Forest of Dean Central Railway

The Forest of Dean is located in that little triangle of land between the Severn and the Wye as they approach their confluence just north of Bristol. It is stuffed with various natural resources (such as coal, wood, iron and limestone) as well as large animals (deer, boar, sheep and suchlike). It has lots of trees and a reasonably large population living in rather industrial-styled houses sat in the middle of nowhere.

By 1900 this world was linked to the rest of the universe by four railways. The Monmouth Tramroad, later the Great Western Railway's Coleford Branch, ran steeply downhill across the four miles from Coleford to Monmouth. The Lydney and Lydbrook Tramway, which rapidly became the Severn and Wye Railway, presented a fiercely independent network linking the towns of Lydney, Coleford, Lydbrook and Cinderford (remaining independent in spirit even after it sold out to the Great Western and Midland railway companies). The Forest of Dean Tramway ran from the port at Bullo, near Newnham, to Cinderford, becoming the Forest of Dean Railway after takeover by the Great Western and subsequently obtaining an extension out of the northern end of the Forest, the last part of which was never opened.

Suggestions had been made in the early years of the 19th century that this last route, also known as the Bullo Pill Tramroad, should be linked to some mines in the Moseley Green area (between the Severn and Wye and Bullo Pill routes) with the Moseley Green and Tilting Mill Pond Tramroad. This idyllically named little chord, one of the earliest schemes to link the isolated valley of the Blackpool Brook with everywhere else, was regretfully never built. Things might have been rather different if it had been.
Instead, in 1832 a scheme arose to build a tramway from Purton, on the banks of the Severn, through a 600 yard tunnel and into the Forest near Blakeney with a general target of the middle of the Forest via the Blackpool Brook. Construction of the Purton Steam Carriage Road was begun before its Act of Parliament was obtained, with an incline, a viaduct, part of the arrow-straight tunnel under Nibley Hill (west of Blakeney) and the northern end of the Lightmoor branch being completed fairly promptly. The Bill was then postponed after the Severn and Wye and the Forest of Dean Tramway pointed out that they weren't so far apart really and the infrastructure was never used; the incline was swept away by the South Wales Railway, the tunnel has vanished under the A48 and the viaduct and the Lightmoor branch survive. No effort was subsequently made by the two tramways to serve the area which the proposed route had intended to connect to the then-important port of Purton, Gloucestershire, from where a ferry crossed the River Severn to the quay at Purton, Gloucestershire. Nobody even seems to have been very excited about reviving the Moseley Green and Tiliting Mill Pool Tramroad.

DFMU&PR in black, surviving railways in grey, rivers blue, land green.

The next scheme of note to propose running up the valley from Awre was the Dean Forest, Monmouth, Usk and Pontypool Railway - a lengthy, good quality cross-country route which was placed before Parliament in 1845 and promptly rejected. Its aim was to carry iron (and, to a lesser extent, coal) from the Forest to the ironworks at Merthyr Tydfil; other railways would complete the route west of Pontypool. It avoided all the tricky coastal bits of South Wales Railway (past Purton and below Chepstow); they were replaced by a tunnel at Howbeech, lengthy banks up to Coleford and a few nasty bends (none of which really concerned promoters armed with reasonably powerful 50mph locomotives). Unfortunately, like its predecessors, it also involved competing with the Severn and Wye.

After a pause the western half returned as the Coleford, Monmouth, Usk and Pontypool Railway, which shut up the Severn and Wye and allowed the plan to proceed; the easy bit of the route, between Monmouth and Pontypool, was completed in 1857. The Coleford extension was completed to a rather lower quality by the GWR in 1883, while the Severn and Wye upgraded their tramway to provide a similarly tortuous route to Coleford from the Severn and Wye mainline at Parkend. Beyond Parkend, the 1845 scheme proposed a tunnel to pass under a hill to Howbeech, from where the mainline was to continue to Awre, with a branch from Howbeech to Foxes Bridge. 

In due course some local businessmen realised that this valley was not going to get a link provided by outsiders any time soon, so they adopted the section of the scheme which proposed to link Awre with Foxes Bridge and made it the fourth and last railway company to open shop in the Forest. Early financial problems delayed construction, led to the contractor being paid in worthless bits of pink paper which the railway described as its shares and prompted a decision to leave the last 1½ miles up to Foxes Bridge for completion later. Linking Awre Junction with New Fancy Colliery via Blakeney, the new railway was completed at the same time as the Severn and Wye Railway was converted from a tramroad into a proper railway and began to gain from the increase in profits. Its decision to build a new mineral loop, creating a lasso around the centre of the forest, had much the same effect as a lasso when it opened in 1872, pulling all traffic from collieries such as New Fancy towards its port and junction in Lydney. Alas, the new railway never stood a chance. Its pleas to the mighty Great Western Railway to buy or bail it out largely fell on deaf (and broke) ears; by the late 1870s it couldn't afford to print its own accounts and the Great Western was working it on the basis that it was there, so they might as well and might eventually get some money back sometime.

The Central line was eventually absorbed by the Great Western at the Grouping in 1923, demonstrating that several railways which remained independent until then did so because the phrase "damaged goods" was an understatement. By then the Great Western was taking over a line with two miles of operational railway plus a further two miles which pointed, devoid of traffic, into a particularly isolated part of the Forest. Those shareholders who wrote to the GWR after reading an article in the Daily Express about a railway with no owner, enquiring about the possibility that they might get paid something, were told that they should contact the Directors and Officers of the Railway who, the GWR kindly explained, had all resigned some years previously (when it became apparent that the railway couldn't afford to pay them). On Grouping Day the 54-year-old railway, which had been the beneficiary of some £141,000 and had generated a grand total of £32,000 over the years, passed to the GWR free, gratis and for nothing in lieu of monies owed to its new owner. (The Bank of England makes that £12.5million in and £2.7million out; about £50,000 per annum in earnings in modern money.) Its sorry remnants, worked with the aid of a red flag, were treated rather well for a broken freebie and survived until 1949.

The Severn and Wye Railway stands amongst a very small selection of lines which successfully killed a competitor and the grandly named Forest of Dean Central Railway stands as one of an even smaller selection of routes which obediently laid down and died. The rural nature of the area, with minimal need to go to all the trouble of obliterating railway structures to provide room for development, means that the entire route can be followed even now, as seen in the pictures below.

Awre Junction

Looking north-east towards Gloucester, this April 2010 view of Awre Junction signal box and the mainline shows just how much the place has declined - or how little, given that it was never very busy. The station was built for the new line and had platforms on the mainlines with a couple of sidings and loops for shunting branch trains. The branch never carried passenger trains and even at its peak between 1868 and 1872 traffic seems to have run only on alternate days. Most of the sidings were located on the derelict land beyond the signal box with connections to the mainline at each end. The station and the actual divergence of the trackbeds were behind the camera.

The junction remained essentially the same throughout the railway's career, carefully laid out with no facing points on the mainline so trains from both directions had to reverse onto the branch (which helped everyone get used to the idea of going backwards, since there was no loop at Blakeney and so from 1921 all trains had to be pushed up the branch). With the closure of both station and branch in August 1959, the site was cleared of all except the essential 1909-built signal box, required to control the level crossing. In due course, like the rail traffic, the signalling requirements shifted to Lydney and the box has stood derelict next to the former mainline since the 1970s.

Due to the Great Western influence on this area, the South Wales Railway was constructed to the Great Western's very own track gauge of 7'¼". The Forest of Dean Central was also built to this gauge and the main Forest of Dean Railway was converted to it shortly after being acquired by the Great Western. When the Severn and Wye was rebuilt it was also persuaded to lay its track to this gauge. However, standardisation with the rest of the network in 1872 saw these lines all relaid to the normal 4'8½", leaving a legacy of over-wide infrastructure and excess width between the running lines on double track.

Blakeney station

The line then runs attractively up the comparatively wide and open valley to Blakeney, which was the most important intermediate station on the branch. This record was primarily achieved by being the only intermediate station on the branch (the other points of note were mostly just sidings) since Blakeney was not what might be called impressive. As the line was goods-only, things like platforms where unnecessary; since it was only an intermediate stop on a line which was only used by one train per day (three days per week) it had no need for a loop. Thus the trackwork consisted of the main line from Awre to Howbeech, New Fancy and Foxes Bridge (which ran north along the embankment to the right) and a single siding with crane and loading platform (which ran behind the stone building and connected at the Awre, or far, end of the site).

When the line's fortunes went downhill this little site became its northern terminus. In the continuing absence of a loop - the line's long term future was evidently deemed to be bleak even in the 1920s - the locomotive ran around its train at Awre and then propelled it to here. The guards van - generally of the "Toad" variety - would be deposited on the mainline and the wagons pushed into the siding. Various local lorries collected the goods brought up on the train and provided some for the return journey, for which the locomotive would be at the front. The end of the line was denoted by a sleeper tied across the rails on the embankment to the right, which is tradition for doomed lines which aren't likely to be terminating there for much longer.

A maximum speed of 10mph was imposed over the line, probably because this was the maximum for the ascending trains and so only half of the services using the route could go faster in any case. The guard provided warnings to the driver from his van at the front of the train with the aid of a red flag and a horn. After the line fell into disuse it remained in the Western Region's Working Timetable for some years with empty columns and no booked trains. The track was removed in early 1959. The stone building in the centre, now partially hidden behind a tree and seen here looking towards Awre in April 2010, is original.

Blakeney Viaduct

The village was also home to the railway's two main engineering features - a pair of short viaducts with the line's characteristic low arches, rather reminiscent of Brunel's viaduct at Maidenhead. None of the underbridges along the route left all that much headroom, averaging at about 10ft, and consequently only one survives intact. This is the upper one of the Blakeney pair, crossing a local road, the scenic route to Parkend and Coleford, several drives and the local stream. Although the arched sections are intact, the two girder spans over the scenic route and the stream were demolished - along with all of the smaller viaduct, which crossed the A48 Lydney - Gloucester road - in April and May 1959.

The viaduct had not actually been seriously used since a 1921 strike prompted the abandonment of Howbeech Colliery and killed the Blakeney to Howbeech leg of the line. Officially closed in 1932, the track was lifted in 1940, leaving a stub of slightly less than two miles for the occasional freight train. Until then trains could work to Howbeech after a check of the decaying structures to ensure that they would survive the experience.

Blakeney might have survived longer had someone bitten the bullet and provided a passenger service over the stub of the line. A stopping service from Gloucester to Blakeney might not have survived Beeching but would have left the Great Western with something more approaching a legacy for their own line into the Forest. Instead, the last goods train from the well-placed goods yard ran on Friday 29th July 1949 and Blakeney has not seen a train since.

North of Blakeney

Once over the second viaduct the railway passes through a short cutting and then heads up the valley on a hillside ledge. The valley is obediently straight for about quarter of a mile before it twists left and then sharply right. The railway solves this problem by sweeping across the valley and plunging through the hillside in the centre in a deep cutting. With the closure of the line, the cutting has been filled with rubble and is now impossible to spot at its northern end. At the southern end, however, it can be distinguished as the road passes over a deep ravine which is soon blocked by rubble.

The deep cuttings are one of the few things which marks this line out from the other railways in the Dean, which were all built along the routes of earlier tramways and so opted for fairly minimal earthworks, instead utilising steep gradients and sharp bends. This new railway, which does not use a former tramroad as a basis, went for more sweeping curves, high embankments and deep cuttings, although it still ended up with the steep gradients. The Severn and Wye, Forest of Dean Railway and Coleford Branch all opted for tunnels whenever they encountered a hill which they could not easily go around and the Severn and Wye built an impressive viaduct across the valley at Lydbrook. The impressive viaducts on this line were rather low and not exceptionally long; where the line has to cross over the valley in the distance it uses a high embankment. There were no tunnels anywhere along its 6-mile route.

Blackpool Bridge

Two obstructed cuttings and a Forestry Commission-built car park at Wenchford later, the railway crosses its Blackpool Bridge. The Blackpool Brook, winding down from Mallard's Pike, passes under the railway with a culvert which would put some of the Wye Valley Railway's to shame. The railway then crosses the ancient road from Soudley, which had a station on the Forest of Dean Railway. While the low arch - the only complete bridge left on the railway - may be regarded as a bit of an obstruction, it does prevent large vehicles from using this road and at least no longer has a gate under it (one was around in the 1940s, although that may have been the result of Home Guard exuberance). Built with a headroom for which most companies would have opted for a girder construction, the bridge does its best to suggest that the railway that it carried between 1868 and 1921 (about a third of its life to date) is still active. The only thing it lacks is the Railtrack sign warning you that if you hit this bridge the safety of trains may be at stake (a sign which has been affixed to a number of other disused railway bridges) - oh, and an actual railway.

North of here the railway ran up a narrow valley shared with the brook and the road to Parkend. A girder bridge carried it across the road to Parkend with the obligatory minimal clearance, with the result that the bridge is no longer there. The line then wound along the hillside into the Howbeech area, which had quarries, a colliery and some rather nice lengths of stone-lined channel for the Blackpool Brook. At the time of visiting (September 2009) this channel was bone dry, although that may be a seasonal thing. This picture, plus the previous pair, were taken in April 2009.

Howbeech Colliery

Howbeech Colliery was the uppermost of a string of industries in a mile-long belt up the Blackpool Brook valley. With fairly reliable streams to provide power and a railway which initially wanted to go places and which subsequently would almost pay you to provide it with traffic this was a good area to start your heavy industry. Although initially this just provided some additional traffic to supplement what little was being produced by New Fancy, from 1872 the colliery and quarries found themselves as the major source of traffic for the line.

The quarries slowly slipped out over the years - most of them had been quarrying back cutting walls, inferring very light traffic since explosions are normally discouraged around active railway lines for fear of hitting trains or obstructing the running line, so scheduling them tends to be very difficult. The colliery initially featured a shaft below where the photograph was taken from, with the road across the centre running around the outside of the boundary and the railway just beyond that. The rail link to the colliery ran across the road where the people carrier is parked today. A second shaft was sunk behind the brambles and bracken to the right in later years, boosting coal traffic a little. This traffic was dutifully supplied for around 50 years until a miners' strike killed the colliery in 1921, taking the railway north of Blakeney with it.

Howbeech Colliery is not as dead as the railway, however; a drift mine has now been dug below the trackbed towards the older workings. A two-foot gauge line allows mine trucks to be worked around the site. Produce is presumably removed by lorry.

West of Howbeech

Beyond Howbeech, the line had only the briefest of careers. New Fancy colliery was the only development to benefit from the final mile of track, and then only for four years. Like many cuttings along the route, this one is now waterlogged, overgrown and partially filled in. Abandoned even before the final cycle of railways began to open, trains ran out of this end of the cutting, past Mallard's Pike lake and on through the Forest to what had to pass for the terminus. Under the original proposals for the DFMUPR, this photograph would have been taken from the middle of Howbeech Junction, where what was built as the Forest of Dean Central brached off from the mainline onwards towards Parkend, Coleford, Monmouth and Wales.

This impressive cutting is typical of those built for the line - long, deep, slashing through an arm of the hill and in a location where the other Dean railways would have gone around the outside or built a tunnel. The line was clearly intended to last and expensive earthworks were constructed accordingly. The Severn and Wye's general policy of doing things on the cheap won out, however, and this route never even came close to repaying its construction costs. A bridge part-way along this cutting has been demolished and replaced by infill, but a rather impressive culvert (5ft 6in high, about 7ft across and with a nice stone floor) remains at the other end, carrying the Blackpool Brook under the railway. Most of the brook's time around Howbeech Colliery is spent underground.

Mallard's Pike

If one is to turn around from the location from which the picture above was taken and push through a bank of trees, another, drier and more walkable cutting opens up, which carries the line through a hillock adjacent to Mallard's Pike lake and opens out to point across the car park at the trackbed north. Were the line still open, it would now be a minor tourist route - Mallard's Pike is one of the many beauty spots in the Forest (when it isn't raining) with a new "Go Ape!" climbing place and one end of the Forestry Commission's cycle network. Yet this stretch of the line officially closed in 1878, having never seen a passenger train (or indeed the lake, which if the official survey of the line is anything to go by post-dates closure); the only vehicular access is now by car or bicycle. Unlike many stretches of track around the country, it is hard to envisage a scenario for this line which would ensure that it was still operating today.

Mallard's Pike claims that, while both mallards and pike are common in the lake, it is in fact named after Mr. Maller and his turnpike road from Blakeney to Coleford. Turnpikes were good quality roads maintained by charging users a toll for travelling along them and arrived in the 1750s along with the canals and the railways. Initially holding a monopoly on passenger transport, the highly-profitable turnpike network was taken by surprise when the railways realised that they could make some money out of fast passenger trains - and did so. The network was virtually extinct by 1850 although tolls continued to be charged on the Cobb into Porthmadog in North Wales until 2003, when the 10p toll was abolished, taking the associated three-mile tailback into the history books with it. Modern toll roads include several major road bridges and the M6 (Toll) which, despite offering savings of millions of pounds a year by allowing people to dodge the traffic jams in central Birmingham, is used by virtually no-one.

New Fancy Junction

Clambering north from Mallard's Pike, the line featured its final overbridge over a little Forest track, but this has now been demolished, the track straightened and the approach embankments removed. Shortly after we come to one of those little idiosyncrasies of the Forest's rail network - the junction which points in the wrong direction, imposed by the gradient from Mallard's Pike and the following gradient to New Fancy. Trains from Awre arrived on the left-hand path (then a single track railway) and entered the loop/ pair of sidings behind the camera. The train then headed off between the trees along the grassy belt on the right towards New Fancy colliery. Upon their return they simply reversed the process.

This method of working naturally introduced a delay and so, when the Severn and Wye came along, their sweet talking and the offer of access to Lydney Docks seem to have persuaded the colliery management to change haulier. The Severn and Wye Mineral Loop crossed the New Fancy branch on the level, but this seems to have raised few concerns. Arguably the Severn and Wye's methods for working two trains on the unsignalled Mineral Loop (cross fingers and blame the signalman for the inevitable accident) were far more worrying than a minor flat crossing anyway.

This was the quietest of the extremities of the Forest's railways, with no proper roads in the vicinity and the nearest house being located well over a mile away.

Looking north from the same spot, we see the location of the turning sidings. About 300 yards further up the line it crossed one of the many Forest tracks, which is still there today. Barely 50 yards beyond that the Foresty Commission's new road takes a sharp turn to the right, abandoning the trackbed which has brought it from Mallard's Pike. The turn marks the most northerly extent of the intrusion of this Great Western-supported line into the Forest; what extends beyond is a deserted and unused strip of land prepared for rail use but never turned into a railway.

The Forest tracks, some of which have names, are mostly run along very old roads which linked mines, houses and general sections of woodland. This one is unusual in being laid on a railway - the Forest of Dean Railway is mostly derelict or footpaths and the Severn and Wye network has almost entirely been converted into cycleway, except for the bits which the Dean Forest Railway has re-opened. Although the Forest is mostly open access this does not mean that the tracks are actually public roads, being intended purely as bridleways and a means for Forest staff and those who are lucky enough to live at the end of one to get around. As footpaths go they are very good, offering a solid surface which rarely vanishes into a bramble bush or a bog, although one or two of those marked on the current OS Explorer Map of the area (OL14) no longer exist so a compass is still recommended. As cycleways they tend to be rather sore on the bottom due to the uneven surface made of medium-sized stones. As railways they are entirely useless; taking a train along one tends to rapidly lead to a serious accident.

Central Bridge

In a most unusual move, the Severn and Wye actually co-operated when its new mainline was obliged to cross the authorised, if incomplete, Forest of Dean Central Railway. It built three bridges in one embankment - one over a still-unsurfaced Forest road, one over this railway and one over the Blackpool Brook (which came off worst, with an 8-inch high culvert). Unusual in that it rendered unnecessary the railway that it crossed, this structure provided neither company with any particular benefit and when British Rail lifted the track on the Severn and Wye Mineral Loop in the 1950s it took the bridge span with it.

The replacement structure, made entirely of timber resting on the original abutments, was built when the Forestry Commission turned most of the abandoned stretches of the Severn and Wye network into cyclepaths. While the line into Cinderford and the bottom end of the Mineral Loop remain abandoned (the former has too many tracks slashing through the trackbed and the latter passes through a collapsing tunnel), the new transport network has attracted traffic levels far beyond those obtained by the Severn and Wye Railway. Always known as "Central Bridge", this span has even been marked as such on the cycleway leaflets - though few will realise the insignificance of what lies beneath the timber girder.

And so the railway ended. Looking north from the Severn and Wye's overbridge, we see what work took place to extend the railway deeper into the forest before the scheme was abandoned, heading up the valley towards Speech House lake. Strangled by its smaller competitor, the Great Western never ran a revenue earning train under this bridge. The trackbed which was deemed by the Official Survey to have been prepared for use ends at Ash Ride, which is marked by the line of trees across the trackbed in the distance.

This is not the end of the trackbed, although it is beyond the end of the track, so does not constitute the end of the article. As this spot featured one freight-only line crossing another freight-only line, there isn't even the option of returning to civilisation in a railway carriage, which means that you may as well stay on for the last bit. There is a sort of nice feeling about exploring this last stretch of the Forest of Dean Central line because you know that you're seeing as much as anyone ever has seen; nobody was born too late to travel on the "last ever" railtour out here. (Equally it's a rather sad feeling that people went to a lot of effort, spent a lot of money and got nothing for it.) It is hard to take pictures of the line north of here, as it is mostly overgrown with trees and is rather indistinct anyway. In some respects, this means that it is the most fascinating bit to explore. Other people may wish to stick with the bit south of Mallard's Pike. Whatever your view, the only way to get back to Awre from Central Bridge is - and always has been - to walk. Sorry.

For the last mile the trackbed consists of a flattened surface running through the trees (rather literally, as a lot of them grow on it), visible only if you really know what you're looking for. The last level crossing, over Ash Ride and next to a small structure called "Reform Bridge" (which carries a Forest track over Blackpool Brook), is followed by a steadily widening flattened surface with the brook to the left of ascending trains (not that there were any) and a small bank to the right. This then crosses over a very small culvert; the next stream north is obliged to cross the trackbed on the level, and a few yards beyond that the level surface apruptly ends in a two-foot-high bank. The slightly higher land beyond has a more crumpled, natural feel to it for another couple of dozen yards before it rises into the dam of Speech House Lake (which post-dates the proposed route).

Speech House Lake

The Forest's railways crop up occasionally in various television programmes, but the Forest of Dean Central probably scored highest when it appeared in BBC One's show Merlin, which may perhaps make up for the fact that not a frame of footage appears to have been taken of the railway while it was alive. You wouldn't have noticed it, although bits of the filming took place on the proposed route of the trackbed, which ran through the current site of Speech House Lake. The lake initially appeared to have been cast as Lake Avalon, in which role it made some convincing and well-performed appearances across the five series (although arguably the role would have been better filled by the larger Woorgreens Lake, just beyond the top end of the railway, which has reeds, a more obvious island and a rather entertaining backstory). Unfortunately it did not get to reprise its role in the grand finale; another larger expanse of water did the honours. The visible line of the railway ends less inspiringly in a birch wood below the dam at the bottom end.

There were two more level crossings planned in close proximity for Forest tracks; the first over the path now running along the lake's northern shore just in front of the camera and the second over Spruce Ride, just behind the camera. A further level crossing would have been required about quarter of a mile further on. A few traces exist north of the lake, heading up towards Foxes Bridge Colliery, making it just possible to follow the former trackbed for the rest of the way. There is a dry ditch running north from Spruce Ride here which you keep to your right; eventually a second appears on the left about ten feet from the first and this should be kept to the left for the rest of the way, ignoring the first one, which will eventually vanish. Two paths are crossed en route; the first a dozen yards west of a sharp left bend between two tall pine trees and the second at about the same point as the accompanying stream. Eventually what was to be the trackbed will apruptly burst back into the open; the ditch should still be kept to your right as you battle the bracken. An embankment which probably dates back to Purton Steam Carriage Road days crosses the bog; the railway would then have passed under the road and run a few yards through the trees to its northern terminus.

Foxes Bridge

Unfortunately Foxes Bridge was denied the opportunity to be served by all three of the Forest's major rail networks; only the Severn and Wye and the Forest of Dean lines were connected to that particular hole in the ground. It had a beginning not unlike the Forest of Dean Central, going to a great deal of expense and still not getting what it wanted. Initial diggings at a site convenient for the Speech House ended up producing only water, which is available in vast quantities all over the Forest at no immediate expense to anyone and so was of no use to the colliery owners.

The colliery therefore decided to solve the problem by upping sticks and moving lock, stock and barrel to Crabtree Hill, three-quarters of a mile to the north of Speech House. Here they were able to benefit from the much closer proximity of the Severn and Wye Mineral Loop and the Forest of Dean Branch, both of which provided spurs to the colliery. The Forest of Dean Central, meanwhile, found that it had ended up in the paradox of the runner and the tortoise - it was racing up the Forest towards the colliery, which in turn was slowly moving away from the proposed northern terminus - and decided that it couldn't afford the extension north of New Fancy. It might have completed its trackbed later, but events overtook it and the runner had to retire to Blakeney.

Meanwhile the tortoise went the way of most of the Forest's collieries and its only claim to fame now is that it marks the highest point on the main circle of the Forestry Commission's cycle network, which deviates off the Mineral Loop specially. A large isolated overgrown pond, north of the Coleford to Ruspidge road and near the rather larger Woorgreens Lake, now marks the top of Blackpool Brook, the northern end of the line and the original colliery site. If you're lucky, you may be able to get back to Awre from here without having to walk the entire 6¾ mile route again.

An extension was proposed in the 1850s, when the line was still on the drawing board, to continue to serve further collieries in the Forest. The Forest of Dean Central, Lydbrook and Hereford, Ross & Gloucester Junction Railways - perhaps the longest railway name ever proposed - was not actually presented to Parliament and so the five-line network, centred on Cinderford with lines to Foxes Bridge, Lydbrook and the Hereford, Ross & Gloucester Railway, accompanied by three branches of varying lengths, was never built as planned. The Forest of Dean Railway's unopened northern extension settled the Cinderford to Hereford, Ross & Gloucester bit, while the Severn and Wye linked Cinderford with Lydbrook. The Forest of Dean Central never reached Foxes Bridge and there was nothing much to look at there, so that spur around Crabtree Hill was unnecessary and remained unbuilt. Perhaps the proposed network's most notable point was the mile-long Wigpool branch, to diverge from the mainline a mile or so north of Cinderford at the town of Drybrook, which planned to ascend out of the valley on a gradient of 1-in-17.88. At 5.6%, had this rapidly rising spur been built as a road it would have justified a warning sign; unfortunately the Hopton Incline on the Cromford and High Peak Railway in Derbyshire was steeper, at 1-in-14, so it wouldn't have become the steepest length of railway worked by locomotives in Britain. 
There was also an effort to connect the line up to the Severn Railway Bridge and the Forest of Dean Branch by means of two short chords, both of which suffer from straight line syndrome - an interesting condition whereby some speculators decide that a route between point x and point y would be useful and amuse themselves drawing a series of straight lines over the gaps between existing railways. The idea was that it would be possible to get Bristol from Bristol to Hereford and thence to Northern England by a somewhat convoluted route. You head north out of Bristol, cross the Severn Railway Bridge, join the Forest of Dean Central just north of Awre and follow it up to Blackpool Bridge before striking north across country to pick up the Forest of Dean Branch by Blue Rock Tunnel, a mile or so south of Cinderford. The Forest of Dean Branch can then be followed to pick up the Hereford, Ross and Gloucester Railway at Mitcheldean Road; another chord there allows through running to Hereford. If necessary your train can then proceed via various extremely minor lines through Central Wales. The idea was presumably to compete with the dominant and somewhat quicker Midland Railway. The Severn Tunnel killed the grand schemes of this sort in this area by providing the option of using decent double-track railways to get from Bristol to Hereford via South Wales.

It is perhaps more interesting to hypothesise as to what would have happened had the line been built in the 1840s. The basic route would have been very much the same, but if the Coleford, Monmouth, Usk and Pontypool Railway's earthworks are anything to go by then the line would have been set out for double track. Possibly the second line would even have been laid. A passenger service would have been provided, although it is unlikely that it would still be operating today. The 1960s Beeching cuts essentially re-orientated railways in this area to centre on hubs at Cardiff and Bristol with connections to various provincial towns and cities in the area; this route would have been deemed to have been in the business of linking Cardiff with Gloucester and since there was another line which fulfilled that function - the South Wales Railway via Chepstow - this route would have been shut anyway unless Usk, Monmouth, Coleford, Parkend and Blakeney provided a very good case for its survival. As none of these places feature in the Beeching Report, since they had already been stripped of their passenger services, there is no particular reason to believe that this well-aligned, if occasionally steeply-graded, route would have survived to present tourists with its scenic attractions today.

However, the route which became the Forest of Dean Central would probably have been more successful and could have dented the fortunes of the Severn and Wye (which would certainly have never run trains to Coleford). Unfortunately the reality is that none of the Forest's railways were well up in the success ratings and there is little reason to assume that this abortive scheme would have been an exception - unless it managed to market itself as the eastern end of a railway between Swansea and Gloucester avoiding Cardiff and Newport, which might have made it some money.

But we will never know and instead the railway's history has a certain tragi-comic air. Aside from the remains of the route pictured above, the only other surviving bit of the Railway is Milepost 1¼, which Dean Forest Railway has on display at Norchard - and very nice it looks, although a slight error by the company who cast the unusual mileposts means that the railway was recorded on all of them as the "Central Forest of Dean Railway".

It would not be beyond the will of people to re-open this route - it would merely be a question as to whether anyone has the will to do so. Given the fact that the northern terminus would be in the middle of a deep forest well away from population centres, it is likely that the required will is absent. About the only use for it would be if the Dean Forest Railway's expansionists decided to set up a new line linking Blakeney with Mallard's Pike and Speech House Lake. This would be hard put to be as unsuccessful as the original line, although running trains over a stretch of previously-unused trackbed probably doesn't quite constitute preservation. Foxes Bridge would make a nice northern terminus if someone really fancies twisting the line enough to get it up the east side of the lake (the south-east side of the lake is above the surrounding land already so it should be possible to scrape the railway around it and run the first ever train along the trackbed beyond). Unusually, this is a line where reopening it to broad gauge would probably more historically accurate than re-opening it to standard - at least over the top two miles.

Remarkably there appear to be virtually no immovable obstructions apart from an industrial base at Blakeney which could probably be shifted if spoken to particularly nicely with the help of a chequebook. The bridges are all rather low (and so would all need reinstating), which might result in some opposition - particularly with regards to that over the A48 - but are so low that most of the big lorries which might want to bash them would be persuaded not to by the fact that the bridge would be coming straight through their windscreen.

If you want to ask why it should be re-opened, go and sit in the barbecue area at Wenchford on a balmy evening. Imagine a pannier tank with three coaches clanking into a wayside halt built on the current car park. That's why.

Forest of Dean Central Railway

Awre Junction to Foxes Bridge Colliery: Incomplete

Awre Junction to New Fancy Colliery: 1868-1872

Awre Junction to Howbeach Colliery: 1868-1921

Awre Junction to Blakeney: 1868-1949

The background image for this page shows the Forest of Dean Central looking north from its level crossing over the sidings at New Fancy towards the ultimate terminus of the line. The bufferstops were located just where the path turns away and the trackbed beyond there to Foxes Bridge remains unused.

Isolated and quiet, the northern terminus of the line contrasts starkly with the Cinderford terminus of the Severn and Wye and Forest of Dean railways. On a bright sunny day, like the one shown in August 2009, it is a pleasant spot to linger a while on this now rural line. 

Unlike other railways featured on this website, this railway tends to feature only in books, magazines and folios of which it is not the main point of interest. Aside from this webpage, there is an article by noted Forest railway historian Ian Pope in Railway Archive No. 12, a short bit in Middleton Press's Branch Lines around Ross-on-Wye by Vic Mitchell and Keith Smith (don't ask what it has to do with the network around Ross) and a few pages in Forest of Dean Railways - Layouts and Illustrations. This latter describes its history as "probably unique in railway history" and so far we have been unable to think of any examples to contradict this. H.W. Paar devotes two chapters to the line in The Great Western Railway in Dean - A History of the Railways of the Forest of Dean: Part Two (first edition 1965, second edition 1971). Only Paar and Pope manage pictures of the portion of the line beyond Blakeney; Pope has more pictures and maps, but Paar has a gradient profile and a decent bit on the proposed tramroad. The Public Record Office holds the Official Survey of the line under RAIL 274/84; it shares the volume with the Forest of Dean branch from Newnham to Mitcheldean Road, which was also never opened over its entire length (despite being completed). The fact that the two surveys are bound together at least means that you can't get them confused and order the wrong line. They also have the "Absorbtion Papers" (Rail 258/229) which consist of four large bundles of interesting sheets of paper discussing the line's atrocious career. The various aborted schemes can be found at the Gloucestershire Records Office.


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Last modified 15/09/11

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