The Watercress line is what they call a 'heritage steam railway'. That means it runs steam engines and tries to mimic in as close a detail as possible the great days of the UK steam railways, from about 1923 to 1965. The line runs about 10 miles/16 km through rolling Hampshire countryside. This year (2002) the line celebrates its 25th year of operations.
The Watercress Line is staffed mainly by volunteers. It is run and organised by the Mid-Hants Railway Preservation Group, and among them, is known as the MHR or Mid-Hants Railway. There are a few full-time employees in the administration section and in the workshops, but almost all the operating staff you will meet if you take a ticket on the line give their time for free, and as such, are among the most friendly staff you will meet on a UK railway.
It is unusual for steam railways in that the line is relatively steep. This means the locomotives need to be big and powerful, pumping out large clouds of steam and smoke as they ascend the 1:60 grade from the British Rail station of Alton up to the second station on the line at Medstead. From there, the line runs to Ropley, where there is an engine shed and workshops. The final station on the line is Alresford, where there is a gift shop, cafe and other buildings.
Alresford is a beautiful market town, well worth a few hours' visit. The line takes its name from the traditional industry of growing watercress in special beds fed by trout streams in the town of Alresford.
The Line currently runs about 11 steam locomotives, including a number which relate to the Thomas the Tank Engine books by the Rev. Wilbert Awdry, who lived nearby. Because the line is connected to the National rail network at Alton, it is possible to bring other locomotives onto the line, or to transfer the steam locos onto the main line, in order to get the trains up to a good speed (up to 75 mph) on daylight rail tours.
The line markets itself as a location for film
productions, It has designed its four stations in different styles, with the main station at Alresford decked out in typical pre-war (1923-1947) style, complete with gas light
ing. Ropley is closer to a 1950s branch line
, with a fine garden, topiary
and the engine shed. Medstead and Four Marks is in the same style as Alresford, but is a typical country station, rather than a large town stop. Alton, shared with the modern station also mimics the 1950s period.
The line has appeard in a number of British films and TV programmes, including: