DAVID SAINT COLUMN: When railway plans hit the buffers

In the south Northamptonshire parish of Weston and Weedon Lois – at the junction of two ancient byways, The Banbury Lane and The Oxford Lane – there is a small spinney called ‘Grumbler’s Holt’, a perfect meeting place for the unhappy folk protesting at the high-speed HS2, writes David Saint.

By Graham Tebbutt (Edited by)
Thursday, 17th February 2022, 2:39 pm
Updated Thursday, 17th February 2022, 2:40 pm
In the 1870s, Earl Spencer sold some of his land near Althorp House to accommodate a new railway line
In the 1870s, Earl Spencer sold some of his land near Althorp House to accommodate a new railway line

A similar route was followed by the last line to be built through Northamptonshire.

The Great Central Railway from Manchester to London Marylebone opened in 1899 and entered the county near Catesby and left at Brackley.

It was this line that once turned Woodford Halse from a small sleepy village into a major railway centre, and 91 acres of marshalling yards incorporating a huge locomotive depot appeared.

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Roads were re-routed and rows of houses were built to accommodate the hundreds of workers and their families.

It must have been a huge shock to the locals when the railway came, not only in Woodford Halse, but for people all over the county.

People’s Poet John Clare, living at the Peterborough end of Northamptonshire, captured his distaste in his diary: “Saturday 4 June 1825. Saw 3 fellows… laying out the plan for an ‘iron railway’ from Manchester to London… I little thought that fresh intrusions would interrupt and spoil my solitudes.”

Clare was not alone. Rumour had it that many of the county’s landowners fought this intrusion.

The biggest objection, it was said, came from Northampton Corporation, who didn’t want the line to come through the town.

Like so many rumours, this was totally untrue.

The fact that the main line didn’t pass through Northampton had nothing to do with the corporation. The problem was the terrain through which the railway was to pass.

When the line from Birmingham to London was first mooted in the 1830s, George and Robert Stephenson realised they had their work cut out.

It was Robert who had to solve the problems, the first of which was the discovery of quicksands at Kilsby, where the construction of the great tunnel was held up for a very expensive three years.

Although bringing the line through the county town had been considered, it proved to be technically impossible in those days.

Steam engines simply couldn’t cope with the difference in gradient between, for instance, Blisworth and Northampton.

Stephenson, in one report, noted that he could easily take his trains into the town, but he would never be able to get them out!

The biggest stumbling block, according to local legend, was Earl Spencer. Wrong again!

The necessary re-routing would have avoided the Althorp estate anyway, and when, in 1872, Northampton did get its branch link with the line passing Althorp on its way to Long Buckby, Earl Spencer willingly sold some land to accommodate it. Why?

Well, in doing so he gained a station with a private waiting room and enough money from the land sale to rebuild the magnificent dining room at Althorp House.

In a letter to his wife, he wrote: “We could make some alterations… and keep the rest of the railway money to increase income.”

You see, it’s an ill wind..!