Peter Bateman recalls Oxford's state-of-the-art railway terminus for the Varsity line between Oxford and Cambridge, that opened in 1851 and closed a century later
Recent articles in Oxford Today have looked at the plan to restore the Varsity line connecting Oxford and Cambridge, and the new Chiltern Railways service from Oxford to Marylebone. In his article on the latter Richard Lofthouse refers to the Varsity Line being a victim of the so-called Beeching Plan. This is not quite accurate.
The Varsity Line was not, in fact, a victim of Dr. Richard Beeching, who excluded it from the notorious appendix to his 1963 report Reshaping British Railways, but rather of indifference and of the organisational failings that beset British Rail for most of its first four decades after creation in 1948. The most serious of these was a structure based on geographical regions led by people who showed little inclination to work together for the benefit of the network as a whole. The Varsity line ended up divided between three regions and, in consequence, little effort was made to realise its potential as a through route. There were plenty of trains over parts of the route but few that travelled the whole route from Oxford to Cambridge. Those that did were generally slow, calling at most stations. When British Rail came under pressure from the Government to extend the scope of closures there was little will to defend the line and it closed as a through route on 31st December 1967. This was despite significant sums having been spent less than ten years earlier on the construction of flyovers at Bletchley and Sandy to facilitate traffic movements on the line, and despite the line passing through the recently designated New Town of Milton Keynes. Half a century ago the age of the train was widely seen as lying in the past and British Rail’s task simply to manage its decline.
The Varsity line was never quite forgotten in Oxford, however, as it left behind a rather impressive relic, just a stone’s throw from the current one, the latter an unimpressive temporary building in my undergraduate days in the 1980s. This was its original terminus at Rewley Road, with an overall roof and porte cochere (pictured, top, in its rebuilt form today). Technically it was a most unusual building for its time, being of modular construction and the work of the engineers who realised Joseph Paxton’s vision for the Crystal Palace. The Crystal Palace took advantage of cast plate glass, developed only in 1848, and was opened at its original site in London’s Hyde Park to gasps of astonishment for the Great Exhibition of 1851. The Rewley station was opened the same year and closed a century later on October 1, 1951, after which date Varsity Line trains were diverted into the main station. Subsequently, it suffered the indignity of becoming a tyre depot, (pictured below right) which is how many readers will remember it. When the site was cleared in 1998 to make way for the Said Business School, the building was dismantled and transported to the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre where, re-erected with a replica of the original porte-cochere, it forms the centrepiece of the museum.
According to a disused stations website www.disused-stations.org.uk:
'Crystal Palace burned down in 1936 but the Rewley Road station contained so many echoes of it that the magazine The Structural Engineer commented in 1975: “Until recently it was thought that no trace of the Crystal Palace structure remained. Strictly speaking, none does, but something very similar has survived.” It then went on to describe the Paxton-like work at Rewley Road. The magazine added: “Almost more telling as a comparison than the structural components are the remains of the decorative iron cladding at Oxford which were clearly made from the same castings as in the Exhibition Building.”'
In this sense Oxford Rewley Road station really was an architectural echo of London’s great Crystal Palace - although by May 1940 (pictured below right) the crystal canopy had been replaced.
Railways came to Oxford in the 1840s in the face of opposition from commercial rivals (the London and Birmingham, for example, was determined to prevent the Great Western Railway and its ally the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton reaching the Midlands) and also from the University, where the Warden of Wadham led a rearguard action against the Great Western Railway Bill. The station originally planned for Oxford was to have been in the style of a neo-Jacobean mansion but, having paid the lawyers, the railway had to build a more modest station. This is one reason why Oxford has never had a main station befitting its status. If the University was slow to love the railways the railways appreciated the University as source of traffic and also of kudos by association. The GWR even named a number of locomotives after colleges and the nameplate of St. Peter’s Hall now hangs in the JCR of St. Peter’s College.
Oxford also became a significant industrial centre. The most famous industrial site is probably the Morris factory at Cowley, now home to the BMW Mini. This, too, was (and still is) served by a railway line, although the route from Oxford to Princes Risborough closed in 1963. The first station on the line was built specifically to serve the factory and called, appropriately enough, Morris Cowley. Today, this line remains open for freight as far as Cowley and there have been calls for passenger services to be reinstated over this section in view of new developments in this part of the city, such as the football stadium and also to address traffic congestion on the roads. A few years ago Chiltern Railways investigated the feasibility of reinstating the whole route for their direct services from Oxford to Marylebone. It’s not clear if this project will remain an interesting might-have-been, or whether the recently opened line from Bicester to Oxford could continue south beyond Oxford, or be operated separately by Chiltern as a commuter route.
Part of the plan for East West Rail involves running services into London via Aylesbury. This would see trains running past the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre, giving passengers an opportunity to admire Rewley Road station in its new setting as they speed on to Marylebone.
Peter Bateman (Balliol, 1981), worked in accountancy in the public sector for 25 years and now combines interim contracting in accountancy with freelance writing, specialising in accountancy and railways.
Pictures: Rebuilt Station by Oxyman; Map by Railway Clearing House; Tyre Depot by DiverScout. Historica photos from 1914 and 1940 unattributed. All under Wikimedia Commons.