Varsity Ventures

The M4 motorway at Port Talbot
M4 Port Talbot (photograph by Kevin Corcoran)
After a pleasant afternoon watching, and riding on, trains, my ‘short holiday’ started to go downhill. I’m picking up the story where I left off, in a car on the M4, having been met by family members at Port Talbot. There’s no doubt about it, motorways are very dull ribbons of dreary tarmac (and/or concrete), apparently without exception. Actually, that’s a good question, can anyone think of an exception? We did of course leave the motorway eventually, but not until after stopping for dinner. Thus we were in darkness as we headed up the A420, negotiated the Oxford ring road and the A418 past Aylesbury and onto the A505. Unfortunately, if there’s any travel more boring than miles of motorway then it is probably night-time motoring. Of course family chat and, occasionally, the radio can partly relieve the monotony, and so can navigation, but these don’t really make up for not being able to see what you’re passing. I think we were all relieved when we finally arrived at our booked accommodation, after crossing the A5 and twice passing the M1. No, I didn’t get us lost, the written directions used for the last few miles to our destination were written as though we were coming up the M1 from London and I didn’t want to risk finding my own route with just a road atlas (I might have tried it if I had been equipped with an Ordnance Survey Landranger map).

While helping to keep me sane, navigating was perhaps also a little stressful; there’s often an argument between at least two occupants of the car over the best route. On this occasion though, there was at least general agreement that the motorway network didn’t really suit our journey, much like the rail network it radiates out from London and I don’t think any of us fancied the M25.

Second Severn Motorway Bridge
Into England (public domain photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Anyway, so why are we here, in self-catering accommodation not far from the M1? Why would anyone want to come here? Although the accommodation was of a reasonable standard, the noise of the motorway could be heard if you stood outside and my mother wondered why somebody would come on holiday here. Our reason was that my brother had educational commitments in Milton Keynes, and the rest of us were just taking advantage of the trip to see a few things. I had a stab at answering Mum’s question by taking quick look at the map, the obvious tourist attractions were Woburn Abbey and its Safari Park. Apparently, none of us were interested in the latter, but the Abbey was one reason for my elder’s interest in the visit. Another of their reasons, and one I’d come along for too (though not the main reason) was Bletchley Park.

The next day, after dropping my brother off, we drove down towards Didcot to one of the other attractions which had drawn me, ‘Pendon Museum’. This ‘museum’ features three model railways, one a very early example of the craft. The other two are much more recent, at least one is still under construction, and very impressive with detail extending to the interior of buildings and a birdwatcher observing a bird of prey. These model various parts of the steam-era Great Western Railway, although they are intended to capture a snapshot of buildings and scenery typical of the areas concerned rather than being models of a particular location (the buildings in the model village don’t all belong to the same real-world village). We decided the Oxford ring road (with its many roundabouts) was no more appealing in daylight than it had been at night, so went back to Bicester via a different route (which involved the M40).

Bletchley Park introduction exhibit entrance
Bletchley Park introduction entrance. Image from ‘The Hub’ (fit-out contractor) website.
On the third day (Monday), we made the much shorter journey to Bletchley Park. We had thought we may move on to somewhere else afterwards, but our visit took us through until it was time to collect my brother again. We didn’t even visit the adjacent national museum of computing, which contains more of the code-breaking machines created on the site, although it wasn’t fully open that day anyway. Interestingly, the entrance to Bletchley Park’s introductory exhibit had a railway theme. The word ‘entrance’ was in white text on a midland-red background, while the doorways beneath it had imitation railway-carriage slam-doors. Also present was a four-way ‘fingerpost’ sign, also in midland-red, pointing to ‘platform 1 for Oxford, platform 2 for Cambridge, platform 3 for Glasgow and platform 4 for London. I doubt such a sign actually would have existed on a station, but railways from Bletchley to the four places in question certainly did exist.

Bletchley Park Cambridge-Oxford sign, photo by Caroline Longstaffe
Varsity fingerpost, Bletchley Park. Photo by Caroline Longstaffe
Sadly, you cannot currently make a reasonably direct journey from Milton Keynes to Oxford by rail today, because the central section of the Oxford-Cambridge ‘Varsity Line’ has been closed since 1967; so when we headed off to visit Oxford on the fourth day we couldn’t leave the car in Milton Keynes with my brother. The line which would have taken you to Cambridge still exists as far as Bedford, but beyond that it is also gone.

Chiltern Railways service at Oxford Parkway station
Stopping short of Oxford: Chiltern Railways service waiting to London at Oxford Parkway
One of the many Milton Keynes roundabouts we traversed on our excursions in the Oxford direction was called, I kid you not, ‘Bottledump Roundabout’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was liberally scatted with discarded plastic bottles, presumably thrown out of passing cars. Whether the bottles were there first and this inspired the name or vice-versa I do not know. The railway between Bletchley and Oxford is now to be reinstated, but we were several years early. So, to avoid the Oxford traffic, we parked at ‘Bicester Village’ station, which until the recent complete rebuild was ‘Bicester Town’. Previously, ‘Bicester Town’ was served by a shuttle to Oxford, but now Chiltern Railways have had a new section of track built to allow services from London Marylebone to Oxford, running through ‘Bicester Village’ station. This project wasn’t complete either, enhancements work was still taking place near Oxford so we had to transfer to a bus for the final leg into Oxford from Oxford Parkway station.

Of course, it is not only Chiltern who have significant changes planned on their part of the network. The electrification work of parts of the Great Western Main Line (GWML) will see Intercity Express Programme (IEP) class 800 bi-mode trains introduced from next year (2017). Thus we get to my principle reason for coming on this trip; the five class 180s currently with the franchise will be moved to Grand Central, probably by the end of 2017, as the 800s arrive. Having never been on a 180, I was keen to get a ride on one to compare them with the related class 175 units we have in Wales while I had the chance.

Class 180 number 180108 at Oxford Railway Station
180108 arrives at Oxford to take me to Kingham
I left my elders and boarded my first 180, 180108 on a Cotswolds line service to Kingham. From there, I returned to Oxford on another class 180. I was pleased to discover that the interior of standard class did indeed have much in common with the class 175s, with ample legroom even in airline-style seating. Rather strangely however, especially on a line with short platforms like the Cotswolds line, the first-class carriage on the 180s (class 175s are standard-class only) was not one of the driving vehicles at the ends. Instead, one standard-class coach was isolated on its own at one end, with the adjacent coach being the first-class one. Given that I’ve read standard-class ticket-holders are not even allowed to stand in the vestibules of first class coaches on Intercity 125s, I wonder what happens if somebody in the isolated standard class coach wants to alight at a short platform where that carriage is off the end of the platform. One of the four standard class carriages on the 180, perhaps the isolated one, also seemed to have fewer bays of four around tables than the others. Another feature that the class 175s lack but can be found on a 180 is the mini-buffet/cafe. This is really quite small, with just one of the main external windows blanked out by it, though it didn’t appear to be open. I’m not sure if First Great Western bother with it anymore.

Old building in Oxford
One Of The Old Ones: building in Oxford
Back in Oxford, I rejoined my mother and grandmother for a walk around parts of the city; admiring the architecture of some of the old university buildings and other heritage structures. One of these was a church whose tower is of Saxon origin (it is close to the building in the photograph, click that to go to my Flickr where you should be able to find photos of the Saxon tower too). It was then back via bus, train and car to Milton Keynes, to collect my brother, and to our ‘holiday’ accommodation.

END OF PART 2

We return to Wales in the final instalment of this mini-series of blog posts, which I did eventually get round to writing.

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