Perhaps you have noticed a little cluster of houses a fraction over a mile north of Long Marston cross roads, on the road to Wingrave? Many older residents will know this as Marston Gate, the site of Long Marston’s past connection to the railway network.
The branch line that passed through Marston Gate ran between Aylesbury and Cheddington station linking with the main London and Birmingham railway. The almost dead-straight course is still easily identifiable on an aerial view, running roughly West-South-West from Cheddington station to the north end of Railway Street in Aylesbury, just across the road from B&Q.
Opened in 1839, the Aylesbury Railway proved profitable and successful and was originally intended to extend to Oxford. That ambition was never realised however and, quite accidentally, the railway gained distinction as the first “branch line”, a seven mile, single track cul-de-sac.
This was a very early railway, conceived as it was within only 10 years of the opening of the world’s first railway, the Stockton & Darlington line. It was also a simple one, with negligible earthworks being required with no tunnels and no bridges, save a footbridge subsequently built at the Park Street crossing in Aylesbury after an accident in which an old man was killed in 1883.
Perhaps surprisingly, the impetus for the investment in the line came not from the prospect of passenger traffic but of freight. Nevertheless it was well used by passengers from the outset, despite the first class fare to London being eight shillings and six pence (42½p) and the second class fare five shillings and six pence, at a time when a labourer’s wage was six shillings (30p) per week!
The journey from Aylesbury to Cheddington took about fifteen minutes, at around 30mph, and the whole trip to London about two hours. That must have seemed almost supersonic compared with the pre-railway era coach journey, which necessitated leaving Aylesbury at 6am and arrived in London at about 10pm – a striking example of the effect the railways were to have on travel.
Freight was however important too. By the early 1900s, up to fifty churns of milk were being loaded at Marston Gate each day, all of which was destined for the Nestlé’s factory in Aylesbury. The branch line also enabled fruit from the area’s orchards to be sent swiftly and efficiently to London and elsewhere. Among loads coming in the opposite direction was horse droppings cleared from the streets of London, much valued as manure by the farmers of the locality!
Whilst the introduction of the railway inevitably led to unemployment in the carting business it created many new jobs in the community. Cheddington Station had upwards of a dozen staff well into the twentieth century, whilst even Marston Gate boasted a stationmaster and deputy.
Passenger services continued on the line until 1953 when a bus service took over – a rather better service, it has to be said, than exists today with five or more return trips running each day from Monday to Saturday. There were no buses on Sunday however which was still, for most, in the pre-Sunday trading era, a day of rest!
The Aylesbury/Cheddington railway continued to carry freight traffic for another ten years or so, with coal coming in to Aylesbury for the town’s gasworks and significant volumes of agricultural machinery being transported from the New Holland factory in Aylesbury. In December 1963, however, the branch line station in Aylesbury finally closed and British Railways (as it then was) focused its attention on the other station there. A programme to lift the tracks between Aylesbury and Cheddington was put in place and the process completed by mid 1965. Contrary to popular belief, the branch line did not fall victim to Dr Richard Beeching’s now infamous railway closure plan as it had been closed a full year before Beeching wielded his axe.
The station house at Marston Gate lay unused for a period but was later rebuilt as a private house, named by its new owners after Dr Beeching – somewhat ironic as he was not actually responsible for the station’s closure, if only because somebody else got there first!
Article was written by John Kaye.
Acknowledgment – this article draws on the book “The Aylesbury Railway” by Bill Simpson, ISBN 0860934381, which is highly recommended for further reading and contains fascinating photographs.