TWO men who were responsible for safety on the Henley branch rail line must have received some odd looks at times.

In the absence of conventional signals, the men – known as Constables – had to stand beside the line and act as contortionists to tell engine drivers whether to stop, go or proceed with caution.

Author Rupert Matthews describes the bizarre chain of events on the Regatta Line in his book, Lost Railways of Berkshire.

“When a train came into sight, the Constable had to leave his shelter and stand beside the track to give one of three signals.

“The ‘clear’ signal involved holding the right arm straight out, parallel to the ground. This meant that no other trains were on the line.

“The ‘caution’ signal was given by lifting the right arm over the head. This meant that another train was on the line and the driver should proceed slowly and look out.

“The ‘danger’ signal involved the Constable raising both arms and splaying his legs to form an X shape. This meant the train should stop.”

Like people at Abingdon (Memory Lane, February 9), folk at Henley lobbied for a branch line after the Great Western Railway main line from Paddington to Didcot and Bristol bypassed the town.

The mayor of Henley led a delegation to lobby the GWR in the spring of 1854 and work began that autumn.

The single track, linking with the main line at Twyford, opened with a public breakfast on June 1, 1857. There were five trains each way daily, with four on Sundays.

With so few services, it was thought that signals were not needed, and the Constables were brought in to control trains, a system that lasted until the 1870s, when semaphore signalling was finally installed.

In 1898, largely because of huge traffic generated by the annual Henley Royal Regatta, a second track was installed.

Today the line, although back to single track, continues to flourish, with 24 trains each way daily serving Henley and the intermediate stations of Wargrave and Shiplake.

  • Lost Railways of Berkshire is published by Countryside Books, of Newbury, priced £9.99.