Phantoms of the railway - the ghost lines of Welwyn and Harpenden

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 sound of sharp whistles haunting the night air, the smell of steam in the air, and the vibrations on long lost railway lines... Watch out, it could be a ghost train!

The closure of many small railway stations during Dr Beeching's 1960s cull had a devastating effect on many communities in Herts, as they lost their rail connection to the world.

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

Sometimes whole branch lines disappeared, and even when they survived, intermediate stops disappeared, and although the county still has major routes travelling north to south, there is no longer any means of travelling east-west by rail.

Hertford to Welwyn

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), but back in the day you could have continued your rail journey west by taking a train to Harpenden. 

Harpenden Railway Station early 1900s

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

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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 closed 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. 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.

The revitalised Wheathampstead Railway Station platform 

The revitalised Wheathampstead Railway Station platform - Credit: Robert Eva

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. 

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

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.

The Nickey Line

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

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. 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.

An expanded version of this feature can be found in this month's Hertfordshire Life magazine, now on sale.

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