Once the unadvertised locomotive changeover point for the luxurious Devon Belle, Wilton exemplifies the sad — albeit familiar — story of decline on the lines west of Salisbury. The axe was wielded as long ago as 1966, but of those stations on the way to Exeter which disappeared from the passenger timetable during this period, the remains of many have survived the test of time remarkably well. Former main station buildings at the likes of Dinton, Semley, Seaton Junction, and Broad Clyst, dating back to the railway’s formative years, have all managed to take on new uses since closure, standing as testament to a previous era when the route to Exeter via Salisbury was no less a main line than that from Paddington via Castle Cary.
SALISBURY AND YEOVIL RAILWAY. — Workmen are busy laying 10 miles of the road between Wilton and Gillingham, which are now ready for the permanent way. The works between Salisbury and Wilton are proceeding, and the heavy cuttings at Temple Combe and Melbourne Wick are commenced. [The Artizan, 1st May 1858]
Wilton came into use with the first section of the Salisbury and Yeovil Railway between the cathedral city and Gillingham in May 1859 and, depending on one's source, the official opening was on either the 1st or 2nd of that month. Newspaper articles of the time promote the commencement of public services as 2nd May, so this date is perhaps the most likely.
There are four intermediate stations om the line, viz. Wilton, Dinton, Tisbury, and Semley. The stations are built of brick, and look exceedingly neat and pretty. There is not a single tunnel throughout this portion of the line. The line is in good working condition, and passes through a neighbourhood abounding in beautiful woodland scenery, and a rich and fertile vale. The number of trains per day are four each way, leaving Gillingham at 7.15, 10.25, 1.30, and 5.30, and leaving Salisbury at 11.5, 1.43, 6.8, and 7.55. [The Western Flying Post, Yeovil, Tuesday, 10th May 1859]
The route was single-track from the outset; extensions to Sherborne and Yeovil, also single line, were opened to public traffic on 7th May and 1st June 1860 respectively, with Exeter following on 19th July of the same year. By May 1863, the portion between Salisbury and Wilton had been doubled:
There is a double line of rails between Salisbury and Wilton, but from Wilton to Dinton it is still a single road, the additional road not having as yet been completed. [Reading Mercury, Saturday, 16th May 1863]
Double-track working throughout from Andover to Exeter was possible from 1870.
The station at Wilton was located just beyond mile post 86 from Waterloo and comprised two platforms either side of the running lines. A handsome, but substantial, two-storey-high red-brick main building was positioned on the "up" platform. This was built as a variation of a standard design introduced by William Tite, and near-identical examples came into use at Tisbury, Semley, Dinton, and Milborne Port stations. The main part of the structure comprised the Station Master's house, and as one of the photographs below shows, a distinct architectural trait was that of slate tiles hung on the outer walls, covering up the brickwork. The "down" platform was equipped with a modest brick-built waiting shelter, but neither side of the station was host to any canopy. Both platforms were linked by a track foot crossing from the outset.
The first stop west of Salisbury, Wilton had a generous provision of sidings which changed little over the years. Two sidings, located east of the station, made a trailing connection with the "up" line; one of these tracks terminated at a brick-built pitched-roof goods shed, whilst the other served a dock platform. Running behind the "down" platform were two westward-facing sidings of considerable length; to accommodate these, the "down" platform narrowed at its eastern end.
The station's first proper signal box was opened in about 1875, being situated on the "up" platform, immediately east of the main station building. This cabin was an LSWR Type 1 signal box, with hipped slated roof and timber sides; although the main building comprised red brick, the signal box's base was of stone construction. By 1900 an enclosed glazed footbridge, positioned west of the main station building, linked the platforms, and was similar to those which also came into use at Axminster and Honiton stations. The footbridge not only crossed the running lines, but also passed over the "down" siding to connect with a footpath; however, that portion of the structure above the siding lacked both glazing and a roof. The "up" goods yard had also gained an additional siding by this time.
PRESENTATION TO MR. J. SHORT. — On Friday members of the staff at Wilton Station (Southern Railway) met and presented a silver-mounted engraved ebony walking stick to Signalman John Short, in recognition of his 47 years' faithful service as signalman at the Station. He retired on November 1st owing to the age limit, after 51 years' railway service. [The Wiltshire Times, Saturday, 7th November 1925]
Southern Railway (SR) alterations at Wilton went little beyond the cosmetic. The company's well-known barley-twist Swan Neck lampposts (one of which is seen in a photograph below) appeared on the platforms, complete with Target name signs, but this very much remained an LSWR station. Around the time of nationalisation, the "up" platform was re-faced in prefabricated concrete, a product of the SR's works at Exmouth Junction. On 20th June 1947, the SR inaugurated the all-Pullman Devon Belle which, on paper, was non-stop from Waterloo to Sidmouth Junction; thence to Exeter Central, where the train would divide, with portions for Ilfracombe and Plymouth Friary. An unadvertised stop in both "up" and "down" directions for the service was that at Wilton, which was done solely to swap locomotives; the engine waiting to take the Pullman onwards would be parked in the sidings flanking the station. The practice of changing engines at Salisbury on expresses running between Waterloo and Exeter ceased in February 1950; thereafter, the same locomotive would haul the train all the way between the two. In spite of this, the Devon Belle continued the tradition of swapping engines at Wilton, the rater short-lived service making its last run on 19th September 1954.
From 26th September 1949, the station was known as Wilton South, to distinguish it from the ex-GWR stop situated a mere 200-yards to the north on the Salisbury to Westbury route. The latter, suffixed North, had a rather short British Railways (BR) existence, passenger services being withdrawn from 19th September 1955.
From 1st January 1963, the Western Region (WR) took control of those ex-SR lines west of Salisbury. In Dr Beeching's The Reshaping of British Railways report, published in March of the same year, Wilton South was listed as a passenger station to be closed, and so began an infamous period of decline on the Waterloo to Exeter route. Local trains serving intermediate stations between Salisbury and Exeter started to transition from steam to WR diesel multiple units in November 1963, and steam traction ceased to haul through passenger trains to and from London in September of the following year. Thereafter, a diesel-hauled service was operated, running approximately every two hours in either direction, between Waterloo and Exeter St Davids. In the September 1964 edition of the RCTS' The Railway Observer magazine, it was reported that freight facilities were withdrawn from Wilton South on 6th July of that year. Passenger trains ceased to call at the station from 7th March 1966.
After closure, the footbridge at Wilton was taken down and the "down" platform demolished, but thankfully the main station building escaped destruction. Unlike those stations at Gillingham, Sherborne, and Crewkerne, the ex-LSWR signal box at Wilton had avoided replacement under BR, and beyond the station's closure the cabin remained in use. From 2nd April 1967, single-track working formally began between Wilton and Templecombe, save for a passing loop at Gillingham; the track narrowed approximately 200-yards west of the former platforms at Wilton. The signal box at Wilton was decommissioned in 1981 and, in October of the following year, its timber upper half was craned out whole and transported for re-use at Medstead & Four Marks station on the Mid-Hants Railway. There, the cabin was re-erected on a purpose-built red-brick base and brought into use during 1985. The original goods shed was flattened in 2003 and, in the following year, a large warehouse built on its site and that of the former goods yard. Today, the original main station building survives in complete form, albeit now in decidedly industrial surroundings. A fence now separates the structure from the former platform area.
Click the above for a larger version.
© David Glasspool
5th July 1963
BR Standard Class 5MT 4-6-0 No. 73117 "Vivien" is viewed from the footbridge heading west with the 12:46 Salisbury to Exeter. It is likely that the tall double-armed signal post at the western end of the "down" platform was required as a result of the footbridge obscuring drivers' views as trains approached from the Salisbury direction; one existed at the eastern end of the "up" platform, too. The siding on the left split into two behind the camera, one of which served cattle pens, and at one time was used by the locomotive waiting to take over on the "down" working of the "Devon Belle". The prefabricated concrete platform face on the "up" (right) side dated from around the time of nationalisation, and the suffix "South" appeared on the station's nameboard in smaller text than "Wilton".
H. C. Casserley / © David Glasspool Collection
13th August 1964
The crane of the "up" goods yard is seen in this view of Rebuilt Merchant Navy Class No. 35007 "Aberdeen Commonwealth" passing by non-stop, Exeter-bound, during the last month of regular steam haulage on the route. On 1st June 1964, training trips for drivers started on "Warship" Diesel Hydraulics between Salisbury and Basingstoke. In the foreground are the two sidings which split behind the "down" platform. By the time of this photograph, the footbridge had lost its roof and glazing.
© David Glasspool Collection
23rd February 1980
About fourteen years had passed since closure by the time of the above view, but both the former station building and the then still active signal box remained in remarkably good condition. This view shows to good effect the slate-hung tile finish of the main building's walls, a feature shared with the likes of Tisbury and Gillingham. Class 33 No. 33013 is seen rounding the curve with an Exeter St Davids to Waterloo service, a mixture of BR Mk 2a and Mk 1 stock in tow. The "down" platform had gone, but the double-track persisted just beyond the River Wylye, west of the former station site. The stone base of the signal box, and a later extension of the upper storey, is evident here; the timber cabin now resides on the Mid-Hants Railway at Medstead & Four Marks station. Although the station building lacked a canopy, there was a roof overhang facing onto the platform — as shown here — under which passengers could take refuge.
John Vaughan / © David Glasspool Collection