It is difficult for us today to imagine what Salisbury Plain was like in the later years of the nineteenth century, when all but the principal turnpike roads were little more than narrow tracks, dust-bound in summer and a sea of mud in a wet winter, devoid of any human presence except for the occasional shepherd or traveller on foot.
It was against this background, as the Plain was gradually acquired by the Government from 1899 onwards, that troops would leave their train at Porton, the nearest railway station to the ranges, and march to their quarters at Bulford or Larkhill, a distance of up to eight miles.
When reviews of the troops took place up to fifty thousand men would be in the area to take part in the parade, travelling on foot from their assembly point which may have been some miles distant.
The railway companies were not slow to anticipate the potential, and the Great Western Railway promptly put forward an ambitious scheme in 1897 to build a new line from the existing railway at Salisbury through the Avon Valley to stations at Durrington, Netheravon, Enford and Upavon, to connect with its own main line at Pewsey.
This plan was, unfortunately, quickly vetoed by the Army, who were anxious to secure the banks of the Avon for themselves for practice in river-crossing techniques, and the proposed railway would have conflicted with these requirements, this view being subsequently endorsed by the Board of Trade after an appeal.
The War Office did, however, look kindly on a proposal by the London and South-Western Railway to build the ‘Amesbury and Military Camp Light Railway’ from a point near Grateley on their London main line, to Lavington, calling at Shrewton and Tilshead on the way, and this scheme was given full approval.
However, second thoughts quickly caused reservations to be voiced about possible further expansion of Army training land and also the proposed line’s proximity to the monument at Stonehenge. The LSWR, apparently taking umbrage, retorted that it would be too expensive to divert from the planned route to allow for this and it was decided to terminate the line at Amesbury station, where generous facilities were provided, including a turntable, sidings for goods wagons and a stationmaster’s residence with railway workers’ cottages.
The Shrewton extension had already been started, so the now redundant earthworks on the far side of the station were utilised as more sidings, and the railway company received compensation from the taxpayer for its abortive scheme. An alternative scheme by another entrepreneur, namely the Midland and South-Western Junction Railway, for a branch from Ludgershall to Amesbury was effectively suppressed by the LSWR and other interested parties, and the line from Grateley to Amesbury via Newton Tony Junction was opened to traffic in 1902. A particular feature of the new line was Britain’s first installation of automatic signalling on a steam railway.
For the first ten years the line prospered, a burrowing junction being added to the existing connection to the main line in 1904, and an extension to Bulford to serve the village and the military camp was completed in 1906. Bulford station boasted a cattle pen and goods sidings as well as a passing loop and picturesque station buildings, the line continuing on to terminate in Bulford Camp and it was this section that received a visit by the Luftwaffe in July 1940, fortunately with no fatalities.
Meanwhile Boscombe Down had acquired its own siding right into the camp in 1917 which was shortly after the title of Red House Farm Airfield had been dropped and work on the new aerodrome required a direct railway connection. Sadly, this was short-lived, and the railway had gone and the airfield fallen out of use by the early twenties, only the airfield being destined to rise Phoenix-like in later years.
Apart from an upsurge of activity in wartime, the rail traffic through Amesbury eventually started to decline as the years passed, perhaps due to the increasing availability of motor transport on the rapidly improving roads which provided a better alternative to the circuitous rail route to Salisbury. After just over sixty years of service the line finally closed to all traffic in 1963.
Few reminders of the railway survive around Amesbury today, with the notable exception of the reasonably well-preserved bridge that carries the old Marlborough coaching road over the trackbed of the line to the east of the town, and there are also various earthworks in the vicinity. There are more tangible monuments in Amesbury itself, since the solid edifice of the former stationmaster’s house still stands on the old London Road flanked by a neat terrace of railway cottages.
In Bulford village a local landmark is the railway signal standing sentinel at the site of the former station, redeveloped in the sixties by the erstwhile Property Services Agency.