A fictitious history



Coleston is a small town between Swindon and Didcot, in the Vale of The White Horse, on the London to Bristol main line of the former Great Western Railway. The Coles family, after which the town was named, have been local landowners for centuries. General Sir Percival Coles fought alongside John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, at Blenheim in 1704, and was rewarded for his bravery and loyalty by being granted the estate of Critchill, on Lambourn Chase in Berkshire, a few miles to the south east of the town. Sir Percival was also given the title Earl of Uffington, and began to develop the Critchill estate by demolishing the old Critchill Grange, and building a splendid new house in its place. Critchill flourished in the subsequent hundred years, and with new land purchases along the way, the estate grew to cover many thousands of acres by the early 19th century.

With the coming of the "railway age", the 4th Earl, keeping with family tradition and also being named Percival, became a board member of the nascent Great Western Railway, and subsequently lobbied to have built, not only a station at Coleston, but a branch line up to Critchill, to serve his new racehorse stud, and the villages of Egford, Selwood and Vallis, for the use of the numerous workers, tenants and communities that had grown up around his estate.

Coleston, and the branch to Critchill, was built to Brunel's broad gauge, and the section through the town, with its high stone retaining wall on one side, and Victoria Park on the other, was modelled on that which ran through Sydney Gardens in Bath. The formation was subsequently re-laid to standard gauge, along with the rest of the London to Bristol main line in the late 1800s. With the steady increase in traffic during the early years of the 20th century, which continued through the Great War, plans were drawn up to increase line capacity by quadrupling parts of the Didcot to Swindon section of the main line.  Coleston station was used as something of an experiment, and was rebuilt with platform bays and through centre roads around the time of the Grouping in 1923.  Other stations on the line, Wantage Road, Challow and Shrivenham were similarly treated in 1932/3 as part of a government-sponsored scheme to aid high unemployment during the depression.  Coleston, being the first station modified, kept its ornate lattice footbridge, it being simply extended to span the new four-track formation. Other stations along the line, which were also remodelled this way, had the more austere-looking plate-girder style footbridges installed.  Due to space restrictions, the moving of the "up" platform back into what was formerly the goods yard, meant the latter had to be made smaller, and one consequence of this was the loss of the cattle dock.

The line runs under the main A4 road, and immediately over a disused canal. The landlord of the Barge Inn on its banks, has converted an old narrow boat into a restaurant and permanently moored it by the entrance to a lock. Together with its beer garden, it makes a very pleasing area from which to view trains running along a ledge cut into the chalk hills above the pub. We now pass the engine shed on the right, whilst on the left, at the edge of a field, is a World War Two pill-box, which is a favourite place for train spotters, with its commanding view of the shed and the main line. After passing Coleston signal box (with railway workers' allotments behind), which is worked today by yours truly (with West Highland White Terrier "Jenni" keeping guard outside on the veranda) the formation then opens out to four tracks as it passes through the station. Under the Oxford Road bridge, which leads to the town centre, the line then eases around a curve, through the picturesque Victoria Park, and into the short Castle Hill tunnel (the castle being no more - it having been destroyed during the Civil War), to carry on its way west.

Now in the early 1960s, and although still busy, the writing seems on the wall for Coleston, and indeed all the small stations along the London to Bristol main line, as the railway is out of favour with modern government, who seem to be under the influence of the powerful road lobby - the 8th Earl apparently powerless to prevent the winds of change blowing through his town. However, before the inevitable finally happens, we are treated to the last throws of Great Western steam power, including 'Castles' and 'Kings', alongside examples of the new diesel age - 'Westerns', 'Warships' and 'Hymeks' - not to mention the new pride of the line, the Blue Pullman.


Back to Coleston introduction page

Back to web site home page