Memories of Hayling Billy

Like many families in the mid-1950s we were not hugely well-off and holidays were still regarded as a luxury. However, one of Dad’s work colleagues knew a man who rented out a bungalow at Eastoke, on Hayling Island,and so it was that in the Summer of 1956 we headed off by train from our local station, Woodside (now part of Croydon Tramlink) via Waterloo to ‘HAVANT FOR HAYLING ISLAND’ as the large green sign proclaimed.

I was only five and a half at the time, but even to me the train seemed rather strange – how could such a little engine pull such big coaches? Of course, living in the heart of Southern Electric land I didn’t come across steam locos a great deal, although I do remember it could be quite frightening at Norwood Junction when an Oxted line train roared through at speed! Anyway, the little engine got us to our destination and I recall that all the compartments were full, and I spent the journey perched on a suitcase in the corridor. As we puffed along the Western shore of the island, all the children on the beach waved, and many passengers waved back – all part of the magic of going to the seaside by steam.

At this time Eastoke was pretty much a shanty town. and our bungalow was in an unmade road full of potholes; Southdown buses terminated at Eastoke Corner and these were rather unusual too. The 149 to The Ferry (passing the railway station) was worked by venerable wartime Guy Arab open-toppers, guaranteeing a spirited ride, whilst the 47 to Havant had small 30-seat Dennis Falcons since not only the railway bridge was a weak structure. The road bridge, such as it was, required bus passengers to alight and walk across, rejoining the bus on the other side and giving the railway a clear advantage at this time.

Unfortunately our house suffered a severe outbreak of dry rot in 1957 so there was no holiday that year, but we returned in 1958 to find things had changed somewhat. The road past our bungalow had been made up and, to my delight, the open top buses now ran right past the door terminating at Sandy Point Hospital. And a new road bridge meant that the Havant buses were now double-deckers – closed-top Guy Arabs or Leyland PDs and TDs.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the writing was already on the wall for ‘Hayling Billy’.

Our third and last holiday on the island took place in 1959, as in 1960 we ventured further afield on the famous ‘Atlantic Coast Express’ to Ilfracombe – another story. This time we stayed for two weeks at the bungalow and my maternal grandmother joined us for the second week as, sadly, she was already a widow my grandfather having died three years earlier as a result of poison gas sustained in the trenches of World War I. I recall Dad and I travelling to Havant to meet her and introducing her to our ‘Toy train’!

It was quite a performance when we returned on Summer Saturdays, when two trains would be operating the branch. There was, of course, only a single platform at Havant and there were no intermediate passing loops, so Hayling Island was the only place that could deal with more than one. The solution was that a train would arrive, the engine would immediately detach and run to the coaling and watering point before re-attaching, usually bunker first, to the front of the train. It would then abruptly depart, much to the surprise of those already on board, and then set back into the other platform (which had no run-round facility) leaving the main platform free for the next arrival. And as soon as she came in, off we would go!

It was also the custom that in high season, one or two spare coaches would be parked in the bay in case a train needed to be strengthened – although four coaches was, of course, the limit for a Terrier. On one of our return trips Mum did not realise that these were not attached to a train and went to board one – Dad and I told her she’d have had a long wait!

Sadly I never did see ‘Hayling Billy’ again. At low tide the ghostly remains of Langstone bridge can still be made out, and even at Havant a set of old fashioned crossing gates still marks the point where trains would cross the busy main road, much to the annoyance of some motorists. And we are very lucky that no fewer than ten of the ancient Terriers survive in preservation including, perhaps, the most famous duo of all, ‘Stepney’ and ‘Fenchurch’ on the magnificent Bluebell Railway.

I also have a model version on my layout as a reminder of some very happy days so long ago now.

Graham Donaldson
Croydon, Surrey
January 2012

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