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     The 22½ mile Meon Valley Railway in Hampshire 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 D-Day role 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 building was used for planning and discussions and 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 was down to harsh economics and had little to do with the Beeching closures. The last train to run down the entire length on 6th February 1955 was aptly named the 'Hampshireman.' The last remaining section of track was lifted in 1975 between Wickham and Droxford and what remained of the line 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 section 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’ 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 over a January or February of these past two decades, chances are you have passed me at some point.

   

     I have walked the whole line from Wickham to West Meon and back (sometimes the other way round) 50 times now. This doesn’t include 10 part-walks plus a film I made with a friend in 2010, excerpts of this can be seen on the ‘Videos’ page. I have also explored what little remains of the line between West Meon and Alton. In almost every instance the railway line was walked in the months of January, February or March except for 2001 because of Foot-and-Mouth when I was ill with the disease for months! So "why oh why oh why keep walking up and down this line year in, year out?" That is the question on everybody’s lips. "It can’t be because you enjoy it, surely?' I also hear you ask. (All these voices in my head, it can't be normal!) 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 when I go walking, it’s not about the walking. Quite often I find it contemplative to go with no maps, stiles or planning involved... all I need do is turn up and go, close my eyes and walk, though I do bump into a lot of trees doing that. I also like to keep an eye on the line, check all is well and 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 the past twenty-seven 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. Most times it is my first walk of the year and helps to blows 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, especially after a few months hiatus following the clock change in October. The Meon Valley Railway gets me out and 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 lack of foliage on the trees enables better visibility and the lack of people. Although it is a lot muddier this time of year, I find more of the line can be enjoyed in relative solitude. In winter the River Meon is more excitable with the heavier rainfall and can often be seen full to overflowing.

   
   

     Over the past few summers the owners of Droxford Station open up the gardens of the old station and goods yard to the public in July. This charity event is a unique opportunity for a closer look at this place, its history and associations with D-Day. When walking the line in February 2016 I noticed some of the most significant changes in recent years, the mostably the clearances, not the enforced displacement of tenant farmers in the Scottish Highlands, but of wood and trees perceived as dangerous. It included line resurfacing with significant improvements, even on a soggy January day. As well as the remains of West Meon Station, the work opened up a lot of the old line. I could see after my January 2018 visit those improvements are continuing with detailed information boards and a grassed area on West Meon Station. 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 once again reminded of the most significant 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 the UK's most common raptor.

     
     

Reader Comments (1)

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 on Wednesday, February 21, 2018

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