The Severn Beach line is not just the gateway to some superb walks; it is perhaps the strangest and most diverse branch line in Britain, and was once rated by Thomas Cook as one of Europe’s top scenic rail routes.
A journey along the line starts amid the splendour and bustle of Temple Meads, the 34th busiest station in the country, with over nine million passengers boarding or leaving trains here every year.
Pulling out of Temple Meads, across the floating harbour, over to the left flats and offices have risen where once sidings, warehouses and factories stood. This is the Dings, an area visited in the second walk. Alongside the line are the sheds and sidings of Barton Hill Depot, used by the LNWR (London & North Western Railway) train maintenance company.
Just past it, at Dr Day’s Junction, a spur from the Bristol to Bath line curves in from the south. The junction was named after a well-known doctor – William Edward Day – who lived at nearby Barton Hill House.
As the train rattles through a brick-lined cutting, you can see that, where there are now two tracks, there were once four. The other two tracks were taken out of use in 1984 but, as the frequency of train services has increased, so has congestion, and there are now plans to reinstate them.
Lawrence Hill station, our first stop, is a shadow of its former self – only two platforms in use, all its buildings demolished and the site of its goods yard – on the left – occupied by a supermarket and builder’s yard.
Leaving Lawrence Hill, the train passes under a bridge that once carried the Midland Railway line to Gloucester and Birmingham but now carries a cycle path. Just past it, on the left, rusty rails, leading to a disused waste transfer depot, trail off into the undergrowth.
The train now scuttles along an embankment with streets of terraced houses on both sides. Until the late nineteenth century, the low-lying land on the left was home to several brickworks, located here because of the abundance of clayey soil. Beyond them, a couple of hundred metres west of the line, was Easton Colliery, which closed in 1911.
As the train slows for Stapleton Road, look out on the left for St Mark’s church, with muppet-like carvings adorning the roof of its tower. Built in 1848, it was converted to housing in 1989. St Mark’s Road, beside the church, is home to the famous Bristol Sweet Mart, while Stapleton Road station is home to a mural depicting life in Easton past and present and Eastside Roots Community Garden between the abandoned platforms on the right.
At one time, some trains between South Wales and the South Coast ran via the spur at Dr Day’s Junction and called at Stapleton Road rather than Temple Meads, thus avoiding the need to reverse – an important consideration when trains were hauled by locomotives which needed to change ends.
As the train pulls out of the station, look out on the left for a turret on the corner of Stapleton Road, originally a gazebo in the garden of nearby Stapleton Manor. After crossing Stapleton Road, the bridge continues over a cycle path following the old course of the River Frome which still flowed here when the railway was built.
Once over the motorway, the train runs past St Werbugh’s, its streets built on the site of yet more brickworks. As the train continues to climb, the view extends westward as far as the heights of Clifton, dominated by the tower of the university physics building in the Royal Fort. Nearer to hand is the chimney of Brook’s Dye Works, which closed in 2007, and whose future is uncertain. The land on the right was until recently the site of a large railway-served gasworks, which has now been cleared with a view to redevelopment. Further east is the BT tower on Purdown.
So begins your journey along the Severn Beach line, among the relics of Bristol’s industrial past, through Georgian and Victorian suburbs and ending at a ghostly seaside resort. It is this line which Andrew Swift has used as the vehicle to introduce you to the vibrant and varied city that is Bristol.