Friday, 22 July 2011
For the next day and a half of my walk HS2 will follow the old Great Central Railway. The Great Central was opened in 1899, the last main line to be built in the great railway age. It closed in 1966. Its purpose was to link the big northern cities to London with the fewest possible number of stops. As a result it was built in open countryside away from towns and with few intermediate stations. It was also built to a continental loading gauge to connect with a Channel Tunnel, already being proposed back then.
Is any of this starting to sound familiar at all? Yes indeed. A faster line connecting the major cities of Britain to each other and to the continent is not a new idea. But the Great Central did provide some stopping services. I have woken up with the idea that the solution to all the opposition would be an HS2 station in Aylesbury. It would be a great asset to a town rapidly approaching 100,000 population which lies in the shadow of Oxford and Milton Keynes. Surely it would be much easier to convince local people that the line was worth building if they got some benefit from it.
A quick hunt round on Google shows me that there would be “insufficient passenger demand”. This seems a great shame. Once HS2 is built it will take longer to get from Aylesbury to London by train than from Birmingham. And at the moment you can’t travel north of Aylesbury by train at all. Well let’s put it this way, not unless you’re rubbish you can’t, as I hope to see later in the day.
Actually HS2 could improve local train services, even as it shoots past Aylesbury at 225 mph. There are plans to reopen East-West lines currently closed to passenger services between Oxford, Aylesbury, Milton Keynes and Cambridge. The problem is a lack of capacity on the three miles of the West Coast Main Line between Bletchley and Milton Keynes necessary to make the idea work. Build HS2 and you free up the capacity you need. Mind you this hasn’t offset the objections of Councils in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Indeed every single Council from the edge of London to Coventry is objecting to HS2. Only those which actually get a station appear to support the plans.
HS2 will join the Great Central just north of the old Quainton Road station (pictured above), now the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre, and I have a few miles to walk before I get there. I spent the night in Waddesdon, and after a lovely cooked breakfast I am up and out bright and early. Waddesdon and Quainton Action group have been busy here and “Waddesdon says no to HS2” posters are liberally splashed around the village. Helen, my landlady for the night, is concerned about the noise the railway would cause. I’m not actually sure she would notice it in its cutting. Waddesdon is on the A41 and in my opinion the HGVs rumbling through the village at all hours are more of a problem.
I walk over the fields, finding the point where the cutting would cross the footpath. Having seen it I’m still confident HS2 won’t have a significant impact on Waddesdon. The local wildlife might notice though. In the space of a few fields I first disturb a lapwing, which flies around me shouting out her “peewit” call in as threatening a way as she can. Then I spot a fox sitting in the sun in the next field. He sees me too, and we watch each other intently for a full two minutes until he trots off into a copse. Finally a sparrowhawk flies past, being mobbed by small birds which soon chase him off their manor. While the fight over HS2 is being fought around them, the local inhabitants have their own daily battles.
Quainton sits under its hill, in the shadow of its great tower Windmill (pictured below), a picture postcard of village green, thatch and manor house. I go into the village shop to get some food for the journey. I’m not at all sure I will pass any more shops on my route today. I ask the shopkeeper about HS2. Everyone is against it. His wife is on the organising committee. He tells me about the Beacons – a line of bonfires lit by action groups all along the route. Yet another great PR idea I must admit. And it’s not just HS2 which bothers him. The narrowing gap between the edge of an expanding Aylesbury and his own village is also a worry.
I can understand people here being confident that they can stop HS2. After all, the politicians listened to them and abolished centrally imposed targets for building new homes. They listened to the campaign groups in the marginal constituencies of west London and abandoned plans for the third runway at Heathrow. Why shouldn’t they listen again?
I have a nagging feeling that the Government may have made a political miscalculation here. I can just imagine Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It exploding at the Transport Secretary’s special adviser “so which [beeping] idiot told the minister that this high speed line will be much more popular than the third runway? Do the [beeping] math. The runway affects 20 constituencies in west London, HS2 will affect about 100 [beeping] billion across the whole [beeping] country.”
And this nation-wide piece of infrastructure has truly spawned a nation-wide campaign group. One of the campaigners offers to meet me at Quainton Road station and tells me more about how Stop HS2 works. I had assumed it was a Chiltern-centric group, but I was quite wrong. Local groups all along the route are affiliated, and the common branding and slogan give the campaign a really impressive consistency. I realise I’ll be seeing a lot more of the same all the way to Warwickshire.
I’m particularly struck by her idea that we should be planning for how the next generation of business leaders will communicate rather than how the current one does it. Facebook rather than face to face, if you like. It’s an interesting point. Of course the trouble is that we can’t foretell the future. If we had taken that approach 50 years ago we would now be paying to rip out an expensively installed network of personal jet pack refuelling stations.
I’m starting to long to see a Yes to HS2 poster, to be honest, if only for some variety. The nearest I get to a “Yes” today is in the Railway Centre. “We like the idea because we like rail,” I’m told, “but it’s come about 40 years too late. We’re way behind the rest of the world now”. He is also concerned that the line will run through their overflow car park. Hardly a ringing endorsement.
I make myself late by spending so long at the railway centre. I march through the lanes and fields as quickly as I can, and before long an unexpected hill comes into view in the middle distance. That isn’t on my map! It soon dawns on me that it’s the huge mound of the Calvert landfill site (pictured above). This area of former clay pits is slowly being filled with rubbish from London and elsewhere. The five “binliner” trains serving the site each day are the only use now made of the line north of Aylesbury. Each time I think I’ve really reached the edge of London I find I haven’t. This giant compost heap at the bottom of London’s back garden is almost exactly half way to Birmingham.
I walk past the tip and the rail depot and come out by an estate of around 300 executive homes, which share their road access with the tip (pictured below). This ten year old estate, in the middle of nowhere, and backing on to one of the largest tips in Britain, is a very peculiar sight. It’s called Calvert Green. According to their Parish Plan it has no shop, no school and no pub, only 7% of residents work within 5 miles of the place, and everyone is entirely reliant on cars to get anywhere. Let’s just say I don’t think it will be featured in any good practice guide to creating sustainable communities. Calvert is now proposed as the site for the HS2 infrastructure maintenance depot, which could create 250 jobs. Somehow I doubt that these jobs will be the kind the residents of Calvert Green aspire to.
The last village before I reach Oxfordshire is Twyford. Here the Great Central is but a meaty blow from the cricket pitch, the church and the nearest house. Not surprisingly Stop HS2 posters are plentiful here. It’s 45 years since pacific class locomotives thundered down this line and very few current parishioners will remember them drowning out the sermon on a Sunday morning.
And then I leave the brick of Bucks behind and enter the limestone of Oxfordshire at Stratton Audley. It is a bit of a detour, but I have an appointment to keep with Flora Thompson and some ascending skylarks…
You can follow this leg of my route here .