lineside vegetation by Network Rail (NR) have caused concern and laid bare the scars of the original earthwork. Other features of interest visible in the image include, from right to left:
The metal work of the footbridge is still in Network Southeast blue and, being a NR responsibility, was not repainted to the current GWR franchise livery when the rest of the station was so treated recently. The tracks curve sharply away to the left through the station following the contour lines – to such an extent that there is a 75mph speed restriction, mostly only affecting the 125mph non-stopping HSTs, and now IETs.
The main goods facilities were located on the south side of the station (left of the footbridge), and there use to be a third track on the left of the alignment providing a ‘down’ goods loop and access into the yard. There was never room for an ‘up’ goods loop on the other side, so this was built in more spacious surroundings further out on the Common behind my vantage point (see image 2 below).
This does still exist and provides a valuable facility to allow high speed expresses to pass heavy stone trains coming up from the Somerset quarries, as is the case with the train featured. Just as in many other country stations, the yard is now used for car parking, but also it accommodates modern business units used by hi‑tech companies, one of which Fuel Cell Systems Ltd is involved in developing the new generation of hydrogen-powered rail vehicles.
On the skyline above the station is Brickkiln Copse situated high above the A4 Bath Road as it leaves Hungerford westbound. On the level ground in front is a private grass landing-strip. This high ground continues as a plateau most of the way to Marlborough, where the A4 and the River Kennet meet up again, and was chosen as the convenient and suitable location, further west above Ramsbury, as one of the WW2 airfields used by American troops for the D Day parachute landings and subsequent troop deployments.
When the railway was put across the Common provision was made to enable cattle to roam freely between the two sections in the form of an underbridge, positioned under the last two wagons in the view. This piece of Victorian engineering was still serving its purpose through to the 21stC but eventually succumbed to the daily stress of carrying 4000 tonne stone trains and was replaced by means of a major project in 2018 during one of the ‘electrification’ shutdowns.
The after-effects of this work can be seen by the temporary fencing in place on the upper section where the ancient turf is recovering. It had been necessary to provide load-bearing access for the heavy plant involved in the replacing the bridge, which otherwise has no road access. The ‘folds’ in this section of the Common are the visible remains of a system of medieval arable strip farming.
The Down Gate
The western border of the Common here is marked by buildings at the edge of Hungerford town. Prominent in the view is the chapel, now converted to private residences but once serving the Victorian union workhouse. In front is the Down Gate, complete with cattle grid, which is one of four road access points to the Common. This one was used by dairies in the High Street for daily access to their herds in the days when milk products were produced and consumed locally. Hard by the Down Gate is the Down Gate Inn, from which you can take in the view and watch trains pass by while enjoying a pint of real ale and good food.
The original line to Hungerford was a single-track branch line. This required an amount of cutting into the Port Down at this point to provide a level path, and even more so for the two and then three tracks of the new alignment as the route was upgraded.
The cutting had become heavily overgrown over the years (of neglect by NR) and was rather a gloomy place at most times of the year with trees actually overhanging the tracks in places. After the clearances it has become a realistic prospect to photograph trains here again although the low winter sun still provides its challenges.
For more information on Hungerford’s colourful history, please refer to the on-line Hungerford Virtual Museum.