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South of England Group
Vice Presidents: Richard Hardy; Sir William McAlpine Bt, FRSE, FCIT, FRSA




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The Oxford to Cambridge Line - Then and Now
Richard Crane
13 May 2002

Our speaker on 13th May, Richard Crane, grew up near Bedford St Johns station and was never far away from the railway thoroughout his school education. Even in the late '50s and early '60s the line was under threat, and friend in the church choir persuade Richard to help in a petition to keep the line open - an early portent for his future. At the end of a Sunday evening service, they both used to shoot out to get a footplate ride on the line, including one time when they had forgotten to take off their surplices. The last day of 1967 saw the final trains from Bedford to Cambridge, and Bletchley to Oxford. In 1980 the Railway Development Society called a meeting to support the remaining part of the line. The result was the formation of a Rail Users Group, and Richard got fingered to be the organiser. Twenty years later they have 550 members, the line has attracted major investment, and Richard is still there!

He then took us through the illustrated tour of the line, stopping off at the stations and interesting spots. We commenced at Oxford Rewley Road, which although closed to passengers in 1951, remained open for goods until 1990; it has been rebuilt at the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre. Thames trains reopened the Oxford to Bicester portion in the late 1980s, and they are now in discussion with the East West Consortium about extending to Bedford. The first stop at Islip had an original stone platform until a few years ago. In it was destroyed in a blizzard and while rebuilt in traditional style, has recently been relocated and is a typical NSE station. Bicester North follows, originally called London Road, with its military railway. A mile east is the crossing of the GW line, followed by Launton Station and the boundary between W and LM regions, just before Marsh Gibbon and Poundon, which was in neither village! This had a waiting room on stilts over quite a significant drop. Only waste traffic runs east of Bicester. The signal box at Claydon Junction is now at the Swindon and Cricklewade railway, but junction still connects the line to Quainton Road. Through Claydon station and to Verney Junction, opened in 1868 for services to Banbury, Buckingham and Baker Street. When Richard visited in the '60s, few trains stopped, resulting in a 6 hour wait. Winslow, the next station, was reasonably close to its village. The Bedford Rail Users Group once organised a special train from the station, resulting in a repainted and fully-illumination - all for one train. Swanbourn station, the last before Bletchley, is notable for a LNWR 0-8-0 depicted in topiary, and is well worrth a visit. Just before Bletchley was Swanbourne sidings, identified by Dr Beeching for development as a freight interchange. However, that didn't happen and the track has been closed from here to Bletchley.

At Bletchley we saw an early colour photo of the 3-coach LMS railcar, and Flying Scotsman on the flyover in 1974, arriving for the Borough Council celebrations. From here we moved onto the original, and still opened, section. There are 10 major road crossing over the line to Bedford, all busy and expensive to operate, but which are now being modernised. Fenny Stratford, the first stop, was originally a staggered platform, then made parallel, and now singled. A 150th celebration was staged here when a brand-new class 150 unit was provided by NSE. The line has had other novel power - in 1998 Class 31 engines and air conditioned stock, which were well received by passengers but badly damaged to the track. We learnt that the village of Woburn Sands was originally called Hog Sty End. Its new name has its prolems though, people have been known to get off asking for Woburn Abbey (5 miles away) or the beach! Aspley Guise, only 1 mile by rail, is some 4 mile by car. We then cross under the M1, and enter Rigemont station which still has its half timbered buildings - as specified by the Duke of Bedford - and signal equipment inside the station building with the levers in the open. This is due to change when the new signal box is built to control the whole line. Climbing over Brogborough Hill and to Liddlington statio, in 1961 the site of one of the first automatic-crossing barriers; the instructions were in English and Italian - for the local brick workers. The station was bought by members of the Rail Users Group and is now a centre for events, the next being a ramble starting at 1.40 on 10th August and a vintage transport day on 31st August. The next stop, Millbrook recently benefitted from £500,000 to bring it up to modern standards. Stewartby once the biggest brickworks in the UK, is now much smaller with no rail freight traffic. The old clay pits are now used to dispose of ballast and houselold waste. Kemptton Hardwick station buildings were partially remodelled by a brick lorry and have now been demolished. Kempston and Elstow halt closed in the war and never reopened.

This brought us into Bedford St John positioned after the flat crossing of the Bedford- Hitchin line. This has been made redundant by diverting services through the old freight yard to a new St Johns station, services terminating in Bedford (Midland Road). The old St John is still there under all the weeds and bushes. Freight traffic continued to Goldington power Station for a little while; the shunting engine from here, coincidentally, also finding its way to the Swindon and Cricklewade Railway. The first station down the line at Willington only opened in 1902, but the only thing now left is the gooods loading dock. Blunham had a thriving goods service with banana vans - of all things. If the line is reopened, as is hoped, a diversion will be necessary here due to new houses. Girtford Halt, between here and Sandy, must be one of the shortest lived stations in the country, opening in 1938 and closing in 1941. Crossing the East Coast Main Line we enter Sandy. The East Coast line was only double-track here, until the Cambridge line closed, when it was widened to 4 track.

The next part was the original Sandy to Potton Tramway. The original loco Shannon is now at Didcot. Poton still had two signal boxes right to the end, and the station, now in private ownership, is the best survivor on the line. After Gamlingay there was a 6 miles climb to Old North Road station, the signal box and goods shed, of which, still exist but the platforms have been filled in. Lords Bridge, originally a clustor of houses, stll exists as the site of Cambridge University's Radio Telescopes which occupy the track bed. Via a quick look at Trumpington, we joined the Eastern Counties line and finished our journey at Cambridge.