Celebrating Conservation at Worthy Down Halt
“Stop A While at Worthy Down Halt”
This is the story of Worthy Down Halt, a derelict railway station in the heart of Hampshire that is simply bustling with wildlife.
Worthys Conservation Volunteers (WCV, www.worthysconservationvolunteers.org.uk) continues to enhance the platform habitat and surrounding area and since 2016 we have had valued assistance from trustees of The Watercress Way.
Once overcome by trees and scrub, the platform had become lost and forgotten, indeed almost completely obscured.
Since work began in 2006, it is now an altogether different and much improved scene, being alive and vibrant, and having a wonderfully rich habitat.
Over time, even more diverse ground flora can be expected, but only if conservation activities maintain a grip on saplings and the more pervasive plants of nettle, dog wood, bramble and wild clematis.
The Watercress Way (www.thewatercressway.org.uk) describes Worthy Down Halt as a unique and special ‘jewel’ on its 26-mile circular route that takes the keen walker along two dismantled railways (Alresford to Kings Worthy and Kings Worthy to Sutton Scotney) and ancient droves and footpaths, and finally through the watercress beds of Old Alresford.
Since the incorporation of this section as part of The Watercress Way in 2016 the trustees have regularly supported the WCV in maintaining the site and enhancing its biodiversity.
Once a functioning railway station from a bygone era, when steam locomotives ran from Didcot to Southampton, the platform (OS grid ref. SU 47960 35230) and its sidings are now a haven for birds, insects and small mammals.
Wildflowers too adorn the old railway landscape throughout spring and summer, with a display of colours and hues reminiscent of an oil painting.
Visitors, whether on foot, bicycle or horseback, can marvel at the spectacle, pausing for a moment, maybe to take a photo or a closer look at an insect or a wildflower that has caught the eye.
As spring shakes off the last icicles of winter, songbirds mark their territory by singing their delightful tunes in unison at the crack of dawn, commonly referred to as the ‘dawn chorus’.
Over 30 species have been recorded in the area, including the enchanting robin, blackbird, song thrush, blackcap and wren; their melodies almost echo in the heavy early morning air.
The cheerful musical notes of chaffinch, goldfinch and bullfinch are also heard, as too are blue tit, great tit, long-tailed tit and dunnock … the dawn chorus is such an invigorating and awe-inspiring start to the day!
Wild primroses and cowslips mingle at several places on and alongside the platform – some planted, others self-seeded – providing speckles of pastel yellow shades to the vista.
Scarlet elf cup fungus is also found in the wooded areas from March into April, growing amongst the moss on decaying branches on the ground – watch and even listen as these elliptical scarlet cups ‘puff’ their spores every 30 seconds or so (but be cautious not to get too close!).
Located to the north of Kings Worthy, visitors can access the old railway by parking at the bottom of Worthy Down Lane (OS Grid ref. SU 48140 35040) and walking 200 metres up the tarmac road, where a footpath leads down to an information board marking the entrance to the nature haven.
Access by mobility scooter is possible from Woodhams Farm Lane, although the terrain will be muddy in wet periods, especially winter.
By the information board, in spring you won’t fail to notice the scent and white flowers of wild garlic, which grows sporadically along the railway line.
As you reach the platform you will find wild liquorice in front of the concrete step.
Although a rather insignificant yellow flower, it is a rarity for Hampshire, but truly established in this area.
Along the western siding is an opening that has developed a rather unusual flora, more suited to dry, sandy and slightly acidic soils – this has an impressive cover of lichen.
In recent years viper’s bugloss, with its dense spikes of bright blue funnel-shaped flowers, has also taken a stronghold in this dry zone.
The little small copper and common blue butterflies have been spotted in this area, feeding on marjoram and thyme.
Here, the so-called ‘mayflower’ tree (hawthorn) makes a fantastic showing with white blooms that turn to vibrant red berries in autumn, a welcome meal for birds.
Hazel, hawthorn, field maple and spindle saplings have recently been planted along the fence, which in time will screen the newly-built large and imposing army accommodation block to the west, some 100 metres from the nature haven; and also provide shelter from the fierce westerly winds in the winter months.
Walking down the length of the western side, and on the platform itself, a truly natural ground flora of wildflowers and grasses has established.
On the track the terrain is fairly dry and chalky, suitable to chalk downland wildflower species, whereas the platform has a more fertile soil.
In a recent survey, over 60 species of wildflower were recorded – agrimony, bird’s-foot trefoil, kidney vetch, meadow crane’s-bill, clustered bellflower, wood avens, bedstraw, scarlet pimpernel, toadflax, ox-eye daisy, cow parsley, wild strawberry, marjoram and thyme, to name just some that can be seen in summer months.
Notably, dark mullein, with spear-like yellow flowers, is host to the aptly-named dark mullein caterpillar.
This has mosaic markings of white and yellow with black spots, providing excellent camouflage against birds and other predators.
The brighter, more distinctive black and orange-striped cinnabar moth caterpillar is also found, feeding on toxic ragwort!
A swathe of rosebay willowherb has successfully colonised the northern end, a common sight on railway banks, with dense bright pink flower spikes, bringing a strong splash of colour.
The wildflowers are a useful nectar source for pollinators, attracting butterflies, moths and other insects. Peacock, red admiral, painted lady, brimstone, comma, orange tip, marble white, large white, small white, green-veined white, ringlet, meadow brown, gate keeper, speckled wood, small tortoiseshell, and small and large skipper, have all been recorded at different times of the year.
Many hundreds and even thousands of bees – bumble bees, solitary bees, honey bees … – can also be observed buzzing amongst the wild-flowers.
An occasional visitor, the southern hawker dragonfly, probably attracted to the many insects, likes to take an inquisitive look at passers-by or human activity, before ‘hawking’ off again.
Dragonfly are completely harmless, they don’t sting, bite or attack us in any way, although you might be lucky and have one land on your hat or top!
Near to the north-east end of the platform, a large ant mound is a sure sign of a healthy habitat.
These little insects are known to have a symbiotic relationship with the large blue butterfly, with growing populations on railway embankments in the west country – although not found at Worthy Down Halt, maybe one day we will see this here too.
On the eastern side, the old track lies atop a steep embankment, which supports a great number of trees and dense scrub, and as a result has less rich ground cover.
Hazel, bramble and other food sources ensure a healthy under-storey for small mammals, most notably hazel dormouse, which are known to exist further down the line near Kings Worthy Junction.
Nocturnal, they actually travel in the tree canopy, foraging for food of berries, nuts and other fruit; and hibernate in small straw-like balls over the long winter months.
A protected species, hazel dormice need all the support they can get, and conservation activities are in place to encourage these little orange, furry creatures to the area.
Halfway down the eastern side, there is a sleeper-style bench, which is a welcome respite for walkers, and a good spot to have a picnic.
At this place, views reach out across open countryside.
Knapweed is quite rigorous here in summer – this seems to especially attract the painted lady butterfly.
On hot balmy days in summer, buzzards and red kite may be seen circling overhead, rising on the hot air-thermals.
Frequently woodpeckers can be heard not too far away, squawking as they hop from tree to tree.
Arriving back at the southern end of the platform, it is important to note the habitat actually extends along the length of the old railway line and even beyond.
This provides an invaluable natural ‘green’ corridor, creating a unique micro-ecosystem that supports a range of habitats and biodiversity.
A ‘thrown away’ shoe found in the undergrowth, now naturalised with moss and insects, was a poignant reminder of the ever-increasing vulnerability, yet power of nature – wildlife will endeavour to colonise where it can, but continued pollution will ultimately result in a greater devastation that can only be to our detriment.
Autumn is a time for contemplation and for bedding down before the winter; many birds have migrated to equatorial climates, and as hazel dormice and bats prepare to hibernate, a great deal of work must be carried out in preparation for the next year.
After self-seeding, wildflowers and long grasses must be cut and burned, and improvements made to enhance the habitat, which requires many volunteers to make this happen.
Finally, Worthy Down Halt is open throughout the year, and in winter with a covering of snow is a magical scene worthy of any photo!
Bruce Graham, September 2019
Addendum – A brief history
The history of the railway actually dates to 1882, as a cross-country service running between Didcot, Newbury and Winchester, although known as the Didcot, Newbury & Southampton Railway (DN&SR), for freight from the Midlands and the North to the port.
Originally built in WW1 to service the needs of the adjacent Royal Flying Corps (later RAF), Worthy Down Halt platform and shelter stand as the only remaining relic.
After 1918 the station had minimal use, until the build up to the invasion of Europe in June 1944 when it was used to bring supplies to the troops stationed at the military camp and airfield.
Track was installed on both sides of the platform, initially to provide a passing loop for trains, and later the station became a spur for the Southern Railway through Winchester.
The halt closed in 1960, followed by the dismantling of the railway line in 1964 as a victim of the notorious Beeching Axe.
Today the site is under the ownership of Hampshire County Council.
About the author
Bruce is a nature enthusiast who has travelled to many countries, photographing butterflies, dragonflies, birds, mammals and wildflowers. He is passionate about wildlife and a keen conservationist. He runs the activities of Worthys Conservation Volunteers and is a trustee for The Watercress Way charity.
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