|Article by P E B Butler, courtesy of Wymington Millennium Book Committee
Railway Deviation & Memories
Many Bedfordians, I am sure, will remember the late Geoffrey Webb, of All Saints Road in Bedford, who died in November 1991. Geoff was a noted railway historian, a man who was never content to quote second hand sources if it was at all possible to access the original material.
Most of his researches were done in the days before the invention of the photocopier, and so he had no alternative but to copy out every extract that he studied by hand. The result of all this labour of love was a large collection of files and notebooks.
I was fortunate to be able to acquire a large amount of this collection after his death and since then have been slowly working my way through it in order to produce an index and thus make it more readily available for future railway historians.
A piece headed "Wymington Deviation opened 4th May 1884" made me target the task in hand and, instead, my mind went back to my childhood days when I lived at Wymington and the part the Deviation played in them.
But what is the Wymington Deviation and why was it built? To get a clear picture it will be necessary to go back beyond 1884 to the early days of railways in the area. The Leicester & Hitchin Extension of the Midland Railway (M.R.) had been opened in May 1857 and had been built to a tight budget which meant that the principal contractor, Thomas Brassey, was forced to go over the intervening ridges rather than round or through them. Between Wellingborough and Bedford, which are situated on the Nene and Ouse rivers respectively, the ground rises to a height of 315ft. Despite quite a deep cutting at the summit, southbound trains are still faced with 3½ miles at a ruling gradient of 1 in 120, whilst northbound trains face 4 miles at 1 in 119.
This fact, coupled with ever increasing amounts of traffic and the M.R's policy of only using small underpowered locomotives, inevitably led to increasing delays particularly in the southern direction when the coal trains would be fully laden.
The M.R. attempted to overcome this problem by reducing the lengths between each signal box, This resulted in additional boxes at Puddington (sic). The box was situated where the line crossed Podington Lane and Sharnbrook Summit. From the early records we know that at the Podington Lane site there was a siding which allowed southbound trains to be shunted off the main line in order to allow the expresses to pass. No evidence of this box or the siding can be found today. However, no problem exists for the Summit box because the recess in the cutting wall on the west side is still there for all to see.
The continuing growth of traffic and the delays arising tram the need for the M.R. traffic to reach London over the Great Northern Railway's line from Hitchin to Kings Cross eventually led, as is well known, to the building of the London Extension from Bedford to St Pancras, opened in 1868. This fact, however, whilst solving one problem, only helped to create another, namely that traffic was still increasing and by definition, so was the congestion.
Eventually, the decision was taken to quadruple the tracks from Glendon (north of Kettering) to St Pancras. All the new goods lines in the area were built on the eastern side of the original tracks apart from at Wymington where the lines, whilst still on the eastern side, make a wide sweep away from the main line in order to keep the severity of the gradients down, and piercing the summit ridge by Sharnbrook Tunnel, some 1860 yards in length.
The actual start and finish of the Deviation is shown on the map and is 3 miles long. It boasted one intermediate signal box at Wymington where the writer was first introduced to the mysteries of signalling and began to learn something of the lives of the men who manned these lonely outposts.
So much then of why the Deviation was built. What of my association with it? At this point we must introduce my maternal grandfather, Grandpa Hadley. Grandpa believed in his daily walk, usually accompanied by the next door neighbour's dog, Rags. These two tramped the fields for miles around and usually their trek would involve walking along the railway line at some stage. I was always keen to accompany him and so was brought up in the knowledge that walking on the railway was normal BUT that it was trespassing! Grandpa would never walk near the signal box, unless he knew it was closed, or if he suspected that someone might be working on the track. One of our favourite walks was to Sharnbrook Summit, known locally as Bank Top. At one time there was a small row of four cottages built by the M.R. at the top of the cutting immediately south of the summit on the western side.
The nearest villages from these cottages were Wymington and Souldrop, 2¼ and ¾ miles away respectively. The former could only be reached by walking along the top of the tunnel or along the line itself. The railway had employees from both villages and their children tended to go the school in the village from which their parents came. The Journey to Wymington entailed crossing an unusual footbridge at the northern end of the tunnel - unusual in that the bridge was, in fact, an aqueduct with a walkway on the top. This bridge was known to the locals as the 'Akkadock', derived, I subsequently realised from the word aqueduct.
One of the houses at Bank Top was usually occupied by one of the signalmen who manned the Summit box. Grandpa told me that the box was closed after someone had come out of the box one foggy morning and had been killed by a train. How much of this was fact or myth I am unsure, but a recent inspection of the Coroner's records for Bedfordshire revealed that a James Partridge of Wymington was killed by a train on 6th November 1883. This fits in well since the Deviation would not have been open at that time and the need for the box disappeared once the new line was opened in 1884.
My earliest recollections of Bank Top are of roaming around the deserted houses and peering down the deep well at the back. Naturally, they had had carefully tended gardens in the past and there were several good plum trees that produced bumper crops in season. The banks of the cutting on the east side near the summit was always a good place for wild strawberries, but the best always seemed to grow near the lineside so one had to keep an eye open for approaching trains, not that there was much possibility of them creeping up on you because they were always working hard as they breasted the summit. I still recall those days when I see today's trains gliding over almost effortlessly.
Wymington signal box was never the haunt of my Grandfather. He knew most of the signalmen but I can never recall seeing him in or talking about the box. But one day the signalman invited me, the lad who would sit for hours on the fence at the back of the box, to join him. I was taught the art of using the bell tapper by practicing with a teaspoon on a saucer. Experienced signalmen can tell who is at the next box just by listening to the manner in which the signals are sent. What pleasure there was when I had learnt the art - and art it is - of pulling off the distant signal. Most, semaphore distant signals today are electrically operated and require little effort, but getting to grips with half a mile of wire and one which was on a curve required just the right amount of pull in the travel of the lever in the frame. I would look to see if the little repeating arm in an instrument in the box moved and which told me the out of sight signal had moved correctly.
In a box that only had five working levers it may seem unlikely that one could ever be really busy, but in those days some 40 years ago there was always a steady stream of traffic in both directions. On one never to be forgotten evening the main line became blocked at short notice and passenger traffic was diverted to the goods line. We had no sooner sent 'train entering section' to Souldrop for yet another lumbering coal train, and sent ' train out of section' to Irchester when Irchester 'offered' us an express. What a thrill for me to operate the signals as the impatient train quickly appeared around the bend.
What did they mean by sending him on a goods line and being stopped at some unheard of signal box!
Most weekday evenings, because of congestion in the Wellingborough area, the 'Burton' would stand at our tall M.R. home signal. The 'Burton' was a train of empty beer barrels that worked through to Burton-on-Trent. I never saw the train of full beer barrels because it came through towards midnight.
So much then for the box. How I regret never photographing it, but in those seemingly far off days who could imagine the railways changing or signal boxes closing and being demolished?
Some years ago, at the funeral of an Aunt I got into conversation with an elderly gentleman who had clear memories of the remains of the large navvy encampment that had existed at Wymington during the construction of the Deviation. The site was on a marshy field of some 2 acres and between 400 and 500 workmen and their families lived there. Such were the appalling conditions under which these people lived, that a local landowner, magistrate and M.P., one Charles Magniac of Colworth House, Sharnbrook, actually encouraged these people to come onto his estate so they could have a break from their dreadful living conditions!
The site, when I lived in Wymington, was just a field that was always known as 'Fiyards', which I assumed was a corruption of 'Five yards'. However, my informant told me it was derived from 'Fire yards', Presumably, towards the end of its days, a fire had swept through the shanty town, destroying much of it. One building did survive and I remember this barn like structure from when I lived in the village. It was inhabited by a brother and sister named Green. It would be of great interest to have had a photograph of this building because it would have been a record of what a superior, navvy dwelling looked like. Being on the edge of the site was probably why it had survived the fire.
A few hundred yards to the north of the signal box was, and is, a small farm overbridge. This bridge has two links with the past for me. The first concerns Grandpa Hadley and his two sons, my Uncles, Bill and George. Before the Second World War Uncle George was a guard on first the M.R. and then the L.M.S. as it became in 1923. He regularly worked trains that came through Wymington and by prior arrangement with my other Uncle would be on the look-out for the rabbit or mushrooms that Uncle Bill would drop into a wagon near the guards van as it passed under the bridge. More delicate items such as eggs called for an unofficial stop near the box! Once the train arrived at Cricklewood, Uncle George would climb into the appropriate wagon and retrieve the 'droppings'!
The second link is much more personal. Under the bridge there flowed a little stream by the trackside and in which grew some splendid watercress. Now my Grandmother was very partial to watercress, especially for Sunday tea and although a devout Anglican with strong views on what should or should not be done on the Sabbath, never had any objections to Grandpa popping up just before Sunday lunch to gather the watercress. The overbridge is situated on a left hand curve so visibility is limited but with no goods trains on Sundays one was quite safe. On this particular Sunday morning I had gone with Grandpa and we were so busy with the important business that we never heard or saw the "Jubilee" class locomotive with its diverted express until it was almost on top of us! We leapt for the embankment and were safe, but made sure that on future visits we kept our eyes and ears open.
One other location has a name which is derived from its early railway history. At a point close to the northern commencement of the Deviation is a disused sand pit known locally as 'The Ballasole’, presumably derived from Ballast Hole and excavated when the line was being built. Sand from here was probably used for the cement being used on the bridges and tunnel.
The Deviation starts, at its northern end, at Irchester signal box, this being the only place where the two sets of lines are level with each other and where a crossover could be situated. The boxes here and at Sharnbrook were closed in Dec 1987 and May 1981 respectively with the advent of the power signalling schemes. All the lines from St Pancras to just north of Sharnbrook are now controlled from West Hampstead in London, and the lines northwards from Leicester. The signal box at Suuldrop was closed in Dec 1966 and 'my' box at Wymington in March 1963.
Despite the cutbacks of recent years, the Deviation is still in use, albeit now reduced to a single track. How much longer it will survive now we are in the era of Railtrack remains to be seen.
P.E.B. Butler, May 1996.