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Catch a Steam Train from Cheltenham to Bourton on the Water and enjoy the delights of beers from the North Cotswolds and Oxfordshire

The date is May 10th 1903. We are leaning on our bicycles on the platform of Charlton Kings railway station waiting for the 10.35 local morning stopping train to Kingham Junction. The peaceful sound of birdsong is suddenly interrupted by a shrill engine whistle and soon we see our train approaching to our right.

5542 GWR Steam TrainThe bright sunshine is reflected off the polished boiler of the small green tank engine as it eases to a smooth halt at the station. The train comprises of seven small four wheeled carriages and a larger guards van located at the rear. We push our bikes towards the guards van and the doors are opened for us. The guard assists us lifting our ‘cycles into the van and leans them against some wicker baskets one of which contains live chickens. We then find an empty third class carriage compartment and slam the door closed.

The leather straps are undone on the sash windows in the compartment to enable us to see and hear the tank locomotive take its train up to the Cotswold Hills. We look out of the window to witness the guard waving his green flag from the rear of the train. The engine driver acknowledges with a hoot on the whistle and we feel the train move.

We are going to explore the public houses in Bourton on the Water and Stow on the Wold with the intention of drinking a wide variety of beers from different local breweries. There are many interesting beers to be drunk in this North-Eastern part of Gloucestershire. Combining the leisurely train journey with a pub crawl on bicycle should prove to be an entertaining way to spend an early summers’ day.

 As soon the train leaves Charlton Kings it starts climbing up the 1 in 70 gradient towards Andoversford and after only a couple of minutes we are graced with the superb sight of the newly constructed reservoir at Dowdeswell to our left. The sunlight glistens on the water as we pass by. At the end of this wide expanse of water we cross the valley on a twelve arch viaduct and then the climb starts to become more severe and we hear the engine loudly working up the gradient. We enter a cutting going no faster than walking pace and are suddenly plunged into the total darkness of the 384 yard long Andoversford tunnel. The noise of the engine becomes almost deafening and it is a great relief when we re-emerge into the very bright sunlight and the driver cuts off steam on the level approach to Andoversford station.

The stop at Andoversford is quite brief with only two prestigious looking gentlemen boarding the train for first class travel and a few miscellaneous items being taken off by the guard and placed on the platform for  collection.  Soon we hear the clank of the signal arm as it falls to the down position enabling the driver to move the train across the junction to join the single track metals of the Banbury and Cheltenham Direct Railway, leaving the Midland and South Western Junction Railway to meander southwards through Withington and Chedworth woods on its way to Andover.

The train continues up the incline towards the isolated village of Hampen where the railway enters a deep cutting. The loud engine exhaust is reverberated against the exposed Cotswold limestone as we approach Salperton village which we see only briefly to our right as we emerge from the rock cutting. We are now approaching Notgrove Station near the summit of the railway.

This station is something of a misnomer as the village of Notgrove lies some distance away to the south-east of the railway. Indeed, the station seems almost eerie in its isolation. The small tank engine slows to a halt at Notgrove Station but nothing appears to be happening. No one embarks or disembarks and the station porter walks idly up and down the platform with one hand in his pocket and the other clasped firmly to his clay pipe. The only signs of activity come from the front of the train where the fireman has taken the opportunity to replenish the locomotive with water. It is a good ten minutes duration before the reason for the delay becomes apparent.  From under the railway bridge we see a locomotive emerging on a mixed goods train bound towards Cheltenham. As the engine passes we catch a glimpse of the large wheel-splasher bearing the name “Sir Richard Grenville” and what appears to be his family crest. The number of the engine is 3054 which is cast onto an iron plate attached to the open cab of the locomotive. The train passes through the station without stopping.

After Notgrove the line reverts to single track down towards the Windrush valley and our destination, Bourton on the Water. The final mile of our train journey is a pure delight as the line crosses the River Windrush and follows its course into Bourton on the Water. A solitary heron fishing by the waters edge is disturbed by the bustle of our train and takes to the air somewhat cumbersomely. Passing over the Fosse Way we are soon slowing down to stop at the railway station.

Bourton on the Water railway station is a hive of activity. In the railway sidings there are cows being herded onto specially designed cattle wagons for onward transportation to Banbury market and sacks of grain are being loaded into trucks elsewhere. As our train finally stops our nasal senses become aware of the curious combination of the smells of cow dung and steam emanating from the locomotive.

The clock hung below the station platform reads 12.05. Our journey has taken us over an hour. We waste no time in retrieving our bicycles from the guards van. As we leave the station we hear the train start out of the station on its way to Stow on the Wold. Clouds of white steam are seen slowly disappearing into the distance.

We do not have to ‘cycle to have our first liquid refreshment as just across the road from the station we find the Railway Hotel. The bar room is full of local farmers and traders who have been hard at work all morning and are now enjoying a leisurely chat over a pint or two of Hitchman & Co.’s Ales from Chipping Norton. The landlord, Mr. Alexander Stokey, pulls us two pints of clear and refreshing looking beer. He informs us that many  breweries were now using the new railway lines to bring their beers into Gloucestershire and Hitchman & Co. had already built up a small tied estate around Stow on the Wold (Crown and Anchor, Talbot, White Hart) and Moreton in Marsh (Redesdale Arms and Crown Inn). The Railway Hotel is the only outlet in Bourton on the Water for Hitchman’s Ales and Stouts.

Refreshed after our first drink we ride on our bikes down the hill into the centre of Bourton on the Water, cross the River Windrush on the clapper bridge, and head towards Harrington House in Sherborne Street. It is in the grounds of this grandiose building that Alfred Hadley has set up a small brewery. The beers are brewed in an outhouse to the left of the main house and are on sale in an adjoining beerhouse called “The Jubilee” which fronts Sherborne Street. A notice outside the premises reads “Alfred Hadley & Sons. Brewers and Maltsters. Families supplied with 4 ½, 6, 9, 18 and 36 gallon casks”. We hope that he might be able to supply us with smaller quantities than that for our short visit. Indeed, Mr. Hadley is quite happy to take our two pennies and give us in return two foaming pint tankards of his home brewed ale. The beer is good but there is a slight hint of a yeast taint which would suggest fermentation problems. Very small breweries like Mr. Hadley’s may not have the necessary expertise to keep the fermenting beer cool in hot weather.

Our next stop is the Wellington Hotel also in Sherborne Street to sample the delights of Dunnell’s Banbury Ales and Stouts. This Oxfordshire brewery has 35 pubs of which only three are in Gloucestershire (Wellington Inn, Bourton; Plough Inn, Cold Aston; White Lion, High Street, Moreton in Marsh). The landlord of the Wellington, Charles May who is graced with a superb handle-bar moustache, is pleased to offer us his hospitality and fine ales.

On leaving the licensed premises we are momentarily blinded by the brightness of the afternoon sun. We compose ourselves before wheeling our bikes to the end of the street, over the River Windrush, and thence by a surprising degree of co-ordination commence cycling along Lansdown towards the Fosse Way.

The road towards Stow on the Road has been long established as a major communication route dating back to Roman times. However, the proliferation of deep pot holes and randomly deposited horse dung makes the passage on bicycle somewhat hazardous in our mild inebriation. The Coach and Horses inn on this road is avoided as it only offers beers from the Cheltenham Original Brewery that we have become all too familiar with as Cheltonians.

 As we make our way past the turning to the Slaughters we hear the sound of a steam train departing from Bourton on the Water station. Can we race it to Stow Station? We accelerate with enthusiasm and glance over our right shoulder to see the white plumes of steam racing towards us. The “iron horse” has the advantage as it has already worked hard on the steeply graded line from Andoversford and now has the luxury of easily graded track. Despite our Herculean efforts we soon lose the race and the train coasts by without giving the vanquished any acknowledgement whatsoever.

Our brief exertions have left our enthusiasm for the climb up the hill to Stow on the Wold somewhat diminished. We do have the satisfaction of catching up with our steaming leviathan, however, which has had to stop at the railway station at the foot of the hill. We cannot ride our bicycles up the steep hill and have to get off to push  soon after passing the Farmers Arms. This pub is owned by the Stow Brewery but we shall have to wait a little longer before drinking the “local brew”.

The tower of Stow on the Wold church makes a welcoming sight as we emerge from the top of Stow hill. We are then able to mount our bicycles once more to nonchalantly arrive at our arranged destination, Stow on the Wold Market Square.

The market town is bustling with all manner of people going about their daily business. There is a butcher shop with rabbits, pheasants, hares and large joints of meat hung outside the shop. A general store sells all conceivable types of requisites for general household use.

Around the square there are a number of licensed premises providing welcome refuge for the residents, traders, and travellers in the town. It has been some time since our last drink and we are keen for further refreshment. We have a choice of eight inns; Crown and Anchor, Queens Head Inn, Kings Arms, Red Lion, White Lion, Talbot Hotel, White Hart and the Wine Vaults. A daunting choice, but the choice of beers prove to be a deciding factor.

Our intention is to drink a variety of beers so we must try to avoid repetition. The Crown and Anchor, Talbot Hotel and White Hart are all pubs belonging to the Chipping Norton brewers, Hitchman & Co., which we have enjoyed already. The remaining five, however, are all equally inviting. There are three further Oxfordshire breweries represented in Stow Square from Banbury, Witney and Hook Norton. The remaining two pubs are tied to the local Stow breweries.

We are not unduly worried about which pub we visit first. Leaning our ‘bikes on the cross we walk towards and into the Kings Arms, a prestigious pub belonging to Hunt Edmunds & Co. of Banbury. This good, wholesome beer is downed within only a few minutes in the convivial atmosphere of the pub.

Our next stop is the Wine Vaults. This beer on sale here is brewed at the Hook Norton brewery between Chipping Norton and Banbury. We savour the beer at the Vaults as it is the only place in Gloucestershire where Hook Norton beers are offered for consumption.

We are now somewhat alcoholically perplexed, but in good humour and generally compos mentis. We walk towards the Red Lion Inn without thirst but with an enormous appetite. The landlord of this establishment can offer us no warm platter but instead a wealth of cold meats, freshly baked bread and farmhouse cheeses are made available for our delectation. The food is gratefully accompanied by a small glass each of Clinch’s Ale from Witney, Oxfordshire. Clinch’s beers are restricted to only three outlets in the county, all of which are in Stow itself.

As we approach the White Lion Inn we hear the sound of a concertina being played  fervently . The tunes being played are rhythmic and, in our state of mild inebriation, the music is almost hypnotic in its effect. The atmosphere inside the White Lion is ebullient; quite unlike the orderly establishments that we have frequented so far. In the confines of the small bar six men dance in a ritualistic style to the music. They stand opposite each other in lines of three and, somewhat cumbersomely, weave around each other waving silken handkerchiefs into the air as they dance. It is a sight that we have never witnessed before and, indeed, is entertaining in its very absurdity. We are told that the music and dancing started in the nearby villages of Bledington and Longborough.

The beers at the White Lion are brewed at the local Stow Brewery. The brewery is situated in Park Street and has grown to be a sizeable concern with sixteen pubs in the area. Mr Edward Augustus Green is proprietor at the brewery and the pubs usually take his name. Green’s Stow Brewery ales are obviously being appreciated by the customers at the White Lion who continue their “Morris dancing” after we take our leave.

The Queens Head Inn, on the far side of the square, is an oasis of tranquility after the chaos of the White Lion. The beers on sale here are also of local origin; there being two breweries in the parish of Stow on the Wold. Richard Arkell has set up a brewery in the old mill at Donnington on the river Dickler. Unfortunately, in our state of delightful yet somewhat delirious disposition we are unable to appreciate the subtle flavours of the Donnington brewed beer.

We leave the Queens Head and walk back towards St. Edwards Hall, in the centre of the square, and then to the old market cross where we deposited our bicycles some time ago. They have been awaiting our return patiently. We have a little difficulty in mounting them. We leave Stow square and return to the route of the Fosse Way.

We have decided, with a degree of trepidation, to ‘cycle back to Cheltenham on the route through Lower Swell, Naunton and Andoversford. It should take in the region of one and a half hours. It might take a little longer if we stop for refreshment at any of the hostelries on the journey home. The ride down hill towards Lower Swell on fixed wheeled bicycles should concentrate the mind. Lets hope we have a safe journey and return to Cheltenham before nightfall.

I’ve had a very enjoyable day. Have you?


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