With running powers over the GWR section from Gloucester, the Midland Railway achieved a stable route from Birmingham to Bristol. Its search for further expansion brought proposals for a line from Yate to Thornbury (opened 2nd September 1872) and a branch from Mangotsfield to Bath which received Parliamentary approval in July 1864.
Contracts were let for the new branch line with Messrs. Eckersley and Bayliss of Westminster building the line, a Mr Robertson of Bristol building the roadside stations and the Derby firm of Handyside being responsible for the wrought iron bridges.
With work completed, including what the Bath Chronicle records as “engineering features of considerable interest … and cuttings … long and deep”, the line was officially opened on Wednesday 4th August 1869. For the day of the opening no special celebrations were arranged but at Bath station many local people had come for the thrill of riding on the first train. This was headed by a “powerful engine” with nine carriages (of which four were third class). The initial level of service provided for nine trains each way between Bristol and Bath.
Description of the Line
The Bath branch ran from the junction at Mangotsfield south-east through Warmley, swinging south-west to Oldland and then south east again to cross the Rivers Boyd and Avon beyond Bitton at Saltford. Continuing alongside the Avon, past Kelston Park, the line had to cross the river a further four times before terminating in Bath on the north bank.
From Mangotsfield the Bath branch curved sharply southwards and joined the third side of the triangle, which permitted through running from Bath to Gloucester. Between there and Warmley was the site of the Avon Tramway, which opened in 1832, was horse worked and connected Coal Pit Heath with the Avon at Bitton.
Warmley had a short platform and timber buildings and the yard was red from ochre which was mined locally and sent to paint factories. The 1 in 121 descent from Mangotsfield leveled out here, but the line soon fell again, at 1 in 204, south-west to Oldland Common (the site of the current northern terminus of the Avon Valley Railway). This station, opened in 1935, had a timber platform with corrugated iron shelters and no signalbox. The branch descended from Oldland Common at 1 in 706, shortly steepening to 1 in 121. Just north of Bitton Station the line passed through a deep rock cutting. The pennant rock from this area yielded the fine building stone for most of the bridges. Nearly 250,000 cu yds had to be excavated. Also, in the cutting, the line ran over the former tramway tunnel which when bored was unlined, but was later lined for 90 ft by the Midland to bear the weight of the branch.
Bitton station, (the current headquarters of the Avon Valley Railway) is built out of local stone and is formed of two pavilions, whilst in the recess between these two is a pierced iron canopy support. The building is not symmetrical as it originally had an additional office at the north end. The up platform had a stone built waiting shelter, cruciform in plan.
The goods yard on the down side had four roads and contained a single road goods shed and weigh bridge. From the goods yard Bitton dispatched paper to London from the Golden Valley Paper Mills, soda from the works at Keynsham and yellow ochre also from Golden Valley; coal merchants distributed coal from the station and local growers sent flowers and vegetables to the Bristol market.
At the beginning of the twentieth century work at Bitton was indeed hard, shifts of twelve hours starting for the early turn at 7.30 am and at 10 am for the late turn. In addition to the Station Master there was a station porter, porter/signalman, junior porter, two signalmen, clerks and junior clerks, the latter earned around 8s 9d (44p) per week.
South of Bitton Station the line is carried on an embankment 1¼ miles long containing nearly 400,000 cu yds of earth. The River Boyd is crossed by a stone bridge of three arches, followed by a longer bridge over the River Avon into Bath & North East Somerset. (At this point the Avon Valley Railway has constructed a new station “Avon Riverside”).
Kelston Station was opened on 1st December 1869, and closed on 1st January 1949. It was nearer to Saltford than to Kelston, which is three-quarters of a mile away and reached by a path, there being no road access. Only its use by anglers kept the station open for this long; as it was, it was latterly only a halt. Its signals, not regularly used, were to stop expresses for the local squire, a condition under which the station was constructed. Until about 1930 race trains from the north used to stop at Kelston and many passengers alighted and walked to Lansdown racecourse instead of continuing to Bath and reaching the course thence by other means of transport.
The Western Region main line can be seen on the other side of the River Avon and both lines run parallel to Bath. Under the Bath replanning scheme a connection was to be made across the meadows at this point and all Bath passenger traffic was to be handled at a new station near Bath West Goods Depot. An earlier proposal envisaged a cut-off from Kelston, going through the hills to the Somerset & Dorset line near Wellow.
Following the completion of the branch to Bath there were two more line extensions which were to have an influence on the service through Bitton:
The first was when the Somerset and Dorset Railway opened their northern extension from Evercreech Junction to Bath on 20th July 1874, to a junction with the Midland Railway half a mile from Bath station. Running powers were granted to the S & D over the last portion into Bath and the effect was to open up a through route from the north and midlands to Bournemouth and the south coast via links with the London & South Western Railway. Having a regular service into Bristol, Bitton Station now lay on a major through north-south route from the industrial centres of the north to the south coast and carried both heavy freight and thousands of holiday makers, with two of the four daily trains conveying through vehicles from Birmingham to Bournemouth.
As early as the 1880s six daily north-south through trains had been introduced via Bath and, on 1st October 1910, a Manchester to Bournemouth and return service was introduced. This was the forerunner of the famous ‘Pines Express’.
During the period 1933 to 1939 the whole of the line was upgraded to take the heavier axle loads of the larger locomotives then being built by the London Midland & Scottish Railways for express and freight traffic; including the practice of turning loco’s five at a time at Mangotsfield when Bath turn table was out of action. This practice produced the heaviest loadings possible on the embankments and bridges.
The line continued to flourish until the 1950s when cheaper road transport meant that the line was used less frequently – until in July 1965 Bitton Yard was closed and notice of closure for the withdrawal of passenger services declared 3rd January 1966 as the fateful day. Difficulties with the replacement bus service delayed matters until 7th March 1966. Coal traffic to Bath Gas Works continued until July 1971, after which time the line was not used by any regular traffic. Track lifting for the now utterly defunct branch line began on 8th May 1972, the gang reaching Bitton and removing the track there on 30th May. Oldland lost its metals on 1st June 1972 and by the end of the month, the entire line had gone. A chapter in history had closed.
History of the Avon Valley Railway
In 1972 a group of local people with the then local MP Robert Adley set up “The Bristol Suburban Railway Society” based at Bitton Station with the sole aim “To acquire and re-open for commuter and weekend steam use the Bristol-Mangotsfield-Bath and Mangotsfield-Yate Railway route”.
The “Society” leased from British Rail Property Board the Bitton station area only from 1972 to 1977, then leased the whole of the area from the A431 bridge northwards to the line of the dramway tunnel from the 11th March 1977.
On 15th October 1979 the Bristol Suburban Railway Society was incorporated into the Bitton Railway Co. Ltd., a company limited by guarantee and not having a share capital. The object of the company is to “preserve, operate and exhibit for the public benefit, for educational and instructional purposes, and to stimulate and encourage interest in all kinds of railway transportation systems, vehicles and equipment and to foster and support railway preservation”.