IN RECENT weeks, a team of workmen have been preparing to construct a mobile phone mast on the Winchester Road roundabout, in Basingstoke.
This particular spot in the town has probably seen more activity over the past century than anywhere else, with the exception of the town centre, of course!
Until the late 19th century, this area of the Winchester Road had just fields on both sides, as Basingstoke’s residential section only reached as far as the Cranbourne Lane junction.
Then, in 1896, the Light Railways Act was passed in Parliament and plans were made to construct a rail link between Basingstoke and Alton, a distance of 12½ miles.
In July 1898, the first sod of turf was cut in a field known as Sixteen Acres, just off the Worting Road, by the Rt Hon C T Ritchie, the president of the Board of Trade.
During the following three years the railway line was laid, with the help of several bridges which took it over the local roads, including the Winchester road.
The railway ceased to exist for eight years between 1916 and 1924, when the tracks were removed to be used for making weapons for the First World War.
When the war ended it took six years to have new tracks fitted on the derelict line. Then, within eight years, the railway was almost at its end, due to lack of both passengers and goods. In June 1936, the Basingstoke to Alton line was closed down.
Meanwhile, in Winchester Road, houses were being built on both sides of the road up to the old bridge. Within a year, they were being occupied, and at the same time the Gainsborough Film Company were making a film with Will Hay, called Oh! Mr Porter.
A steam engine was fitted with a long funnel with a spiked top, and on one of its trips over the Winchester Road bridge, a lady looked out of her window to see what sort of train service Basingstoke provided, having just moved into the town. She was rather taken aback when she saw the “ancient locomotive”, as she called it, and she wondered what she was letting herself in for.
By 1938 the tracks were once again taken up, and the Winchester Road bridge was left for the local children to play on, using the slopes on both sides as slides.
After the Second World War, the land on the west side of the bridge was used to build some commercial businesses – Anna Valley Ltd, an agricultural engineers, and the Bridge Café. In 1952, Mr and Mrs F Tate established a caravan site on land behind the buildings, and over the years, some 70 caravans were occupied. Known as the Bridge Caravan Park, it became a victim of the Town Development Scheme when part of the land was needed to build the ring road.
Prior to the clearance of that area it was decided to remove the bridge over the road, as it was causing problems for high vehicles, such as buses and lorries.
On the morning of Sunday, September 17, 1961, in drizzly rain, workmen and a vehicle with a swinging one-tonne ball arrived to knock it down.
After several hours, the main span was broken and the rest of the structure was demolished. Contracted out by H N Edwards building firm to D Brant’s of Tadley, around 35 tonnes of sand was laid in the road to avoid damage to its surface.
Seven years later, compulsory purchase orders on eight houses on the south side of the road and one on the north led to their demolition, while other properties were also affected. This was to allow a large roundabout to be built.
The plan was to build a fly-over to take the ring road over Winchester Road, but this never materialised, even though four huge concrete beams were transported into Basingstoke on a long-loader. These beams were left on the grass verge nearby for 15 years, until they were cut up and removed in November 1983. Twenty-eight metres long and weighing 36 tonnes each, they were cheered away by local residents.
Meanwhile, the roundabout and the area around it had been the scene of a thorough search by military and other groups in September 1980, when an American Navy S18 Hornet aeroplane broke up while flying over Basingstoke. Parts of the plane fell into gardens and other parts of the town, especially over the Winchester Road area.
(The plane eventually crashed at Middle Wallop near Andover.) The imminent construction of the mobile phone mast had led to protests by local people, not only for its radiation fears but because of how unsightly it is. But let us take comfort in the actions of an artist from Winchester, who is in the process of painting scenes and characters from English history on the walls of the roundabout subways.