Metro-land revisited The Buckinghamshire Railway Centre Quainton Road
The Metropolitan Railway had ideas well above its station. In the 1880s there were plans to boost traffic by linking London to places far outside the commuter hinterland - cities such as Oxford and Manchester. By buying up a failed railway company they reached out as far as the grassy plains of the Vale of Aylesbury, nearly halfway to Birmingham. And at Quainton Road, down an obscure uninhabited country lane, the company established its bridgehead. Here the tracks split, with one branch steaming north [photo] to Verney Junction, the other west [photo] to the hilltop village of Brill. But the railway artfully skirted even the smallest centres of population so there was very little passenger traffic, and the express trains to the Midlands never materialised. When London Transport took over the Metropolitan in 1933 they had no interest in running rural Buckinghamshire services and so retreated to Aylesbury, and later 20 miles further back to Amersham. When Betjeman came to Quainton Road in 1972 he found just a footbridge between deserted platforms, and a rarely-used goods line stretching off into nowhere.
The view from the footbridge at Quainton Road is quite different today [photos]. Look down the line and you'll see a second (wheelchair accessible) metal footbridge, several well-preserved buildings and maybe even people waiting for trains. That's because the site has been taken over by the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre - one of those dark, sooty places where grown men come to play with steam engines. There's everything you'd expect - a picturesque station [photos], a museum in a Nissen hut, a tea room, and several sidings full of engines and carriages in various states of restoration. And on special days (like this last bank holiday) the centre runs an hourly diesel service down to Aylesbury, oh-so-briefly reconnecting Quainton Road to the main rail network. On Betjeman's birthday I took a rare opportunity to ride out and take a look.
Two steam locomotives were in operation, one still resplendent in Metropolitan livery [photo]. Visitors were treated to a quarter of a mile ride down the track for a view of some cows in a field, and back again, and back again, and back again [photo]. To make the trip in any way memorable you had to sit in the front carriage, right behind the smoking engine, else you could have been aboard any timewarped train on a return journey to nowhere. Two other scales of locomotive were available, courtesy of the Vale of Aylesbury Model Engineering Society. The medium sized trains were for sitting astride and then being chugged round a small twisty circuit (perfect for keeping keen kids of all ages occupied) [photo]. The smaller sized trains were radio controlled and went round and round in circles on a plywood platform until you got tired of watching. In the nearby picnic area members of the society jostled to buy spanners and oily metal bits from a small kiosk, while visitors treated themselves to individually cling-filmed slices of battenburg to eat alongside a polystyrene cup of steaming tea.
Outside the gift shop a fairground organ played repeatedly, as grating as a ringtone but impossible to switch off. Two volunteers in smart black uniforms guarded the entrance to the downline platform lest any miscreant try entering without having their ticket clipped. Some of the day's visitors spent their time rifling through railway ephemera, others were intent on capturing the perfect shot of a train or two puffing by, but most were content to wander from attraction to attraction in a nostalgic haze. As an extra incentive this weekend, the centre had laid on a Vintage Vehicle Show in the car park. Scores of gleaming motorbikes and a few scooters revved in through the gates and parked up beside a gaggle of US army jeeps. Motorists with Morgans and Morris Minors sat and unwrapped tinfoil sandwiches behind their open boot, then stood around and compared hub caps and radiators with fellow enthusiasts. The road and rail crowd mixed fleetingly, then returned to be with their own kind.
For a brief moment it was just about possible to imagine this old railway junction as the hub of a mighty Metropolitan empire, with the Manchester Express pulling in on one platform to exchange passengers with the Oxford Pullman on another [photo]. But one look out from the footbridge, across acres of empty pasture towards far distant villages, told a very different story [photo]. This station was never meant to be the Clapham Junction of the south Midlands. Quainton Road was always destined to be a museum piece - the pipedream of men playing with trains - and its current destiny suits the place just perfectly.
"In those wet fields the railway didn't pay. The Metro stops at Amersham today." John Betjeman at Quainton Road ("Metro-land", BBC, 1973)