diamond geezer

 Monday, June 17, 2024

A ride down the Marston Vale line

(where a train journey currently costs just £1, for reasons explained yesterday)

This is the busiest station on the line by far, a key connection to Thameslink and the Midland Mainline. Significant remodelling would be required to allow East West Rail services to pass through, but for now trains to Bletchley start from minor Platform 1a beside the car park, chugging away noisily and hourly.
Nearby: The town centre was fairly buzzy on Saturday, helped by umpteen outdoor market stalls. I see the former M&S on Midland Road (closed 2019) has switched initials and is now a B&M, but the two former department stores on Silver Street remain mothballed and echoingly empty (Beales closed 2020, Debenhams closed 2021).

Bedford St Johns
Barely half a mile from the start of the line trains stop again, this time to serve the south bank of the Ouse. But this is an absolute runt of a station, a brief single platform beneath a road bridge, accessed either down a set of steps or through the back of a desolate and unkempt car park. The Community Rail Partnership has tried brightening up a stretch of fence with some nice river-themed mosaics but to not much avail. It is therefore good news that this is the one station East West Rail have pencilled in for demolition, or rather relocation, shifting it a tad closer to the hospital so that the line here can be dualled.
Nearby: Bedford's museum, The Higgins, continues to impress every time I visit. As well as local stuff and impeccable design galleries it also holds the collection of the great 20th century illustrator Edward Bawden. At present they have a big exhibition displaying more of his works than usual alongside other art inspired by it, including colourful graphics and black and white linoprints, and I felt the need to look round twice that's how much I enjoyed it.

Kempston Hardwick
Not Kempston, where a station would be useful and serve thousands of houses, but beyond the bypass on an insignificant lane close to a trio of logistics centres and hardly any houses at all. Kempston Hardwick is usually the least used station in Bedfordshire which is good because that means I've already blogged about it so had no need to visit again.
Nearby: If Universal get their way a huge new 480-acre theme park will open here, their first in Europe, delivering 8000 jobs and changing this corner of Bedford forever. It won't arrive before the 2030s, however, and if it does then titchy Kempston Hardwick station won't be the gateway, they'd help fund a new halt at Wixams on the mainline instead.

This was once the site of Europe's largest brickworks, a vast multi-chimneyed facility exploiting the clay which underlies the Marston Vale, but it's now closed scuppered by 21st century limits on air pollution. In good news I blogged about the place 10 years ago so had no need to visit again, and in bad news they didn't keep even one of the landmark chimneys, the last four have all been toppled.
Nearby: The new chimney on the horizon belongs to Rookery South, an energy recovery facility which turns residual waste into baseload electricity. Growing alongside is an even newer core which'll soon be a gas-fired power station, again taking advantage of the post-industrial extraction pit locale.

The first things you notice here are the pretty former station house and a whopping adjacent pylon. But the real attraction is a memorial bench near the rear of the northbound platform, from which the face of the most famous local resident beams out. He actually appears twice, once as an army captain from the WW2 Burma campaign and once with head down walking slowly up and down his garden. For this is the Captain Tom Moore memorial bench, unveiled three years ago by his daughter, back when she was well respected and not an evil pantomime villain. There's also a commemorative poem on the railings behind, which swiftly descends into doggerel and which I couldn't take seriously as soon as I'd seen two misplaced apostrophes in the opening line...
He served his country years before, when sky's' were dark with clouds of war
The bench is here because Sir Tom lived a mile away at the Old Rectory in the village of Marston Moretaine. I had an hour between trains so I decided to go and see where he lived, and in the process of doing so walked further than he did during his 100 garden laps. It's quite a hike, either along a busy lane or cutting through Marston Vale Millennium Country Park, a landscaped former claypit. The latter is by far the nicer choice, offering birdwatching opportunities from hides along the wetlands. On the far side I cut across a field, over a tiny stream and through the churchyard of St Mary's, wondering if perhaps the great man's grave was here (no, he's actually buried in Keighley).

His former house is substantial, a seven-bedder, and surrounded by a considerable amount of land despite being bang in the centre of the village. It's also very well screened, either by a high wooden fence or a lot of trees, so you can't actually see the iconic walking-up-down area, nor the corner of the yard where the illegal spa no longer is. I caught a few glimpses of windows and heard the gardener giving the lawn a mow, but all I properly saw was the Planning Appeal notice still taped to a lamppost outside. Returning to the station I passed Captain Tom's local (The Bell, where a Sausage Festival was underway), his nearest Post Office (where he probably queued for stamps) and his nearest Co-Op, before returning to rest my backside against the great man's face while waiting for my next train to arrive.

I didn't get off here.

I told you about the lovely Heritage Centre and tearoom here yesterday.
Nearby: Barely anyone lives here - the village of Ridgmont is over a mile to the southeast - but the area around the station has gained significant transportational significance by being almost immediately adjacent to M1 Junction 13. A significant number of logistics hubs have been squeezed onto the site of a former brickworks, and in all the other directions farmland spreads off towards low hilly ridges as a reminder of how pretty this corner of Bedfordshire once was.

Aspley Guise
I didn't get off here either, this because I'd already visited on a cold December morning in 1997. I had to be on a training course at 9am located in a fiercely remote spot the organisers assumed everyone would drive to. No buses went close, not that early, so my chosen option was a train to Aspley Guise and then a 3 mile walk along entirely inappropriate back lanes. I was almost scuppered by an angry Alsatian appearing by a farm gate, but increased my pace and thankfully arrived bang on time. The course was very dull and I spent my breaktime desperately trying to organise a lift for the journey home. My diary records that the cost of my single ticket was £2.20, and who'd have guessed that almost three decades later the fare would be considerably lower than that.

Woburn Sands
I didn't get off here either. Like Lidlington the station's actually in the village, so that's a bonus passengerwise.
Nearby: The much older village of Woburn (and the famous safari park) are an impractically long walk away, but the giraffes and lions are only visitable by car anyway so that hardly matters.

Bow Brickhill
With one mighty leap we've reached the edge of the artificial conurbation that is Milton Keynes. That's not why the station's here, it was opened to serve the small unswallowed village of Bow Brickhill just to the east. But on the other side of the railway line the residential swirls begin in earnest, indeed at the adjacent roundabout Brickhill Street gains its V10 designation and crosses the city past the Open University and the Tree Cathedral to end by Newport Pagnell Services. I showed you two photos of this tiny station (the platform and the level crossing) in yesterday's post. Level crossings are a major feature on this line, the landscape being so flat.
Nearby: Immediately to the north of the station is the Red Bull Technology Campus, the Tibrook hub which lubricates so much Formula 1 success. Employees and visitors are unlikely to be the kinds of people who tolerate an hourly train service operated by 40 year-old diesels. Adjacent is the lakeside neighbourhood of Caldecotte where Milton Keynes Sailing Club is based, an enclave of cul-de-sacs ideal for those who like watersports and living near a lot of swans.

Fenny Stratford
The railway finally feels urban again at this, the penultimate stop. Fenny Stratford is an ancient market town built where Watling Street crosses the River Ouzel (and more recently the Grand Union Canal). Administratively it was first swallowed up by very-neighbouring Bletchley and then in 1974 by the new town of Milton Keynes. If you're waiting at Fenny Stratford's single platform the hourly timetable means you can probably walk to Bletchley quicker, it really isn't far.
Nearby: I walked from Bow Brickhill because that really isn't far either, although two waterways and the A5 create a considerable disconnect. Along the way I passed a garden centre with a Waitrose, the site of a Roman settlement and the huge rainbow shed that houses Pink Punters, MK's A1 LGBTQI+ nightclub. Full marks to the owner of the electric BMW outside whose registration plate read B1 GAY.

The end of the line, for now, is the paltry platform 6 alongside the seething West Coast Mainline. A sweeping flyover has already been built to connect future trains onwards towards Oxford, which'll serve a new platform as yet unconstructed. Expect the fare to be considerably higher than £1 when that opens, but for now the dozen stops on the Marston Vale line are accessible for a fantastically tiny fare.
Nearby: Bletchley Park obviously, but I blogged that in 2010, ditto the National Museum of Computing nextdoor. On this occasion I sampled the town centre instead, which has the most characterlessly average high street I have ever seen, entirely adequate but utterly undazzling throughout. And then it absolutely chucked it down so I sped back to the station and paid another 65p to go back to Bedford, and here's the ticket...

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