diamond geezer

 Monday, November 07, 2016

The least used station in... Buckinghamshire
(Annual passenger usage: 6194)

So far I've visited the least used stations in Berkshire, Hertfordshire, Greater London, Essex, Bedfordshire and Surrey. Next up, and with even fewer passengers than each of the above, is Buckinghamshire. Two Chiltern lines run through the eponymous hills, with a single short branch line to link the two, and it's here that we find the county's two least used stations. One is Monks Risborough, not to be confused with Princes Risborough nextdoor, and the other is a tiny village station with a famous political neighbour. Let's head there.

You can tell it's going to be a good day out on the railway when Michael Portillo joins the ticket queue behind you. I didn't discover where he was going, and he didn't have his camera crew with him, but he spent a lot longer at the counter than I did, and he was wearing chocolate-coloured trousers. We then joined separate trains.

Chiltern run two different services to Aylesbury, one direct via the Metropolitan line and the other further south via High Wycombe. I was on the latter, gazing out at gorgeous autumnal landscapes with increasing awe, and an ever decreasing number of passengers on board. At Princes Risborough we crossed over to the down platform before edging off along the foot of the escarpment up a single track line, a limitation which restricts services to at best hourly. After a few minutes we reached Monks Risborough, where not much happened, then another four minutes took us to Little Kimble. We sped straight through.

As a diminutive station on a minor branch, line, Little Kimble gets a less good service than most. The majority of trains stop, but a handful are timetabled to skip, presumably because deceleration and acceleration costs money, and the number of passengers here doesn't cover it. So we pootled on across the Vale of Aylesbury to the end of the line, hung around for a while while the driver changed ends, and pootled back. All in all it took an extra half an hour to reach Little Kimble for the second time, which may be one reason the station is lightly used, and this time we stopped. Only I got out, and nobody got on. This is very much my favourite kind of railway adventure.

Little Kimble has only one platform, because that's all a single track needs, with a station building in the centre. Until 1872 there was no platform, indeed the entire station was an afterthought, this line originally being used solely for freight. A row of metal seats is the only luxury provided today, there isn't even any shelter in case it rains, save the overhang of the former ticket office roof. This is now a private home, complete with a conservatory and a small garden up the side, relaxing in which is anything but private if there are passengers on the platform, but thankfully there rarely are.

The station's big moment in the spotlight came in May 1998 at the end of the 24th G8 summit. World leaders had been meeting in Birmingham, lucky things, and were then invited down to spend some time at Chequers. Tony Blair and the rest of the men came via traditional routes, but Cherie commandeered the Royal Train and transported the leaders' wives from Snow Hill to Little Kimble, the closest station. Amongst those who alighted here on that day were Bernadette Chirac and Naina Yeltsin, but perhaps more importantly (and definitely more relevantly) a certain Hillary Clinton. If she's victorious in tomorrow's US election I can at least say I've shared a platform with a future US President.

In common with most of the other least used stations on the network it's no longer possible to buy a ticket here. Instead there's a permit to travel machine, and a sign listing 'popular fares', a purely relative term. Fivepence in the machine provides legal recourse to hop aboard, and having encountered no guard on the train (in either direction) I suspect a short hop down to one of the Risboroughs would have been possible for nothing. Out front are three car parking spaces, or perhaps four if you're allowed to block the entrance, another reason why the station is lightly used. But unlike several of the other stations I've visited there is indeed a reasonable sized village on the doorstep, indeed there are two.

Welcome to the delightfully named parish of Great & Little Kimble cum Marsh. Little Kimble is closest to the station, as you'd expect, a slightly sprawling settlement spread intermittently along lanes and main roads. Most people live near the railway bridge, which is a horror to walk under as a pedestrian, with lorries appearing at the last second to squeeze beneath. There was a pub, now a centre of Indo Bangla cuisine, but with planning permission to be turned into three cottages, because that's modern village life. There's also a pastel-painted village hall of understated Thirties vintage, a patch of mobile homes you can only see from the railway, and a bus service that's a lot better than the railway.

The nicest spot is around the parish church, a small medieval affair hidden behind an avenue of yew trees. Look over the churchyard fence and you'll spot some lumps in the ground which were once part of a Norman motte and bailey castle. But look inside and there's something much more impressive - the remains of a set of early 14th century wall paintings. Various fragments survive on various walls, the best of which shows St George posing with shield and lance dressed in the armour of the day, and a princess to his right perhaps holding a ball of thread. If there was once a dragon, it's long vanished.

Great Kimble's church is barely half a mile up the road, and considerably larger. It too is a lovely building full of ancient character, the oldest feature being a traditional Aylesbury font dating to 1172. Twenty-two such fonts are known to exist, of which this is the finest, with circular scalloped bowl and square scalloped base, the rim richly ornamented with foliage. Across the road, opposite the unmarked western exit from Chequers, is another former pub, The Bernard Arms. Boarded up in 2011 and now in decay, this unassuming local was once a regular haunt for Prime Ministers and their guests. Harold Wilson and Edward Heath dropped in the most, while John Major once popped round with Boris Yeltsin, and even Ronald Reagan's had a pint.

The eastern part of the parish rises up onto the escarpment, which was all the excuse I needed to head up into the Chilterns proper and enjoy the view. Top of the shop is Pulpit Hill, under the care of the National Trust, where the ramparts of a hillfort are concealed in the trees. But it was the trees elsewhere that truly dazzled, the oranges and browns and reds across neighbouring ridges and hillsides utterly resplendent in the autumn sun. Even Chequers is presently surrounded by a halo of gold, as my stroll round the perimeter of the restricted site made clear. There is a reason why so many Prime Ministers have hidden away here, the same reason why Little Kimble station ought to receive far more visitors come to revel in the hills.

» twelve Kimble-y photos
» six especially autumnal photos

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