BUGGLESKELLY to THE WRECKER – 20 miles – Saturday 12th February 2011
Some walks are worth writing about even though there are no great photos or scenery, have too much road walking and are not ones I would want to repeat or recommend to others. They simply have a fascinating story to tell. This baby was such a walk. It concerns two classic films from the early days of British cinema and one remarkable train journey, a journey like no other in the history of Britain’s railways. So if you’re ready, sit back and enjoy the ride! I was first alerted by a local news report of a 1929 Anglo-German silent film called The Wrecker that had been digitally restored. This tense crime drama concerned a dastardly criminal who organised train crashes to discredit the rail company in favour of a rival bus firm. Its centrepiece was a spectacular crash, deliberately staged and filmed using twenty-two cameras. It took place on the Basingstoke and Alton Light Railway on Sunday 19th August 1928. Only four years later this railway closed and is difficult to trace on the ground today. However, I was able to identify the crash site on what is now the modern A339 as part of this busy road runs along the line of the old railway at this point. I was fascinated, especially when learning more of the events leading up to the crash and after watching the footage. Having established the exact spot as Salter’s Ash crossing, I plotted the course of the railway line south from Basingstoke through today’s agricultural landscape and drew a route that would follow the line as close as possible right up to its dramatic climax. The Wrecker was my main focus of the day but there was another very good cinematic reason for exploring this line.
Following the course of the line on a map from south to north there were three stations between Alton and Basingstoke; Bentworth & Lasham, Herriard and 1 mile south of Basingstoke was Cliddesden. When the 1937 Will Hay film Oh, Mr Porter! was filmed at Cliddesden Station the line had already closed making it a perfect setting for the fictitious Buggleskelly. Before doing this walk I decided to watch Oh, Mr Porter! and, considering the era in which it was made, this wasn’t as onerous a task as I had originally thought. Though far removed from today’s comedy styles, I actually found myself giggling throughout this well paced comedy. Today it has come to be regarded as one of the classics of British cinema. Despite the somewhat dated music hall style dialogue this is a highly amusing film and worthy of the adulation is still manages to accrue. One person linked to both films was Arnold Ridley. To today’s generation he was Daisy Ridley’s Great-Uncle, she was the female actress in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Whereas my generation remembers him as the cuddly Private Godfrey in Dad’s Army. I actually met him once many years ago on an outdoor film set on Beachy Head. I was nobbut a lad but he was absolutely charming to me as I nervously asked for his autograph. Amongst his many talents, Arnold Ridley was also a renowned playwright and two of his most notable works were made into films, Oh, Mr Porter! and The Wrecker.
My journey to Axford was made memorable by an albino deer that ran across the road, in times gone by this would have been called a white hart. The walk began just after 9am as I headed for Nutley Down into the jaws of a small valley. Here I watched two hares stalk each other before boxing at full height, a fascinating spectacle if not a little curious. From the wonderfully named Bedlam Bottom the sound of the M3 joined me at Farleigh Wallop where I came to the lonely St Andrew’s Church. Wide open fields then dropped me to Cliddesden where the railway once crossed the B3046. My exploration of the line would begin on the other side of the M3 in a built up part of Basingstoke. At Viables Roundabout was a small section of track, put there in 1976 to commemorate the railway that once crossed. This marked the start of my route south to follow the Basingstoke and Alton Light Railway.
It was built by the London and South Western Railway Company in 1901, the first to be authorised under the 1896 ‘Light Railways Act.’ Unfortunately the limitations of a light railway prevented trains from travelling more than 25 mph which meant a journey of just over 12 miles took around forty-five minutes. On the 30th of December 1916 it was the only railway in the country to be closed during World War One when its tracks were removed and re-laid in France. The new owners Southern Railway would have happily kept it closed but after begrudgingly reopening the line in August 1924, it soon closed to passenger traffic in September 1932. A goods service continued until 1936, after that the line was gradually dismantled but not before being used to film Oh, Mr Porter!
South of the M3 my search began from the corner of a field where I looked to the Cliddesden embankment before cutting across the line of the railway to a row of cottages. Left of Railway Cottages a fence marked the former site of Cliddesden Station. Within a patch of rough ground was a slight impression where the line would have run whilst the platform was best recognised by a row of trees. It was hard to imagine any of this as the endearingly ramshackle hovel run by Will Hay, Moore Marriott and Graham Moffatt in 1937. Oh, Mr. Porter! is generally regarded as Will Hay’s best film. Buggleskelly was a fictitious station set in Northern Ireland to which the incompetent Willie Porter was despatched as Station Master. The station and railway sequences were filmed over two months from mid June 1937 but there was nothing of that to be seen. However, it was possible to pinpoint where some scenes took place such as the level crossing that Willie Porter struggled to open which was pretty much where I stood. Whilst standing there trying to visualise it all, I half expected a cranky old Irish postman to shout at me… “You’re wasting your time!”
It was midday and time to move on so from Station House I followed another footpath parallel with the line to Swallick Farm… interesting name! The farm’s access lane took me back to the railway where on the other side of a long removed over bridge I was delighted to find a permissive bridleway. This allowed a rare wander along the old trackbed, not particularly long at three quarters of a mile, but it was the last chance to walk the original line. What started as a fascinating stretch of slightly raised embankment soon curved through a cutting on a bend so tight it must have put a huge strain on the flanges… painful!
I was eventually directed off this permissive route to the right whilst what remained of the line continued to a high embankment over Winslade Lane. From there a rough track was the only way of following the line, albeit from a distance. A left turn out of woodland down College Lane took me back to a crossing of the railway where I continued down to the A339 and had lunch at St. Mary’s Church in Herriard Park. Walking the A339 wasn’t ideal but there was enough of a verge on either side to keep me clear of the traffic. Only the ludicrously fast motorbikes and a dead badger threatened to ruin my day. Eventually I joined a roadside pavement where across fields to my right the railway could be marked out by a line of trees and a horse rider. The pavement took me to the Bagmore Lane crossing, site of a mysterious gypsy grave which first appeared around 1870 according to local legend. Even today someone tends it as flowers are often found there. Having turned right I came to a huddle of properties where the onetime site of Herriard Station could be found down a dirt track called Old Station. I looked to a gate opposite that held back an overgrown area where trains once trundled down from Basingstoke and turned up the track to see if anything remained of the old platforms. I wasn’t disappointed.
It was time to pick up the story of South Eastern & Chatham Railway F1 class 4-4-0 locomotive number 148 and its six carriages. Designed by James Stirling, this aging loco was built at Ashford in 1889. Herriard Station was an important stage in the journey of the 148 train on the 19th of August 1928, the day of the Wrecker crash. At 6:30am that Sunday morning it departed Waterloo with dinning cars full of press photographers and reporters being served breakfast. The passengers disembarked at Herriard and made their way to the crash site along with a large crowd who had gathered in anticipation. This event had been publicised in advance by the ‘Southern Railway Magazine’ and a large marquee was erected in the field overlooking the site. Tickets were sold to visitors for a prime view from Lasham Hill Farm. The scene was set and the cameras were rolling!
The lane took me between concrete platforms on both sides that were seriously overgrown. Herriard was the only station to have two platforms, today the lane between them is an access track to properties. As the track continued I did likewise to a T-junction of footpaths. The railway would have continued straight across the cultivated field in front of me, so I rejoined the A339. From there I imagined the 148 setting off from Herriard Station to begin its final run to cinema immortality. By now the lone driver would have stoked up the fires and set off for the crash site, 1½ miles to the south. With aeroplanes towing gliders from nearby Lasham Airfield above, the tiresome road did not make for enjoyable walking but with an image of the 148 puffing frantically over to my right, it was fascinating nonetheless. Middle Common Wood reminded me of the Government’s hare-brained scheme to sell-off woodland to private owners at that time. This insane proposal would have seen 40,000 acres of state owned woodland in England sold to the highest bidders. It was so unpopular David Cameron conveniently distanced himself from it as condemnation poured in from the likes of Annie Lennox, Dame Judi Dench and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Thankfully it was abandoned on Thursday 17th February 2011.
As the A339 straightened and levelled the fields to my left gently rose upwards to Lasham Hill Farm. I was getting close to the point of impact as the line of the railway joined the modern road and I walked along the point where the train came into shot in the film. The bend of the road just ahead was the crash site so I retrieved a more detailed map, some photographs and an information sheet from my pack before reaching the Salters Ash and Spain’s crossing at 3:30pm.
It was hard to compare the landscape in the film to how it looked in 2011, but there was no doubting this was the spot. It seems astonishing to have gone to such lengths but with no CGI or scale models to use, if you wanted a train crash to look realistic in 1928 you had to stage the real thing. On a cold February afternoon in 2011 I stood on the bend of the road where the train derailed and thundered onto its side. Had I stood there 82 years, 5 months and 24 days earlier things might have got a bit messy! After the eponymous Wrecker drove his Foden steam lorry to the crossing at Salters Ash (below) he hightailed it to the bottom right of the screen just as the 148 locomotive came into shot. By the time it collided with the lorry it was travelling at 40 mph, the driver having jumped seconds earlier. Two dummies were left on the footplate for added realism. After the crash and as steam billowed out of the hapless loco, actors assembled to be filmed as survivors emerging from the wreckage. The carriages were old by 1928 standards, usually lit by gas. The gas cylinders were emptied to avoid a fire hazard although afterwards it was decided to set them alight for added effect. Parts of the track were removed to ensure complete derailment. Once the filming was complete 200 railway workers, who had been part of the audience on Lasham Hill, worked overnight to ensure the line was ready for traffic the following day.
It was still bright as the gliders continuing circling so I climbed Lasham Hill to survey what I could of the site. The landscape had hardly changed, perhaps the railway was more raised and the road lower down. I watched the cars speeding round the bend and suspected that none of them knew anything of the history of this spot. One chat forum I read reckoned there was still wreckage to be found but I never looked. A mile further down the A339 was Bentworth & Lasham Station where the final scene was filmed. Just as the hero and his woman embraced, two steam locos drew apart in an act of dramatic licence and, you will be delighted to learn, they all lived happily ever after!