The news that the threatened Colne Valley Railway at Castle Hedingham now seems to have a more secure future is good news for two fundamental reasons.
Firstly, it’s good news for all those involved with the creation and development of the railway over the past 40 years. And secondly, it’s good news in that it ensures the survival of a stretch of Britain’s historically more independent railways.
The origins of the Colne Valley Railway date back to the 1840s and the Colchester, Stour Valley, Sudbury & Halstead Railway Co Ltd. This railway was authorised on 26 June 1846 with plans to construct 34¾ miles of line linking Colchester with Cambridge. Initially, only the section from Colchester to Sudbury was approved. On 8 June 1847 the line from Sudbury to Clare was authorised as was the branch from Long Melford to Bury St Edmunds. The 1847 Act also authorised the lease of the new line to the Ipswich & Bury St Edmunds Railway (and thus to the Eastern Union Railway which took over the Ipswich & Bury St Edmunds Railway following an Act of 9 July 1847). In the post-Railway Mania era, funding for projects became more difficult, with the result that initially the line opened from Marks Tey to Sudbury and from Colchester to Hythe on 2 July 1849 (between Marks Tey and Colchester the line was owned by the Eastern Counties Railway, which effectively took over the working of the Eastern Union Railway on 1 January 1854). The line was completed between Cambridge and Haverhill on 1 June 1865 and between Sudbury and Haverhill and between Long Melford and Bury St Edmunds on 9 August 1865.
The Stour Valley route, however, bypassed settlements along the Colne Valley between Haverhill and Wakes Colne with the result that in 1856 the independent Colne Valley & Halstead Railway Co was established to built a six-mile line between Chappel & Wakes Colne, on the line between Sudbury and Marks Tey, and Halstead. This route was opened on 16 April 1860. By this date, however, a further western extension had been authorised. Approved on 13 August 1859, this 13-mile extension was designed to head through Castle Hedingham and terminate at a station in Haverhill to the south of the station proposed on the Stour Valley line.
The new line opened in three stages: from Halstead to Castle Hedingham on 1 July 1861; from Castle Hedingham to Yeldham on 26 May 1862; and from Yeldham to Haverhill on 10 May 1863. The Colne Valley & Halstead thus opened its station in Haverhill two years prior to that on the Stour Valley line. Once the latter was completed, a physical connection between the two lines was also constructed.
Although there was an agreement with the Great Eastern Railway, the company that came to control most of the surrounding lines including that through the Stour Valley, that the larger company should take over the Colne Valley’s operation, this was never promulgated and the Colne Valley continued its independent existence. Times were, however, hard and the line was operated under the aegis of the official receiver between 1874 and 1885.
In 1910 the Colne Valley operated a relatively sparse service. There was a weekday departure from Chappel that went only as far as Sible & Castle Hedingham that departed at 9.25am (which went through Haverhill on Mondays and Saturdays). There were four through services to Haverhill on all other working days with an additional two down services on Saturdays. In the up direction there was the 8.3am service from Sible & Castle Hedingham (which started from Haverhill on Mondays and Saturdays at 7.38am) and three other services on other weekdays and five on Saturdays. There were two workings in each direction on Sundays.
The Colne Valley & Halstead Railway’s independent existence ended at the Grouping in 1923, when it came part of the London & North Eastern Railway. With the Grouping, the need for two independent stations in Haverhill ceased, and the Colne Valley station closed on 14 July 1924 with all passenger services transferred to the ex-Stour Valley station, known as Haverhill North from 1 July 1923. The ex-Colne Valley station remained open, however, for freight traffic until 19 April 1965. By 1947, the passenger service had been reduced; in the LNER’s penultimate timetable, although the Sunday service still showed two workings, the weekday service had been reduced to four in the down direction (five on Saturdays) and that in the up to four only. Nationalisation in 1948 saw the line pass to British Railways (Eastern Region).
Passenger services over the line were withdrawn on 30 December 1961, at which stage the line between the junction with the link to the Stour Valley line at Haverhill and Yeldham was to close completely. The section from Yeldham to Halstead closed completely on 28 December 1964 and the section from Halstead to Chappel & Wakes Colne on 19 April 1965 (at the same time as the link between Haverhill North and Haverhill South also closed). Thus the Colne Valley & Halstead Railway came to a close having just made its century. This was not, however, to be the end of the story.
Preservation started in 1973 when a lease was obtained from Hedingham Castle Estate for a short stretch of trackbed about one mile to the west of the site of the original Sible & Castle Hedingham station. The Colne Valley Railway Preservation Society was established the following year.
In order to construct a station, the original station at Sible & Castle Hedingham was dismantled brick-by-brick. Each brick was then carefully numbered prior to the structure being rebuilt on the new site. The wooden section of the signalbox came from Cressing; this was originally a Great Eastern box that served Cressing station on the line from Braintree to Witham. It was transferred to the Colne Valley Railway in the late 1970s and rebuilt on a new brick base. The bridge over the River Colne was salvaged from Earls Colne, to the east, and installed in 1982. In all the Colne Valley Railway now operates over one mile of track.
The threat to the existence of the preserved railway came in the guise of Christopher Young, an Australian businessman who had acquired Castle Hedingham Estate. With the railway still operating under a lease, it had looked at the possibility of trying to purchase the freehold of the site. In a twist, however, in the spring of 2015, the railway was given notice to cease operations on the site by 31 December 2015 and vacate the property. Mr Young had decided to seek to redevelop the site for housing and this forced the railway into seeking to relocate with a number of options being investigated. Earlier this week, it was announced that Mr Young had agreed to sell the land currently occupied by the railway to the Colne Valley Railway, thus ensuring the survival of this small part of Britain’s railway heritage.