Coley Park and Beyond

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The Coley Branch was a spur line at Southcote Junction, just over a mile south from Reading station. It's sole destination was the Reading Central Goods railway depot which was opened in 1908 and closed in 1983.


The Coley Branch

The Coley Branch (as it was commonly known) diverged eastwards from the Berks & Hants line at Southcote Junction. Constructed by Messrs H. Lovatt & Co. of Woolverhampton for the Great Western Railway (GWR), it was opened for traffic on May 4, 1908. The branch line ran for approximately 1.61 miles (2.5 km) through mainly open fields, passing Coley Park Farm, until heading under the Berkeley Avenue road bridge and into the goods yard surrounded by an already busy industrial area including major companies like Simonds Brewery.


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Collett goods 2262 waits to leave the Coley branch line.
c1956 - Image courtesy of The Gordon Hands Collection

The rails were of a higher load capacity than similar branch lines of the time. This meant that the only engines that could not use the line was the larger GWR King class steam locomotive.

The entrance to the branch at Southcote Junction was controlled by the nearby signalbox, which operated the semaphore arm signals to and from the branch and also the interlocking switch points. There were two semaphore signals on the branch line located just prior to exiting the branch line and thus protecting the 'down' main line from Reading. The 'starter' signal was located 20 yards from the junction and a fixed 'distant' semaphore signal was located 618 yards from the junction. Just beyond the 'starter' signal were 'catch points', which would derail the locomotive if it passed the 'starter' signal at danger.

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This signal was the Coley branch Up Distant for Southcote Junction, and was ‘fixed’ owing to the speed restriction of 10 mph over the trailing junction ahead. The arm of the signal was fixed permanently in the ‘Caution’ position, the spectacle glass removed, and a single lamp showing an amber light substituted.

Photograph taken in 1944 by the famous railway photographer M.W. Earley, who was born in Reading in 1900. M.W. Earley founded the Railway Photographic Society in 1922 and in doing so, raised the standard of railway photography. One of his specialties was in capturing images of trains traveling at high speeds. He lived all his life in Reading and died in 1982.

The safety of the single-track branch line was worked with a wooden rod called a Tablet, Token or Staff, which was handed to the driver on arrival at the branch. For single line working any locomotive or train traversing the branch must be in posession of the Tablet (as it was referred to or token) for that regulated section of track. This of course was absolutely necessary to avoid head-on collisions by having two trains on the same track opposing each other. There were measures to allow two trains to travel to the yard by using a 'ticket' system, but the driver had to visually see the token first and then clear the section completely before a second train could enter which would carry the token, and likewise on the return trip with last train to leave would have to carry the actual token. On occassion when the signalman was busy, the token was placed on a pole for the driver to pick up on arrival and if departing the branch the driver could throw the token (while still in motion) into a net provided for the purpose of catching the token, which the signalman would retrieve at his earliest convenience. I wonder how many times the driver forget to leave the token and take it on to Reading West station where they would have to get the next stopping train travelling south to take it back to the signalman.

Fireman throwing out the Tablet at Southcote Junction
Photo by Colin Churcher - June 1961

When the branch was built a new iron girder-type footbridge was constructed to allow access over the line from Coley Park to the signalbox and also to Southcote via a road bridge a few hundred metres south. The bridge was a great vantage point to watch the trains (or for 'trainspotters') as it gave an elevated view to the main lines in both directions. When the bells rang from the nearby signal box and the semaphore signal arms dropped to the 'clear' position, you knew a train would soon be approaching. Sadly, both the signal box and footbridge have long since been removed.

The branch closed when Reading Central Goods closed on July 25 1983. One of the last remaining vestiges of the branch to go was the footbridge originally over the branch line at Southcote Junction which was dismantled and removed on Tuesday 17 April 2001 and subsequently replaced with a low-level footpath.

Today, the remains of the branch line has provided a walking path for a short ramble along the mostly elevated trackbed. Although passing through privately owned lands, many are seen enjoying the experience. The trackbed under foot is mostly overgrown but on some stretches can be seen the original clinker and granite chip bed. Unusual plants include Alexanders, small toadflax, thyme-leaved sandwort, and poughman's spikenard. Butterflies, moths and dragonflies abound in season and the area provides excellent nesting spots for birds. A number of original Great Western railway bridges are dotted along the way, all built in 1908. Apart from the odd piece of rail used as fence posts, there is nothing remaining today of the original railway.

Reading Central Goods

(Destination Code: COY)

The justification for having a railway yard south of Reading was brought about by the growing number of local businesses on the south side of Reading requiring easy rail access for their supplies or forwarded goods. It soon became apparent that transporting increasing loads of goods through the narrow and busy streets of Reading to the railyards located on the northern outskirts was cumbersome and very inefficient. Before the railhead arrived a large quanitity of goods was transported by the adjacent Kennet and Avon Canal system.

Ex GWR class '2251' 0-6-0 tender locomotive
No. 2245 at Coley Depot on November 3 1956 (Original Photo by Hugh Davis)

The location chosen was an area of land between the Holy Brook and Kennet rivers, encompasing the wharf used by the Kennet and Avon Canal company and an existing timber yard. Road entry to the yard was from Willow Street or Fobney Street. One obstacle to overcome was the relocation of an existing Masonic Hall, but this was only a minor delay. Initially a locomotive water tank was provided with its own short siding just prior to the Berkeley Avenue road bridge and the entrance to the main yard. It lasted twenty years or so before the water tank and siding were removed as newer locomotives had enough water capacity to easily make the trip from Reading and back.

Three semaphore arm signals were installed at the sidings on the south side of the Berkeley Avenue bridge for the control of shunting movements, so it's possible a small ground frame were controlling these. One signal post was positioned on arrival from Reading, where the single line first split into two tracks on approach to the yard. The next signal post was positioned just prior to the entrance to the yard. The last was positioned prior to rejoining the single line before departing for Southcote Junction and on to Reading.

The yard itself had 12 sidings divided into pairs which could accommodate approximately 300 wagons. It had a decent sized goods shed and offices. Spread around the yard were numerous fixed and mobile lifting cranes to facilitate the easy loading or loading of wagons. In addition there was a larger 10 ton lifting crane and a 20 ton weighbridge. Further sidings serviced the CWS Preserve Works, Esso Petroleum, Gascoignes and Simonds Brewery. In its heyday, the main traffic to and from the yard was Beer, Bricks, Coal, Timber, and Preserves. Later, more modernised mobile cranes ran on caterpiller tracks.

Reading Central Goods c1919 (L&RGP)

Amazingly, some traffic was still carted by river using the Kennet & Avon Canal, and was loaded and unloaded at nearby Bear Wharf where a railway siding and goods shed was provided. Goods were transported by narrow canal boats and slowly made their way to their destinations. Eventually the canal traffic was surpassed by the speed of railway transportation with only smaller loads being moved by canal. Due to canal traffic becoming increasingly unpopular, Bear Wharf along with its goods shed and siding eventually closed on March 20 1969.

A number of companies were located or had offices at the railway yard, including H & T Timber Ltd. and Charles and Giles Ayres (C&G Ayers) coal merchants. On the east side, Builders W.W.Hall had a supply depot with a lot of their goods arriving by rail, especially roofing slate from Wales. On the west side Fyffes had a banana warehouse and Baynes had a timber yard.

In 1961, a special excursion train visited the yard with railway enthusiasts being transported by M7 class steam locomotive number 30051. The train consisted of just two coaches but was packed with excited train buffs. This locomotive was scrapped in the mid 1960's but was however immortilised when Hornby Models based their Drummond M7 0-4-4T on this very loco.

Reading Central Goods was closed on July 25 1983, with the track connection, rail and sleepers being removed in January 1985. In later years the yard was completely obliterated by major roadworks when the Inner Distribution Road (A33) was diverted under the existing Berkeley Avenue railway bridge into Reading.



A rare sight on the Coley Goods Branch is this Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) three-car set 474 on a railway enthusiast's special to Reading Central Goods depot c1968.

This special working has the headcode 2Z18 and the destination board showing 'SPECIAL'.

Photo: D.E.Canning



The footbridge is no more ...

The 1908 brick and iron footbridge over the Coley branch line was removed on Tuesday 17 April 2001 and replaced with a low-level footpath (see story below). The old track-bed today is used by the occassional rambler which eventually meets up with the recent A33 relief road that now cuts through the old embankment as it runs towards Berkeley Avenue.

THE dangerous bridge linking Coley and Southcote was demolished on Tuesday to make way for a safer alternative. Campaigners have battled for five years to have the walkway behind Wensley Road flats replaced. The old bridge was a main route from Coley to the Circuit Lane doctors' surgery, but was blamed for causing a number of accidents.

It is hoped that a new sloping version of the walkway will soon be in place so everybody can use it safely. Glen Major, from contractors JGD services, said: "The work going ahead depended a bit on the weather being nice. It wasn't too much of a big job, but I think people will be glad it's going to be replaced."

Excerpt from the 'Reading Chronicle' - April 20 2001


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