You might not think that such an insubstantial commodity as watercress would generate sufficient trade to keep a railway line busy for decades from 1865 until the middle of the twentieth century.
In fact, watercress thrives best in fast-flowing chalk streams, and it remains fresh after picking for only two or three days.
The Mid-Hants Railway opened in 1865 to provide a link between two important London & South Western Railway routes at Winchester and Alton. It also enabled Alresford on the Hampshire Downs to become the centre of the watercress trade in Britain.
The line had other purposes. It was a useful alternative route for passenger services from London to Southampton and Portsmouth and as such, with its proximity to the militarised area of Salisbury Plain, it was strategically significant in both World Wars.
The Southern Railway, successor to the L&SWR, electrified the line from London Waterloo as far as Alton in 1937, severing through passenger services by obliging passengers to change trains to travel further west. When the entire London-to-Southampton main line was electrified thirty years later, leaving the Alton service as a lengthy branch line, the Mid-Hants Railway practically lost its remaining importance.
After British Rail closed the service from Alton to Winchester in 1973, an enthusiast group bought the section between Alton and Alresford and developed it as a heritage railway, branded by its popular name, the Watercress Line, between 1975 and 1985.
It’s a popular tourist feature in a pretty area of Hampshire, catering for a broad clientele, from children crawling over a full-size climbing-frame mock-up of a steam locomotive to devotees of fine dining, paying a three-figure sum to glide through the countryside tickling their palates.
There’s much to interest rail enthusiasts along the ten-mile route, and casual visitors can find amusement and refreshments at each of the four beautifully restored stations.
Alresford is the best place to park a car; Ropley has excellent viewing facilities for passing trains and rolling stock stabled in and around the workshops; Medstead & Four Marks has an exhibition ‘Delivering the Goods’ about freight operations in the age of steam.
Best of all, if you’re a Londoner, a seventy-minute journey, running a half-hour service most of the week, will take you from Waterloo to Alton, where you simply cross the platform from a swish South Western Railway electric multiple unit to a rake of 1950s Mark I carriages in Southern malachite green, complete with buffet car, that transports you back seventy or more years in an instant.
There are buses, though in two visits I’ve only ever boarded one. Rail is faster and more comfortable – trams in the former East Berlin, alongside the U-Bahn (underground railway) and the S-Bahn (overground railway). Some services duplicate each other’s routes in places, and I found it easier to rely on signage at stops and on vehicles than to try to interpret the incompatible maps. Ticketing is simple: the day ticket [tageskarte] offers the run of the system.
I like to take time in any big city simply to hop on a bus, tram or train and see where it goes. Serendipity takes over at such a point.
With a couple of hours to spare one afternoon I took a westbound U2 train, trusting that I’d see something interesting when it eventually surfaced outside the central area. Sure enough, shortly before the train entered Bülowstraße station it passed close by a spectacular brick Gothic church.
The line went underground shortly afterwards, so I left the train at Wittenbergplatz and backtracked. Bülowstraße station is a fine Art Noveau structure dating from 1902, part of the city’s first U-bahn route, designed by Bruno Möhring (1863-1929).
Train services were severed when the Berlin Wall was built, and subsequently the station opened in 1980 as a bazaar and music restaurant which became a vibrant centre for the city’s Turkish community. The tracks within the trainshed were covered over, and for a few months a vintage streetcar shuttled along the viaduct between Bülowstraße station and a flea-market at Nollendorfplatz station. The station reopened in 1993.
The tall spire of the church I’d spotted is immediately visible from the street outside the station, though the building itself is difficult to photograph because of the surrounding trees.
It was originally built as the Luther Church [Lutherkirche] (1894), a rich and complex design by Johannes Otzen (1839-1911). It’s a cross between the Scandinavian Church in Liverpool and the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras.
Among the locomotives to be seen at the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway in West Yorkshire a post-war British Railways tank engine, no: 41241, has a unique significance in the history of the K&WVR.
These compact, efficient and easily maintained 2-6-2T engines were designed by George Ivatt (1886-1972), Chief Mechanical Engineer of the London Midland & Scottish Railway, in 1946. The LMS built ten before nationalisation, and British Railways produced a further 120 by 1952. No: 41241, one of four survivors in preservation, was built in 1949.
41241 is immediately noticeable because of its red livery. The exact shade of red is variously described – maroon, crimson lake, or carmine red derived from the early BR passenger-coach livery that was nicknamed “Blood and Custard”.
When British Railways ceased using steam traction, its managers firmly turned their backs on the past. From 1966 to 1972, the years of the so-called “Steam Ban”, the only steam locomotive that had freedom to roam was Flying Scotsman, because of a clause in its unique sale contract.
When the nascent preservation groups bought locomotives from BR and scrap dealers they were forbidden to run them in BR identities. This is the reason for 41241’s inauthentic livery. Though the fleet numbers on the smokebox and the bunker are BR standard, the initials on the tank sides read “K&WVR”.
41241 drew the Reopening Special passenger-carrying service out of Keighley in red, along with Southern Railway USA tank 72 in a different livery, on June 29th 1968, and it still bore the anomalous livery at the Shildon celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the Stockton & Darlington Railway in 1975.
There’s another less well-known story about 41241 that I owe to a sharp-eyed researcher in the compendious Preserved British Steam Locomotives website.
Apparently, 41241 was relocated from Llandudno Junction depot to Skipton specifically to work the Worth Valley branch goods trains after passenger service ended in 1961. When the necessity of this manoeuvre was questioned by a Euston manager in a memo, someone added the comment “send in any case; will employ at least two men and use some coal”.
Fortunately, a K&WVR supporter was at school within sight of the railway and regularly observed 41241 arrive at Keighley from Skipton about noon, wait near the site of the demolished goods shed for 3½ hours and then return to Skipton.
Mr David Pearson, referring to the memo, comments,–
It did this utterly pointless exercise for at least two years, presumably employing at least two men and burning lots of coal; a remarkable comment on the objectives of a nationalised industry.
Ownership has long been a problem with this building. It was never owned by the City Council or its elected predecessors. It was built in 1807-08, before Sheffield was even a borough, by the Town Trustees, one of the three ancient foundations that administered the town from Tudor times.
Through the nineteenth century the Trustees leased space to the borough authorities until the new Town Hall was completed in 1897. After that the building became the city’s law courts until 1995 when the new Crown Court building opened on West Bar.
The Department of the Environment bought the Old Town Hall in 2000 and passed it to a succession of property developers who allowed the place to rot. The intentions – and sometimes the identities – of these shadowy figures have not always been apparent to the media or the public.
By 2007 it featured as one of the Victorian Society’s Top Ten Endangered Buildings, and in 2014 the Friends of the Old Town Hall group was established to promote its significance.
The only owner who made a positive effort to put the Old Town Hall to commercial use was Mr Efekoro Omu, whose 2019 scheme for serviced apartments, hotel rooms in the old cells and a “souk” – “a boutique marketplace of characterful commercial spaces” – would have severely compromised its historic integrity.
That idea sat uneasily with the scheme that the Friends had created using funds from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Architectural Heritage Fund.
Mr Omu’s scheme collapsed during the Covid lockdowns and led to his bankruptcy in 2021. When the Old Town Hall was sold, the Friends estimated that restoration might cost £15 million. That figure has undoubtedly risen since, as weather, inflation, vandalism and neglect take their toll, perhaps to £25 million.
The problem is conservation deficit, the gap between the cost of restoring a neglected building and its market value when fully restored. Consequently, commercial use almost inevitably compromises historic integrity, so a prominent historic structure like the Old Town Hall needs to be supported by scarce grant aid.
Urban explorers may yet be the saving of the building because they have chronicled and publicised its increasingly miserable condition.
In Bradford the New Victoria Cinema might have gone by now if urban explorers hadn’t publicised the fact that behind post-war modernisations the original 1930 décor was intact and retrievable: Our History Timeline | Bradford Live.
In Sheffield, two more modest cinemas bit the dust, as I chronicled in my book Demolished Sheffield [Demolished Sheffield | Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times], because their intact interiors weren’t recognised until the roof was off. An English Heritage inspector apparently declared that the ornate Electra Palace (1911), Fitzalan Square, did not merit listing shortly before it burnt down in 1984. The Star Cinema, Ecclesall Road (1915) was unrecognised as an intact silent-movie picture house until part way through its demolition in 1986.
I’ve met a number of building owners who are wary of the “risk” of having their buildings listed because they fear it will prevent them from using the site as they wish, but Sheffield can be proud of buildings at risk that became thriving assets to their owners and the community, such as Carbrook Hall (17th-century, II*), Greentop Circus(1876, II) and the soon-to-be-opened Leah’s Yard (mid-19th century II*).
The ultimate player in the process of rescuing buildings in distress is the City Council and it’s true that they have in the past missed chances to wrest the Old Town Hall from negligent owners. At one time the Council had a team of planners whose brief was to monitor the city’s stock of historic structures. Now there is only one conservation officer, and he works part time and lives outside the city. His workload is unenviable.
For this reason, when I raise an issue about a historic building, as I did recently with the listed Adelphi Cinema, Attercliffe, I present a concern but I don’t hold my breath waiting for action.
In particular, after decades of financial strictures, the Council’s priorities are rightly prioritised to supporting essential services and helping vulnerable people.
For the immediate future, whether an old building that’s lost its purpose stands or falls depends on community stakeholders and imaginative benefactors who can work together to make the city a better place for future generations.
The least any of us can do as individuals is to express concern about the Old Town Hall, the Adelphi Cinema or any other Sheffield building that we don’t want to lose.
To provide the best experiences, we use technologies like cookies to store and/or access device information. Consenting to these technologies will allow us to process data such as browsing behaviour or unique IDs on this site. Not consenting or withdrawing consent, may adversely affect certain features and functions.
The technical storage or access is strictly necessary for the legitimate purpose of enabling the use of a specific service explicitly requested by the subscriber or user, or for the sole purpose of carrying out the transmission of a communication over an electronic communications network.
The technical storage or access is necessary for the legitimate purpose of storing preferences that are not requested by the subscriber or user.
The technical storage or access that is used exclusively for statistical purposes.The technical storage or access that is used exclusively for anonymous statistical purposes. Without a subpoena, voluntary compliance on the part of your Internet Service Provider, or additional records from a third party, information stored or retrieved for this purpose alone cannot usually be used to identify you.
The technical storage or access is required to create user profiles to send advertising, or to track the user on a website or across several websites for similar marketing purposes.