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Shrewsbury's Abbey Foregate Station
The Potts Line - the railway that wouldn't die
The Potts Line fulfilled the cliche of the English rural branch line, with its slow and unreliable services, collapsing bridges, and most bizarre rolling stock ever seen on a British railway.
The 1860s were part of the golden age of railways, when hundreds of small companies sprung up and built tiny branch lines, backed by private investors speculating in the hope of making a fast buck.
But whoever had the idea of building a railway line connecting Shrewsbury with the small village of Llanymynech, near Oswestry, wasn't a business genius.
Map of the Potts Line
Yet despite this, the Potts Line, as it became known, was used - on and off - for nearly a century before it finally fell into obscurity.
How any of the owners ever expected to make a profit from this venture is a mystery: For a start the line didn't go near any population centres other than Shrewsbury, and its stations were located in the middle of nowhere.
For its whole life the Potts Line teetered on the brink of financial ruin, making the odd trip into the abyss. And the constant battle with the elements, especially the River Severn, didn't help.
Various plans had been considered for a railway between Shrewsbury and Llanymynech, but it was only when the Shrewsbury and North Wales Railway became involved in the 1860s that plans began to take shape.
Kinnerley Station in the 1930s
The venture, funded by the North Staffordshire Railway, created the Potteries, Shrewsbury and North Wales Railway - hence the nickname The Potts Line - with the idea of transporting minerals from Llanymynech, as well as carrying passengers.
Unfortunately, these plans suffered a blow early in the project, when the company was refused permission to run its trains into Shrewsbury General Station: The line would have to work in isolation from the rest of the railway network.
A terminus was built at Abbey Foregate, opposite Shrewsbury's Abbey Church, standing on the site of the former monastery's refectory.
Passengers arriving at the station were greeted by the sight of the 14th Century refectory pulpit, fenced off at the edge of the platform.
Today it and the platform are still there, and the area once occupied by the station is part of a car park.
The double track railway line left Shrewsbury in a south-easterly direction, with a station at West Meole Brace before heading out into the countryside into lightly-populated farm land and land subject to periodic heavy flooding.
Bridge over the River Severn at Shrawardine
Its largest engineering feat was the twin track viaduct over the Severn at Shrawardine.
The line first opened on 13 August 1866 and according to the Shrewsbury Chronicle, large numbers of passengers turned up at Abbey Foregate Station to try out the new service, and got out at the other end determined to explore Llanymynech.
Many walked up Llanymynech Hill, but others 'sought sport in the River Vyrnwy, as well-filled baskets testified'.
Unfortunately for the Shrewsbury and North Wales Railway, the novelty wore off quickly, and passengers numbers soon dwindled.
Within a few months of opening, the railway was in deep financial trouble.
Debt collectors turned up at Abbey Foregate and seized a train. After rapid negotiations the train was allowed to leave, but only with a bailiff on board.
Llanymynech station circa 1910
After sitting in a stationary coach for a few minutes, the bailiff stuck his head out of the window - to see the rest of the train disappear into the distance! He was later told a coupling chain had broken by accident, leaving his coach behind. A likely tale?
The company's finances went from bad to worse, and on 21 December 1866, all services on the railway line ceased, while some of its assets were sold off.
It was another two years before a train ran on the line again but services had to be reduced even further and the railway made into a single line, to cut running costs.
Despite these economies, the company still found the cash to build a new branch line from Kinnerley to Criggion, with the aim of picking up revenue by transporting stone from the quarry at the foot of the Breiddon Hills.
It was also intended to carry passengers, but most would find the facilities even more primitive, to say the least. With the exception of Melverley, which had what closely resembled a brick-built shed, the rest of the stations were initially wooden, and even had timber platforms.
Viaduct at Melverley - now a road bridge
The branch also presented another major engineering problem with a crossing of the Severn at Melverley. A wooden viaduct was built across the river, but even when it was new it was described as 'rickety'! That didn't deter the villagers of Crew Green and Melverley, divided by the Severn, who crossed the narrow bridge on foot - when there wasn't a train coming.
While the branch at Criggion was opened in 1871, a second branch was added between Llanymynech and Nantmawr the following year. This branch, which crossed the Cambrian Railway Company's tracks at Llanymynech, allowed the Potts Line to take on extra freight traffic - limestone from the quarries at Nantmawr.
But despite the extra revenue, the Potteries, Shrewsbury and North Wales Railway continued to deteriorate. All possible economies were made and fares were even cut to encourage more passengers, but to no avail.
In 1877 the company went into receivership. By 1880 the condition of the track had become so poor that a 25mph speed limit was imposed right along the line. Later that year the line closed altogether.
The Oswestry-based Cambrian Railway Company bought the section of the line between Llanymynech and the quarries at Nantmawr, re-opening it in 1886.
The rest of the line remained dormant until 1890, when a new company called Shropshire Railways took over the line between Llanymynech and Shrewsbury, relaying the track. Unfortunately the cost of these line repairs ate up most of the new company's budget and it went into receivership shortly after re-opening the line.
For the third time in its short history, the owners of the Potts Line had gone bust, and it was to be another 17 years before trains ran along it again.
All but abandoned, the station buildings and other structures, which hadn't been in the best condition anyway, deteriorated still further, and in 1902 the wooden viaduct over the Severn at Melverley collapsed into the river.
The Colonel rides to the rescue
As the new century dawned, the derelict railway began to attract the attention of an eccentric railway baron - the inimitable Colonel Stephens.
Colonel Stephens was the king of the light railway: During his life he either built or was associated with 16 of them.
Using second hand rolling stock, he built an empire that included two lines in Shropshire: The narrow gauge mineral railway linking the mine at Snailbeach with Pontesbury, which he took over in 1923, and the Potts Line.
With the backing of local councils, Stephens formed the Shropshire and Montgomeryshire Light Railway company in 1907, and work began to clear the overgrown track.
Once again the sleepers were replaced, the Melverley Viaduct was rebuilt and the line re-opened on April 13, 1911.
But the newly-re-opened railway was hardly a success story.
'The Coffee Pot'
Traffic remained at a low level - hardly surprising given the fact that the stations were miles from anywhere, but Stephens was at least able to keep costs low with his collection of bizarre second-hand locomotives and carriages.
The strangest of all was called Gazelle, although its nickname, 'the Coffee Pot' was more descriptive. It is believed to have been the smallest locomotive ever operated on a standard gauge railway in Britain.
Shrewsbury's Abbey Foregate Station was the only one on the line to have a ladies' toilets. If you were a male traveller, you had to cross your legs for the duration of your journey. Luckily, there were plenty of scheduled and unscheduled stops, which allowed the men to hop off the train and nip into the bushes!
Experimental rolling stock was the norm for the Potts Line. Economies in the 1920s saw the introduction of Ford railcars. These railcars, designed for use in city streets, were deeply unpopular with passengers because of the noise made by the pressed steel wheels.
While the Ford railcars left passengers with a ringing in the ears, they must have been terrified by the double-decker tramcar that Stephens bought on the cheap from London County Council.
Originally meant to be drawn by a pair of horses, it was adapted to be used behind Gazelle by ripping out the top deck and the stairs!
Carriage - originally a horse-drawn tramcar!
The seats from the top deck found another use - as platform seats on the line's stations.
Ten months after the main Potts Line re-opened, the branch to Criggion saw its first trains in 22 years. Freight trains came first in February 1912, and six months later, the first passengers were carried.
In the coming years the line to Criggion became a part of Britain's emerging tourist industry. Walkers from the Shrewsbury area used the line to travel to Criggion and then hike up the nearby Breiddon Hills.
Locals still remember a turntable in the field beyond the station, and that in the 1920s and 30s, huts were arranged around it with basic sleeping facilities for the walkers.
Money became tighter than ever in the 1920s as the line struggled to keep going.
On the Potts Line, all passenger traffic on the Criggion branch line ceased beyond Melverley, because once again the viaduct was inspected and considered unsafe.
The line closed completely in November 1933, but then war broke out and everything changed.
For King and country
German bombers ranged over Shropshire on their way to drop their deadly loads over Manchester and Liverpool.
Britain became a vast military base, and suddenly it became hugely important to find secret places to store military materials - to protect them from enemy air raids.
In June 1941, the War Department (today's Ministry of Defence) requisitioned the line from Shrewsbury to Llanymynech, and established a vast ammunition storage dump at a secret depot in Kinnerley.
Ammunition storage building at Kinnerley
More than 200 huge storage sheds, camouflaged and decked out with turfed roofs, were built around the village of Kinnerley. Each was served by a railway siding.
The line, with all its new installations, was busier during the war years than it had ever been. Before long, as many as 12 locomotives - including the Gazelle 'Coffee Pot' - were in steam at the same time.
Nissen huts sprang up like mushrooms and the area was crawling with khaki-clad servicemen as the depot grew. The Royal Engineers relaid the line yet again, only this time they used concrete sleepers instead of wooden ones.
The War Department spared no expense in maintaining the line and its structures. It improved facilities all along the line, including building major new sidings at Hookagate, where the Potts Line joined the main line from Shrewsbury to Welshpool, and completely rebuilding the viaduct across the Severn at Shrawardine.
All this renewed activity on the main part of the line allowed stone to be carried from Criggion again, although Melverley viaduct was yet again declared unsafe in 1945.
Only trains hauled by Shrewsbury-built Sentinel light locomotives were allowed to use the line until the bridge was rebuilt in 1947 by the Great Western Railway. This is the bridge that remains today.
Shortly after the end of the war, the Severn floods were so bad they reached the top of the embankment at Shrawardine, and a bridge over a stream at Maesbrook was washed away, stranding a locomotive at Llanymynech.
In 1959 the War Department closed its last depot and stone traffic by rail from the Criggion quarry ceased.
The following year the line was returned to civilian status, to be operated by British Railways. But the writing was on the wall for the branch line and operations were run down.
The last scheduled train from Shrewsbury to Llanymynech ran on 26 February 1960 and three days later the line closed.
The Potts Line today
In the same year, BR removed all the track apart from sidings at Shrewsbury and today little remains of the Potts Line.
The site of Llanymynech station is now a coal yard and the station at Criggion is split into two houses. One owner tells the story of how a section of rail measuring more than 20 feet was found buried in his garden.
The supposedly last piece of Potts Line rail
The offending piece of rail was placed on the grass verge outside the village church, where it still remains - the last piece of rail from the Potts line!
Apart from here, hardly anything remains of the Criggion branch line, and the stations at Llandrinio Road and Crew Green, which had wooden platforms, are completely gone.
The most substantial remains of the Potts Line are at Kinnerley, where most of the ammunition storage buildings - and even the rails running through them - still survive as shelters for livestock.
There are also considerable remains of the Potts Line in and around Shrewsbury, especially at Abbey Foregate station.
Much of the trackbed was used as the base for Shrewsbury's inner ring road, called Old Potts Way.
The platforms are still there, and an attempt to demolish the Potts Line station building, was eventually turned down by the local council in 2003.
There are now plans to turn it into a railway heritage centre. In October 2008, Shrewsbury and Atcham Borough Council pledged £113,000 to help build the centre.
The Shrewsbury Railway Heritage Trust has applied for match-funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. If successful, Trust Director Russell Mulford said: "Work on the new building will start in the new year."
last updated: 10/10/2008 at 16:16