Branch Line Britain - celebrating Britain's minor railways

Midland - Bletchley memory 1

Roger Gurney kindly allowed us to publish his memories of living in Lidlington and travelling on the line as a schoolboy. The article was originally published on the Lidlington Community website.

I was born in 1940 and for the first ten years lived with my grandparents at 18, Lombard Street, Lidlington.

My family had some connections with the railway. Great grandfather Charles Francis had been the landlord of the 'Bedford Arms', an isolated pub now demolished, at Ridgmont station where his principal business was coal merchant based at Ridgmont sidings. That business eventually became 'Charles Franklin'. My grandfather, George Gurney, was signalman at Millbrook station for nearly 50 years, retiring when he was about 70. He cycled to and fro daily, and in his spare time looked after his large garden, served on the Parish Council, and was a staunch member of the old Wesleyan Chapel in the High Street.

From the back of no.18 one could see all the comings and goings on the railway. My earliest memories were of unlined black L.M.S engines with their gold and red numbers and letters, these were probably 'Prince of Wales' 4-4-0s, or old 'George V' classes of L.N.W.R vintage. There were also long troop trains composed of L.N.E.R Gresley 'teak' coaches with sloping roof ends, full of U.S soldiers. Village children used to wait on the platform calling out 'any gum chum' and the soldiers would throw out sweets, gum and the like. My grandmother firmly forbade me to join in, saying it was begging. When we travelled into Bedford by train I used to run around in the old wooden waiting room which I called 'the Grumble' because it echoed a bit. (I was very young then!). My grandfather built some wooden signals for me, which he put at the bottom of a long garden path, near three beehives full of industrious bees. Every time a train approached I would run full pelt down the garden path to work these signals, frequently falling headlong on the path, returning to the house with grazed knees, but more mortified if the train went before I had operated my signals. I was also stung by the bees. Pain teaches one to survive to adulthood so I have to be grateful for the experience. My grandfather seemed to know everyone and always waved or exchanged banter with the passing engine drivers when working in the garden. The bees never stung him.

We used to go on family holidays every year to Llandudno, travelling by train, catching the first train of the day, 6.15 a.m. to Bletchley. Never mind the early hour, the 6.15 was a magical transport to main line expresses, 15 coaches long, hauled by huge locomotives with names, and travelling at up to 80 mph

When I was about eleven years old two things happened. Firstly, I moved with my mother to the 'Dukes Cottages' in Church Street up near the Royal Oak pub. Secondly, in 1951 I left the village school to go to school in Bedford, thereby becoming a regular traveller on the railway for the next seven years.

In common with many boys of my age in that era I soon fell under the spell of steam locomotion. The huge variety of engine classes, and the individual character of the locomotives was fascinating. The locos were like living, breathing machines. The sight, sound, and smell of express trains at speed were, to use a current popular term, awesome. The train services on the branch line fell in to three types. The line ran from Cambridge to Bletchley platforms 7 and 8, and from Bletchley platforms 1 and 2 to Oxford, on which was a small subsidiary branch line to Banbury which was about to close. There were about three trains each way daily between Cambridge and Oxford, about seven trains each way between Cambridge and Bletchley, and about seven trains daily between Bletchley and Bedford, operated by the push-pull, or 'motor train'. In general the through Oxford trains were operated by Cambridge-based locos, the Cambridge-Bletchley trains by Bletchley-based locos, and the 'motor train' by Bedford-based tank engines. Overall this added up to an approximately hourly service, somewhat irregular at certain times of the day. During the week the last train from Bedford St.Johns was at 19.21, so no late nights in town. On Sundays there were three trains each way daily Cambridge-Bletchley.

The Cambridge-based engines were ex-L.N.E.R 4-4-0 D16s which worked to Oxford and back. Nos 62535 and 62541 were regular performers. The Bedford engines were Ivatt ex-L.M.S 2-6-2T 2MT such as no. 41329, later replaced or supplemented by B.R versions very similar in appearance, and built from 1953 onwards such as no 84005. The Bletchley engines were more varied, both in locomotives and types, ranging from 2-6-4T 4MT ex-L.M.S Stanier tank engines to 4-6-0 'Black Fives' Stanier 5MTs and Ivatt 2-6-0 4MT, later supplemented or replaced by B.R 2-6-4 4MT tank engines e.g no.80085 or 4MT 4-6-0 tender engines, such as no.75038.

For a time around 1954/5 an afternoon train from Bletchley to Bedford was headed by a locomotive just fresh from works overhaul, on a 'running-in' turn, returning to Bletchley with the 5.15 p.m. from Bedford St.Johns. Some of the locos were main line 4-6-0 class 6P or 7P express engines such as L.M.S Jubilees, Patriots, and even a Royal Scot. Large green-liveried locos with brass nameplates over the centre wheel arch. This was the train we returned home from school on, so excitement was great. I regret to this day that I took no photos, which is partly why I write this account now.

Freight traffic could also be said to fall into 3 categories- small local movements, mixed freight of varying lengths moving from one region to another, and the heavy brick trains from Forders sidings, Stewartby. The 1 in 129 gradient from Lidlington up to Ridgmont is not severe in railway terms but was enough of a challenge to a long brick train. In some cases the train would be split at Millbrook and taken up to Ridgmont in two lots, or a banking engine was called for, working up to Ridgmont and returning 'light-engine' to Forders.

The freight locos were all ex. L.N.W.R and L.M.S types, with an occasional visit of an ex L.N.E.R engine from the Eastern Region.

L.M.S class 3F and 4F Fowler 0-6-0s, Fowler 'Crab' 2-6-0s class 5MT, Stanier class 8F 2-8-0s and the graceful G2 ex L.N.W.R. 0-8-0 class 7Fs.

The L.N.W.R engines were 1936 rebuilds of 1912/1921 locos, graceful old ladies of the line, which went about their business in a slow unhurried way, without fuss.

Alas no photos of these either. Sometimes B1 4-6-0s and J17 0-6-0s from the Eastern Region appeared on cross-country freights.

The oldest (and smallest) locomotive on the line was a Johnson ex-Midland Railway 0-4-4T class 1P tank no.58085 of Bedford shed which performed sterling service on the motor train for many years. It was built in 1895 and survived until 1959 when it finally gave up the ghost and went under the cutters torch.

On summer Sundays B.R. would run excursions to Hunstanton. Trains of ten or more carriages hauled by a Stanier 'Black Five' had to pull up twice at every station to allow people to board, and the journey to the coast seemed to take ages, travelling via Cambridge and Kings Lynn, and the Royal station at Wolferton (for Sandringham).

Excursions, or cheap fares, were also on offer for trips to special events in London, such as at Olympia.

The rolling stock on the line was in general quite good. The Cambridge-Oxford or Bletchley trains were usually four carriages long, in L.M.S maroon livery, or B.R red and cream. The carriages were compartment stock or open high-back fours with tables and a central aisle. The compartments were wood paneled, 3 seats-a-side with arm rests down or 4 seats-a-side arm rests up, and large picture windows. The push-pull trains were generally two coaches, increasing to three in school term time, and of older vintage.

The leading coach when the train was being pushed had the drivers compartment at the front, and, possibly uniquely, had double entrance doors in the middle with hydraulically operated steps for use at the halts. This was the only means of access for halt passengers. Bow Brickhill, Aspley Guise, Stewartby, and Kempston Hardwick were halts as opposed to stations, their platforms were merely sleepers laid at ground level for a carriage length. All other places were stations with raised platforms and, with the exception of Lidlington, sidings for coal and general goods. The halts received raised wooden platforms when diesel trains arrived. Occasionally when returning from Bletchley on the push-pull train, with the driver safely at the front I could persuade a friendly fireman to allow a footplate ride down to Lidlington, keeping out of sight passing signal boxes.

Passengers on the early morning trains were basically office workers in Bedford and school children attending the various boys and girls schools there. National Service, which continued until 1956, meant that the train was often packed with new recruits travelling to the RAF reception centre at Cardington. They were met at Bedford St.Johns by a large pale blue RAF coach. As the Korean War and the Suez Canal crisis occurred during this time some of them might well have seen active service.

Immigrants came in succession from Southern Italy, then Central Europe during the Hungarian uprising, finding employment in the brickyards, and travelling into Bedford on Saturday mornings. Many were lodged in the old Round House at Brogborough, or around the Marston Valley works.

It has to be said that schoolboys travelling on the line had a reputation for 'high-spirited' behaviour in which the writer played some part, but they were mischievous pranks rather than the surly vandalism that we see today. Locking the carriage as the train arrived at St.Johns by shutting the window straps in the doors, opening the luggage gates on Saturdays to allow the immigrants to avoid the ticket inspectors, and re-arranging the seating, already loose, on an ancient LNWR carriage were some of the pranks. The rocket fired into the night sky as the train left Kempston Hardwick just before bonfire night could be said to be the highlight of these activities. Punishment at school was stern if discovered, which added to the excitement, although when the Headmaster was invited to see the re-arranged LNWR carriage he told the railway authorities that they should have withdrawn it from service long ago, and we were let off, much to our relief and surprise.

The 77 mile line between Cambridge and Oxford crossed several main lines of different regions. At Cambridge one could see 'Britannias' on trains from London Liverpool St to East Anglia. Sandy was a picturesque area to see LNER expresses at speed travelling to Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh from Kings Cross, headed by the streamlined A4s. Bedford was a busy spot on the Midland main line from St.Pancras, as was Bletchley on the West Coast main line from Euston. On to Oxford for Great Western scenes. Oxford was probably unique in that one could see locos from all four regions of B.R in one day. The LNER working from Cambridge, LMS engines from Bletchley, GWR everywhere, and a Southern Region working from Basingstoke. A short walk from Lidlington through Millbrook one could spend pleasant hours at the north portals of Ampthill tunnel on the Midland line. On a still day in Lidlington the expresses on this line could be heard.

So that's it. Today the boring diesels do the work of the old 'motor train' on the mere 16 miles of line remaining, although the projected East-West rail link gives hope for the future.

Should anyone have read to the end of this article and feel the desire to learn more, the following books are recommended:

  1. 'Oxford to Cambridge Railway vol.2 Bletchley to Cambridge'. Bill Simpson. Oxford Publishing Co. 1983
  2. 'Town of Trains, Bletchley and the Oxbridge Line'. A.E.Griggs. Barracuda Books Ltd., Buckingham 1980
  3. 'Railway Nostalgia around Bedfordshire'. David Eatwell. W.D.Wharton, Wellingborough 1995.
  4. 'The Oxford to Cambridge Railway Forty Years On' by Bill Simpson available from Lamplight Publications £12.95
  5. 'Bedfordshire Branch Lines' by Richard Crane, available direct from the author at 23, Hatfield Crescent, Bedford MK41 9RA £3.00 including postage.

These books may well be out of print now, but there is an excellent railway / ships / aeroplanes specialist bookseller, Robert Humm, at Stamford Railway Station, Stamford, Lincs who can probably help.