HMS Hornbill

Rail connection

In 1942 land next to Culham Station was requisitioned by the Admiralty and the building of a Royal Navy air station started, it was commissioned on 1st November 1944. Its official name was RNAS Culham (or HMS Hornbill) and was originally an aircraft receipt and despatch unit but latterly being a centre for training naval reservists. It was reputed to be the Naval establishment most remote from the sea. Various activities took place there until it closed on 30th September 1953. Our interest lies in the fact that a siding was laid to serve the base. This was not connected directly to the main running line, but ran off the cattle dock siding. Reference to signal box diagrams suggests that the rail connection was lifted soon after closure.

After closure part of the old air station was used as an Admiralty storage facility until 1966. The main site was taken over by the UK Atomic Energy Authority in 1960 and it became known as the Culham Laboratory, now Culham Science Centre, with a new entrance drive opening directly onto the main A415. Part of the original base nearest to Culham station was divided off and put to use as an industrial park being called Culham Number 1 Site. Many of the original buildings and even hangars are now occupied by a variety of businesses. Interestingly, the old gate house also falls within its boundary. Whilst much building develpoment has taken place within the main Science Centre site, it is still possible to make out the pattern of the original three runways.

As an interesting aside, during the early 1960's a plan emerged to develop part of the site into a prison. The idea was to create a unit for 500 men on a 320 acre area to faciitate the closure and demolition of the old Oxford prison in the city centre. In the event the scheme was finally cancelled in 1982 and the old prison was eventually closed, but the buildings survived to be redeveloped as a tourist attraction and hotel. Whilst empty it had been used as a location in a number of films.

Remains of siding to HMS Hornbill

Track that does remain

A very short section of track remains embedded in concrete alongside platform 2. Probably it was not worth the effort digging it up at the time. Network Rail are using the land beyond as a hard materials storage area and is therefore closed to public access. One end of the track is terminated by the replacement platform 2 which was built in 1993. The other end enters the Network Rail site for a few yards and abruptly stops with a clump of trees growing on the trackbed.

Planning approval was obtained during 2016 for Network Rail to extend platforms 1 and 2 towards Oxford so that longer trains could stop at Culham. We were also told that the ultimate plan was that when Network Rail eventually vacated the materials store a larger car park would be developed similar to the one at Radley. This would probably mean that the last remains of the rail connection to RNAS Culham will disappear for good.

Remains of siding to HMS Hornbill

A possible remnant

No traces of track remain in Culham number 1 site. However, with a bit of imagination, it is possible to visualise where it might have run. What could be the remains of a loading wharf/platform can be seen in Culham no1 site adjacent to the main line. This is of the right orientation and height relative to the track described above, and follows what would be a logical and fairly straight line from it. Without a plan of the old Air Station this is only guesswork however. A 1950s track layout drawn by BR shows a short single siding running into the base which does look as if it would have run alongside this wharf.

Possible remains of wharf in RNAS Hornbill

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