Where the Kennet & Avon Canal enters the practically unnecessary Bruce Tunnel the towpath becomes a footpath through a tiny settlement called, Savernake after the surrounding forest.
This unlikely place used to have two railway stations, High Level and Low Level, because of the absurdities of Victorian competition.
Savernake Low Level Station, opened in 1862, was a simple junction that connected the Great Western Railway’s Berks & Hants line with the nearby town of Marlborough, where the terminus station was called, perversely, High Level.
The other railway that served this isolated spot was the Midland & South Western Junction Railway which ran a tortuous route between Cheltenham Spa and Southampton. A small section of this line is preserved as the Swindon & Cricklade Railway, just outside Swindon.
Built piecemeal, the M&SWJR initially opened in 1881 from Swindon to Marlborough only, linking into the GWR’s Marlborough branch and the Berks & Hants line at a rental of £1,000 per annum.
Eventually, the last piece of the jigsaw that was the M&SWJR was a nominally independent line, the Marlborough & Grafton Railway, opened in 1898, which provided an independent link from Marlborough Low Level Station to Savernake, where the station was called High Level, and joining end-on to the existing M&SWJR line at Grafton.
From early in 1892 the insolvent M&SWJR was managed by Sam Fay, who retrieved it from the receivers while on secondment from the L&SWR. He became L&SWR line superintendent in 1899 before moving on to national fame as General Manager of the Great Central Railway in 1902
In the early years, milk was the main freight commodity at most M&SWJR stations; other distinctive traffics were pigeons and racehorses.
At the 1922 amalgamation of railway companies, both these lines became part of the Great Western Railway which continued to operate them side by side until 1933.
In that year the GWR closed its branch and station to passengers, though retaining the track for freight, and concentrated passenger service at Marlborough Low Level. Curiously, the two tracks were then worked as parallel single lines – the former up (towards Swindon) line as a branch between Savernake and Marlborough, the former down (towards Grafton) as a bidirectional through route.
Despite extremely heavy military traffic during the Second World War, traffic drained away in the post-war period. British Railways continued to operate the Marlborough branch service after a landslip in 1958 by diverting trains back on to the former GWR alignment into Savernake Low Level Station, until the entire M&SWJR closed to traffic on September 10th 1961.
Half a century after the branch trains stopped running to Marlborough there is very little evidence of the two branch lines, except by viewing satellite images. The two Marlborough station sites have been redeveloped and the M&SWJR tunnel has been filled in.
At Savernake, main-line trains still speed along the Berks & Hants line on their way between Reading and Taunton, but the site of Savernake Low Level Station has been obliterated. The main building at Savernake High Level Station and the adjacent signal box still stand, converted to a private residence.
With heavy irony, what might have been the stationmaster’s house at Savernake Low Level is now called Beeching Villa.
All the railway sites at Savernake are on private land but are visible from the road.
The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing. To view sample pages click here. Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.