13 Jul THE DOWDESWELL VIADUCT
As you leave Cheltenham on the A40 towards Oxford the road climbs through Charlton Kings village to the reservoir at Dowdeswell on the left. On the right hand side of the road is a turning for Dowdeswell Village.
When I was young in the late 50’s, there was a fifteen arch viaduct, which carried the Cheltenham to Kingham railway branch line, bridging the gap across the turning to the village.
St James’ station was the magnificent terminus building in Cheltenham town centre it was built in the late 19th century and the line opened in 1891. Like all Victorian constructions it was a work of art, over engineered and strongly built to last for hundreds of years.
My father worked for British Railways as a signalman on that line, based at various stations in the Cotswolds. He had a motorcycle and sometimes in the school holidays he would take me to work with him. On the way we would stop in the lay-by at the reservoir, taking in the breathtaking views of the beautiful blooming purple Oleander bushes which filled the surrounding banks.
On the other side was the viaduct and we would sit and wait until a train went past. Smoke steam and sparks flew into the air as the small side tank engine struggled to climb the rise, its three carriages full of country folk trailing behind it. Disappearing into the short tunnel a hundred yards or soup the line.
That was our cue to carry on to Andoversford station where we would meet the train. Dad would chat to the driver and fireman and I would eagerly climb into the cab and inspect the gauges and dials and all the highly polished brassware.
All topped up with water, the train was ready to continue. I would give two short blows of its whistle then jump down from the cab. My Dad pulled the lever that raised the signal and off it would go into the Cotswolds, a beautiful and golden age.
The infamous ‘Beeching Axe’ of the early sixties marked the end of this branch line as the railway system was ‘streamlined’ to be more efficient and cost effective.
My father gave up his job and went to work in a factory and the line was dismantled, local bridges were removed and stations and land were sold for housing developments and farming.
By this time I was a teenager and had a motorcycle of my own so I was able to go where I wanted when I wanted. That’s how I found myself at Dowdeswell in the same lay-by that I had shared with my father, on a summer morning in 1967. The weather was bright sunny and warm. Moorhens and grebe were floating on the water and there was not a breath of wind. Bees were busily collecting nectar from the myriad of flowers on the Oleander bushes around the water’s edge.
Suddenly a siren sounded shattering the tranquillity men in high visability jackets and safety helmets ran across the road to join the crowd in the lay-by.
“Five, Four, Three, Two, ONE!!” a split second and BOOM! The viaduct was enshrouded in dust then as if in slow motion it began to progressively collapse, until finally it was down.
The moorhens and grebe took off in panic and the shock wave from the explosion blew through the bushes and trees scattering birds. bees and other insects into the air.
That once glamorous piece of architecture, with all the memories of the steam age that carried people from villages in the Cotswolds into Cheltenham for shopping and business or maybe just to visit relatives was gone. Demolished to enable the A40 to be widened to cope with the rising numbers of big lorries and traffic. People started to applaud the operation which had gone so perfectly. I turned away, started my bike and rode back home with a heavy heart that part of my childhood was gone for ever.
654 words Michael White 2020