diamond geezer

 Thursday, August 08, 2013

50 years ago today, as the media will no doubt insist on repeatedly telling us, The Great Train Robbery took place. The Mail Train from Glasgow, named the Up Special, was stopped in the early hours of the morning and relieved of a considerable sum of money. They timed it well. Monday had been a bank holiday in Scotland so Wednesday night's train was more rammed with cash than usual as it rumbled unprotected south of the border. The gang were waiting in a quiet corner of Buckinghamshire, halting the train just after 3am on Thursday 8th August 1963. And I just wondered if you'd ever been to visit the site of the crime?

You probably have. The robbery took place on the West Coast line between Tring and Leighton Buzzard, so if you've ever ridden the mainline out of Euston you'll have passed through the precise spot. But what you probably haven't done is to visit the site on foot, to view the tracks from alongside. There's a good reason for that, which is the same reason that the robbery took place here - it's in the middle of nowhere. There are a few small villages nearby, but none especially close, just a B-road and some fields. The nearest station is a mile and a half away, nearer two by road, and is served by as few trains as London Midland think they can get away with. And there's a canal across the fields, that's the Grand Union, which makes walking here almost a pleasure. That's how I arrived.

Sears Crossing
They tweaked the signals using a glove and an Ever Ready battery - one to cover the green and the other to power the red. It's not surprising that the driver stopped, but it was a surprise to his co-driver when he stepped down to investigate and the gang hurled him down the embankment. They then stepped aboard to knock out the driver, before uncoupling the rear ten carriages where the less valuable mail was sorted, leaving the Royal Mail employees inside none the wiser.

You can get an idea of how easy it would have been by looking at the site today. The only buildings nearby are a bunch of farm sheds by the B488, too modern to have been here in 1963, so there'd have been nobody to raise the alarm. I doubt there'd have been a gate at the end of the track warning "Danger Overhead live wires", nor a huge pile of manure by the fence to guide them in by smell. This is the lane to Redborough Farm, then and now a public footpath, which pretty soon rises to a bridge across the railway. It's four lines wide with a clear view straight down the tracks in either direction... except at three in the morning, obviously. The slow tracks are on the nearside, the fast tracks on the other, and even on a weekend afternoon it doesn't take long before a long distance or local service comes rushing through. Stop a train here today and another would ram into the back of you fairly sharpish, but that's another problem the heist's early hours timing avoided.

The bridge looks old enough to have been here fifty years ago, but there was never a hut and a portaloo at the bottom of some steps for railway maintenance workers to use. They've been busy, the chain of gantries down the line looks quite modern. And I suspect there's been some remodelling of the embankments here too, because none looks especially steep enough to render a train driver unconscious. When I saw two people approaching I wondered if they were here for the anniversary too, but no, they were merely rambling on to the village of Ledburn, and pausing awhile by the hedgerows to pick (very) early blackberries. So I lingered longer and peered over the parapet... yes, just down there, crime of the century.

Bridego Bridge
Access to the trackside at Sears Crossing wasn't good, so the gang needed to move the train half a mile down the line where it was easier to unload. They'd brought a driver with them, except he turned out to be a bit rubbish, so they had to revive (and threaten) the driver they'd knocked out earlier. He led the loco and the front two carriages to Bridego Bridge, where the robbers formed a human chain down the embankment and hurled the bags into the back of a waiting lorry. They cleared out almost all the contents of the High Value Package Coach in just 15 minutes, then dashed off to their farmhouse lair fearing the police would be close behind.

Bridego Bridge is a narrow arched crossing numbered 127. Only one car at a time can drive through, same then as now, but the height restriction has lowered from 11'3" in 1963 to 10'9" today. Health and safety have also slapped a fluorescent yellow and black arch round the rim, which if nothing else makes the bridge much easier to spot from across the fields. A short distance from a T-junction on the B488, this isn't a busy lane, and I didn't have to step out of the way too often during my visit. The inside of the tunnel is dark and leaky with dripping water. On one wall is some nigh-faded graffiti reading "Imagine waking tomorrow and all music has disappeared". I thought it sounded familiar, and then I remembered I've seen the same phrase painted beneath the White Post Lane bridge at Hackney Wick. It turns out to have been painted by Bill Drummond of the KLF as part of a global art project with his new band, from Beijing to Helsinki, one phrase per date on a world tour.

The slope up to the embankment is fenced off now, with a warning sign threatening trespassers with a fine of £1000. Buster and Ronnie could have paid that with ease. They'd no doubt be chuffed to hear that the bridge has been renamed Train Robbers Bridge, it says as much on a fresh sign erected for maintenance crews. I remember some serious embankment work taking place here a few years back, but I didn't realise as my train sped through that it was in such a historic location. Meanwhile on the far side of the bridge is a pond where members of the Berkhamsted Angling Club go fishing, and a dusty layby where they might park, or where drive-by Robbery Spotters might stop. Only one car slowed to take photos while I was present, although I confess to taking rather more. To be fair it's only a bridge, but it created wanted criminals, then jail birds, then folk heroes.

Cheddington → Leighton Buzzard [map of walk]
After the crime site had been swept for fingerprints, police moved the abandoned train on to Cheddington and stored it on the Aylesbury branch platform. That no longer exists, but the trackbed now forms the access road from the car park down towards the village. Cheddington is a very quiet station, unstaffed as of March this year, and feels quite anomalous on such a major national route. It's even quieter if you walk away from the village, as I did, following lanes with no pavement to try to reach the canal. That's accessed through the village of Horton, then down a zigzag bridleway to a scenic lock. I walked north, past orchids and dragonflies and another lock at Slapton, keeping pace with narrowboats chugging beside. Just beyond the next bridge a path cuts through a field of rape - that's the way to Bridego Bridge. For Sears Crossing stay on the towpath and take the lane from Church Lock in Grove, a tiny hamlet blessed by a 14th century church. And for a different way home keep walking north, past the handymen bargees, the marina and a lockside Fullers pub. You'll head beneath the Leighton Buzzard bypass to follow an attractive watery route through a wildlife park and on into the centre of the town, from which there are rather more trains home. Pray nobody hijacks yours.

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