Discover Hertfordshire's lost and forgotten train lines

Steam train to Hertford possibly 1930s

Steam train to Hertford possibly 1930s - Credit: KGPA Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

They may have closed decades ago but the routes of some of Hertfordshire's lost railway lines live on. Stephen Roberts invites you to climb aboard the ghost train...

Hertfordshire saw its share of closures with that railway enthusiast’s bogeyman, Dr Beeching, playing his role.

In the 1960s many smaller communities, usually rural, lost their station and rail connection to the world.

Sometimes the whole branch closed: Even when a line survived, intermediate stops disappeared.

Rarely, a station has been reborn, with trains once more sidling into its platforms. In most places though, it’s ghost trains you’ll be listening out for.

Hertfordshire still has its major trunk routes that hurtle north to south: The West Coast Main Line through Watford and Hemel; the Midland Main Line through St Albans; the East Coast Main Line through Hitchin, Stevenage and Welwyn.

I’m heading further east though to board a phantom train in search of a lost east-west route that once connected with today's three main lines.

Harpenden Railway Station early 1900s

Harpenden Railway Station early 1900s - Credit: KGPA Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

Hertford to Welwyn
Hertford has two extant stations, Hertford East, a terminus of the branch off the West Anglia Main Line which heads to King’s Lynn in Norfolk, and Hertford North which is on a loop off the East Coast Main Line.

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You would once have stopped at Hertford Cowbridge station, which opened in 1858 for the five-mile line to Welwyn (the Hertford and Welwyn Junction. Railway).

It was renamed Hertford North in 1923, before closing a year later when the loop line opened with its replacement Hertford North.

The Hertford-Welwyn line had intermediate stations at Hertingfordbury and Cole Green, plus a couple of extra stops that opened briefly in 1905.

Cole Green found fame in 1951 when it was used in the film The Lady with a Lamp when British film star Anna Neagle as Florence Nightingale turns up at the station near her home.

The line closed to passengers that year, with goods continuing until 1962, and the track being lifted in 1967, which gave film crews an opportunity to shoot a few movies.

Today the former route of the railway line still has its travellers, although of the leisurely kind, as the popular Cole Green Way walking and cycling route (National Cycle Network Route 57). 

My ghost train arrives into Welwyn and the East Coast Main Line but back in the day I could have continued my journey west by taking a train to Harpenden. 

Wheathampstead railway station

Wheathampstead railway station on the former Great Northern Railway branch line to Dunstable - Credit: public domain sourced/access rights from Archive PL?Alamy Stock Photo

Welwyn to Harpenden
The nine-mile Welwyn to Harpenden line opened in 1860 and was part of the Dunstable Branch Lines that joined the Bedfordshire market town with the likes of Leighton Buzzard and Welwyn.

The Harpenden end of this was ‘Beechinged’ in 1965.

Having crossed under the A1, the branch arrived at Ayot (for the village of Ayot St Peter), a station that closed earlier in 1948 after a fire destroyed the station.

Bridge on the Ayot Greenway, Hertfordshire

Bridge on the Ayot Greenway - Credit: Jason Ballard/Alamy Stock Photo

Like the Cole Green Way, you can still walk or cycle the route of the trackbed along the Ayot Greenway, again part of National Cycle Network Route 57.

Next along the former track the train would have pulled into Wheathampstead, a single platform station.

It has been happily restored, replete with platform, shelter, a section of track and wagon and even a life-size model of George Bernard Shaw of nearby Ayot St Lawrence waiting for a train (it may be some time). The station features in the village’s heritage trail. 

The line then crossed over the river Lea to arrive at Harpenden East station.

Having opened as Harpenden in 1860, the station was renamed Harpenden East in 1950 to distinguish it from the town’s other station, Harpenden Central, which remains as the modern Harpenden station on the Midland Main Line.

Harpenden East was closed with the Welwyn branch in 1965 and the station subsequently demolished and housing built on the site.

Heath Park Halt on the Nickey Line in 1958

Heath Park Halt on the Nickey Line with a rail tour creating hustle and bustle in August 1958. The view is northwards towards Harpenden Junction where the branch connected with the Midland Main Line - Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Ben Brooksbank

The Nickey Line
Today’s Harpenden station was once the junction for the Nickey Line, which was also nine miles and a continuation of our east-west ghost train ride, heading from Harpenden to Hemel Hempstead where we would have met the West Coast Main Line.

The derivation of Nickey is much debated and there are too many possibilities to include them all, but I do like the idea that it was named after Nicholas Breakspear, the only English Pope (Adrian IV), who was born in Hertfordshire and had links to Hemel.

The Nickey Line was opened in 1877 and saw its last passengers 70 years later.

It had its own Hemel Hempstead station which was originally the terminus of the Nickey Line before this was extended through Heath Park Halt in 1905 (which became the new passenger terminus), and over the Grand Union Canal and river Bulbourne, and the A41, to arrive at a gasworks siding at Duckhall.

Disused railway track called the Nickey Line in Hertfordshire

The Nickey Line is now a pleasant green corridor from Hemel Hempstead to Harpenden used by walkers and cyclists - Credit: John Woodworth/Alamy Stock Photo

Today’s Hemel station opened as Boxhall in 1837 on the West Coast Main Line and had various changes in nomenclature before becoming today’s Hemel Hempstead station in 1963, the same year the Nickey Line’s Hemel was closed for good.

As with the former trackways above, The Nickey Line happily lives on as a footpath and cycle way, which opened in 1985. It occupies around seven miles of the former route.

If you’re at Hemel Hempstead near the West Coast Main Line, Harpenden and the Midland Main Line or maybe Welwyn Garden City and the East Coast Main Line then that's probably a modern train you heard.

View of Railway Viaduct in Digswell Hertfordshire in England A train is passing over

Digswell Viaduct on the East Coast Main Line near Welwyn Garden City in around 1950 - Credit: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy Stock Photo

Hear a sharp whistle or see steam rising above an old embankment anywhere in between, then that might just be a ghost train.

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