The Harpenden to Hemel Hempstead Railway
The origins of the Harpenden to Hemel Hempstead Line date back to the early 1860's when many Hemel Hempstead people and businesses wanted to improve their transport by linking to a local mainline service.
Local supporters formed the "Hemel Hempsted & London & North Western Railway Company" (HH&LNWR) and obtained an Act of Parliament on 13th July 1863 to allow for a 1.75 mile line from Hemel Hempstead town westwards to the London & North Western Railway (LNWR) station at Boxmoor. (Notice the missing "a" in Hempsted, a peculiarity which lasted in railway references to Hemel Hempstead till the 1960s!)
Negotiations with LNWR did not go well and eventually it was agreed to take the Line eastwards to join the new Midland Railway line at Harpenden Junction (N.B. not yet Harpenden Station) with stations at Hemel Hempstead and Redbourn.
Midland Railway Operations
The new Line was opened on 16th July 1877 with a northward curve at Harpenden towards Luton. It took local cottage-industry straw plait from Hemel Hempstead to the hat makers of Luton and also provided a local passenger service.
The economics of the Line turned out to be poor and the HH&LNWR surrendered the Line to the Midland Railway to run in return for a fixed rent. The Line west of Hemel Hempstead Station remained unused until the Midland Railway gained the contract to ship coal to the new Gasworks at Boxmoor in 1880 - and this remained a staple part of Nickey Line usage until the centre of Hemel Hempstead was redeveloped in late 1959.
The Midland Railway fully absorbed the Line in 1886 and, on 2nd July 1888, changed the Harpenden end curve southwards to allow passengers to go to Harpenden Station to pick up commuter trains to London. A huge brick buttress had to be built to allow for the steep bend and this still remains a very visible feature on that section of the Line.
In 1905, they opened 3 new 'Halts' - Beaumont's Halt by Redbourn, Godwin's Halt east of Hemel Hempstead and Heath Park on the edge of Boxmoor. This was the first time passengers had travelled west of Hemel Hempstead Station.
London, Midland & Scottish Railway
In 1923, Midland Railway was absorbed into the new London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS). Whilst they ordered the building of a new Halt at Roundwood which opened in 1929, they also took over the LNWR bus service which ran between Boxmoor and Hemel Hempstead. This bus service was extended in 1929 to Harpenden in direct competition with its own Nickey Line passenger service - which was shortly afterwards reduced to two trains a day.
Where Did the Name Come From?
The name ‘The Nickey Line’ has been given various explanations.
Due to the steep gradients the name may have derived from ‘funicular’.
Other explanations include a link with the half-length trousers ‘Knickerbockers’ either because they were worn by the navvies who built the line, or because the railway was considered half size, being single track.
Another theory is that the name comes from the parish of St. Nicholas in Harpenden.
After the Railway
The railway land was purchased in the early 1980’s by St Albans District Council and Dacorum Borough Council. The line was opened to the public in 1985 for use as a footpath and cycleway.
Since then, many improvements have been undertaken along the line including surfacing and the construction of steps and access points. Today the Nickey Line provides a hedge-lined peaceful haven for walkers, cyclists and wildlife, managed by Harpenden Town, Redbourn Parish, Dacorum Borough, and St Albans District Councils.
Nicky Line vs. Nickey Line
The name was commonly spelled 'Nicky Line' for many years and has also locally been applied to other ex railway lines turned footpaths. There is however only one genuine 'Nickey Line' and we are encouraging use of the original spelling of the name.
Passenger Service Decline
After 1929 and as road transport increased, the number of railway passengers declined. A Ro-Railer, a hybrid vehicle which used both rail and road, was used for a brief and unsuccessful experimental period in the early 1930’s to combat the poor economics.
The passenger service ran through the war but the last passenger train ran on 16th June 1947.
Railway Lines in 1945 - Railway Magazine
British Rail and Commercial Traffic
British Rail (BR) took over in 1948 but the Line was still used for coal transport and by local manufacturers, farmers and water cress growers. The gasworks closure in 1960 stopped the coal traffic and the redevelopment of the town centre cut the Line there. By 1964, the remaining traffic had stopped and the lines were lifted back to the Claydale Sidings in Cupid Green where Hemelite had its operation.
The Hemel Hempstead Lightweight Concrete Company (Hemelite) had taken over the old brickworks at Claydale Sidings in 1958. From 1959 they used the Nickey Line to transport ash from power stations to their yards in Cupid Green for use in the manufacture of building blocks using their brightly coloured diesel locomotive.
By 1968, BR did not want to operate the branch line any more so the remaining line was sold to Hemelite on 1st February.
In 1979, two years after the railway’s centenary, the Nickey Line was closed because of the BR electricification of the main line. Hemelite took its last delivery of ash on 28th June.
The Cycleway and Footpath
The Nickey Line was bought by the local councils and it opened as a cycleway and footpath in 1985, still linking Harpenden, Redbourn and Hemel Hempstead. It is used primarily for leisure by walkers, dog walkers, runners and cyclists but also by commuters and school pupils as part of their daily routine.
Its value to the local community can be at least partly measured by its usage - Friends of the Nickey Line undertook a "Whole-Line" Lockdown survey in May 2020 and found 12,000 uses in a week with over 1,000 a day just in the Harpenden sections alone.
If you want to dig deeper into the history of the Nickey Line, see our list of sources of further information.
See our Historic Gallery for more Images from the Past.