The line not built

This month’s column is a guest contribution by Professor Richard Hoyle who lives in Spencers Wood (and who contributed to the recent book, More from Our Village of Spencers Wood).

History is not only about what happened; it is also about what might have happened, the road not taken. So it is fruitful to discuss what might have happened if the Armada had landed in 1588 or if there had been an invasion in 1940; or if Jim Callaghan had called an election in the autumn of 1978 rather than the Spring of 1979. Here we consider a ‘might have been’ on a smaller scale: the railway through Spencers Wood.

The year is 1909. Private cars are beginning to appear, as are petrol-driven buses and lorries. But the future was not so obvious at the time and public discourse was still about trains. The Berkshire Chronicle carried a flurry of articles about stations and train services, prompted by the success of Reading West station (opened in 1906) and suggestions that a station might be built to serve Palmer Park (then a developing suburb). But an article by ‘Q. T.’ drew attention to another grievance: the poor connections at Basingstoke between trains from Salisbury and the south-west (the London and South Western Railway) and trains from Basingstoke to Reading (Great Western Railway). The last train of the day from Exeter arrived at 9.11: the last connecting train to Reading left at 9.10. Obviously, this was no accident. Q. T. wanted a much better service.

The following week the President of the Reading Chamber of Commerce made a different suggestion: that the LSWR should continue its recently built line from Alton to Basingstoke through Sherfield, Spencers Wood and Three Mile Cross to Reading. This would open up the area to the south and west of Reading which had (and indeed has) poor railway facilities.

A couple of months later ‘Q. T.’ reported on a meeting of the Railway Institute at Reading where this idea, and others, were discussed. The idea which the Institute favoured was a new line, leaving the Waterloo line west of Earley station and then travelling cross-country through Shinfield, Spencers Wood, Swallowfield and Sherfield, before connecting with the Basingstoke-Waterloo line near Hook. The Institute thought that the line would not be expensive to build, being only 15 miles long and without any great engineering problems to overcome. It would serve the ‘populous districts of Shinfield and Spencers Wood’ whilst giving a direct route to Portsmouth, Bournemouth etc.

The Berkshire Chronicle was all in favour: but little more was heard of the idea. Whether the London and South Western Railway gave it more than a moment’s thought is unknown and the agreement in the summer of 1910 that the LSWR and GWR should co-operate more closely made it redundant anyhow.

In retrospect the idea was completely daft. And if the line had been built, it would probably have never carried much traffic, making it exactly the sort of line that Dr Beeching would have identified as hopelessly uneconomic half a century later. It seems unlikely that readers of Loddon Reach would ever have had the option of waiting for the Reading train rather than the Reading bus. On the other hand, a station in Spencers Wood would inevitably have changed the character of the village and encouraged house building: indeed, as we have seen, the development of the area was part of the justification for the building the line. And so, if the line had come to pass, twentieth-century Spencers Wood would have been very different, but this was not so much the road not taken as the line not built.

Professor Richard Hoyle