John Speller's Web Pages The Varsity Line

John Speller's Web Pages - L&NWR

The Varsity Line LNWR Untitled
The Oxford to Cambridge Railway line was built in a number of sections between 1850 and 1862. The earliest section was the Buckinghamshire Railway, which ran from Banbury via Buckingham to Bletchley and opened in 1850. The following year the Buckinghamshire Railway opened a branch to Oxford from Verney Junction, named after the company's chairman, Sir Harry Verney, M.P. (1801-1894). Sir Harry was an able and caring politician, whose wife was Florence Nightingale's sister. Next came the Sandy & Potton Railway, a short private railway constructed by Captain Sir William Peel, Bart., V.C. (1824-1858), the son of Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, to connect his estate at Potton with the Great Northern main line at Sandy Junction. Sadly, Captain Peel died of fever a few months after the line was completed in 1857 and never returned home to see it. Its little 0-4-0WT locomotive "Shannon" was named after the ship that Captain Peel commanded and later saw service on the Wantage Tramway. After the closure of the latter line it was rescued by the Great Western Railway and is happily preserved. The Sandy & Potton line was taken over and incorporated into the Bedford & Cambridge Railway in 1861 and the completed line from Banbury and Oxford opened through to Cambridge in 1862. All these lines were worked by the London & North Western Railway and later became part of the LMS.

Another line connecting the Banbury to Verney Junction line to Aylesbury, the Aylesbury & Buckingham Railway, was was incorporated on 6 August 1860 and opened on 23 September 1868. Unable to come to terms with the London & North Western Railway, the Aylesbury & Buckingham Railway arranged for their line to be worked by the Great Western. Narrow gauge was laid in on the Wycombe Railway between Princes Risborough and Aylesbury, and the GWR ran through trains from Princes Risborough to Verney Junction, an arrangement that continued for some months after the Aylesbury & Buckingham Railway was purchased by the Metropolitan Railway on 1 July 1891, connecting it with the Metropolitan Railway's London to Aylesbury line. It was planned to build a further extension Morton Pinkney, linking with the East & West Union Railway (later the Stratford & Midland Junction Railway) to Stratford-on-Avon, but in the event this link was built by the Great Central as part of its London Extension. It is unfortunate that the Aylesbury & Buckingham never came under the control of the L&NWR, since this would have allowed a useful through service from Banbury to Aylesbury via Buckingham. The Aylesbury to Quainton Road section later became part of the Great Central main line, but the rest, between Quainton Road and Verney Junction, was relegated to being a rural backwater.

At Yarnton, just north of Oxford, there was a connection to the West Midlands Railway, over which trains ran from Euston via Bletchley to Worcester and Wolverhampton until the WMR was absorbed by the Great Western Railway in 1863.

After nationalization British Railways rationalized the situation at Oxford by transferring the trains to the GWR station and closing Rewley Road. This was nevertheless an interesting building and it is good that it has now been moved to Quainton Road and is once again in use as a railway station. The real disaster came in the 1960s when the Oxbridge or "Varsity" line was closed under the Beeching Axe. This was one of the most short-sighted decisions of the very short-sighted and generally disastrous Beeching Plan. The Oxford to Bedford section is beingreopened, and the Bedford to Cambridge section, though it has long since been taken up and even to some extent built over, may yet be rebuilt, doubtless at enormous cost.

One of the misfortunes for this line is that the L&NWR and GWR were daggers drawn. Otherwise we could have seen expresses from Cambridge via Banbury to Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Chester and Birkenhead; or from Cambridge to Cheltenham, Gloucester, Newport and Cardiff; or via Oxford and Didcot to Southampton, Bristol or Penzance. The sad fact of the situation was that the L&NWR was principally set up for north-south services and the Great Western was principally set up for east-west services. But the Oxford to Cambridge line was an east-west line. If they had had an atom of intelligence (which sadly they did not) the powers that be of British Railways would have realized this after the nationalization of the railways 1948.
Map of the lines discussed above. Right click and use "view image" to enlarge
Rewley Road Station, Oxford, now relocated to Quainton Road. The iron roof trusses were said to have been left over from the Crystal Palace. Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia Commons. To enlarge right click and select "view image"
L&NWR goods train behind a "Precursor" Class 4-4-0 Locomotive, passing through Old North Road Station, near Cambridge, shortly before the Grouping of 1923
Sandy & Potton Railway 0-4-0WT "Shannon," built by George England & Co. in 1857 and now preserved at Didcot. It is shown here working on the Wotton Tramway in about 1890
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