Once it was pivotal. Now, ivy-clad and rusting, it tells of an era long since past. Yet still it retains a grandeur and a fascination, like the mouldering carcass of some giant metal dinosaur. It’s a railway swing bridge. It dates from 1851. It was designed by none other than Robert Stephenson, son of George ‘The ‘Rocket’. And it stands for an important story: the coming of the railway to Oxford.
The steam train was not welcomed here initially. Indeed, senior members of the university were vocal in their opposition. They worried about the danger of becoming too close to London and all the metropolitan vices which lurked there. (Several of them also had shares in the rival Oxford Canal company.) That’s why Didcot is the main station in Oxfordshire, at a safe distance from temptation.
But the town couldn’t escape rail travel altogether. It was far too important to the national economy. And although the dons may not have wanted their students to have easy access to London’s distractions during term, many were themselves not averse to the occasional metropolitan foray.
The first track was laid in 1844: its rails seven feet and a quarter of an inch (7’¼”) apart as specified by its Chief Engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It ran along what is now Marlborough Road, terminating at Western (as in Great Western) Road, Grandpont. The line was extended to Banbury a few years later, via a spur at Millstream Junction, near Hinksey, and then on to Birmingham. In the process of excavation, lakes were created from the pooling of nearby springs, an unexpected gift to the residents of West Oxford. The main railway station was then moved to its current site and the old station at Grandpont became a goods depot until it was eventually sold off in the 1870s.
But what of the swing bridge? That relates to Oxford’s second station, in Rewley Road, on the site of what is now the Saïd Business School and, in centuries past, a medieval Cistercian abbey. It was built to cross the Sheepwash Channel, which linked the river to the canal and had to be kept navigable for barges and small boats. It is, in fact, one of only two movable bridges over the Thames – the other being Tower Bridge in London.
Over its standard gauge rails (4’8½”) trundled the so-called ‘Varsity Line’, built by the London & North Western Railway and opened to its Oxford terminus in 1851. It provided a crucial link between Britain’s two ancient university towns, via Bletchley, and must have played a key role in the Second World War, ferrying some of the nation’s mightiest minds to and from Bletchley Park on code-breaking duty.
The line remained open for passengers until December 1967, long after the station had closed. The building (erected by the same people who had created the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition a century earlier) had a curious afterlife, for it was dismantled, refurbished and re-assembled in the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre at Quainton where it is visitable to this day.
A mesmeric clip of silent, black and white footage has been deposited in the Huntley Film Archives: it shows the slow but methodical operation of the swing bridge in the days when railwaymen pulled long levers, wore flat caps, and smoked pipes.
Oxford is now a very busy station – and it is getting bigger and busier all the time. New track has been laid. New lights blaze out at night. New rolling stock hurtles people along the Thames valley and up to Birmingham and points north. Passenger numbers have doubled in the past decade to nearly six million per annum, and are projected to grow further. You can now travel direct to either Paddington or Marylebone. London gets ever nearer. The undergraduates, the dons, and especially the estate agents, don’t seem to mind any more.
Meanwhile, there are plans for the swing bridge to be returned to its former glory – in part at least. Money has been pledged by Oxford Preservation Trust and Network Rail to clean, restore, and repair the workings. (The turning mechanism worked perfectly when last operated in 2019.) A smart, informative noticeboard has appeared as a prelude. No trains will ever pass over it, but it will from now on be maintained in a less forlorn state – a remarkable memento of British engineering at its best, and a fitting reminder of the importance of railways in the story of Oxford.
A Pandemic Postscript:
One of the UK’s most eminent archaeologists, Tom Hassall, Founding Director of Oxford Archaeology, Emeritus Fellow of St Cross College, and – significantly as it turns out – former Chair of the UK Advisory Committee on Historic Wrecks, lives near the swing bridge. He recently made a remarkable discovery:
“I thought you might be interested in some industrial archaeology that I have been doing in the last week.
“As you may know my house is in Rewley Road, aka 23 Railway Cuttings, on the site of what was once the LNWR water tower and engine shed. With the very bright light in the unpolluted air that we have been experiencing during lockdown the bed of the Castle Mill Stream has become very clear. Resting on the bed I saw two iron handles which I assumed were tools to do with the engine sheds. I decided to mount an underwater excavation and recovery operation similar to that undertaken in 1982 to bring The Mary Rose to the surface. For that remarkable operation a giant floating crane, Tog Mor, was employed. No floating crane was available so instead I used my Wolf Garden multi-star Vario extendable arm with a reach of up to 5.70 m fitted with a multi-star quick-fit Multi-Change 9 cm Grubber and a Multi-Change Mine. I recovered the two massive tools shown in the two photos below. The shovel had two lumps of unburnt coal resting on it. My height gives the scale.
Clearly these tools can’t have been used on a steam locomotive footplate because they are so long. I assumed they might have been used when locomotives were being serviced so I checked with David Mather. [*the formidably knowledgable Oxford Area Manager for British Rail in the 1970s and early 80s]
“David provided the following information:
You have found two well worn fire irons which would have been used for clearing the fire boxes. This was carried out where the locomotive was standing, before being moved on to the shed ready for preparation for its next turn. The irons look like the cleaners’ tools as they both appear to be longer than the ones you would carry on the inside of the tender. These tools were often made by the loco blacksmith and would be unlikely to be stamped with LNWR or LMSR. The tools carried on the loco such as the fireman’s shovel would have had a wooden handle, and the fire rake would have been shorter in order to use it whilst in traffic.
Both would be stamped with the company initials. The one on the left is the ash pan/shovel. The other is the rake for clearing between the fire bars to make certain they were clear on the sides of the box, ready for lifting out. Very often the fire bars would be dropped further along in the ash pit road after the fire was removed so they could be checked and if necessary new ones added to ensure that none dropped out due to distortions whilst in traffic. They had to be removed as soon as the fire was cleaned out to guarantee the loco had enough steam left for shunting into the shed. The loco would then move on under its own steam without any fire bars and the bars would be replaced later when they were cool, or new ones fitted.
I would not be at all surprised if you found a few defective bars in the stream along with other bits the cleaners were too lazy to take to the scrap bin. The other items the men used to hide were the out-of-date detonators which they had failed to return to Crewe stores within the three or five years from the date stamped on them, so you may find parts of the exploded dets in the mud.
Perhaps a slight rake in the steam might find a few more interesting bits the men lost, dare I say ‘accidentally’, to avoid the foreman finding out. The men were always good at making sure everything was safe and would always sensibly dispose of anything untoward.
“I will have another scrape around and see what I can find! My grandsons would be very grateful for some detonators, and luckily one of my nephews is in bomb disposal.”