The Severn Beach line is a railway oddity. It's named after a terminus most of its trains don't reach. It's narrowly escaped closure on more than one occasion and is now mostly single track. It runs alongside both the River Avon and the River Severn. It was also once described by a tour company as one of the world's most scenic railway lines, which I must say piqued my interest but turned out to be an entirely ridiculous claim. Unless you like rooftops, tunnels, mud, dockyards and estuarine bleakness, that is, in which case it might be perfectly up your street.
Bristol Temple Meads is the station to begin at, if you're interested, with services departing every 40 minutes. Trains head north into the suburbs of the city, offering extensive views across a dense residential roofscape, before eventually bearing off from the mainline. A steady climb pauses at several suburbs fortunate to have their own station, many brightened with top class street art, by which point the panorama is mostly the interior of a cutting.
Clifton Down is the busiest station along the line, conveniently located for the zoo if not the posh bit and suspension bridge. And then a mile long tunnel descends back to river level, hewn through the rock at enormous expense in the 1870s to connect with the Port of Bristol beyond. No politician would ever agree to such a plan today.
The railway emerges at the end of the Avon Gorge, beside a brimming river or a muddy channel with a less thrilling trickle, depending on the tides. The railway follows the meanders of the river, generally too well screened by trees for a good look, perhaps overtaking traffic queueing on the parallel Portway. There are intermediate stops at Sea Mills and Shirehampton, with plans for a third just beyond, although as yet no visible signs to make a 2019 opening date look credible. Here the M5 whooshes overhead on stilts (this the final bridge over the Avon), and then the industry begins, screening the remainder of the river from view.
I got out at Avonmouth for an unscenic jolt. This is the town which grew up alongside the Port of Bristol, hence was where many of the dockers and their families lived, hence has seen better days. Some semblance of the town's former importance is hinted at by the fact that the A4 trunk road terminates here, at an HGV-friendly roundabout on Crowley Way. The docks are hidden over the backs of fences and walls, with the occasional crane rising above, plus four enormous undemolished grainsilos.
Gloucester Road runs briefly down to the gates, on one side lined by grand Victorian lodgings downgraded to Homes in Multiple Occupation, then a Grade II listed hotel whose rooms start at £25 a night. Avonmouth's main thoroughfare offers a pub, a Co-op and a tattoo bar, each well frequented, while the former Bus Depot is currently up for auction. The town reminded me a little of North Woolwich or Silvertown, as was, but without much hope of major redevelopment.
Most trains on the Severn Beach line terminate at Avonmouth, but one in three continues north, veering now to shadow the banks of the Severn. This is where any claims of a scenic journey completely break down, with the docks to one side and a succession of warehouses, factories and chemical works on the other. Before long the next station is reached, a single platform halt in the shadow of a cement terminal, just past a conveyor belt used to raise coal from the sidings.
This is St Andrews Road - no longer a request stop, whatever the sign on the platform says. Unsurprisingly this is (by some distance) Bristol's least used station, its ridership totals not helped by the adjacent smelting works having closed in 2011. In its place is now a huge Asda distribution depot, which is why two green-jacketed employees hopped off my train, helping to keep the station vaguely alive.
For those still on board, the final few miles showcase further industrial treasures, including an oil refinery, a power station and an abandoned chemical works. The main freight line veers off just after the refinery, which had it been laid first would have obviated the need for that now-oh-so-useful tunnel down from Clifton. The River Severn eventually becomes visible across a marshy fringe, plus an occasional pipe bulging up above sea level, and there's the first glimpse of an international bridge in the distance. And finally, 37 minutes out from Bristol, here we are.
Severn Beach station has apparently been spruced up, so I hate to think what this lone platform looked like before. Local people dash off to one of a dozen roads, or Shirley's Cafe, whereas those of us here for pleasure have a Heritage Trail to enjoy. In the 1920s a local entrepreneur used the opening of the new station to develop a riverfront resort, and crowds came to enjoy a deckchair on the shingle, then refreshment huts and donkey rides, and eventually a funfair and chalets. Severn Beach's centrepiece was the Blue Lagoon, an open air swimming pool, whose Water Carnivals helped contribute to the resort being nicknamed The Blackpool of the West.
Today there's almost nothing left to see, bar the plaques explaining that this point on the sea wall used to be the paddling pool and this caravan park used to be the boating lake. Perhaps the deckchairs come out again in the summer, but in February the grass behind the promenade is mainly somewhere to exercise dogs, meet other people with dogs and hurry home from afterwards. [video]
What's unmissable is the M4 soaring across the estuary on the Second Severn Crossing, which lifts off from the English side a few hundred yards to the north. I love a good major civil engineering project, especially one you can walk right underneath. This cable-stayed bridge was added in 1996 to supplement capacity on the original Severn Bridge, and is now the major motorway connection. It strides out on a sequence of piers across mudflats and a fortuitously located rocky outcrop, with the central pylon-supported span crossing the navigable part of the channel.
The bridge's footprint has a gentle S-shape, providing an ever-changing silhouette as you walk along the foreshore. I paused ever-so-often, repeatedly thinking "oh that looks nice too" and snappingseveralmorephotographs. Drivers get the better elevated view, of course, but I've seen the full wiggle and the maintenance depot underneath. And all of this was for the utterly knockdown fare of £3 return from Bristol - truly one of the UK rail network's greatest bargains.