The Route of the Marston Vale Line
The Marston Vale Line was originally opened in 1846, and at one time formed a key part of the Oxford to Cambridge railway. When the railways were much more extensive than they are now, the Marston Vale Line acted as a key strategic transport link across the country. After the extensive cuts, the Marston Vale Line is the only remaining section of this link (though the East-West Rail Consortium plans to reopen the lot!).
The line serves many varied communities. From historic county towns, to countryside, to tranquil rural villages, and even a new town, it is fair to say that all areas served by the train will have something to offer someone.
Bedford to Stewartby
We start off at the stations of Bedford and Bedford St Johns, which, as their names suggest, serve the town of Bedford. Bedford is the County Town of Bedfordshire. Originally thought to exist in the Middle Ages, and achieving its Borough Charter in 1166, Bedford owed much of its initial growth to its status as a market town, but also because of it being a crossing point of the River Great Ouse (in fact one crossing, Beda’s Ford, is thought to have given rise to the name of the town). While it still retains the twice-weekly market, its specialities and claims to fame have much expanded in time, with independent schools and sporting achievement currently being Bedford’s forte. By crossing the river on the service, you may see this in action, with the river frequently being used by rowers from one of the two rowing clubs in the town.
Perhaps the town’s biggest claim to fame is that it is the birthplace of John Bunyan, author of A Pilgrims Progress, thought to be the second most read book in the western world. John Howard is another famous resident, who began the campaign for prison reform with his report The State of Prisons published in 1777. In more modern times, the town is home to Paula Radcliffe, champion marathon runner, and is the birthplace of late comedian Ronnie Barker.
Bedford is now a busy, bustling large town, and is the economic and social centre of northern Bedfordshire. Its many leisure facilities include theatres, a cinema, an international athletics track, and a professional rugby club, so there is always something to do. Bedford’s role as the County Town is likely to be strengthened, with significant housing and employment growth planned for the Bedford area over the next 20 years, as well as a significant redevelopment of both the town centre and the train station also in the pipeline.
The trip from Bedford to Bedford St Johns is quite short, passing over the River Great Ouse, and by Borough Hall (the large 1960s building on the left) before pulling into Bedford St Johns. The current Bedford St Johns replaced the old Bedford St Johns station, barely half a mile away, when the link between the Marston Vale Line and the Midland Mainline was created in 1984. This was done following the hard work of the Bedford to Bletchley Rail Users Association. The train then turns right around the curve (the route to the old St Johns station is to the left), before heading through the suburbs and out towards the countryside.
After passing under the Bedford Southern Bypass, the train then pulls into Kempston Hardwick station. This station was notorious some years ago as the least-used station in Britain, mainly due to its very rural nature. But with significant employment developments near to the station like British Car Auctions, patronage has jumped in recent years. Shortly after leaving the station, a clear area of land to the south east of the railway signifies the site of the old Coronation Brickworks. The Marston Vale has a strong history of manufacturing bricks, and at one time the Coronation Brickworks was the largest brickworks in the world. In fact, if you have a house built in the mid-20th Century, and made out of London Bricks, chances are those bricks came from one of the many brickworks scattered across the Marston Vale.
A little further down the track the train passes the old Forders Freight Sidings, and the old signal box marking their entrance. Shortly afterwards, the train then passes through the yards of the Marston Vale’s last brickworks at Stewartby, which closed recently. Passengers can view up-close the last 4 chimneystacks, visible from many parts of the Marston Vale.
The train then pulls into Stewartby station. Formerly known as Wootton Pillinge, Stewartby owes not just its name, but its very existence to the Stewart family. Owning the then London Brick Company, the Stewarts believed that good working and living conditions for the employees of their brickworks was essential. Their dream was to create settlements with all amenities included, with large houses with all the things that we take for granted today, such as electricity to every home, and good sewerage. Stewartby, which rose from a few farms and a handful of buildings in 1926, was born (although it was not actually named Stewartby until 1935). The results of this can be seen today, with brick buildings prevailing in a well-planned and picturesque village.
Millbrook to Aspley Guise
Upon leaving Stewartby, the train skirts along the southern border of the Marston Vale Millennium Country Park. The perimeter path runs just the other side of the fence, and can be easily accessed from either Stewartby station, or the forthcoming Millbrook station. To the south of the railway is one of the best examples of quarry restoration taking place in the Marston Vale. Significant mineral extraction still takes place around this area, with quarries dotting the landscape, although much is not viewable from the line itself. A person with a keen eye may also spot Ampthill Park House atop a hillside in the distance, a house rebuilt in the late 1600s to form part of what is now Ampthill Park.
After a short journey, the train pulls into Millbrook station. Next to the Bletchley-bound platform is perhaps the best example of railway architecture on the line, the old station building. Now a family home, the building has been lovingly restored by its owner, and both the building and its gardens have been the base for many rail user group and Community Rail Partnership events in the past. The brick platforms, and adjacent buildings, only add to the station’s historic charm.
To the north of the station, there is an entrance to the Marston Vale Millennium Country Park, the main leisure attraction in the Marston Vale. You can walk or cycle (you can take your bike on the train) around 5 miles of off-road tracks, before stopping off at the Forest Centre for a well-earned break. The Forest Centre is also central to the Marston Vale Community Forest, which is working towards not just increasing tree coverage in the Marston Vale, but also to conserve existing habitats. In addition to the walking and cycling facilities, the Country Park is an excellent location for nature lovers, with its wetland reserve harbouring a range of species. Bird watchers should look out for Bitterns, Lapwings, Golden Plovers, and Redshanks among the many species spotted here, while the extensive range of flora and fauna will keep nature lovers busy for some time!
Upon leaving Millbrook station, you will notice quite a high bank to the south of the railway. This bank forms part of the running track for the Millbrook Vehicle Proving Ground. Formerly owned by Vauxhall, the independent company has put many of today’s top sports cars through its paces here, for speed on the oval track, to handling and comfort on its off-road track. The track has also been the location for many episodes of the popular BBC Two series Top Gear.
After a while, the train trundles into the village of Lidlington, coming to a halt at one of the few stations situated in the heart of a built up area. Lidlington is a hillside village situated on the northern slope of the Greensand Ridge, famous for its walk and, if local rumours are to be believed, the inspiration for the ‘Delectable Mountains’ in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrims Progress, with the steep slope at the edge of the village being Bunyan’s ‘Hill of Difficulty’. Lidlington Lake (often mistakenly called Brogborough Lake) at the edge of the village is popular with bird watchers and wind surfers.
Once the train leaves Lidlington, it passes along a plateau in the hillside known as Brogborough Bank. This bank offers what is perhaps the best view of the Marston Vale from the railway. On a clear day, you can see as far afield as Bedford, and the chimney stacks at Stewartby are nearly always visible.
After passing by some distribution centres, the train then pulls into Ridgmont station. As the train stops at Ridgmont, you may notice a large temporary building next to one of the platforms. This is the control centre for the entire Marston Vale Line, put in when the line was upgraded in the summer of 2003. On the other platform is the beautiful Ridgmont station building, one of only a handful of original station buildings remaining on the line. The Community Rail Partnership has some big plans for this building, which you can read about on this website. From the station you can also see the Marston Gate Business Park, which contains large distribution centres (notably Amazon.co.uk), and workers frequently use the Marston Vale train service to get to work.
Just up the hill is the village of Ridgmont. Ridgmont is essentially an estate village of the magnificent Woburn Abbey, and contains many examples of brick gabled housing associated with the estate. A lesser-known claim to fame is that Ridgmont was the birthplace of the Countess of Strathmore, the Grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II. The village itself contains local shops and services, and is also one of the entrances to Woburn Safari Park. Travelling by train to this attraction, however, is not really possible. After all, walking around the lion enclosure isn’t really possible!
The train then takes the short hop under the motorway to Aspley Guise. The station is located on the edge of the village, which contains a number of local shops, pubs, and some hotels. Aspley Guise contains one of the lesser-known operations of World War 2, The Rookery, on Church Street, which was home the Psychological War Executive, engaged in special operations to demoralise the population of Axis countries during World War 2. Historic buildings enthusiasts will also take interest in the ancient buildings of Aspley House, Guise House, and the Old House.
Woburn Sands to Bletchley
The train then continues on a short hop to Woburn Sands. Woburn Sands is the busiest intermediate station on the line, and is particularly popular with school children getting on the train to go to Bedford. A notable sight from the railway on the Bletchley-bound side is the Station Hotel, right next to the station, which is a must-see location for rail enthusiasts, with all sorts of railway memorabilia in the main bar.
Formerly known as Hogsy End, and once a popular stop off point for travellers on what is now the High Street, Woburn Sands is now a small, but busy town. The main town centre, with 45 shops, is a 10 minute walk up the hill to the south of the station. The town has many leisure facilities, notably golf courses at Wavendon and Aspley Guise. A notable local attraction is the nearby Woburn Abbey, home to the Duke of Bedford. Here, you can take a tour around the beautiful house, or admire the views over the 3000-acre park and the 10 species of deer that call it home.
The train then heads onwards towards Bow Brickhill. While the station itself is situated remote from the village, the ancient village is still worthy of a few minutes of your time, particularly for those of you interested in historical buildings, of which Bow Brickhill has more than its fair share. You can also find out how to liven up your Sunday roast by discovering the recipe for Bow Brickhill Steamed Pudding! On the other side of the tracks is the Caldecotte Lake Business Park, making Bow Brickhill station very useful for people working in this area of Milton Keynes. The nearby Caldecotte Lake is also very beautiful, and signifies the start of the extensive MK Redways cycle paths.
After making the switch to a single-track railway once again, the train then pulls into Fenny Stratford Station. The most famous local landmark here is Fenny Lock, situated on the Grand Union Canal. The canal offers scenic walks both south towards Leighton Buzzard, and north towards Milton Keynes. You can also stop off and have a pint in the Red Lion right next to the lock, and have a go on the manual swing bridge that crosses it! Fenny’s lesser known claim to fame is that the first Diesel engine was invented here by Herbert Akroyd Stewart. A well-trained eye may notice the blue plaque on the side of The Foundary Pub in Denmark Street that bears his name! The sports fans among you may be interested in the nearby stadium:mk, home to Football League Two side Milton Keynes Dons.
The train then starts on the final length of the journey to Bletchley. Railway enthusiasts will note the start of the incline towards the Bletchley flyover, which can be seen more clearly from the station itself. Originally a small hamlet, Bletchley’s role as the crossing point of the Oxford to Cambridge railway and the West Coast Mainline saw the town significantly grow in Victorian times, swallowing up Fenny Stratford in doing so. The expansion of Milton Keynes has merged Bletchley into the Milton Keynes conurbation, although with its own historic feel and local facilities, it does not feel like it!
Bletchley’s most important landmark is Bletchley Park, home to the famous World War 2 code-breaking establishment, sometimes referred to as ‘Station X’. It is home to the famous Enigma machine, and the efforts undertaken here were widely considered to have shortened World War 2 considerably. Bletchley Park is now a museum, and is highly recommended for a day out.
We hope that this little tour of the line has been useful to you. More information on the line can be found in other areas of the website, so feel free to browse at your pleasure. Alternatively, you can continue on to find out what the future could hold for the Marston Vale Line. We look forward to welcoming you on board soon!