Monday, 22nd December 2014

Shrewsbury Matters: Restoration of Abbey Foregate station back on track

By Phil Gillam

Stick around long enough and little miracles happen – like new life slowly being breathed into the long-derelict Abbey Foregate railway station.

For decades, this was one of those “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” buildings, a structure so apparently insignificant that few local people even knew it was there.

I well remember meeting up with school pals in this neck of the woods – long before the regeneration that came with the new link road in the early 1980s, long before the new Greenhous Vauxhall showrooms, long before the Beaten Track pub and the Safeway supermarket which eventually became Asda, long before Cineworld.

When I was 11 or 12, I probably knew nothing of the history of this area. I certainly don’t recall being aware of the Shropshire and Montgomeryshire Railway. All that would come much later.

No, we schoolboys would just congregate there sometimes – because it was a kind of cool and mysterious place.

There were broken down buildings just crying out to be explored. Now, this might well have involved trespassing, but there were no signs around to suggest this, and back then there was a sense in which the whole world was free and open.

We were never out to make mischief, never out to be a nuisance to anyone, and we most certainly did not go in for smashing old windows or any kind of vandalism. It was just fun to hang around with mates in this semi-wasteland full of ghosts.

Back then there were still railway lines in this area.

In amongst the ballast supporting the lines you would occasionally stumble upon an ancient cigarette packet covered in oil or a torn page from some old railway document – an artefact from another era.

Why were there still railway lines there in the 1970s when the Shropshire and Montgomeryshire Railway had vanished many years before?

Well, because there was an oil depot there in Abbey Foregate and the sidings were still being used by British Railways for transporting oil tankers (and continued to be used right up until 1988, finally being taken up in 1990).

All this came back to me on Sunday when the old Abbey Foregate station (undergoing renovation) was opened to the public, and I popped along to see how things were developing. There is still a lot to be done here as the idea is that it should become a permanent little museum and visitor centre, but much has already been achieved – thanks to the Shrewsbury Railway Heritage Trust.

The trust was formed in 2003 with the intention of recording, documenting, preserving and telling the story of the railways in Shrewsbury and its region for the benefit of future generations.

A noble ambition indeed.

The trust is a registered charity and a company limited by guarantee, managed by a board of eight directors. It has a membership of more than 100.

Its declared aim is to record the social and economic impact of the railways upon Shrewsbury and the wider region. Shrewsbury was of course one of the most important connectional hubs on the early UK rail network with its extensive marshalling yards in Coton Hill, Coleham and Abbey Foregate, the latter known locally as ‘the back of the sheds’.

As a boy I was always very aware of ‘the back of the sheds’ with my grand-dad having been a Great Western Railway man.

It was a fascinating area.

And the handful of streets which still bear the name – ‘the back of the sheds’ – remains a fascinating area.

On Sunday, there was not a tremendous amount to see at the old station – a few pictures of how things used to be, a couple of information displays, a book stall. But it was enough to give you a little taste of the place – and also a little insight into what it can become.

Stop-start, stop-start funding has meant that the project is behind schedule, but hopes are high that the place will be fully open to the public in the not-too-distant future.

For those unfamiliar with the history, the old station here was once part of the Potteries, Shrewsbury and North Wales Railway, known more commonly as “The Potts” – established by Richard Samuel France, a wealthy Shropshire entrepreneur. The 18-mile main line from Shrewsbury to Llanymynech opened on August 13, 1866 with a further extension serving the Nantmawr quarries. Owing to financial difficulties the company was wound up in 1881.

The Potts somehow carried on in a state of suspension until Colonel Holman Fred Stephens took charge in 1908 and renamed the enterprise the Shropshire and Montgomeryshire Railway.

This ran from 1911 to 1933. In 1941 the War Department requisitioned the line, running trains to and from its ammunition storage depot at Nesscliffe.

Some modest service then ran after the war but the railway was handed over to BR in 1960 for dismantling.

For more information on the Shrewsbury Railway Heritage Trust contact Mansel Williams on 01743 235103 or Phil Hughes on 01743 359853.