Hands up if you know the words to Last Train to Clarksville. If not, in a nutshell this effervescent 1967 Monkees’ song is about meeting for one final time and not knowing if the singer is ever coming back.
There is something melancholy about the idea of a last train. It smacks of the end of an era, a goodnight and farewell to something valued and deeply missed. When it comes to trains, this is a sentiment that surprisingly, nearly everyone who lives on the Isle of Wight would agree with.
“They should never have closed the railways.” This refrain could be the Island motto along with Keats’s immortal words ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever.’ Perhaps the turreted castle or whatever it is that appears on the Isle of Wight Council’s crest could be replaced with the class A1X “terrier” 0-6-0T 13 “Carisbrooke” steam engine in its once familiar green livery?
It isn’t just a rail link that people yearn for either, it is a return to the halcyon days of steam engines blustering through the leafy byways and emerging cradled in smoke from one of the three tunnels. The steam railway, that symbol of past industrial wonder could be a lifeline for an offshore island largely dependent on tourism for an income. Of course there would be the inconvenience of pollution but that would be more than offset by the disappearance of hundreds of cars clogging up Newport’s infamous roundabout at Coppins Bridge.
The first Island passenger train took to the tracks from Cowes to Newport on June 1 1862. The local paper described the panorama that would be experienced by passengers as they passed along the four-mile route. Leaving Cowes, the traveller could look out across the gas-works, a brickyard, another brickyard, past the cement-mills then over several bridges until the elegant tower and spire of St Thomas’s Church, the keep of Carisbrooke Castle, Parkhurst barracks and prison, the poor-house and the downs behind Newport came into view. Thus the train trundled in each direction for 104 years until it closed on May 14 1966.
Rather more scenic routes were soon to follow. Over the following decades other companies set their sites on the Island and a series of lines spread across the landscape taking in the compass points of Ryde, Ventnor, Bembridge and Freshwater, with numerous stations, halts and spurs in between. In 1923 they were all united under the umbrella of Southern Railway.
In the beginning not everyone was pleased by the prospect of a large, noisy, iron horse snorting past the front door several times a day. In fact, things got pretty nasty when it was proposed to extend the Shanklin line south to Ventnor. At a public meeting to plan the route, a rumour rumbled around that Lord Yarborough, who happened to own the estate over which it was to travel, had somehow got the impression that local people didn’t want it and therefore intended to refuse permission to cross his land. Optimistically a deputation was sent to put him right, but the good Lord was having none of it. It was back to the drawing board and plan B.
Unfortunately, any alternative route faced the mountainous obstruction of Ventnor Down. Mountainous it nearly is, for neighbouring St Boniface Down is indeed a mere 20 feet short of being a mountain. The Railway Company girded their loins, gritted their teeth and faced tunnelling 1,312 yards through the rock. The story goes that work started from each end and when the navvies met in the middle they celebrated by having a fight. The line opened on October 10 1866 and closed nearly a hundred years later on April 4 1966.
Almost from the start, the railway spawned that peculiar all consuming passion that can fill every waking hour. A pencil, a raincoat and a list of what to look out for – and a “train spotter” is set for a perfect day out. According to the Independent, the “founder” of train spotting was Mr Ian Allen, a railway company employee who started his own club in 1942. There were once about 8,000 engines so the members were spoilt for choice.
Living less than half a mile from a station, embedded in my memory, along with cock birds crowing and the sound of the Light Programme on the radio, are the distant shrieks and rattles of a steam engine preparing itself for the rather demanding pull from Shanklin to Wroxall. There was a difficult gradient here and the train had to take a deep breath before setting off. Then followed one of those magic sounds, the slow, laborious chugg chugg as the engine took the strain and began to move forward, passenger carriages trundling along behind. The “last train” ran on December 31 1966. It was a sad goodbye to the engine no 31 Chale that had for so long serviced the journey to Ryde.
As it happened, from Shanklin to Ryde was the only Island line that didn’t close. The remaining track was electrified and some old rolling stock from London Underground supplied so that passengers taking the ferry from Portsmouth could still make the rail journey to the south coast resorts.
And is that how it remains, 55 miles of railway reduced to 8? Well, not quite because some dedicated enthusiasts set out to rescue whatever they could. It was good news for the engine 24 Calbourne that had also worked the Ryde route because she was given a new lease of life with the Havenstreet Steam Railway. In 1999 a new station opened at Havenstreet and a 1½ mile track was opened to Wootton through beautiful rural countryside. An extension to Smallbook Junction also allowed passengers to join up with the electrified line.
So, grandparents can still introduce grandchildren into that magic world of pistons and funnels, leather window straps, posters for seaside resorts, smuts and perhaps above all, that indefinable smell of coal dust plus myriad other artefacts of a bygone age.
First published in Best of British magazine January 2013