I last visited the Isle of Wight in 1977 when I wasn’t very old at all, and if I leave it another 34 years to go again, I’ll be in my early 70’s. To that end I thought it wise to take a look at the Isle Of Wight Steam Railway while I was here in case I never bother going back, and what a delight it was!
Ajax approaches Havenstreet Station
For a small island, the Isle of Wight once had an extensive railway network, with over 50 miles of line, which is quite remarkable given that the island is only about 20 odd miles end to end! The network was all but shut down in the 60’s with just the Ryde – Shanklin line (the ‘Island Line’) remaining open, a distance of less than 9 miles. Interestingly the line uses old London Underground electric trains which makes for an unusual site. The wholesale closure of the network, like some (but not all) of the Beeching era closures, now looks short sited as the islands roads are awful, and quite badly congested. But that’s hindsight for you.
The Isle Of Wight Steam railway operates on 5.5 miles of the line to Newport, sharing a platform with the Island Line at one end, and running into a dead end at Wootton at the other. There are vague ambitions to continue to Newport but that is in the long term, and at the moment the 5.5 miles is a nice little trip, although there isn’t much to do at either end. However all the action is at Havenstreet, which is the railways operational centre. Situated at the bottom of two gradients, the station is a typically well presented heritage railway station, along with the engine sheds, shop and museum.
What was a pleasant surprise was just how busy the line was. In summer, the railway operates 7 days a week, and on the Monday we visited (just before the main onslaught of school holiday arrivals), nearly every carriage was full. OK, so we’re not talking about 10 carriage trains, but even so, with a train running in each direction this was a good thing for heritage railways. Now I imagine that in the winter months the railway will not even be a fraction as busy as the number of visitors to the island must be dramatically lower, so this was very much a case of making hay while the sun shines.
What was refreshing was the use of original, authentic Southern Railway carriages – not a BR Mk1 coach in site!! This was enormously pleasing, as was the use of some (but not all) engines that were used on the island by Southern / British Railways back in the day. The carriages were compartment carriages, now a thing of the past on todays open plan modern railway. Compartment carriages are one where you enter a compartment with two bench seats facing each other and there is no corridor or other inter connection to the rest of the carriage, i.e. once you enter it, you’re in it until you get to the next station, so just make sure you don’t choose one occupied by someone flatlulent. Or an axe murderer.
Looking up the line to Bembridge – notice the gradient as the line leave the station