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.
For everything you need to know about the Watercress Line, go to Watercress Line Enjoy A Trip At The Watercress Line.