A Walkers History

A Walker's History of the Railways

Thames and Chilterns

First time travellers on the branch line from Maidenhead to Marlow are often surprised when the train reverses direction at Bourne End. It is easy to assume that you have somehow missed your stop and that the train is now heading back to Maidenhead. But no, the train soon curves away to the west and across the floodplains of the Thames towards Marlow.

A detail of the canopy at Paddington
Why does the train reverse direction in this way? The answer is that the line to Bourne End once went on to High Wycombe, and Marlow was just a branch line off it. This line was in fact only the second line to be built up into Chiltern Hills - the first being the London to Birmingham line that passed through Berkhamsted and Tring in 1838 (see Beginnings). When the Maidenhead to High Wycombe line was built, there were no Chiltern lines out of Marylebone and no Metropolitan Line out of Baker Street. It was to be thirty years before the High Wycombe line had any competition.

The Wycombe Railway opened in 1854, nominally as an independent company, but with the intention of being taken over by the Great Western Railway, as indeed happened in 1867. It was one of several branch lines off the GWR's mainline out of Paddington: the one to Henley opened three years later. The Wycombe line ran via Cookham and was built in single track, in classic branch line style, as it remains to this day.

High Wycombe was not the terminus for long. In 1862 the line was extended to Princes Risborough, becoming the first railway to reach that town. There was an intermediate station at West Wycombe - near the famous caves - which closed in 1958, but no station at Saunderton until 1901. Barely had this opened when in 1913 it was burnt down by suffragettes, one of several similar attacks.

Once past Princes Risborough, the line was liberated from the confines of the Chilterns and spread out in several directions across the flat plains beyond. In 1863 a line was built to Aylesbury: this is the line that goes through Monks Risborough and Little Kimble, and once again it is still single track. (This was not, incidentally, the first line to Aylesbury: a branch had been built to the town from Cheddington on the London to Birmingham line as early as 1839. There was also a branch line from Watford to Rickmansworth, opened in 1862: both lines closed in the early 1950s, though Rickmansworth and Watford remain linked by the Metropolitan Line, built 30 years later: see below.)

Another line from Princes Risborough went to Thame, reached in 1862, and by 1864 this route had linked up to a junction on the GWR line between Didcot and Oxford (which is only 23 miles from Princes Risborough). There was also a short line south westwards from Princes Risborough to Chinnor and Watlington, opened in 1872 (see Lines we lost).

Rather surprisingly given that it was quite a substantial town, the branch line to Marlow did not open until 1873, 19 years after the Wycombe Railway had started services. It was built from Bourne End (until then known as 'Marlow Road') by the Great Marlow Railway Company - a vehicle for local investors. The name did not reflect any affiliation with the Great Western: the town itself was known as Great Marlow until the end of the nineteenth century, to distinguish it from the nearby village of Little Marlow - but right from the start the Great Western Railway operated the branch, and went on to buy it in 1897. The train on this route was known as the ‘Marlow Donkey’ (a term of affection or an unflattering reference to its speed?) which explains the name of the pub near Marlow station today.

The Great Western Railway is of course one of the most celebrated of Victorian railway companies, and it is the only one to have kept its identity intact until the present day. In the 'grouping' of 1923, when the Victorian companies were merged into four large ones at the urging of the government (see The golden age of the railways), the GWR kept its name and network, and merely added some other minor railways. From 1947, under nationalisation, it was the British Railways Western Region, but since privatisation in 1996-7 the franchise is once again known by its original Victorian name. Parts of its infrastructure were recognised in 1999 as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The GWR’s chief engineer and creative genius was the famous Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Much has been written about his various engineering marvels, but for our purposes two are worth mentioning. One is Paddington Station itself. The present structure opened in 1854, replacing an earlier station to its immediate north west. Its once rather grimy canopy has now been fully cleaned and restored and has an opulence (see photo) that you find in no other major terminus. (The original station, incidentally, was right on the edge of London when it opened, surrounded by fields: it became a freight terminal and lasted in this role, through various redevelopments, until 1975.)

The other point to note is that Brunel built the mainline out of Paddington to be as straight, and flat as is humanly possible: this was to make his trains fast, though the fact that he built the line to a wide 7ft gauge (ie track width: as opposed to the 4ft 8.25 inches that was standard on the rest of the rail network) also meant he needed to avoid tight curves. The wider gauge was more expensive to build, however - Brunel was an engineering genius, not a business one - and made connection with other railway companies' lines impossible. In the end the GWR bowed to the inevitable and changed its tracks to standard gauge. The Wycombe branch was converted in one week in August 1870, though some GWR lines remained broad gauge until 1892.

Brunel’s obsession with keeping his railway line flat can be seen in his bridge across the Thames at Maidenhead, which can be seen close up on the Maidenhead to Marlow walk. Opened in 1839, this has the two flattest brick arches ever built – 128 feet or 39 metres wide, but only 24 feet or 7 metres high - and was built this way to keep gradients on this stretch of line down to just 1 foot in 1,320. This bridge is the one that features in the famous 1844 Turner painting Rain, Steam and Speed, now in the National Gallery.

Brunel's famous flat-arched bridge at Maidenhead
Maidenhead was the first terminus of the Great Western when it started services from Paddington in 1838, though the original station for the town was the one now called Taplow, on the London side of the bridge: it was not until 1878 that the current Maidenhead station opened. The line was swiftly expanded westwards to Twyford (1839), Reading (1840) and on via Pangborne and Goring, where it passes through the Chilterns, to Swindon (all reached in 1840) and Bristol (1841).

An early branch line was the one from Reading to Hungerford, via Aldermaston, Newbury and Kintbury, all reached in 1847, which carried on to Bedwyn and Devises in 1862. Another line opened from Reading to Basingstoke in 1848, passing through Mortimer, which is apparently a fine example of one of Brunel’s ‘chalet-style’ rural stations. Both lines were built to keep the London and South Western Railway out of GWR territory.

The Newbury and Devises route was eventually extended to provide a shortcut to Plymouth, which is the normal mainline route today (and the reason why you need to take great care crossing the railway line at the end of the Kintbury to Great Bedwyn walk), but this did not open until 1906. Until then the Great Western was known not just as “God’s Wonderful Railway” but also as the “Great Way Round” because all its trains to Exeter went via Bristol (as a few still do). The London and South Western had a more direct route via Salisbury (see A more rational railway) but it has always been a slower one. The Great Way Round jibe was also a reference to the GWR’s indirect route to Wales, where trains had to go via Gloucester until 1886, when the Severn Tunnel finally opened: the fast line via Bristol Parkway did not open till 1901, however.

Back in the Chilterns, the routes we use today came relatively late, perhaps because of its hilly terrain or lack of population. The Metropolitan Railway (see London's Victorian Railways) was extended as early as 1868 to Swiss Cottage, but under the chairmanship of Sir Edward Watkin (who was also chairman of the South Eastern Railway) it then went to Finchley Road, West Hampstead and Willesden Green in 1879, Harrow in 1880, Pinner in 1885, Rickmansworth in 1887, and Chorleywood, Chalfont Road (now Chalfont & Latimer) and Chesham in 1889.

The original plan was to continue from there to Berkhamsted (which is just four miles away to the north east) and Tring, but Watkin also had a secret plan to run trains from the Midlands to the Channel Tunnel, and instead the line was extended from Chalfont Road to Amersham, Great Missenden, Wendover and Aylesbury in 1892.

The previous year the Metropolitan had also taken over the Aylesbury & Buckingham Railway, which had a line out to Verney Junction, a tiny village which was a stop on the Oxford to Cambridge line. This remote rural station some 50 miles from London (admittedly only served by six trains a day) was the unlikely terminus of the Metropolitan until 1936, when services ceased beyond Aylesbury. Metropolitan trains from Amersham to Aylesbury - which were steam-hauled north of Rickmansworth - continued until 1961.

For the other half of his line to the Midlands, Watkin was relying on the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway, yet another railway of which he was chairman. In 1889 he drew up plans to drive that south from Nottingham to link with the Metropolitan Railway at Quainton Road, a stop between Aylesbury and Verney Junction. There were already three other mainlines from London to the Midlands – including the flashy Midland Railway, which was itself regarded as an upstart when it had driven south from its Derbyshire heartland and opened the grandiose St Pancras Station in 1868 - and so this new scheme was widely mocked. The Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire soon acquired the nickname of the “Money Sunk & Lost”, and when renamed the Great Central Railway in 1897, it became the “Gone Completely”. This proved prescient, as the company never paid a dividend to its shareholders.

Baker Street station today
Watkins got his scheme approved by Parliament in 1893, but then had a stroke and had to retire. Nevertheless his line got built. It shared Metropolitan tracks from Aylesbury into London via Amersham and Harrow, and the original plan was for a merger between the two companies and a terminus combining Great Central services with those of the Metropolitan Line at Baker Street.

However, Metropolitan shareholders wisely preferred to keep their profitable London railway, with its nascent suburban traffic, apart from this more speculative long distance railway, so the track for the new line turned aside into a new station, which eventually came to be sited at Marylebone. (There was another site considered further north. In Aberdeen Place NW8, about a kilometre to the north west of the current station there was until recently a grand pub called Crocker's Folly, which was built in expectation of railway customers who never came. The building is now boarded up, but its name is still visible.)

In the same year that Marylebone opened - 1899 - the Great Central and Great Western jointly opened a link from High Wycombe to a point near South Ruislip station, taking in Beaconsfield and Gerrards Cross. This is the other main route out of Marylebone to this day. The Great Western used this route for its mainline to Birmingham Snow Hill, and a link to the line from Paddington still exists, though it is only used during engineering works. These more direct lines to High Wycombe made the Bourne End to High Wycombe route redundant, and it closed in 1970, though as noted we still use the rest of the branch to go to Marlow.

Marylebone was the very last London terminus to be built and it had grand ambitions - as can be seen from the Landmark Hotel across the road from it, originally the Great Central Hotel. The station itself also looks fairly substantial from the front, though the poet John Betjeman likened its appearance to “a branch public library in a Manchester suburb”.

When you get inside, however, you find four platforms tucked away at one end, and in fact the station never had more than this, even though it was originally planned to have ten. Despite its grandiose name, the Great Central never attracted many customers - the first three trains into Marylebone only had 52 passengers in total, barely outnumbering the staff. In the first half of the twentieth century there were just 13 passenger services a day, seven of them express trains to Manchester.

The rest of the land behind the terminal was eventually sold off to developers, and when the station wanted two new platforms in 2006 they had to be built awkwardly at the far end of platform four. The hotel, which had never flourished, became the headquarters of British Railways in 1948.

The station nearly closed altogether. After 1959 it lost its long distance services beyond Nottingham, and in the Beeching cuts in 1966 all services north of Aylesbury were stopped. In the 1980s it was proposed to route the remaining High Wycombe service into Paddington and link Aylesbury back into the Metropolitan Line. Marylebone was to be demolished and turned into a bus station. A closure notice was issued in 1984, though rescinded in 1986 after fierce opposition.

As late as the 1990s the station was largely used by commuters and was deserted in the middle of the day, but since then everything has turned around. Services into Marylebone have increased and the hotel, which reopened in 1991, has gone from strength to strength. Chiltern Railways has been one of the big success stories of the 1996 rail privatisation, even re-starting services to Birmingham Snow Hill on the old Great Western mainline.

In 2015 the company also opened a new link between Marylebone and Oxford. This uses not the old GWR line from Princes Risborough to Thame and Oxford mentioned earlier in this section – that line closed in 1963 – but a new link from the Chiltern mainline at Bicester. This in turn is part of the planned reopening of the Oxford to Bedford line, fifty years after it closed in the Beeching cuts (see The controversial Dr Beeching). A disused section of the old Great Central route beyond Aylesbury will also be opened to passenger services as part of the scheme, linking into the Oxford to Bedford line and allowing Chiltern trains to run from Aylesbury to Milton Keynes.

These are the first new non-high speed rail links into London and in over a century, and surely a resounding riposte to all those in the 1960s and 1970s who thought that railways were a thing of the past.

© Peter Conway 2010-17 • All Rights Reserved

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