The 22½ mile Meon Valley Railway in Hampshire once ran from Alton down to its junction with the Fareham line. When it opened on 1st June 1903 it was one of the last main line railways of this size to be built in the UK. Though never a financial success, it is celebrated for its role in the D-Day planning when a train carrying Eisenhower, Churchill and de Gaulle arrived at Droxford Station on Thursday 2nd June 1944. Because of Droxford’s proximity to Southwick House, the advanced HQ for Operation Overlord, the station was used for planning and discussions. These days there is a locally held belief that the decision to postpone the invasion by twenty-four hours due to bad weather was taken there. The eventual demise of the Meon Valley Railway during the mid-1950’s was down to harsh economics and the last train to run the entire line on 6th February 1955 was aptly named the ‘Hampshireman.’ The last remaining length of track was lifted in 1975 between Wickham and Droxford. What remained between Wickham and West Meon was bought by Hampshire County Council for recreational use. Today this 9 mile section can still be walked or ridden virtually unbroken save for the removal of two road bridges.
When I first walked this 9 mile bit of the line on Saturday 19th January 1991, I knew so little about it I almost walked straight off the high embankment at West Meon where the viaduct once stood. Instead, a painful descent down the steep slopes took me into the village where I continued on to the bricked up southern portal of the West Meon Tunnel to finally admit this was as far as my exploration went. After a drink at the ‘Thomas Lord,’ a pub named after the founder of London’s famous cricket ground who is buried in the local churchyard, I walked back to the car park at Wickham Station. Since that day, the Meon Valley Railway has remained my one walking constant and not a year has passed when I haven’t found myself along it at one time or another. If you happen to live in this part of the world and have walked, jogged, cycled or ridden along it on a January or February day these past two decades, chances are you have passed me at some point.
I have walked this section there and back 52 times now as well as several part-walks plus a film I made with a friend in 2010, excerpts of which can be seen on the ‘Videos’ page. I have also explored what little remains between West Meon and Alton. So “why oh why keep walking up and down this line year in, year out?” is the question on everybody’s lips. A lot of walking purists would call it boring to do the same thing over and over again. I couldn’t argue against that but sometimes a walk for me is not all about the walking. I often find it contemplative to go without a map or any planning. I also like to keep an eye on the line, check all is well and that it is still being used recreationally for the local community with no unwelcome obstructions. It also gives me a sense of time having witnessed its subtle changes over twenty-eight years. The predictability is like an anchor for my walking, it keeps me grounded. I guess more than anything, it has simply become a habit. It’s usually my first walk of the year and so helps blow the festive cobwebs into the lengthy shadows of a new year. Once the winter solstice passes my thoughts usually turn to the Meon Valley Railway, it gets my feet back into the boots again. These days it has become such a ritual I have to get it out of the way first before turning my thoughts to more challenging walks. My reasons for doing it in January are many; the solitude through lack of people on the line plus the lack of foliage on the trees enables better visibility and In winter the River Meon is often much more excitable with the heavier rainfall.
Over the past few summers the owners of Droxford Station open up the gardens of the old station and goods yard to the public. This charity event is a unique opportunity for a closer look at this place, its history and associations with D-Day. In recent years I have noticed some of the most significant changes once the line came within the boundaries of the newly created South Downs National Park. Most notable has been the clearances, not the enforced displacement of tenant farmers in the Scottish Highlands, but of wood and trees perceived as dangerous. This work included greatly improved line resurfacing and the reclamation of West Meon Station. I could see after my January 2019 visit those improvements are continuing with detailed information boards and a grassed picnic area on the station remains. After lunch at St. John’s Church in West Meon I continued back towards Wickham on a slightly downward gradient. Along the way I was reminded of the most noteworthy wildlife change over the past twenty-five years by the haunting screech of a buzzard overhead. In the early 1990’s the only chance of seeing one of these was in the West Country, today they are everywhere and the UK’s most common raptor.
Sometimes a walk can reveal fascinating, often poignant stories of local interest. I’d noticed in recent years commemorations to local residents who died in World War I, circular terracotta plaques with their name, the date they died and a poppy. I have no idea if this was a national or a local thing but in West Meon there are several and one in particular on the Queen Victoria Institute building alongside the A32 caught my eye. I was first struck by the name David Gedge, then I noticed the day he died was July 1st 1916, the most infamous date in British military history; first day of the Somme. I couldn’t help wondering what part he played on that terrible day and where did he make his ultimate sacrifice. In the churchyard his name is on the base of the war memorial listed with the letters RE. I decided to do a little research by way of a small tribute. David Arthur Gedge was a sapper in the Royal Engineers 8th Signal Company. He died 1st July 1916, age unknown and like so many of his comrades, has no known grave. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial at the Somme in France. The 8th Signals were involved in the attack on Ovillers during the 1st and 2nd July 1916, the Battle of Albert was what the British called the first two weeks of the Somme and David Gedge would have been involved in this. The day he died saw British loses amount to nearly 70,000 during that one single day. In the British Army a sapper is the Royal Engineers’ equivalent of a private. Their roles involve breaching fortifications and the clearing of land mines which leads me to suspect that David Gedge was part of the build up to the main attack. The Gedge family were West Meon residents according to census records stretching back to 1841. James Gedge (born circa 1825/6) lived with his parents and had an older brother also called David. I guess it is safe to assume that our David, probably born around 1890, was descended from this family.
Very happy memories from 2010 walking and filming with ‘The Rambling Walker’, as he’s great company AND a super presenter, so do check out our film on the video page above. I’ve returned several times since but mostly on my bike to enjoy parts or all of this wonderful route. Highly recommend, especially since resurfacing has eased the muddy sections.by Ollie Muncaster wednesday, February 21, 2018