As early as 1844 the Town Council had pointed out the advantages of a railway track linking Lymington to London via Brockenhurst but it was not until 1859 that the Lymington Railway Act was passed.
Although railway mania was waning, local businessmen were still prepared to finance the line and £21000 was raised. Over 4 miles of single track line, 4feet 8inch gauge with three bridges and two level crossings, was constructed by 100 navvies in one year.
The site designated for the station consisted of a deep mill pond and while this was being drained a temporary station was built near Bridge Road. The Town Station with its red, blue and white bricks, three handsome gables and a waiting room for each class of passenger, was opened in 1860.
The first train ran on 9th May,1858 with V.I.Ps and guests scrambling aboard to enjoy the journey via Tuckermill Copse, Passford Water, Milking Pound Bottom and Setley Plain. However, the line had to be strengthened so the official opening was delayed until July 12th.
As there was no turntable to turn round larger locomotives, tank engines such as No.143 Nelson and No. 176 Southampton were used. The journey time to London was cut to four hours and soon the line was included in Bradshaw’s Railway Timetable and the postal distribution map.
One of the first Halts in the country was Shirley Holms which consisted of a short platform with no buildings or staff. It wasn’t on the timetable and there were no tickets. Residents of Boldre and Sway stopped the train by raising their hands.
Excursions became popular especially with the excitement of a ferry trip to the Isle of Wight. However, because of tides, passengers sometimes had to walk from the station to the jetty to be rowed over to the paddle steamer or even had to scramble over vessels bringing in coal and slate. In 1884 the track was extended across the river on a 64m long iron viaduct of ten spans.
Meanwhile, the original station at Brockenhurst had to be demolished to make way for the loop to Sway. A new ticket office was constructed and waiting rooms decorated with photographs donated by Julia Margaret Cameron, a regular traveller. There were now ‘island’ platforms with cattle pens on one side, the Lymington line on the other and a swing bridge for parcel trolleys.
In 1914 the branch line was taken over by the government so that soldiers, Commonwealth casualties and armaments could be conveyed to and from ships on the Solent.
It became part of the Southern Railway in 1923 – a consolidation of numerous small private railways operating across southern England from Kent to Cornwall.
During the General Strike in 1926 Lord Montague of Beaulieu and Major George Cornwallis West of Milford were among those who volunteered to drive the engines.
To cope with holiday traffic in the 1930s Class M7 tank engines were introduced and the Pier was rebuilt to accommodate double-ended car ferries.
Services were again cut back in 1939 and only local people or those with special permits were allowed to travel. The roof over Lymington Station was partially destroyed by bombs and an air-raid shelter was built. As the troops gathered ready for D-day, a senior American officer was so horrified by the meandering single track that he demanded that a new railway should be built in a straight line ‘starting Monday’.
The track remained and, after the war, service was quickly restored though the London trains were limited to ten corridor coaches. Sometimes there was a locomotive at each end saving time by having no need for uncoupling. A scholars’ train conveyed pupils to and from Brockenhurst Grammar School and there was a daily freight train carrying coal, corn, cement, livestock and goods for the shops. In 1956 a Halt was created at Ampress for the benefit of workers at Wellworthy’s factory. The 7.04 from Brockenhurst picked up 200 nightshift workers. This facility ceased in 1989.
Car ownership was increasing and in 1938 the car ferry ‘Lymington’ was introduced to be replaced by ‘Freshwater’ and ‘Farringford’. By 1955, 42,000 cars a year were being carried from Lymington Pier to Yarmouth.
After the War the Southern Railway, along with the other 3 large private railway companies, were nationalised and became part of British Railways. The Lymington Branch continued operation much as it had done before the war – now under public ownership and operated as what was still often called “the Southern”, but now being the “Southern Region” of BR rather than the “Southern Railway”!
The early 1960s was a bad time for railways – but the line obviously survived! The railway saw little modernisation until it was electrified in 1967 as part of a wider scheme to electrify the main line to Bournemouth. This change brought the end of steam operations on the line and introduced the then “modern” Mk 1 carriages. Similar trains continue to operate on the line – partly to make the route more attractive to tourists (this is the only place where they now run) and partly because they can still carry passengers efficiently and in comfort!
In 1992 the viaduct was stabilised with 300 tons of rock – a bit of stability in a changing institutional environment as railways were moved back from public to private sectors.
In 1993 the infrastructure (earthworks, bridges, track, signalling etc) were transferred to Railtrack. This company was then floated on the stock exchange in 1996. Separately, the trains were sold to a rolling stock leasing company and the operation offered to the private sector to run on the basis of a franchise. The franchise was won by Stagecoach who ran the line as part of one of the largest franchises “South West Trains”.
Network Rail did not enjoy a long or particularly happy life and the company was eventually put into Administration and the assets transferred to Network Rail who now own and operate the infrastructure. The trains are still run by Stagecoach who won a second term as franchise operator and will run them until 2017.
In 2004 the track was upgraded and, with an emphasis on conserving the environment, the Lymington to Brockenhurst line became more secure than ever.